Family Values? Not so much.

The September issue of the Harvard Business Review offers statistical confirmation of something that mothers have known for a long time.  Having children does them no good in the work world.

According to Amanda K. Baumle at the University of Houston, who analyzed the 2000 Census “Having children tends to result in higher wages for men, whether they’re straight or gay, married or partnered…Most mothers make less than childless women.” And “Only lesbians get a salary bump from having kids.”  What is her explanation?  Baumle theorizes that, “In employers’ stereotypical view, lesbians maintain a work trajectory after having children that is more like that of a childless woman or a man.  Meanwhile, employers’ perception of straight women’s competence drops when they have children.”  (HBR vol. 88.9: 26)

I am sure she is right.  What is more distressing is to know that this trend is not just characteristic of business practice, it is characteristic of the church’s practice as well.  Have a baby and you will hear bishops and Commissions on Ministry castigate ordained mothers for working their responsibilities for the nurture and care of their children into their work schedules or they will privately shake their heads and argue that for mothers who are ordained, their ministries are just a hobby.  And, it doesn’t amount to harmless prejudice.  Judgments of this kind come with very real strictures on the positions available to women and the support their bishops will give them.  There might be as many or more women in seminaries around the country, but the stained glass ceiling is still firmly in place as far as ordained mothers are concerned.

What’s wrong with this attitude?  Put it this way — the church may lionize the American family, but it doesn’t make room for mothers to have a ministry (apart from the tea and crumpets circuit) and, as a result, it models behavior that is no different from the world in which the church supposedly witnesses to the importance of the family.

Is it little wonder that “The Boys in Black,” aka “The Girls Have Cooties Club,” still reign supreme in many parts of the church?  Hardly.

You can change structures and formal cultures all you want, but when prejudices of this kind exclude a group — in this case, ordained mothers — from active service, the informal dynamics will always trump the formal changes.  Moms will be ordained, but they won’t find jobs or the jobs they are given are perceived as soft assignments — religious education, family ministry, pastoral care.  I have even heard rectors (senior pastors) introduce the male staff with whom they work by their titles, only to introduce the ordained women on their staff by their first names.

In such circumstances the formal changes in the rules surrounding the ordination of women actually dampen the pressure for real change, giving the impression that the problems have been fixed and giving ecclesiastical leaders a means of excusing themselves by allowing them to point to trends in ordination to excuse the situation (or at least absolve themselves of the dealing with the deeper issues).

I wrote a book almost fifteen years ago on the struggles that women face in ordained life called A Still Small Voice that distinguished between formal and informal cultures and in that book I argued that informal cultures are infinitely more powerful than the formal structures.  That was true then, it’s true now.  I expected the book to be out of print and irrelevant by now.

Sadly, it is neither out of print, nor irrelevant. Commissions on Ministry persist in asking women who have small children how they expect to be able to manage the demands of family and the demands of ministry.  They never ask that question of men who have small children.  Women get asked by the church hierarchy to work for free because, “Your husband makes a lot of money and you don’t need to be paid.”

Meanwhile, in the offices of dioceses, presbyteries, annual conferences and other places where groups of men sit and determine who should be ordained, they lament that the church is the last place where family values are protected and upheld.  But is it, if we fail to model an appreciation for the importance of nurturing our children?

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), live in Highland Park, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and four grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, and Sophie.


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