Post Author: Askie
I’m preparing for the arrival of my first child (a girl!) in September. My congregation is very excited about my pregnancy, but I’m not sure they really “get it” about maternity leave. I have six weeks of paid maternity leave, and am extending that by using two weeks of vacation time. The problem is that I keep hearing people mention things that they assume I’ll still do while I’m on maternity leave. Congregants say things like “Oh, you’ll be on maternity leave then, so I’ll just email you,” or that I’m welcome to bring the baby along to the Fall Festival (three weeks after my due date, so I’ll definitely be out). I’ve also heard a lot of comments about how great it is that the church is being so generous to give me maternity leave, and it’s hard to know how to respond. At the same time, these folks are so sweet and so kind, and so excited to have a new baby at our church – they’re knitting blankets, making sure that the nursery meets my needs, and I think they’re even planning a surprise baby shower (someone let the secret slip). How do I navigate this new phase of life and ministry?
Dear Expectant Pastor,
Congratulations and blessings as you prepare for the arrival of your little one! I think a lot of us can identify with the mixture of feelings around maternity leave and pastoral ministry. There are a lot of blessings, and many challenges as well.
The main thing to remember, Expectant Pastor, is that it is good and appropriate for your newborn daughter to be your top priority. It is good and appropriate for you to adhere to the boundaries that let you give your attention to your newborn, your own recovery, and your changing relationships. So do it clearly, unapologetically, and without guilt.
A few words to you and to all of us: First of all, you don’t mention your denominational identity, but many denominations actually cover maternity leave under short-term disability insurance. If your church participates in such a program, it would be well worth checking out whether you’re eligible for coverage. You may find that you can get a longer leave while saving your church money, which would be a win-win! Second, a word to all clergy, regardless of age or gender: we should all be advocating for generous parental leave policies at all of our churches. Especially if we ourselves don’t need it, and can simply work to put it in place so that expectant clergy parents have what they need when the moment arises. Some women are not even cleared by their doctors to return to work by six weeks postpartum. Twelve weeks of paid leave is a common recommendation, and we should strive to exceed that. And don’t forget that parental leave should be extended to all new parents – fathers, spouses, and adoptive parents as well as postpartum moms!
As your congregation anticipates your maternity leave, they may not know exactly what to picture. After all, for them, church is something they do outside of their work lives, with their family. It’s important to clearly communicate with staff and key lay leaders about what to expect from you while you’re on maternity leave. (Hint: nothing. Expect nothing. In the best-case scenario you will be exhausted by dealing with the needs of a newborn, and that’s assuming there are no medical complications for you or your baby.) Beyond those leaders, though, it may be best just to let your congregation experience your leave when they experience it – they were picturing you on your email and at the Fall Festival, but when they get an auto-responder and you don’t show up at church events, they’ll understand, and they’ll figure out how to manage without you. As you anticipate your leave, bring your best “non-anxious presence” to conversations with your congregation. Tell them that they’ll be fine, you’ll miss them, and you’ll see them after leave. Do your best to make sure that they have what they need in order to not have to contact you – lining up supply preachers, making arrangements for programs to run in your absence, ensuring that the right people have keys, passwords, and so on so that no one needs to call you for supply closet access. Consider putting an article in the church newsletter explaining how long you’re on leave, who is covering for you, and who they should call if they have pastoral care needs. And then just relax, and be on leave with your sweet baby.
It can be irritating to hear people patting themselves on the back for their church’s “generous” maternity leave, when we both know that six weeks is not always even enough for basic physical healing from the medical event of childbirth, let alone bonding with a new baby. Of course, we also both know that in the U.S., employers are not obligated to offer any paid maternity leave at all, and many churches have too few employees to fall under FMLA, which requires employers to at least offer twelve weeks of unpaid maternity leave. While many pregnant clergy women are attuned to these dynamics, your congregation probably isn’t, Expectant Pastor. Six weeks sounds like a long time to them – they’ll miss you! A little education would be appropriate: when congregants celebrate your “generous” maternity leave, you can acknowledge that your leave is more than many women get, and that it also feels so short when you picture a six-week-old baby. You could name your hope that someday, it will be the unquestioned norm for mothers and fathers to have all the time they need to care for their families and themselves. You could even ask congregants who have children about their experiences – you may find that some of your congregants still harbor hurt feelings or regrets about stingy leave, lost jobs, tough decisions, and the like.
As challenging as it can be to navigate the transition into motherhood as a minister, there are some wonderful, joyful parts as well: the blankets and baby showers, the ways that our congregations embrace our children into the faith family, the love of a multi-generational community. It’s not always easy to be a PK, but it sounds like this congregation is ready and excited to welcome your daughter. So enjoy that blessing, Expectant Pastor, as you take the time you need and help your congregation learn how to care for you and your family.
I’ll be praying for you, Expectant Pastor, for a smooth delivery, for a healthy baby, for a gracious church, for a restorative leave, and for great joy in this new season of your life and ministry.
Image by: Juhan Sonin
Used with permission