Should I Stay or Should I Go (Part time)?


One Thursday evening several months ago, I met with a mothers’ group at the church. We call ourselves the Night Owls because we meet in the evening to accommodate mothers who work outside the home, although we have plenty of stay-at-home moms in the group as well. The conversation turned, as it often does, to the exhausting work of parenting, regardless of how one does it.

In a moment of candor, I said to the group, “You know, with both my husband and me working full-time, plus two kids, our life just barely works. As long as no one is sick, and all the cars and household appliances are operational, we really get along quite well, and I love our life. But there’s no buffer. So when a monkey wrench gets thrown into our lives, things just go to pieces for a while.”

The very next day, I stood in our bathroom, not breathing, and watched a thin pink line turn darker and darker—and said hello to the mother of all monkey wrenches.

This is no busted furnace. This is baby number three. This is heartache and joy and sleepless nights. It is blessed trinity and yet another college tuition.

Three can be a tipping point for working moms of all stripes. A couple of years ago a clergy friend with two children was deciding whether to have a third. The feasibility of doing ministry was a key factor. She and a friend did an informal survey of other clergy women they knew, and while there were plenty who worked full time with one or two children, none of the moms they knew with three or more kids worked full time, unless the kids were much, much older. Two seemed to be the limit among my friend’s circle of colleagues.

Many women I know cite the childcare costs when explaining their rationale for quitting work. Yet it still makes financial sense for me to work, especially since my eldest will soon be in kindergarten, eliminating most of her child-care costs. And I love ministry. I love what ministry and motherhood give to one another, and you can’t put a price on that.

But still.
Another round of hasty nursing between services.
Three sets of pint-sized socks to sort.
The sippy cups and their umpteen valves and straws clogging my dishwasher for a while longer.
A whole new set of pediatric appointments, not to mention another set of germs for us to share.

Financially, it still made sense to work, but did it make emotional sense? Was it time to ratchet back my hours? Or quit altogether, at least for a while? One thing seemed clear: full-time ministry was off the table, for me anyway.

In the midst of all this second trimester soul-searching, I had lunch with a clergy friend, a classmate from seminary who’s been in his associate pastor call as long as I’ve been in mine—about four years. He was starting to circulate his resume and have interviews, and conversations were deepening between him and a 1,000-member church in search of a senior pastor.

He is a great cheerleader friend. When I gave him props for aiming so high, he responded quickly, “You could totally do that kind of thing. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t also go for something like that, if you feel called.” And I thought, I know the lunch table is blocking his view of my growing basketball belly, but has he forgotten? Is he nuts? My friend has an infant child and a spouse with a portable job. I, on the other hand, have a monkey wrench (albeit a lovable one) kicking around inside me, not to mention several centuries of church patriarchy to deal with.

Why does the gender thing make a difference? I wish I knew. But it does. If my friend had a third kid on the way, I somehow think he’d still be in conversation with The Church of 1,000 Members. Are these limits that I feel self-imposed, or do I know that a church would have a harder time accepting me as their senior pastor? Am I selling the church short, or just being realistic, by thinking about cutting back? And finally, will a church that has been used to full-time Me even know how to respect my part-time boundaries?

As the summer went on, the discernment seemed more and more clear—just take some time off from ministry. I was already moving in that direction, but felt a rather dramatic nudge of confirmation in Iona, Scotland, during a walking pilgrimage around the island. We were invited to walk one of the legs of the hike in silence, pondering whatever questions we had brought with us to the island.

As I reached the next stop and continued to pray, “Do I need to leave ministry for a while? Is it time to close this chapter and give myself and our family a break?” the pure silence of the moment was broken…
with the sound of a gate…
creaking…
clanking…
closed.

And I thought, “So it is, then. I leave.”

And yet, despite what seemed to be a flashing neon sign (or as close as one gets to flashing neon on Iona) to close the door on parish ministry for a while, I have since decided to give part-time ministry a go.

Many things shifted to make that happen—the most important factor is that, three children or not, I still feel strongly called to ministry. And I owe it to everyone to give the situation a chance. Aren’t we called to be people of hope, after all?! Why should I assume that the church and I would not be able to make the shift? Shouldn’t I at least try it?

There was another factor, one that surprised me in spite of myself. The mother in me treasures this congregation for its vibrant and faithful ministry to children. And so the mother in me realized that here—in this congregation—is where I want to worship with my family, where I want my children to receive their earliest formative experiences of God. The mother in me spoke to the pastor in me and said, “Do it for you and your sense of call, but do it for them as well.”

At a more recent lunch with my clergy pal, whose eye remains fixed on the tall steeple church, he asked me whether I resented being limited (or at least feeling limited) by family circumstance. Did I resent moving “forward” in my career much more slowly than my male counterparts might? It was gutsy of him to ask the question so honestly, rather than pretending that he and I are on a level playing field.

My answer, in a word, was no.

While I long for a just church that values and affirms the unique gifts and struggles of clergy moms, at this stage in my life, I don’t consider slowing down my career to be a sacrifice. I look at part-time ministry and a slower career trajectory and see a more nourishing pace for our family and for me. It is a trade off I willingly make. My children will not be young forever.

However, I know there might be a time when I look back and wish I had done things differently, or resent the way things seem to be set up: that expectations of ministers are so unrealistic that a capable person feels compelled to step off the career ladder because the deck feels stacked against her. I hope not, though. I feel grateful to be where I am, at the age I am. That’s one of the blessings of being a young clergy woman—there feels like plenty of time to delve wholeheartedly into full-time ministry, maybe even in a large church as a senior pastor—if that’s what I want and if I’m what they want.

Those remain two very big Ifs… but that’s OK with me too.


9 replies
  1. Stacey
    Stacey says:

    I can really appreciate this, even as a non-parent. My life functions as long as everything is going smoothly, but it’s been packed enough that things get really hairy when something doesn’t go smoothly – which is often. So, I wonder about the choices I’d make if my life situation changed. Thanks for this article, and blessings as you transition to part-time!

    Reply
  2. Heather Culuris
    Heather Culuris says:

    We were deciding about moving to a new call as I was expecting our first child… It was a lot of soul searching, we were ready to move, but would any congregation be willing to hire a pastor about to leave on maternity leave? So we waited until a few months after the birth…
    I do think that ministry moms are slowed or limited in the ministry track at times because it can be a delicate juggling act of work and family. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

    Reply
  3. maria
    maria says:

    Congratulations on making a choice that feels good for you and your family!
    Being a part time priest was for me, though, one of the hardest things I’ve done. I felt constantly information deprived, constantly at two places at once. And even if I really struggled to divide my time equally, the 20 hours a week I was supposed to be at work kept growing to 25, sometimes 30.
    I’m not saying it’s a wrong choice, just that it takes some getting used to, and I never managed.
    Then again, I live in a country (Sweden) that gives it’s citizens (well, for a hefty tax burden, but anyway) cheap childcare and very generous maternity/paternity leave (about one and a half year, at 80% of the wage). I had the choice, and I value it.
    Good luck with your life puzzle and blessings!

    Reply
  4. rebelwithoutapew
    rebelwithoutapew says:

    Part-time was definetly the best option for me during the infant/toddler/preschool years. We moved a long distance when I accepted my current call. People kept asking, “How are you adjusting to (new place).” And kept answering–still keep answering, “The biggest adjustment has been to me working full time. The geographic shift has been minor by comparison.”

    Reply
  5. Madgebaby
    Madgebaby says:

    I love hearing that some of you have found ways to balance ministry and motherhood. I have two children, ages 3 and 7, and I’ve never really found that balance.
    With our first I was solo pastor of a very small church, a part time position. this meant part time pay, not part time work, since there are set tasks that the pastor of a church with no staff has to do regardless of the details of the contract. I had flexibility, though, so it worked OK for a while.
    When baby #2 came along, or was about to come along, it all unraveled. I just could not make the ends meet (I have a very supportive, involved spouse whose career involves a lot of travel and is very inflexible by its nature). I’ve been home for three years and I’m feeling very isolated in my vocation. In a couple of years I’ll have a lot more flexibility but who knows.
    If any of you know of an online group for parents who step out of paid ministry for a time to care for young children, that would be great information to share.

    Reply
  6. Carolyn
    Carolyn says:

    I have two boys, almost 3 and almost 6 yrs. I’ve been longing for a 3rd child too. And being that DH & I are both ministers who get paid less than teachers in our community it’s hard to think about all those details. Financially, we’d both have to stay full time. And our 1st is in K w/ afterschool care to pay for. And #2 is in FT care. It would be a stretch in so many ways. But I still want 1 more! A Big challenge is we moved calls 6 months ago & my new one STILL doesn’t have a parental leave policy.

    Reply
  7. Cardelia
    Cardelia says:

    THis was very timely for me. I go tonight before our session to talk about maternity leave for me, and paternity leave for hubbie as we co-pastor our small church. This is baby number 2, and this church has never even considered maternity leave before, for anyone so it should be interesting. We also question what to do about child care. While we are both “part-time” we really are part-time payed for full time work. There is no cash to spare for childcare and as I learned with my first mommy needs breaks every now and than. I’m not sure what solution will come to us through all our prayer and consern, but I’m trying to trust. Tyring.

    Reply
  8. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    I’ve read this post and its comments with interest and relief! It’s encouraging to find others trying to find creative ways to minister and have a healthy and happy family life. I’m the mother of three boys (6, 4, 2). I was ordained when my oldest was eight weeks old and have worked off and on (part-time) both in parish and hospital ministry since he was five months old. I’ve been at home since September and am hoping that I’ll be able to stay put with them for the next few years. So, I preach from time to time, babysit two other boys to make ends meet (my supportive husband is a teacher), and prepare a lot of home-made soup. I think a lot these days about this notion of “balance”. I’m not sure I ever managed to achieve it when I was working outside the home — especially after baby #2 came along. After baby #3, the goal became survival. I was efficient, and friendly, and worked well under pressure — I always “delivered” – but I wasn’t being the pastor I wanted to be and, most importantly, for me, I wasn’t being the kind of woman (wife / mom / friend / sister / daughter) I wanted to be. No, perhaps MOST imporantly, I just wasn’t able to be ME! Anyway … I do like to see other women trying to find that elusive balance. In the end, I found myself asking what I’ve asked parishioners and patients over and over again. I thought about what was most life-giving for me and my family at this time, and made my decision to stay home … for now. For others, it might very well be to shift to part-time – I can’t imagine having the emotional resources to minister full-time with more than two kids, but perhaps other gals have more stored up! Anyway … I now need to make breakfast very quickly for three little boys and help one of them go potty … and then plan a sermon while I wash the dishes. Sound familiar?!

    Reply
  9. Wendy Hardin
    Wendy Hardin says:

    I hear the struggle in the original article and the comments, and I identify with much of it. I serveded one church before kids, was appointed to a demanding urban parish with the (somewhat naive) hope that I could be there for ten years. In the midst of redeveloping this congregation, I gave birth to our eldest (now 6) and then three years later to our second. Things really got hard once I had kids–I just couldn’t keep all of the loose ends together, but as I told folks, having a child was easy in comparison to having a church! So it was the combo that did me in, and it became clear when I was pregnant with our second that it was time to take a leave. Financially, this was incredibly scary, as hubby is a school teacher. But we did it, for 2 years, and now I am back at it as a solo pastor part-time. And while many things are good, it is still a hard balance. Although it was not doable for us, I wish I had stayed home longer.
    I think its so important for women to stay connected on these issues. There is so much joy in both ministry and mothering and I am so thankful for the many ways they fit together, as well as for the struggle. May our daughters (literally and spiritually) learn from our struggles.

    Reply

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