Best of: Most Comments

Post Author: Alex M. Hendrickson

At the recent annual board meeting of the Editorial Board, our editors decided that we would no longer publish the column Christ & Creativity in order to make way for a new column featuring the voices of young women along the way to ordination. Until the advent of this new column, we will publish our best columns over the four years of Fidelia's Sisters.

This month, we bring to you the article that generated the most comments in the history of Fidelia's Sisters. Below the fold, Alex Hendrickson's Oh Mother, Where Art Thou? created a conversation of 25 comments. The only other columns to come close to this realm of conversation were Sarah Kinney Gaventa's What Not to Wear illustrating how a young clergy woman should wear a collar and our second anniverary stole giveaway where you had to comment to actually win the stole.Though it appears we seek to appear our best for God with 21 comments in both of these second runners up, that extra 4 comments in 2008 may reveal that we are mothers first. Or it may reveal that we don't want to be defined by the things that others might use to define us (kids, marital status, gender preference, ethnicity or the like). Instead we want to be known and understood fully simply by how we seek to serve God.

It just happened again. I put down a copy of my seminary alumni magazine, after reading yet another article about how clergywomen can “have it all”. In the nearly seven years since my ordination and ten years since I began my seminary career, the drumbeats insisting that clergywomen can be both full-time pastors and full-time mothers have grown steadily louder and more resolute. Not only can we do this, the voices chorus, but we should do this. Evidently we owe it to the church to model the ways in which the best congregation can live out the ideals of the Christian family. This means ministry and mothering overlapping in as many ways and settings as one can imagine. It is now de rigueur for women pastors to describe their intertwined work and family life after the arrival of a child by boasting along the lines of, “I brought her to work and breastfed while wearing vestments.”

This conversation about the mother/pastor takes place in locales as diverse as the cool confines of a National Cathedral chapel to cinderblock classrooms in the desert southwest, in seminary dining halls and the parlors of women’s restrooms in the Deep South. It is a badge of honor, it seems, to tell war stories that involve the intertwining of children’s bodily functions and committee meetings. It is necessary exegesis to mention how women’s bodies more closely mirror than do men’s the nurturing, originating image of our Creator God. A photo of a smiling toddler in the arms of pastor Mommy is mandatory for the websites and brochures of churches who want to project a progressive, family-centered atmosphere.

And many men of the church stand on the sidelines of all this mother-womb-love and nod sagely, pleased to be so open-minded and willing to allow their female colleagues the chance to participate in the ecclesial version of The Second Shift (as identified by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild). It is no big news that women work more hours in the day, when you combine their work both in and out of the home, than do their male colleagues and spouses. But I am sorry to see that the church is so eager to encourage women clergy to embrace this exhausting routine as some sort of positive paradigm for ministry.

Some might ask, why not just stay home with your children? I can see the value in the decision some female friends made to give up their professional ministry (or at least put it on hold during their children’s youth). This is a clearer, more definite answer to the issue of pastor-motherhood. To keep home and family at home, separate from work and public life sets a compelling and straight-forward boundary for the contemporary family. But I don’t want to give up my professional ministry.

A couple of months ago, very early in a new call as associate pastor to a large, midwestern church, we held a traditional Vacation Bible School Sunday service. As I stood with microphone in hand, surrounded by nearly a hundred children, I attempted to deliver a children’s message. In the crowd of kids at my feet, my four-year-old son began to fidget and cry. No one from a sanctuary of over three hundred worshippers stepped forward to assist me. I picked up my child, held him in my arms, and lamely continued my VBS-themed presentation. Later, many people mentioned how they thought it “nice” that I had held my boy during his distress.

But I didn’t find it nice. I felt angry that no one thought to help me. I had prepared my message and wanted two arms to act out the vigorous “splash!” of God’s love that the children had learned all week in Bible School. I also felt embarrassed that the whole congregation watched, possibly to judge what my child and I would do. Would the new associate pastor’s son behave? Can the associate calm down her child in front of a large crowd? If she can’t deal with her own children, how can we expect her to lead Christian Education events with our kids? The old stereotypes about pastors’ kids’ (“PKs”) are alive and well, just repackaged and re-imagined for a new generation of children who call their pastor Mommy instead of Daddy.

I want to do my job. I want to do it well. God called me to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. I worked hard in seminary, jumped through numerous denominational hoops to secure my ordination, and worked in tandem with congregational search committees to find the right call for my gifts and abilities. I want to do my job as a mother, as well. My husband and I work hard to be loving, nurturing parents. God called me to mother these particular children. I want our family to model the biblical ideal of unconditional, selfless love.

But I cannot simultaneously provide pastoral care to a member of my congregation while trying to care for one of my children. Those pastor-mothers who insist that visiting a homebound Christian while also holding a babe in their arms is the best way to bridge the gap to pastoral care are mistaken. They are selling short their children, their care-receivers and themselves. No one is enjoying the full benefit of their attention and care and they are using their children to do the work of forming relationships.

The genesis of this Second Shift mentality within the church is also reflected in denominational structures. Many governing bodies within mainline denominations still do not have required maternity, paternity, or family-leave policies in place. Most congregations do not provide consistent childcare for evening or weekend church meetings. Church preschools and daycare centers often operate at less-than full time schedules. (My current congregation offers preschool until 2 o’clock in the afternoon; I am expected to remain at church until four or five.) The church makes it hard for women to make the choice to pastor and emotionally rewards women who choose not to erect firm boundaries around their home and family lives.

2006 was the fiftieth anniversary of women’s ordination as pastors in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA). I began joking late in 2005 that the slogan for the anniversary year should be “50 years and nothing’s changed!” I said this cynically, snidely, to my friends and my spouse, knowing full well that things had changed, had improved in the five decades since Margaret Towner pledged her ordination vows. My presbytery planned a special service to honor this event; I arrived early to the meeting in order to settle my kids into the unfamiliar nursery. I waited and waited, but no one arrived to care for the children. Eventually I went home, because the planners of this special anniversary event neglected to arrange a nursery attendant. Fifty years – has there been sufficient change? It is a miserable moment when you realize you haven’t been cynical enough.

So, what should the church do? The church should demand that women clergy truly parent and work as colleagues equal to male clergy. This means direct access to excellent childcare. This means space and time for both male and female clergy to be with their families at home on weekends and in the evening. This means paying appropriate wages to allow for childcare measures. Most of all, it means allowing women to be defined as Pastor in the church. I love my children. I love my family. I love my church. I don’t love feeling as though the church loves me conditionally. I don’t love feeling as though my worth as a pastor is judged and contingent upon my success as a mother.

Do your pastor a favor today. Ask her about her ministry, not about her kids.

Alex M. Hendrickson and her husband, the Rev. Brett Hendrickson, have three young children, Thomas, Lily, and David. She has moved from the ministry she shared in 2008 and now serves in Pennsylvania.

6 replies
  1. Alex
    Alex says:

    Thanks for publishing this again! Things have changed so much in the 5 years since I wrote this column, but I still stand by what I wrote here.
    I didn’t move from my ministry in 2008, however, but in May 2011.

  2. Sara
    Sara says:

    Thank you for this article. I will give birth to my first child in 9 weeks and I am praying about how I will be a mom and a minister simultaneously. Although I am 3/4 time at my congregation, it will still be a juggle, especially since my Rev. hubby works a million hours a week.

  3. MaryAnn
    MaryAnn says:

    It’s fun to read the article again, and the comments.
    One thing though about the Second Shift–those stats are a bit outdated. More recent studies have looked at amount of time women and men spend working, and they are almost equal now. Yes, the average woman spends more time on the housework and childrearing than the average man, but she also spends less time at the ‘office,’ so the totals are nearly the same. It’s certainly true in my house; of course, individual situations vary. But there is a new body of evidence that we need to take seriously.
    In terms of people stepping in and helping with children, I had an illuminating experience the other week. I had just finished the children’s ‘sermon’ and was in the pulpit getting ready to read the scripture. There was a group of kids and adults going upstairs for nursery/Sunday School, and one of my kids (can’t remember which) was not wanting to go, and instead was looking plaintively at me and not moving. Meanwhile my husband is sitting with the choir, which was about to sing.
    I said, “Would someone be willing to help get [name] upstairs?” Probably half a dozen people leaped up, and all was well.
    This suggests two things to me:
    1. We need to tell people how they can help us. Even when it seems so blindingly obvious that we need help, and exactly what kind of help is needed, people cannot read our minds.
    2. I wonder if many of us are the victims of our own competence. I suspect that a lot of us juggle the kid/ministry thing better than we think–such that we make it look a lot more effortless than it really is. People are reluctant to jump in because they don’t want to be seen as judging the minister’s pastoral/parenting skills or giving the impression that kids need to be shooed and shushed for being kids. My 5 year old often wants to stand beside me, holding my hand, while I do the announcements. It doesn’t bother me and, frankly, I don’t want anyone intervening with that. Which takes us back to #1: Asking for help is our responsibility… and our privilege, because it’s part of our teaching role.

  4. Amy W
    Amy W says:

    Yes to MaryAnn – we do need to be direct in asking for help! That goes a long way.
    Yes, too, to the need for consistent childcare. And the freeing up of our spouses to be full participants in the congregation. Yes, yes.
    I found it interesting to read the original comments on this article. It seemed that most of the the “take your child to work” responses were from mothers of infants. I was in that camp too. I loved working with my sleeping baby in a sling, and if one or the other was asleep in the sling when it was time for service to begin, then I went ahead and preached with them snuggled in. If they woke up, no one seemed to mind a brief pause while I handed the baby off to someone mid sermon. Nursing between services was also the norm for us and never felt particularly disruptive to me or the congregation. I don’t intend for that to be boasting, just – it was my reality. I loved it and didn’t find it particularly difficult or disruptive, personally.
    But once they reached toddler years, it all changed dramatically for me. It is nearly impossible now to have them with me while I work, and I find people more quickly resent their (noisy, busy) presence now. Having them present for meetings was not unusual during the baby years, but is a very-last-resort at ages 2 and 4. Different stages, different realities.
    At the same time – if I ask for help – I have never had a time when someone didn’t step forward immediately to care for my children. It is not always easy – but it works. And I am grateful (most of the time!) for freedom to be both mom & pastor.

  5. anonymous (sorry!)
    anonymous (sorry!) says:

    Thanks for republishing this. I am currently doing supply for various parishes on an as available basis because I have chosen to stay home with our toddler and be his primary caregiver. I tried to make parish work and parenting a small child work–I did for the first 14 months of his life. But, I grew increasingly frustrated about what seemed to be lip service support by my faith community. Lack of childcare/mandatory overnights/night meetings–these ALL assumed a spouse/partner or family support available at odd times and odd places. My spouse worked full time plus at a job not conducive (or safe) for having a child on site. Childcare options for daycare weren’t available nights or weekends. I was discouraged from nursing at church (tough with a babe who rejected the bottle) and found that the expectations for what was developmentally appropriate for a toddler in my largely toddler free parish were WAY off. Additionally, I found that many of my clergy colleagues really didn’t have any boundaries between their work and home lives–and worked constantly and shared freely their sentiment that any clergy woman who did not work constantly was somehow not doing enough. For them, my decision to step away has been met with outright shaming.
    Now that my spouse has a better job, fewer hours and actual sick days (yippee!) I could go back to parish work–but quite frankly I was so disgusted at how clergy folk (men and women) with young children were/are treated that I feel like my best bet will be to wait to re-enter parish work until our small ones are in school.
    Thank you Alex for this article–I would love to hear how/if any of your thoughts have changed since it was first written!


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *