Clergy Women and Infertility–Breaking the Silence


If I have to read the story of Abraham and Sarah’s miraculous conception of Isaac one more time, I will run screaming out of the pulpit.  Because I know what it’s like to want a child.  I know what it’s like to try everything under the sun to create one – frankly, if concubines were a legal possibility, I might go for that at this point.  I know about barrenness.  I do not, yet, know about the laughter which might follow.

I am an infertile pastor.  As I write, my husband and I are undergoing fertility treatments, and have been for three and a half years.  Thankfully, we have the resources to do this, and for that, I am deeply grateful.  But they have not succeeded, yet. 

In the meantime, I dread Advent.  All those texts about babies showing up where they shouldn’t have: to Elizabeth, who thought she was too old; to Mary, who thought she was too young.  And the hearkening back to the others whose barrenness broke their hearts: Sarah and Hannah, my sisters.  It is hard to preach these texts.  Some days, I dread baptisms; I worry that I cannot hold one more baby at the font and not mix my tears with the baptismal waters.  It is hard to keep all of this a secret, but I do, because I cannot quite imagine another way.

Every pastor certainly encounters personal heartbreak which makes the pastoral role more difficult than it would normally be.  Mine is no greater than others, I’m sure.  To preach at the funeral of a beloved mother shortly after losing your own; to walk with a family through cancer when a diagnosis hangs over your own head; to preach the gospel of good news when all you can see for now is the darkness – none of it is easy.  No easier than it is to sit in the pews and hear the gospel proclaimed when it feels terribly far away.

I haven’t spoken about our fertility struggles for some practical reasons.  First off, let’s be honest: I really don’t want the congregation thinking about my sex life.  Or asking about it, even in a roundabout way.  Congregations love to give advice, and I’ve already discovered that much of the ‘advice’ given to infertile people hurts more than it helps: “just relax,” “why don’t you just adopt?” “my cousin’s neighbor’s best friend’s coworker stopped trying, and bing! She got pregnant right away,” that sort of thing.  I try to avoid putting myself in situations where I might be overly tempted to tell a parishioner to SHUT UP FOR THE LOVE OF THE HOLY (this is particularly possible when one is hopped up on fertility drugs). 

There are reasons of pride, as well.  As much as I might know otherwise, it still feels shameful to be infertile.  All around me women are getting knocked up.  Celebrity magazines are full of movie stars with their “baby bumps” and due dates, reporting on the miraculous and mysterious arrival of twins to women who promise that they never, ever, ever tried fertility treatments.  They double-pinky swear.

There are reasons of faith.  Mine has been sorely tested these past years.  I have spent much more time in Job-like prayer than anything resembling the Magnificat.  The psalms of lament and I have become dearly acquainted, while God and I have suffered a bit of a separation.  When the pain is fresh, it is simply impossible for me to reflect on it publicly.  I believe this journey will, eventually, make of me a better person, and a better pastor.  But I am not quite there yet.

There is concern about disagreement on fertility treatments.  (As a side note, if I am innocently asked one more time for my opinion on the recent mother of octuplets, I am likely to lose it altogether.)  Being infertile is itself a very vulnerable state, and the drugs given to treat it increase that feeling even further.  Should I confess that we are doing in-vitro fertilization?  Or will that result in a variety of opinions I simply do not have the capacity to hear: arguments about stem-cell research, and when life truly begins, and wasting money on slim chances, and those who say, “I simply could never do that,” when the fact is that they never had to consider it.  My heart is fragile enough.  For me, this is not an academic debate.

There is jealousy, of course.  Listening to men and women complain – even jokingly – about the burdens of raising children, I find myself sometimes unreasonably angry.  My clergywomen friends occasionally confess the burden of holding motherhood and ordination together, and although I know they are right and their struggles are valid, all I can think is: but don’t you know how lucky you are to get the chance to try it?  Don’t you know how much I want to complain just like you?  Hearing pregnancy announcements from parishioners and feeling the automatic dart of pain.  Above all, detesting my own reaction at the joy of others, and yet finding myself unable to control it.

I wonder sometimes how many other infertile pastors there are out there.  Men and women alike, struggling with their heartbreak, unsure of a safe place to speak of it, smiling at the children who arrive for Sunday School while they ‘pant like a deer at flowing streams’ for a child of their own.  I suppose what I want to say and know, more than anything else, is that we are not alone.  That the body of Christ helps bear our pain. 

I will talk about this someday, I hope.  For now, in this wilderness, some silence protects me.  So that I can get up in the pulpit and proclaim, one more time, that “Isaac” means “laughter,” that Abraham and Sarah both chortled at the very idea of him, and that nothing is impossible with God.  And then hang up my robe, smile at the newly baptized infant, go home and inject myself one more time with one more drug, and trust that audacious promise is for me too.

15 replies
  1. Ellen L-D
    Ellen L-D says:

    Thank you for the honesty of this piece. Living in a glass house and keeping personal pain ‘personal’ is not easy. Prayers for you.

  2. Texas ClergyPal
    Texas ClergyPal says:

    Wow. Thank you so much for your openness. I, personally, appreciate the reminder that the wrestling match with parenthood and ministry is a gift and not a burden. I really, really appreciate your honesty. This is a beautiful piece. Thank you again for sharing it with this community. I will probably share it with some of my church members who find themselves in a similar place.

  3. Sunny Hallanan
    Sunny Hallanan says:

    Thank you for your words. After multiple miscarriages I also dreaded Advent. But worse still: mother’s day. Although I am now blessed to have two healthy children, I’ll never forget the agony of being asked “When will You celebrate mother’s day” at the door of the church by people who did not know my baby should have been born that week. For 15 years now I have fought the battle of trying to take that Hallmark holiday out of church, so that there is one “safe” place to go that day.

  4. Kate
    Kate says:

    Thank you for sharing this. There are so many important stories that go untold because the world just isn’t quite safe for them. I’m so glad that you took the opportunity to share this story with us so that we all may become more responsible and responsive to those who struggle with infertility. Grace, blessings and love to you on your journey.

  5. Tricia
    Tricia says:

    Thank you. There are many of us who are in this same struggle. I share your struggle over not sharing, but also having to hear the comments that are said innocently enough, but hurt all the same.

  6. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for giving voice to this. After years of trying and miscarriages, parishioners’ comments become condemnations, jokes become jabs and my ability to love these people becomes strained.
    While I know where these feelings come from, and they are just feelings, it is helpful to remember that others struggle with ‘isaac’ when it comes to childbearing.
    Thank you.

  7. Louise
    Louise says:

    Wow, just wow.
    Your words gave me goosebumps.
    Thank you for sharing here, (in this, I hope, safe place) your vulnerability, pain and honesty. Thank you for putting into words that gut filled reality that so many have.
    Thank you.

  8. Katie H
    Katie H says:

    We have one child and have been trying for another for over 3 years. After I gained a little weight over Christmas the whole congregation seemed to be asking when the baby was due. It is so hard to not start hitting people with anything convenient (processional cross?). Thank you for writing your (my) story. Blessings and peace to you.

  9. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    Thank you for giving the voiceless a voice. I am sitting here dreading mother’s day. I have a small congregation and some of them do know which means they probably all know but I think it has been the reason they don’t ask me about it. My family and the community on the other hand are another story. I am facing my 40th birthday days after mother’s day this year and I am not taking it well. I have felt so alone. Thank you for reminding me that I am not alone. Prayers for all who suffer in silence.

  10. mary allison
    mary allison says:

    i’m praying the kinds of prayers for you that i prayed for myself when i endured 3 years like the ones you are enduring now: begging prayers. thanks for your couragous piece.

  11. MKK
    MKK says:

    thank you…this has certainly been a struggle for me this past year…one that was unexpected…bawling once every month, seeing young moms all around me, and the constant effort, which feels more like a chore than an expression of love.
    thank you for speaking to this so honestly.

  12. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    You are definitely not alone in this struggle and the particular ways it is made more acute by your vocation. But I know it feels that way. About 2 years into our struggle (was it less? I’m not sure) I tried desperately to find at least one other pastor going through this. Eventually I found 2, and it made a world of difference. It didn’t take away the pain, but simply having someone, anyone who REALLY understood was tremendously helpful.
    I opted to be increasingly open about my struggle. I didn’t tell everyone, but I didn’t hide it. I couldn’t. It was too all consuming. This meant that I often had to be a teacher when a painful comment was made. I frequently said “I need you to know how that sounds to someone going through this.” And more often I needed to let things go. But the support I got outweighed the hassles. But the decision to share is a very personal one, and I fully respect either decision and know there are attendant struggles either way.
    And, interestingly, even though I thought I was really open. I found out much later how many of my colleagues in the presbytery had been through this struggle, but no one was talking about it.
    Yes, thank you for speaking out. I know that today there are other clergy women feeling so devastated, so alone, so burned from Advent and so anxious about Mother’s Day, and you’ve let them know they are not alone.
    After nearly 4 years of trying, treatments, the rest… we have a healthy baby. Unfortunately I left parish ministry to go back to school before she was born. How nice it might have been to navigate the painful seasons and sacraments with my long-desired child in arms.
    The preaching text I picked for my last Sunday BEFORE finding out I was pregnant??? The annunciation of Isaac. I thought maybe I was enough past my pain (at that moment) to give it a try. How ironic.
    I did laugh. But only after A LOT of gut-wrenching tears.
    Again. Thank you. And Bless you.

  13. SV
    SV says:

    Thank you. I am just in my first year of trying and it weighs on me more and more every month. Last month a parishoner said, “You can’t understand because you don’t have children.” It took everything in my power not to lash out verbally. There needs to be more education out there because people are clueless. I am just not sure I am the person to educate. Maybe someday.


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