Practicing What We Preach: Why Your Church Needs a Family Leave Policy

When the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ gathers in Orlando this month for its General Assembly, there are some exciting things coming to the floor. One of the topics of discussion is family leave policy for clergy.

This piece of church ‘legislation’ is not going to save the world; nor will it impose or dictate any actual procedure on congregations that ultimately oppose its contents. Like any resolution, it is simply an opportunity for our larger organization to affirm an ideal. In this case, that ideal centers around the treatment of clergy families as they try to actually have a family. Again, it isn’t perfect, and it isn’t mandatory. But I have great hope that our Church will answer a resounding ‘yes,’ when asked if family leave is important.

When I told my church I was pregnant, the first time, we didn’t have a policy in place. But the personnel committee said, ‘what do you need?’ And when I told them, they made a recommendation to the board; and the board said, ‘we will give you what you need.’ And it was that easy. And then we actually put some policy around that so that, the next time I told them I was pregnant, it was all in writing. And so if the next pastor, or the next pastor’s wife, has a baby or adopts a child, they will already know what kind of time off and compensation they have to work with.

For me, the process was simple; it was grace-filled; it was life-giving, and ultimately made me a better and healthier pastor in the long run. However, I have since been greatly discouraged by the experiences of my colleagues—men and women alike—in their own contexts of ministry. I’ve gotten phone calls and emails, often from people I didn’t even know, who wanted to see what our policy actually looked like, so they could then show it to their board or personnel committee or whomever. Because, more often than I wanted to know about, they were in a fight about it.

As much as the church often wants the pastor with the ‘nice young family,’ it seems they are often not prepared to support and nurture said pastor through the season of life that actually begets that nice young family. And there’s the problem…

Of all the fights that the church is fighting right now, this is the one with the simplest solution; the outcome of which has the clearest long-term effects. Whether or not the governing body of your denomination has guidelines in place, here are a few of the many reasons why your church should discuss, and put in place, a family leave policy:

1-Because mainline protestant pastors did not take vows of abstinence. Or poverty. Babies happen, and they are expensive. And so are the doctors, nurses, and midwives that help bring them safely into the world. This is not the time for a loving church to withhold compensation from the pastor, just because he/she does not appear in the pulpit for a few weeks. Furthermore,

2-Just because your pastor is not in the pulpit for a few (ideally 8-10) weeks, does not mean he or she has ceased to be your pastor. There is a ‘whole person-ness’ that is often sorely lacking in the life of clergy, that leads to burn-out, unhealthy boundaries, and often, a crisis within the church itself. Allowing—even encouraging—your pastor to be present with his/her family for this critical time, sets up a much healthier balance of church and family; one that will in turn serve the church for years to come.

3-A church that truly claims to affirm women’s gifts for ministry should practice what it preaches. Enabling women to nurture a family empowers them for leadership; forcing them to choose between family and career distinctly takes that power away.

4-A church that truly claims to value children as vital members of Christ’ Body should also practice what it preaches–by welcoming those children into the world. Giving mom and dad “two week’s vacation and one week of sick leave” hardly says we are overjoyed to help bring this new life into the world.

5- Because if you want to see more ‘young children and families’ in the pews, then it starts right here. See what happens when your pastor and his/her partner are able to greet visitors on Sunday morning with an ‘Oh, what cute kids! Mine are about the same age. Here, let’s go meet them…’

6- Because there is no 9-5, Monday thru Friday clock-punching in ministry. It is a lifetime vocation. I learned early on in this journey of ministry and parenthood that much of what I do at church, when I am ‘working,’ is, in fact for my children. I’m being a good mother by building the kind of faith community I want them to know their whole life long. Also, when I am home with them, technically on the mom clock– I am raising little disciples. I am teaching them the values of Jesus, the importance of community, and the priority of serving others. In other words, I do some of my best parenting from the office, and some of my best evangelism work at home.

My hope is that they grow to love their church as much as I do; that they will someday be the keepers of our story, the breakers of the bread, the singers of the songs, and the ones organizing the neighborhood food drive. They might even be pastors someday. And if they are, then I hope and pray the church they serve will possess the vision to welcome their growing family with grace and gratitude. I mean…those are my grandbabies you’re talking about!

Just the other day, my daughter (now almost 5) said, totally out of the blue, “Mommy…will I be the preacher when I grow up?”  Note: not a preacher. The preacher. Because to her, there is no Big C church…there is her little world, where she has been blessed and dedicated; loved and welcomed; where she’s been told stories, fed cookies, and made to sing silly songs. For her, it is a good and lovely place; one that might, someday call her up to serve.  And from the sounds of it, she is ready.

And to think…it all started with the personnel committee, and a warm welcome to the world.

Me and my (first) baby, on our first Sunday back to Church. It was still standing, believe it or not.

 

About Erin Wathen

Rev. Erin Wathen is the Senior Pastor of Saint Andrew Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Olathe, KS (www.sacchome.org). She's a Kentucky native, a long-time desert dweller, and she writes about the sacred thread that runs through pretty much everything. For more info, click the 'about' tab above...

  • Fran Ota

    It isn’t even for the “nice young families”. I came to a congregation 2000 km from home – for three years, because I felt called. I left my husband, children and grandchildren behind – they thought it was a good idea. I had been told bu the search committee that although the Terms of Call stated “one week to be taken immediately after Christmas and Easter”, that wasn’t set in stone, that I could hold it for a little while and take it later. This year I asked for those two weeks in April, to travel with my husband, who I would not otherwise see for almost a year. They argued that when I came here I knew I had to put up with this. I argued that when I came here *they* had already agreed that this was a flexible congregation who understood. Fortunately the Board supported my request – but that committee is still in a snit…..and I hear comments about “the minister gets too much time off, I never got that kind of time off when I was working.” One of the Committee even suggested that it was like being in the military, that you go where you get sent and live with it. I’ve held off until now, when I am about to leave here – and have called an exit interview with the personnel committee and the Board Executive – because this is one thing they need to come to grips with. This is Newfoundland, and clergy are scarcer than hen’s teeth – chances are they are going to get someone else who comes from the mainland – and who isn’t as old or mature as I am, and who won’t react perhaps quite as calmly (I’m 68).
    Fran Ota


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