Choosing Church

[Insert well meaning person here]: “So, where are you all going to church?”

[Me, stammering]: “Well, we haven’t quite figured that out yet.”

As a fairly new school chaplain, I often do not miss waking up at the crack of dawn to preside over the three ring circus that can be Sunday morning congregational life. The chance to worship with my family was one of the big perks of being a school chaplain. I was all set to rejoin the rank and file, to hear sermons instead of give them, to just simply blend in.

However, now that I’m free to go almost anywhere on Sunday morning, I can’t quite figure out where to go. My family and I have visited four or five different Episcopal churches in the five months that we’ve been here but have yet to choose a community to call home. We find ourselves in the similar position as any other family with young children does when looking for a church to call home with one big difference — the mom’s an Episcopal priest.

I can see myself serving almost all of the parishes that my family has visited. In their own way, they are living out in mission of the church well. Riding the pew, however, feels like a different story, even if it’s not, even if it shouldn’t be.

Lots of stories about pastors’ kids are (understandably) about being too closely watched and under pressure to be perfect. However, I’ve started to wonder what the benefits of being a PK might be. I see now that I was blind to how much slack my former parish cut my family. People turned and smiled when my daughter cooed during the normally very quiet 8 a.m. service while I preached; now, sitting in unfamiliar pews, I see people grimacing and silently stewing when she makes noise. As parish clergy, I used to take the baby to church wearing something seasonally appropriate but not at all dressy. During the sweltering, famously humid eastern North Carolina summer, she often went in just a onesie (a T-shirt that snaps at the bottom). No one seemed to care how she was dressed, because everyone all knew she was the associate rector’s daughter. Now, I feel more pressure to put a dress on her (and don’t get me started on how self-conscious I feel that I’m not nearly as well-dressed as most of my fellow pew-sitters).

If you’re already cringing out about how temporal these matters are, about me bemoaning the loss of my parish position of privilege, then I’d suggest you skip this paragraph. Several years ago, I remember scoffing that convenient parking is reportedly a consideration when people are choosing where to worship. Shouldn’t the theology or the worship be more important something as mundane as parking? Then a few months ago, when I found myself walking in (yes, in—there was no sidewalk) a busy road while carrying my then eight month old and a diaper bag, I understood where people were coming from. To further complicate matters, Sunday morning services fall right in the middle of my daughter’s morning nap time. Since she doesn’t nap that well during the week, I’d prefer to let her sleep on the weekends when she can.

There is one parish to which my husband and I both felt connected. The rector is our former campus minister from college. This parish is also half an hour away. We would literally pass by dozens of other worshipping communities to attend this one. We wonder if we could—or perhaps would?—actually be involved somewhere comparatively far away.

I would have thought I would have been thankful to have a choice on where to attend on Sunday morning. Right now, I’m not. Having a choice has not been helpful. Instead, the plethora of choices on Sunday mornings has been somewhat paralyzing. I’d get even more lost if I looked beyond the Episcopal Church, which we haven’t.

Given these many things, there have been more than a few Sunday mornings that we find ourselves not going anywhere at all. I take care of the baby in the comfort of my own home, where I don’t have to worry about finding an empty Sunday school room to nurse her during the offertory. My husband does his homework. The baby sleeps in her crib instead of the carseat.

Though the baby complicates matters, she’s also one of the main reasons I refuse to give up. She’s been baptized. We promised to bring her up in the faith. I want that for her, so we’ll make a choice; we’ll pick a lane. I don’t quite know how, or which one, but I know that, somehow, by the grace of God, we will.

9 replies
  1. mary allison
    mary allison says:

    thank you for articulating this struggle. i too am seeing church in different ways now that i arrive with ridiculous amounts of “luggage” and serve as a human jungle gym for my kids during the service. i, too, want to battle the inconvenience and my own insecurities about what constitutes proper attire so that my children can grow up with structure and community. glad to know i’m in such good company.

  2. Betsy T
    Betsy T says:

    I just wrapped up at a parish since working full time in a hospital plus part time a parish was wearing me down.
    I’m taking 6 weeks off to decide where I want to go and how I want to worship.

  3. Heather
    Heather says:

    Thank you for this! As a hospital chaplain, I was so excited to join a church and sit in the pews. Then my husband and I had our son, and life is so much more complicated (and blessed, too!). My son will not go to the nursery without screaming and hysterics, and the nursery workers always come get us about 10 mins into worship. And at 15 months old he’s way too busy and noisy to join us in worship. And naptime, yes, that’s hard too. But, like you, we are determined: he’s been baptized, we made promises, this is important. God help us all! (And I keep remembering: before I know it, he’ll be bigger and able to handle it — this stage isn’t forever…) Peace to you and your family!

  4. anon.
    anon. says:

    I’m also a chaplain, and have struggled with the same issues. I’m now doing a lot of pulpit supply. so my Sunday mornings still involve a lot of time in the pulpit and behind the altar–I guess my solution to the problem of “where to go,” at least for now! Best wishes as you continue to figure it out!

  5. Elsa
    Elsa says:

    thank you for these insights for the parish clergy too. i’m a single gal who doesn’t always understand the complicated nature of getting to church and feeling connected on sunday morning. wonderful insights, ann. thank you.

  6. Adrian
    Adrian says:

    My wife’s a former (lay) prison chaplain now training to be a Anglican priest in England. I identified with much of what say about finding a church, especially the strange business of thinking about commuting to a church 25 minutes drive away. We’ve done this and found it a weird experience in some ways. Sunday mornings felt like “home” – but the disconnection from parish life meant we had to put a lot more effort than would normally be the case into being with people in the week. And I can’t claim that we cracked it – not me anyway. You couldn’t walk or drive 5 minutes around the corner, to see someone for a drink and almost no-one from church ever called on us, because, why would they, we didn’t live in their town. I wouldn’t have had it any other way, but it was a different experience to going to the local church.

  7. Christina
    Christina says:

    As an ordained Cooperative Baptist minister who works in a state denominational resource office (akin to a presbytery or diocese), I feel your pain. To add to the problem, there are no Cooperative Baptist churches within an hour’s drive where my husband (hospice chaplain) and I feel like we “fit”. We want to raise our 5 yr old daughter in a Baptist church but find ourselves feeling more theologically at home in PCUSA, UCC, or Episcopal churches. We still haven’t figured out what to do. I’ll be praying for you, Ann. Will you also pray for me?

  8. anonymous
    anonymous says:

    As a college chaplain I have struggled with this also, and kids certainly complicate matters, but mostly because they make it so much more important. In my current call we returned to my home church and the struggles of being in that congregation in such a diffrent place than when I left to go to seminary nearly 15 years ago. It is some distance from where we live, and we pass plenty of churches to get there, but it has now become my children’s church as much as it was mine at their age. Still, it’s not an easy thing to be clergy sitting in the pews no matter where you are.


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