We Are Not All Having the Same Experience: Clergywomen with Children and Covid-19

Post Author: Margaret Webb

Several days ago John Dobbs wrote an article entitled “The Coming Pastoral Crash.” Clearly this piece speaks to some deep truths that many are experiencing because it has already been shared by a number of clergypeople with whom I am friends with on Facebook.

You can read the full piece for yourself here.

I don’t know John Dobbs but I suspect that my theological tradition is very different from his tradition. That being said, I think he makes a number of excellent points but also leaves out some crucial parts of what some of us are experiencing.

Dobbs points to the fact that many are doing ministry in entirely new ways, ways that we are not trained or fully equipped to do. He highlights the fact that not gathering together in person does not mean that we are not working just as much (or more) then we did back in March.  We not only lack the training for this new way of ministry but we also may lack the electronic equipment to do it well and with ease. Again and again, I hear stories of my clergy colleagues making do with smartphones or tablets, make-shift tripods and unreliable internet connections. When Zoom went down a week ago on Sunday a huge number of my clergy colleagues had to desperately search for fixes, or start recording worship to post later, or switch to an entirely new platform. It was a stressful day for them and required an extreme amount of work. This has been the story of the pandemic, especially for smaller or less wealthy congregations. Clergy are trying to Macgyver engaging digital worship experiences and religious education opportunities armed only with a spork, an elderly laptop and grit. I see the emotional strain of this in many of my colleagues.

Dobbs also points out that many previous work boundaries have not been maintained during this time of crisis. Many clergy are finding it impossible now to take days off, vacations, Sundays off and are working at all times of night and day. Although I entirely agree with Dobbs on this point, I think he misses something significant: clergymen are not having the same experience during this pandemic as clergywomen with children.

It is true that many of the clergymen I know are working long hours and have not been able to maintain healthy work/life balances. But this is even more true for the clergywomen with children that I know. Why? Because of the added burdens of household labor and childcare. Clergywomen share with one another about how they are cramming in a full day of ministry work during their kids’ naptime or after bedtime. They are trying to provide pastoral care by phone while loading the dishwasher and supervising homeschooling. They clean their bathrooms and fold laundry while strategizing around online retreats. They compose sermons while supervising 2-digit subtraction. This is acutely true for my sisters in ministry who are single parents but it is also true for those with spouses. In most all of the heterosexual households that I know, women do a disproportionate amount of the labor of the household. With kids at home and adults at home, the home is dirtier, and more people need to be cooked for and more dishes need to be washed. Additionally, many of my clergywomen colleagues with male spouses have ended up ‘in charge’ of homeschooling kids and keeping children too young for school entertained.

As a side note: to the progressive husbands of many of my friends and colleagues: do better. Clean a toilet without being told. Fold some laundry. If you care about justice and mercy and the Kingdom of Heaven, I suggest you try to act more like an adult and less like a child for your wife to tend. Don’t wait for tasks to be given to you, take some initiative and clean things on your own. Don’t wait for a mess to be pointed out to you, look around your house and clean things up on your own. Don’t ask what needs to be done, just cook and clean and tend your offspring like the responsible and competent adult that I hope that you are. Seriously, do better, because many of my beloved, gifted and brilliant clergywomen colleagues are working themselves to exhaustion.

My clergywomen colleagues with children are being stretched in the same way as all clergy are being stretched right now and they are trying to do it while also shouldering school and cleaning and cooking. This is a great way to burn out some of the brightest and most talented ministers that I know.

Additionally, clergywomen have a different experience with public online ministry. Women are much more likely to experience online harassment. Now that many of us are livestreaming or otherwise publicly doing ministry on the internet, we have the added anxiety of worrying about online trolls coming into our worship space and heckling us. Imagine preparing each week for your worship and wondering if this is the week that a troll crawls onto your livestream and starts calling you a “fat bitch” while you are saying the Lord’s Prayer. Welcome to the life of a clergywoman in the age of Covid-19.

Finally, Dobbs mentions the risk to the physical health of clergy. I disagree with his assessment of what the greatest risks of Covid-19 might be to clergy. He suggests that people are not taking care of themselves well during the pandemic. This may be true for some clergy but I think a much greater health risk looms: many of my colleagues are worried that their churches are going to insist on opening up at the expense of the health of the clergy.

Clergy people are more likely to have a range of stress-related health issues (this article from the New York Times is old but sadly still accurate) and therefore may be at higher risk of being seriously ill from Covid-19. Congregations that are pushing to re-open may decide to have multiple smaller services, which may be safer for congregants but isn’t safer for the minister attending all of those small services. Clergy may be pushed to do in-person pastoral care and return to in-person meetings before it is truly safe. The congregation that I serve has been incredibly thoughtful around Covid-19 safety measures and has been caring and careful of my health but sadly this is not true for every congregation. I know many, many clergy who serve congregations who grumble about giving their pastor vacation time or sick days. Clergywomen often share with one another about how they had to fight for fair maternity leave policies. Many churches have no policy or structure to handle sick leave. It can still be a struggle for many clergy to take the time that they need for regular self-care and to help set healthy boundaries. It is because of these cultural issues in many congregations that I worry for the health and well-being of my colleagues in ministry. If a church does not take seriously the needs and well-being of their clergy why would this situation with Covid-19 be any different? I fear that many of my colleagues will return to in-person work, at the insistence of their congregation, before it is safe to do so. I fear that they will contract Covid-19. I fear that some of them will die.

Dobbs concludes by suggesting that clergy take care of themselves first and do more to maintain a healthy work-life balance. I agree, I also think now is a time to have some difficult conversations within our family groups and within our congregations about the impact that sexism has on clergywomen with children. I also think for all clergy this is an opportunity to have more expansive conversations about health and well-being within congregations and what healthy boundaries and expectations look like for clergy. I pray that as we move forward into this uncertain future, this may be an opportunity to talk about dynamics that have gone unnamed and injustices that have gone unaddressed.


Margaret Webb is the pastor at New Garden Friends Meeting in Greensboro, NC. She and her husband have two children: Teddy (8) and Claire (5). When Margaret isn't pastoring or parenting she is reading novels, attending spin classes or shopping at second hand clothing stores.

Image by: Nenad Stojkovic
Used with permission
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