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Simple Things: On Welcoming Families with Children

Changing talbeI have attended almost every conference that The Young Clergy Women Project has hosted, but the conference in Nashville last month was the first one that offered childcare as part of the registration process.  The conference committee performed the amazing feat of transforming two Divinity school classrooms into kid and baby-friendly spaces.  They thought of everything: cribs, a changing station lined with disposable paper, a potty seat and step stool in the bathroom, a room with a comfortable chair and sofa so moms could pump milk or breastfeed their babies, a refrigerator for storing milk and snacks, and, of course, a number of caring, trained childcare workers.

I traveled to Nashville with my second child; he was so young that he hadn’t even started daycare yet.  I kept him with me most of the time, but I was so thankful that there was a comfortable place to feed him, a clean place to change him, and a place where I knew that he would be well cared for if he was fussy, or if I just needed a break.

On Monday evening, I entered the chapel for our opening worship service.  All along the perimeter of the room, moms with babies and young children sat comfortably, some nursing, some bouncing babies, some gratefully handing their children to friends who had offered to hold them.   My heart filled with gratitude for this place so full of life, for these women whose song was punctuated by squeals and screeches, and for the TYCWP conference committee, whose thoughtful planning allowed so many clergy moms to fully participate in the conference.    I am happy to report that the committee charged with planning The Young Clergy Women Project’s 2014 Conference (Minneapolis, early July) is working to line up childcare for next year, as well.

All of this got me thinking about ways that churches can make our spaces and communities friendlier for families with kids.  I tapped into the collective wisdom of my colleagues in The Young Clergy Women Project, and together, we came up with these (relatively) simple things.

Intentionally welcome children in worship.

Children’s programs such as Sunday School and nursery care are great, and will go a long way in attracting families, but it’s also important to make room for children during worship.  We are, after all, the whole body of Christ, young and old alike. Opportunities for multigenerational interaction are increasingly rare in the lives of many families. Even if the kids at your church are in programs for much of the year, make some time for everyone to worship together.   Offer a children’s sermon every few weeks, and you might just find that the adults listen better than they’ve ever listened. Put in some songs that children know.  Let kids lead readings or usher or serve as acolytes. Ask a Sunday School class to write the prayers of the people.  Invite children around the font to witness a baptism.  Let them help pour the water or splash around a bit.   Have a basket filled with shakers, tambourines or drums, and hand them to children for the closing hymn.  Watch the smiles spread across the faces of your parish elders as they hear this joyful noise.

Speaking of joyful noises (and not-so-joyful ones, too), an encouraging word from a pastor or other parish leader goes a long way in easing the mortification that many parents feel when their child starts wailing or shouts something “inappropriate” during church.  If you truly want to welcome children in church, church is going to be a little bit noisy.  Keep a kind-spirited sense of humor about it.

Make space for kids within the worship space. 

Create a kid-friendly area within your worship space.  Take out a pew or two to make an area where kids can stretch out.  Include books, a rug and a few soft toys and make sure that they get cleaned regularly.   Consider the placement of this area.  It should be relatively close to an entrance to the worship space.  While a few families like to be close to the liturgical actions, many parents of busy-bodied kids prefer to be near the rear of the worship space, where their kids’ behavior isn’t on display for all to see.   Rocking chairs can be a blessing to nursing mothers and anyone else holding a fussy baby.   Make sure that the books that you select for your children’s area, if religiously themed, actually reflect the theology of your denomination or community.

 Be inviting, but flexible.

Even if you have a well-equipped nursery with wonderful staff and beautiful Sunday School classrooms with wonderful teachers, not all families will want to make use of these services.  For some families, that hour on Sunday mornings is one of the few times of the week that they can be together all in one place. Some children are shy and have a real struggle being separated from their parents, especially in a new place.  Train greeters and ushers to let parents know about activities and programs for children, but do not pressure families to make use of these services.

Install changing tables in convenient locations.

Whenever possible, changing tables should be located on the same floor as the worship space and in both men’s and women’s restrooms.  Better yet, designate a single-stall restroom as unisex and put a changing table in there.   Dads change diapers, too.  My husband, who is out around town with our kids a lot more than I am, is particularly sensitive to this.  If he is out at a restaurant and there is a table in the women’s restroom but not the men’s, he will ask the manager to stand guard outside the ladies’ room until he emerges with a freshly changed baby.  Equip bathrooms with a lidded diaper pail or trash can.  For extra-thoughtful hospitality, stock the changing area with wipes and a few sizes of diapers.

Be responsive to special needs.

Visiting a new church with a family of young children is enough to make any parent nervous.  For families with special needs kids, visiting a new congregation can be downright daunting.   On that first visit, you will almost certainly discover ways in which your church is not equipped to meet all of the needs of a family with a special needs child.  Please, please, please do not let that stop you from welcoming them. Ask the parents what would be helpful.  If challenges came up during their visit, ask what you might be able to do to make the next visit a better experience.   Caring for a child with special needs can be incredibly physically, emotionally and spiritually demanding. Instead of placing the burden of fitting into your community on families that are already stressed, show them that you are willing to change the way that you do things in order to fully welcome them.

Allow children to explore holy space.

Like so many things in the lives of young children, there’s a lot about church that is designated off limits.  Yet, many kids who go to church, even very young ones, have some understanding that there’s something special going on.  Invite children to participate in supervised exploration of your chancel or sanctuary.  Let them dip their hands in the baptismal font.  Let them touch the communion vessels.  Take them up to the organ console while the organist plays a demo.  Have the praise band teach the kids about their instruments.   Show them the colors of the liturgical seasons, and let them run their hands along the fabric.  Children know this is a special place.  Help them to know that they are fully a part of it.

How does your church provide welcome for families with young children?  We would love to hear your thoughts in the “Comments” section below.

April Berends is the Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the mother of two lively sons.  This is her first column as the new editor of “Moms in Ministry,” and she is grateful to Alex Hendrickson, the previous editor of this column for all the gifts she has shared in this space over these past five years.

Editor’s note: The Young Clergy Women Project, including all of the mamas who were able to attend our conference in Nashville because childcare was provided, extends our sincere gratitude to Vanderbilt Divinity School for so graciously accommodating us and our children.  We also thank Christ United Methodist in Franklin, TN, Westminster Presbyterian in Nashville and Katherine Hande Smith, the Director of Admissions at Vanderbilt Divinity School, for lending us nursery supplies and equipment.

Photo by Bob Page, http://www.flickr.com/photos/76775365@N00/145815282/ August 21, 2013, used under Creative Commons license.

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Making Lists: One Mom’s Response to the Trayvon Martin Case

As a wife, mother, and clergy person I struggle with what to tell my son about Trayvon Martin.  As the mother of a five-month old black male, I am particularly concerned about what I will tell him.  There will be a day when my son will ask me some hard questions and I hope I am ready to answer his questions.  I hope that I’ve laid the groundwork for him to understand how incredibly valued he is and how racism is not his fault.

Because I needed to grieve for Trayvon and because I needed to think through what I was going to say in the future, I pulled together a list of the things we say to him now.  I have seen several of these lists already, but they all seemed to be missing something. They were all missing God and they were all missing an important lesson, that humans are valued.  This list is my attempt to make sense of a world that sometimes doesn’t make any sense, to myself or to the tiny human that is my son.

 

 

 

 

What I say to Isaac :

1).     You are loved. Isaac, you are loved and beloved by God.  God loves you and knit you together.  God loved you so much that he sent his only son to live, die, and be raised again so that you could have eternal life.  Isaac, God loves you every second of every day and will love you forever.  God loves you in your joy and in your sadness. God is always with you and God always loves you.

Isaac, your parents love you.  We love you and will do our best to make sure you know that every day.  Some days we will definitely fail and some days we will not get along, but we will always love you.  Your extended family loves you.  Your grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, (and because we are southerners all of those people we aren’t related to but call aunts and uncles — they love you too).

2).     You are wonderful, you are beautiful, you are strong, you are smart, and you are worth it.  God holds you in God’s hands and cherishes you as something marvelous.  God surrounds you with his grace, not because you are perfect, but because you are complex, interesting, and wonderful. Thankfully we are not made to be perfect.  We are made to stumble and fall, we are made to be human.  Our humanity makes us fragile, but we are made to be good.  We are made to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God.  You are so wonderful; you are so worth it, so keep trying.

3).     We expect you to strive to be a good man.  We expect you to be respectful, helpful, thoughtful, and kind.  We also expect that you will not live up to those expectations all the time.  You will eventually be a teenager, you will probably rebel, and that is part of your job as a child.  You will have to figure your own way to be a good man.  During all of this though, we expect you to be a good man.  We will work very hard to teach you all of this by modeling this behavior, but as I said in #2, we are all human and we make mistakes.  We promise not to just say these words, but we will try and live them out everyday.  I pray that we can live in a way that teaches you how to be a good man, and I promise, we are doing our best.

4).     Some people are mean and it has nothing to do with you. There are a lot of hurting and broken people in our world.  There are a lot of people that are mad and that don’t know how to deal with their anger.  You have seen firsthand that there are people that are hurting, both your parents are clergy; we are up to our eyeballs in the hurt and pain of others.  Some of these people might take their own issues out on you.  Their issues have absolutely nothing to do with you.  Some of these people will assume terrible things about you just because of the color of your skin.  Never. Ever. Believe Them.  Re-read #’s 1 and 2; there is nothing wrong with you.  Some people may even try and harm you, do not engage them.  I can imagine you will want to stand up to them, (you have a lot of me in you) but sometimes to survive you have to run.  Keep walking, run if you have to, call an adult, call the police, and ask for help.  (Sometimes the police will not be on your side, but please assume that they will be).  Do not try and fight crazy; crazy will always win.

Right now my little son is exclaimed as cute wherever he goes.  Our congregation lines up to exclaim at his cuteness, and little Isaac obliges with giggles, coos, and smiles; he’s already the overly accommodating PK (we’ll have to talk about that).  We live in the south and since we are all generally cousins and overly friendly, whenever we are out with him we are stopped and told that he is very, very cute.  It is true, I think he is absolutely adorable and his fans have fomented my belief that he is as cute as I think he is.

When most people see him they see an adorable little face they want to kiss and hold.  But what is society going to see when he becomes a teenager and then an adult black man?  If he is so incredibly cute right now, what are we all going to see when he is big?  Are we going to see that same cute face only bigger, with opinions, attitudes, and thoughts?  Or are we going to see a threatening face, meant to rob and kill?  Are we going to assume my little Isaac is nefarious or are we going to remember that he is Isaac?   Something changes in people when a black male child becomes a black teenager and then a black man.  And so I am working to prepare little Isaac for a world that is not ready for him.

I saw a cartoon the other day that hit entirely too close to home. It showed a mother handing her black son a sign to pin on himself that said, “Don’t shoot, on my way to school.”  Am I going to have to make Isaac that sign?  I know that most of the time we don’t know what to do or say when it comes to talking about race. And that makes me afraid for my son.

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My Doula

Several hours into hard labor, no drugs, with my second child, I had to pee.  I made the decision that it was too much work to walk to the bathroom. “I’m gonna pee!” I announced. And as the urine hit the hospital bed, my first thought was, “Well, this certainly moves my relationship with Martha from pastor-parishoner to something entirely different.”

I am chief among those who extoll the importance of boundaries between pastors and their congregations. (I’m the child of a minister and a clinical social worker: I was raised speaking family-systems.) Urinating on a bed in front of the church people is definitely not a part of my understanding of appropriate boundaries.

Martha was a member of my congregation, part of the committee that had called me as pastor for children and youth five years earlier. After a few years, I had identified her as one of the “safe” people, people who got it that pastors are human (she’s a PK, which is no coincidence). But when my husband and I had trouble getting pregnant again, I found myself telling Martha about it. She was a natural birthing instructor, and I admired her combination of granola-crunchy sensibility tempered with a healthy respect for the wonders of modern medicine.

That was the beginning of a journey toward the peeing. A year later, after some medical assistance, I was pregnant. My first child, who had been shockingly easy to conceive, had blessed us with a dicey pregnancy and then was an absolute nightmare to get out, culminating with an exhausting emergency c-section after several hours of pushing. My plan for not having another one of those involved an attempt at an unmedicated birth this time around. And so my husband and I found ourselves enrolled in Martha’s birthing class, sitting on the floor of her living room with four other couples every week for three months, discussing the utmost of private details, emotions, anatomy, and fears.

And then we decided to ask her to be our doula, too. (A doula is a professional who supports a woman before, during, and immediately after labor. Recognize the word, Greek scholars?) I wavered on that decision for weeks. Was this maybe too personal? Wouldn’t the boundaries get too blurry? But we knew her and we trusted her and, boundaries aside, it made sense.

The day Abram was born was a Sunday: our head pastor was able to announce in church that I was in labor, and the whole congregation was able to pray together for me. I was a couple miles away from church, in a room with my husband; my Mom; (my Dad, popping in and out while reading the Sunday New York Times in the waiting room); a fabulous hospital staff, and my OB; and Martha, too. She was there through the whole messy and wonderful thing. (If you love birth stories, here’s my take and here’s Martha’s.)

My church, boundaries and all, is my spiritual family. And they were there with me, body and soul, that day. I am grateful for their presence, because it wasn’t an easy birth (though the outcome was exactly what we had hoped for).

Giving birth was the most embodied experience of my life. Birth is embodied from the down and dirty minutia of muscle and blood and fluid and excretions, to the pain and sensation, to the rhythm of breathing and contracting and pushing, heartbeat and blood pressure, right on to the big moment of a new little person coming out of your body and being placed on your chest. If the experience of birthing is not about bodies, I don’t know what is.

I have a hard time with idea of birth as a spiritual experience: that rubs me the wrong was theologically. God made us as beings with bodies. We are embodied creatures. We are meant to experience God not just in “spirit” but also in the embodied creation around us: the real life, physical, touchable world.

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I believe in embodied ministry, too. It matters that we are able to talk and touch and hug our congregations. It matters that we are with them, body and soul. Living and experiencing God through the body is a key part of the Christian understanding of who God is and how God relates to us. Don’t forget: we believe that in order to carry out salvation, God became flesh (incarnation), embodied. We live this out as pastors.

I still believe in boundaries. But there are always a few people in each call who play multiple roles in our lives and blur the boundaries. We take those relationships with us when we leave a church. Last week, Martha and her family had a four hour layover at the airport in our new town. We got a few precious hours with them.
My oldest child, now almost seven, said, as we drove to pick them up, “Martha’s really like family, isn’t she?”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

Erica Schemper is a Presbyterian pastor who lives on the San Francisco Peninsula with her husband and two kids. While she waits for the next ministry thing, she enjoys hiking and running and driving on Highway 1 and chasing her kids…and day dreams about the next full time ministry call if only because it will allow her to once again afford childcare and house cleaning. She blogs at “Don’t Flay the Sheep“.

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An Inadvertent Invention: Pastoral Visits with a Preschooler

Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes. But there really should be another saying: Motherhood necessitates invention. Especially when you are both a mother and a pastor.

I started a new job when my son was five weeks old, a half-time position as intentional interim pastor in a church that had had conflict with its previous pastor. Most of my job was leading a congregational self-assessment and study as well as leading worship and preaching on Sunday mornings. With the help of my then-husband, a very nice babysitter, and a tremendously easy-going baby, I made it work.

Except for the visitation part of being a pastor. I have always struggled with this part of ministry, since I am a major introvert, and it has always fallen to the bottom of my legion to-do lists. But now with a baby, it seemed doubly impossible that I should get around to visit the homebound members on my roster. My pastor guilt and my mother guilt were at war.

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Then one morning when I was in the office, baby in tow, a homebound member, Donna, called to say that her grandson had just died and could I please come and see her right away. You can’t refuse a request like that. So, I packed up the diaper bag, breast pump, and my work bag, buckled baby in his car seat and we went. The three hours I spent with Donna that afternoon I remember fondly as one of the best visits I’ve ever made.

What I didn’t know was that the little one I was viewing as an obstacle to the work I was supposed to be doing was in fact an entry into deeper conversation with a fellow mother, a balm for the grief of a grandmother who had just lost a beloved grandson, and a gurgling, giggling reminder that there is life even in the midst of death. She cuddled my son and talked about what a wonderful gift family is, but also how much being a parent and grandparent breaks your heart. As he played on the floor, she talked about her memories of the grandson she had cared for when he was a baby.

Fast forward to a few months ago, when I had all but forgotten about this experience. My son is in daycare now and I have more time to go and visit without him along. Though I am now divorced, between daycare and careful scheduling of my weekends, I am usually able to fit my work into times when my son is being cared for by another. Unless someone dies. Then everything goes to you-know-where in a hurry.

One of my homebound members had been languishing in hospice for several weeks, hanging on to the last bit of life despite not eating and drinking. Then Saturday morning her daughter called to say I’d better come right away. I looked at my son playing with his trucks, and I must have hesitated, because the woman said, “Oh, do you have your son with you? Just bring him along.” So I did.

And it happened again, a beautiful visit with women of faith. But this time there was a difference: the visit not only opened up the conversation with those for whom I was caring. It opened up conversation with my son too. I explained, as best you can to a three year old, that the woman we were going to see was very sick, that we would be praying with her and reading the bible, and that she probably would be asleep most of the time.

He wanted to know why she was sick, and when she would get better. When I explained that she wouldn’t get better, we started a conversation about death that is still going in bits and pieces these months later. He now understands that sometimes people die, and he is simultaneously fearful that he will get so sick that he doesn’t get better, and hopeful because he knows that sometimes people that die come back to life (“like Jesus, Mommy!” he says).

He is developing a compassionate for others that is astounding to me. About a week after we visited the dying woman, he turned to me after our bedtime prayers. “Mommy,” he said, “What about that girl we visited? Did she get better?” He routinely reminds me to pray for those I’ve forgotten about, and asks that we pray for his friends who fell down and got scrapes on the playground that day.

By complete accident, out of necessity, I discovered that one of the best ways to teach my son to practice faith is by taking him with me as I practice mine. This means that I take him not just to church on Sunday morning, but into the everyday (sometime) drudgery of pastoring. I’m thankful for the conversations this accident has opened up, both with members of the congregations I serve, and with my son. It’s now part of my ministry to pick him up early from daycare once a week and take him to visit a homebound member.

Except when his nose is running neon green. Then he stays at daycare.

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A View From the Pew

I am a newcomer.

That is an identity that I haven’t worn in 18 years.  But as a newly-staying-at-home mom who also happens to be an Episcopal priest, a priest whose family spent several months seeking a church home, I see church through new eyes….the eyes of one sitting in a pew.

My husband, two year old daughter, and I have visited about ten churches in the past three months. I am here to tell you that you all are doing a great job—the preaching has been very, very good, I am inspired by the opportunities for engagement in my own spiritual formation and that of my daughter and husband, and I see plenty of places where I can jump in to serve the wider community and world in the name of Christ.

But what I don’t know, is where to find the nursery. Or the bathroom. And I’m not sure where to park, or if you expect me to volunteer in the nursery, or if you consider me a member of your church.

When I reflect on my time as a parish priest, specifically one who worked with children and youth, there are a few things of which I so wish I had been more aware.

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Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs (or not)

Once my GPS has finished its work and I am parked somewhere near your church, I am 100% at your mercy. God blessed me with an excellent sense of direction, but even I don’t know where to go. Churches have many, many different entrances, at least 600 per church, and most bear not one sign. We newcomers really do read signs. Maybe ask some folks who don’t worship at your church to do a site visit, and have them tell you where they need direction. Those signs are a welcome sight for a newcomer, and they speak volumes about the hospitality of a congregation.

First Responders

Now that I have made my way into your church, I might need a little more direction from a live human being. I might need to know where a certain Sunday school classroom is or where the bathroom is. Churches are doing a much better job of appointing people to serve as “greeters,” a separate ministry from “ushering.” The challenge is that these greeters like to talk—with each other! I like that people are happy to see each other! But they forget to welcome newcomers! Train your greeters to be on the lookout for newcomers and to make a step towards us. (We are easy to pick out. We look lost and gravitate to the pews in the back.)

First Responders Part II

I was in charge of our church’s childcare ministry. I’ve been the one to receive the 8:55 phone call saying no one can work in the nursery at the 9:00 service. These things happen. And not every church has the finances or the ethos to offer childcare during worship, and that is okay. But, if your church does have a nursery, know that it is both a wonderful gift and an awesome responsibility. We newcomers are nervous about leaving our most precious treasures with you. If you are calm (not rushing in a minute before the service starts), ask about allergies, ask about preferences around being called if our child is upset, and ask about pottying, we will rest much easier. I sat through one service not listening to one word because I was worried about my child. A calm, professional, warm childcare provider makes a hugely positive impression!

Website

Not every church has a website, but if yours does, keep it up to date. Yes, a nice, crisp website is a good start. But if the information is outdated, the value of having a website is severely compromised. An outdated website does not a good first impression make.

Vocabulary

Even those of us who are well versed in church talk are sometimes at a loss when it comes to announcements about ministry gatherings. For example, “St. Margaret’s is meeting on Sunday, March 3, at 5:00 in the Parlor. Newcomers welcome!” I am wracking my brain to remember who St. Margaret is, and what the focus of her namesake group might therefore be. Many announcements use insider language. The person who proofs announcements serves newcomers well by asking if the language is inviting or informational to those who have forgotten Saints 101.

Expectations

My final thought is that the “welcome” stage is but the first phase of embracing newcomers. The second phase is newcomer integration. Now that we’ve decided to make yours our church home, what are you going to do with us? What are we supposed to be doing? Pledging? Transferring our membership? Volunteering in the nursery? Making cookies for coffee hour? I dare say, the newcomer integration part is probably more critical than the original welcome. We newly-committed newcomers are nervous that we’re not doing something that we’re supposed to be doing. Tell us what you expect from us, whether that is via newcomers classes, being connected to other members who can shepherd us, or a meeting with the clergy.

Welcoming newcomers is intentional work, and it takes time, training, and money. And, it’s often difficult for existing church members to have an objective perspective about their congregation, because they already speak the language and know every nook and cranny of the building. Don’t be afraid to visit other churches (hard for clergy) or have members of the newcomers committee visit other churches to walk in the shoes of a visitor. Or, think about the most hospitable places in your town (ours is probably the YMCA), and talk about what it is that makes those places feel so warm and welcoming. Then, do what they do! In the eyes of a newcomer, a little bit….a sign, a “Hi, can I help you?” or “Does your child have any allergies?”…. goes a very long way.

 Jet Lowe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Rev. Mary Davila and her husband and daughter are new members of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Raleigh, which does have a wonderful childcare ministry, greeters, and signs galore.

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Your Pregnant Pastor: Ten Things You Should Know

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  1. I am grateful that you’re happy for us.  Far too many women still face on-the-job discrimination and hostility because of pregnancy.  It wasn’t so long ago that it was legal to fire women because they were pregnant!  I feel so blessed that this community is excited to welcome our baby.  I’m excited too.
  2. I don’t have morning sickness… any more.  For most women, morning sickness is most intense in the first trimester.  But the first trimester is the early, risky part of the pregnancy, when miscarriage is most likely, so most women wait until it’s over to tell people.  By the time I told you I was expecting a baby, my morning sickness was over.  I do have plenty of other pesky pregnancy-related ailments, though, so if that’s what you’re wondering you could ask “How are you feeling?”
  3. I still love to talk about God.  Remember when we used to talk about God a lot?  And also about spirituality, the church, and Jesus? It was before I was pregnant.  I miss that.  Let’s keep talking about God, okay?
  4. I can still do lots of things!  Your pregnant pastor’s mileage may vary, but many pregnant pastors are just fine carrying chairs, setting up tables, taking the stairs, and standing in the pulpit to preach.  I know you want me to take good care of myself, and I appreciate it.  If you see me doing something that you worry about, please don’t scold me like a naughty child!  You’re welcome to ask me “Pastor, would you like me to do that for you?” or “Pastor, do you need help with that?”
  5. But there are some things I can’t do.  I might need to sit down if I’m tired, or slip out for a minute or two during a long worship service.  I may need to put my feet up on a chair.  I might need to eat more often than normal.  It is a bit harder for me to keep track of details and dates.  Again, your pregnant pastor’s mileage may vary.  I really appreciate the grace and patience my congregants have extended to me!
  6. I’m getting a lot of advice.  Like, really, a LOT of advice.  Some helpful, some conflicting, some medically unsafe.  If you want to share advice with me, I’m more likely to listen if it’s just one or two really important things.  The best advice I’ve gotten was from a congregant.  She said, “Don’t worry about all the advice you’re getting.  You’ll find your own way, and you’ll figure it out.  You’ll be fine.”
  7. I still want to know what’s going on in your life.  I know that you’re very excited about my pregnancy, but I’m still your pastor, and I want to hear about you!  I’ll update you about my pregnancy (if you ask), but then I’m going to ask about your life, and I really want to hear how you’re doing.
  8. If you want to touch my belly, I’d like you to ask me first.  I know it’s sticking way out and it’s very tempting, but it’s still my abdomen.  We don’t touch other people’s abdomens without asking.
  9. I am excited for my baby to be part of the church.  I love the church, and I love my congregants – that’s why I’m a pastor!  I can’t wait for my baby to meet you, his church family.  His life will be richer because you’re in it.
  10. I will still be your pastor.  Sometimes pastors can be parental figures, and a new baby can cause a bit of anxiety or sibling rivalry.  So I hope you really hear this: when I am his mom, although things may need to change a bit, I will still be your pastor, and I will still love you.

Image by: Claude Covo-Farchi, used with permission.


Rev. Emily M. Brown is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.  She is the Associate Pastor of Broadway United Church of Christ, and a graduate of Union Theological Seminary, both in New York City.  She was also the recipient of the 2010 David H. C. Read Memorial Preacher/Scholar Award.  She blogs at feministpastor.blogspot.com.  She and her spouse are expecting a baby in late May.

 

The Weight of the Wait

“Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God?’  Do you not know? Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.  He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.  Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint.”  -Isaiah 40:27-31

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October 2012

The lectionary passages for this season are taking us through the book of Job and I have certainly identified with the struggle lately.  Job loses everything and cries out to God for justice.  He simply wants to state his case before a righteous judge and hear what on earth he did to deserve this type of suffering.  But that is not the answer Job receives.  When God finally does arrive (in chapter 38) God doesn’t say a word about WHY Job lost everything he had worked so hard to build, or his children whom he loved, or his health.  God basically says, “Who do you think you are, questioning my ways?  And who do you think I AM?  I created this world and I made everything in it and sometimes you won’t get your way.  When you are God, then you can make the rules.”  And in the end, Job didn’t really need or want an answer to WHY did this happen to me.  He just wanted to God to show up.  And that’s exactly what God does.

But waiting for God to show up is pretty heavy.  The weight of the wait can be more than I can bear at times.  In my latest theological argument with the Almighty, I am discouraged.  The words that keep coming to me are from Isaiah 40, “those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint.”  Well, Lord, I’m about ready to pass out from the burden of waiting.  I feel forgotten.  I feel like you must not care about my suffering.  And then you keep running these words through my head.

We all spend seasons of waiting.  It might be for test results, or a health care scare.  Your wait may be for that “special someone” to come along and sweep you off your feet… “Someday my prince will come.”  We wait for babies to be born.  We wait for results of the pregnancy test.  We wait for that loved one in hospice to finish their journey of life.  We wait for that prodigal son to come back home.  We wait for the job or the career to begin.  We wait for the playoffs.  We wait for our turn.  In my case, I wait for and pray for and long for the news that finally, after more than two years of adoption paperwork and sending money to support an orphan in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I might be able to go and bring my daughter home.  My heart aches for this child whom I have never met.  My soul longs to be a family.  I cry out to God, not in sackcloth and ashes like Job.  My tears usually come in the bathtub.  You can’t hide behind much in that vulnerable state and my honest conversation of Lord, please, please, please, PLEASE let today be the day that the paperwork goes through.  PLEASE DO SOMETHING!  I can’t bear the wait any longer.  I can’t bear the weight of this wait all alone.

And God says, “You aren’t alone.”

I sure feel alone!

And then the words wash over me, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” (Matt. 11: 27-30).  The weight of this wait is not a burden I carry alone.  God shows up.  Maybe not in the way I had hoped or imagined.  Perhaps it wasn’t in the storm or the hurricane or in the cleft of the rock.  Perhaps it is in the small whisper through my tears that I hear the words of God speaking to my pain.

But it isn’t just the promise that surely Christ is “with you always, to the very end of the age,” (Matt. 28:20), it is also in the community.  I Corinthians 12:26 says, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.  Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”  However, in order for the body of Christ to rejoice as well as suffer together, we have to be honest about our pain.  We have to be vulnerable and share the story, humble enough to share our joys and allow people to celebrate with and for us.  I need to not be so proud and look like everything is put together and just fine long enough to give the body of Christ a glimpse at the streaks of tears running down my cheeks.  I am not alone.  I don’t need to feel alone.  I need to bring in my community to rally around me with prayer and supplication.

The best part of the book of Job is when God shows up.  Job finally has a deep understanding of who God is and replies, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you,” (Job 42:5).  God showed up.  The second best part of Job is when his friends show up.  Before they start talking and blaming him for the tragedy in his life, they rally around him.  “When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads.  Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights.  No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was,” (Job 2:12-13).

You don’t need to come over to my house and sit in the dirt with me.  Although I could use some help rebuilding the fence.  The stupid goats keep getting out and I’m a little afraid that the Sabeans or Chaldeans might come and carry them off, or a fire of God might fall from the sky and burn them up! (Job 1:14-17)  But I am asking that you please pray for me and with me.  Pray for my little daughter in the orphanage in Kinshasa and for the DRC government and embassy to move quickly.  Remind me that I’m not alone and that together we can bear the weight of this wait for one more day.

Editor’s Note: Hanna moves into her new home in Oklahoma today… with her daughter!  Vivienne arrived in the U.S. with her mother on February 10, 2013.  Mother and daughter are happy and healthy.

As of March 1st, Hanna Peterson serves as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.  Previously she served as pastor of First Presbyterian in Kelso, Washington.

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Starting the Real Conversation…

It sounds good to a church at the beginning. Many in the church even encourage the young clergy couple to have children. It fits the image they have for a “perfect” minister family. The church gets excited to throw the baby shower. Then the real conversations begin, and they do not stop.

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Many pastors enter into parenthood thinking that the only real conversation they need to have about having children with their congregation is the conversation around parental (maternity, paternity, adoptive) leave. This is where I began a few years ago. I knew I wanted to have a child and I knew this was something new for my church. My personnel committee was supportive and created a policy that was mutually agreed upon by all involved. There were moments of struggle, and there are still a few major loopholes in the policy, but for a first attempt, it was solid. Once my son was born, even in the midst of severe postpartum depression, the policy worked.

This was only the first conversation, however. It is not the end. Some of the other “first conversations” need to include insurance (especially if a pastor is the sole family provider), possible pregnancy problems like preeclampsia or diabetes (pastors are self-employed and so some churches many not have the proper coverage), and boundaries for church members immediately following the birth of the child.

After my maternity leave was complete, my policy included bringing my son to work for the first year. (Here is where round two of questions begin.) It is important to have conversation around what does this look like? Are there certain meetings or events that are not included? How does breastfeeding play into the congregations comfort level? Answers to these types of questions need to be recorded with other pastors, staff, personnel, pastoral, and leadership committees. It is important to have church leadership supporting you to help communicate with the wider congregation the expectations that have been set and the reasoning behind those.

Even with the ability to bring my child to work for the first year, I was actually the one who needed to have child care before the church. Then what that child care looked like led to different discussions. Here again, each person is different based on his or her situation. One of my friends has paid childcare at the church as part of her contract. Other friends live near family. I did not have either of these.

Instead, I found a babysitter that is flexible, and reached out to the church when she was not available. Even now, there are meetings when my son has no babysitter (except Elmo on the iPad), elders who come watch my son in the nursery when I need to go on an emergency hospital visit, camp and mission trip adults who have the primary duty of watching my son while I am working. In fact lately, I have realized that my professional expense fund may not be buying books but airplane tickets for grandma to visit when I have to travel for more than a night. These have been creative ways to do ministry, but the discussion continues because my child is quickly changing.

Two years later, there has become a lot more pushback. Whenever my son has not behaved in a pristine manner, the negative feedback rolls in. The cute baby has become a little loud person at moments, and the pressure and frustrations accumulate.

It has not been perfect. Over and over again I, and my congregational support groups, have worked to communicate that this process is a learning one for everyone. If something does not work, we will try something else. Many times, however, I have found that people are more inclined to just give up instead of get more creative. I, at times, feel that same way. I am tired of all the conversations. How do you change the paradigm when we live in a country that is one of the worst in the world for supporting parental leave? How do you change the paradigm when the new CEO of Yahoo gives up her maternity leave? How do you watch your friends equate their sabbatical, vacation time, and sick leave as the same thing as the first few bonding weeks and healing period with a new child? When your kid is screaming because he or she is not in the mood for Elmo during a meeting, what do you do? How do you not give up in the face of the negative feedback when you still feel called to ministry?

It is not my child that has stopped me from giving up. It is the faces of the few young women in my youth group who have shown some interest in someday becoming pastors. For those girls, having a child on a mission trip is normal. They are watching me to see how I balance my love for them, my child, my family, and the church in a healthy way. Their image of what is “normal” is not part of the negative feedback and gives me hope that the paradigm will change. For them and their future children, I keep fighting to show what is healthy, balanced, and right.

A resolution I wrote for the southern California Disciple of Christ churches just unanimously passed at assembly for southern California churches. It was supported by the Leadership Board at my church. It is a parental leave resolution, not just maternity leave. It provides a standard for churches to aim for if they have the means to do so. It is meant to be a way to help give guidelines to the important discussions that begin and continue when a clergy person decides to have small children and work as a pastor. It challenges the paradigms previously in place. It is a wake-up that the previous models for the roles of men and women have not changed as much as they should have changed. There also needs to be discussion within the church that male pastors (and men in general) deserve leave time, bonding time, creative parenting time with their children just as much as women. The most important real conversation is how even when policies, resolutions, boundaries and other standards are set, men and women both need a lot of discussion and creative ministry that must occur so that all involved in raising a child can find healthy ways to do the work God is calling each of to do, to be, and to become.

Rev. Dr. Olivia Bryan Updegrove is the Associate Pastor at First Christian Church in Orange, CA.

Photo by mira66 (http://www.flickr.com/photos/21804434@N02/3641216084/). Used under Creative Commons License.

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Pulling the Trigger

Trigger. As in “pull the?” Exactly. It is day fifteen and I just had the trigger shot. Some of you know what this sentence means without me explaining any further. For those who don’t, I almost wish I was still in your shoes. I didn’t know what this meant until about two months ago when my husband and I decided to go forward with in vitro fertilization (IVF). For unexplained reasons, we can’t conceive. No one knows exactly why and it doesn’t really matter. We are in our mid-thirties, own a house and a business, have successfully raised pets and tomatoes, so babies seem the next natural step. We want them and are trying not to be desperately wanting them.

After ten years in ordained ministry I have finally been called to a head pastor position. I’m on my own. I make the decisions. I hire and fire. I don’t have to ask permission to start a new ministry or go see someone in the hospital. I get to preach Christmas and Easter and stand in the aisle and ask questions for the sermon if I want. It may not be glorious work, but I love the work. I love the people. And I have lied to them. It’s wonderful fun to lead the congregation I have been called to and I love being on my own. But what does one do when they need to miss a Sunday to go have an ultrasound and blood work? IVF requires almost constant monitoring and I just can’t say, “Oh I need to be away to see if my ovaries are progressing well and my estrogen levels are healthy.”

What is the appropriate line to share with my church leadership? How do I tell my parish secretary that I will be away a few days so I can maybe see if we might be able to bring a little one into our lives? I haven’t figured it out…so I lied. I told them I was going to a conference (which I was actually scheduled to attend, but didn’t) when I was really traveling to the largest city near us for IVF monitoring. I feel guilty, yet not enough to let them in on our quest. It’s so emotional. I’m not embarrassed. I just cannot handle their expectations on top of my own. My sweet hubby’s desire to be a dad is almost more than I can bear alone.

When is it okay for the parishioners to be the pastors and the pastor to be the one in need of care?  I don’t know the answer to that one either. So I sit here on day fifteen, having pulled the trigger on my body, and wondering if I pulled some sort of other trigger in my ministry. A trigger that allows lying and doesn’t allow weakness. Sounds pretty un-Christ-like to me. How can I be so bad at being vulnerable?

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Hopes and Fears and Grace and Love

A few months ago, a friend posted an e-card to my Facebook wall that read: “Of all the ways you’ve tried, I think you’ll find parenting to be the most fulfilling way of ruining your life”.  That, along with Karl Barth’s assertion that “Grace must find expression in life, otherwise it is not grace”, sums up nicely the quirky and honest tone I strive for when talking about my own Christian faith and my relationship with my three children.

Before I start my review of Hopes and Fears, by Bromleigh McCleneghan and Lee Hull Moses, it seems appropriate that I begin with a confession.  I worried about reading this book.  I mean, I knew it would be well-written.  I knew it would be thoughtful and scripturally sound.  I knew it would be kind and funny.  The cover design is lovely. The authors’ photo on the back is attractive.  However, I must confess my worry that I wouldn’t like this book.

Parenting books are notoriously terrible.  The advice seems either to fall in the “No duh” category or the “I could never in a million years live up to those standards” category. Parenting books, as McCleneghan notes in chapter four (“Bedtime”) are mostly ideological.   Most parents are focused more on the now than the not yet of their breakfast-to-bedtime lives and parenting books don’t often understand that reality.

As someone who is nearly a decade into motherhood, I cringed at the idea of yet another parenting book that preyed upon the guilt- and fear-filled reality of modern parenting.  I don’t read parenting books as goal-setting exercises; I read them for support, encouragement and humor.  And “Christian” or “faith-based” parenting books are often the worst of all; not only are you a bad mother for a whole multitude of sins, they inform you, but you’re hurting your relationship with Jesus in the process.  Sanctification doesn’t seem to come into play.

So, as the last week of October rolled around and my community plunged into the darkness of post-Hurricane Sandy power outages, I found myself at home from work with nothing to do but read.  It was time to put aside my concerns and read through Hopes and Fears.  What an exercise in joy and relief! What a gift to parents, this work of grace given expression through the lives of these two young clergy women.

Moses and McCleneghan alternate authoring the chapters in this book, but unlike other dual author titles, it is great to see how the authors refer to each other across chapters and how their friendship and collegial relationship is edifying for them both as pastors and as parents.  So many aspects of modern life result in isolation and loneliness; Hopes and Fears shows that people of faith can be collaborative about their parenting, not competitive.  Remember the idea that it takes a village to raise a child?  McCleneghan and Moses expand the bounds of the village to include even friends on Facebook and family in other parts of the world.

I can imagine that this book would be a great one to read with a church parenting group.  I love the playfulness, the humor, and the honesty that this book conveys.  Stories told with good faith and deep humility will resonate with new parents and even with those who may not ever plan to raise children. Judicious use of scripture and well-reasoned explanations of theological concepts make this book informative, not preachy (though both authors are tremendous preachers!)

I can’t wait to hear what happens as their children grow and the authors continue to reflect on faith, parenting, and an expansive definition of family.  There is truly a wideness in God’s mercy and McCleneghan and Moses have captured so beautifully what it means to seek the fullness of life that God intends for each one of us.

Alex Hendrickson is a Presbyterian pastor who currently serves as the interim college chaplain at Lafayette College in Easton, PA, where she lives with her family.  She serves on the board of the Young Clergy Women Project with Lee Moses and Bromleigh McCleneghan.