The first church I served didn’t have a parental leave policy in place when I was called. As a seminarian, the congregation supported me through marriage and ordination; then they called me as the associate minister with a focus on serving families, youth and children. Anticipating that some day, my husband and I would decide to have a child, I asked the board to consider passing a parental leave policy. My denomination provided no general guidelines, so we did lots of research, and I contacted my clergy friends throughout the country to see how their churches had responded when they had children.
When the board initially discussed this topic, I was disappointed with the results of the meeting. I was so mad actually, that I thought that I might as well quit as soon as I gave birth. And I drove the 35 minutes home crying all the way.
Fortunately, that wasn’t the last of the discussion, and I soon found out that I was already pregnant when the conversation began. My congregation embraced my growing body and me. They threw a glorious shower for us, and the other associate minister encouraged the senior to exclude me from the 8:30am Sunday service because fatigue was my worst side effect from pregnancy.
I continued to do my job, and I even took kids on mission trip when I was seven months pregnant. It was hot, and I was tired, but I made it through. I had to back out, though, when I was supposed to counsel camp six weeks prior to my due date. My “cankles” prevented me from being on my feet all day.
The board approved a policy that would allow for four weeks paid maternity leave, and I could take the rest of my vacation time, as well. So, I was out for almost eight weeks before returning to work.
The congregation was so happy for me, and they wanted to see my girl grow up in the church. That was my hope, too. I brought her to work with me my first day back, which was a Sunday. This is not something I recommend, but we made it through that day.
My mom had already told me she would give up all of her volunteer activities in order to keep my daughter while I worked, but first I wanted to see what kind of schedule I could make for myself. That first week back, I intended to ask if I could work from home one day a week or so, and if I could bring my daughter to work with me some, too. I had already been given a crib to set up in my office. In addition, as the Associate Minister of Families, Youth & Children, I was the liaison to the day care at the church. I thought I had it made.
I never got to have that conversation, though. After only three days back at work, the senior minister called me in for a meeting. He, a middle-aged man who doesn’t have children, began by “disciplining” me for things that had not gone well while I was away. He spoke to me as a parent would speak to a child, and then he asked, “How has motherhood changed your call to ministry?” Wow. I was not prepared for this question. I had no words. I had only been a mother for eight and a half weeks, and back to work three days. I was exhausted and exhilarated. I thought being a mother would enhance my ministry with families, youth, and children. But when first confronted with the question, especially by a non-parent, I was stunned. Again, I drove home crying and held my baby for hours.
I was going to quit the next day. But with some good counseling, I persevered as I “discerned” if and how motherhood had “changed my call to ministry.”
Driving 35 minutes one way to work with the odd schedules of youth group and evening programs and meetings, I did the best I could. I hated pumping milk for my baby, and more than once I forgot an attachment and had to drive all the way home and back with painful breasts.
I was fortunate enough to have my mom take care of my baby everyday, as well as a loving husband, good friends, and a supportive Pastoral Relations Committee. Still, I was asked almost weekly if I had made a decision about staying or going. Full-time ministry at this particular congregation was not for me. My resignation took effect when my daughter was almost seven months old.
It was a painful decision, as I loved the church, and I loved serving as a minister. But I loved my girl and my mental well being more.
I gave up full-time pay and a professional expense account in order to be a full-time mom. But rarely did a Sunday go by when I wasn’t in the pulpit supply preaching. My call to ministry hadn’t gone away. But I guess it had changed, not all on my own, of course.
Now I am serving a lovely small congregation full of people who love seeing my daughter grow up and sit on my hip when I pray. With a family of ministers, she doesn’t come to church with me all that often, but I am better pastor because I am a mother. And I am happier than I have ever been, even when economic times are tough. I am able to work on my body image ministry and writing. I know this is what I am called to do. And now I say that I am living the dream.
It took quite a painful process for me to realize what a blessing this life is, “a blessing in disguise,” as they say. I do not wish the pain of having to choose between motherhood and ministry upon anyone. Perhaps if my former congregation had had clear and supportive leave policies in place before I got pregnant, my situation would be different. Of course, I wouldn’t have it any other way . . . now. Ministry is hard, no matter the circumstance. Serving as a full-time associate in youth ministry is challenging in the best of times, and it requires a lot of time. If I had stayed, I wouldn’t have seen my girl accomplish off all her first developmental milestones, or so many other things. But this is my life. I pray that my colleagues in ministry have the opportunity to choose what works for them and their families and ministries.