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Minister moms split between pulpit and potty training

May 6, 2011

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Every now and then, the Rev. Amy Butler will find herself having to do a little simultaneous parenting and preaching from her pulpit at Calvary Baptist Church in downtown Washington.

“My daughter, in particular, knows the look,” said Butler, whose teenage children sit ― and occasionally chat ― with their friends in the balcony. “And if I’m up front leading worship, I can see everything ... so if I need to shoot a look, I do.

“And they know exactly what that means.”

Female pastors with one flock at home and another in the pews say being a minister and a mom is a perpetual juggling act, with high expectations, never enough time and challenges that their male colleagues will never face.

At the same time, they say, it can also be a profound blessing.

“Baptist women ministers more than ever before are young, married, and starting families,” said Pam Durso, executive director of the group Baptist Women in Ministry.

Pregnancy, in particular, creates unusual dynamics for clergy and congregations. The Rev. Rachel Cornwell doesn’t usually talk about herself in her sermons, but one Sunday during Advent, two days before her son was born, she couldn’t help but draw parallels to the baby Jesus.

Now, the pastor of Woodside United Methodist Church in Silver Spring, Md., is preparing for the birth of her third child in August.

“It’s the kind of job where you don’t clock out ... but I had to make sure that I was really taking my days off and really honoring my family as well as my congregation and my responsibilities to them,” said Cornwell, the mother of a 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.

Across denominations, clergy moms speak of the gifts of sharing their children with their congregations, and the challenges of meeting everyone's needs.

Joe Stewart-Sicking, who has studied Episcopal clergy with young children, calls it the “church-home spillover.” He assisted with a recent study of Episcopal clergy, which found that 84 percent of clergywomen said balancing the dual roles was difficult, compared to 61 percent of clergymen.

Clergywomen relayed a number of sticky situations, especially with small children.

“They talk about their 3-year-old seeing them in their clericals and they would tell them, ‘Please take that off,’” said Stewart-Sicking, an assistant professor of pastoral counseling at Loyola University Maryland. “They knew that that meant Mommy was going away.”

Even when children are in the sanctuary, the distance between the pulpit and the pews can be difficult for some ministers’ children.

The Rev. Najuma Smith-Pollard, pastor of St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, recalled one Sunday when her son, Dorian, preferred the company of his mother over his babysitter.

“He still got away ... and he ran right up there to the pulpit and he held on to my leg, and I kept on doing what I had to do,” she said of her now-19-month-old. “When it came time for me to preach, one of the ushers, she came and got him.”

Despite the growing acceptance of a woman in the pulpit, congregants often worry about how the church will deal with her absence when her baby is born. When Cornwell took eight weeks of maternity leave, she arranged for others to fill in on Sunday mornings.

“You always have this issue if the young woman you hire ... gets pregnant, then who’s going to take care of their church?” said Adair Lummis, a sociologist at Hartford Seminary who has studied women clergy.

The Rev. Tonya Vickery of Cullowhee Baptist Church in Cullowhee, NC, said she and her co-pastor husband split parenting and pastoral duties between them, with each of them baptizing one of their two daughters.

“Whoever’s on call as the minister at that moment, the other is on call as the parent at that moment,” she said.

Clergywomen with adult children say the dynamics have changed as more churches have grown comfortable with female pastors.

“Certainly in the early years, we were trying to prove that women could be ministers, could do this work,” said the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, president of the National Council of Churches, and the mother of a 26-year-old daughter.

“And, on the other hand, there was built into us culturally and perhaps biologically this push to be good mothers, too.”

Now, she says, many denominations have groups for women in ministry that provide clergywomen with informal networks to discuss how to juggle roles.

Leaders of the Young Clergy Women Project, an online community with more than 500 members, say the most popular sections of their online publications are the ones devoted to “Moms and Ministry.”

This Mother’s Day, Cornwell will spend her weekly day off ― Friday ― at a special Mother’s Day party at her children’s day care programs. On Sunday after she finishes preaching, her husband will treat her to a special lunch.

“I feel very celebrated,” she said. “I feel very blessed.”

  1. This article only scratches the surface of the tension between being a mother and a pastor. The anxiety felt by the church when a pastor takes maternity leave is far different, say, than the anxiety created by a pastor who has a medical leave for a similar amount of time. No one says at that moment, "Who's going to take care of the church when the pastor is gone?" They simply respond to the situation. I don't have the research to back me up, but as evidenced by my own story and the stories of my friends, judicatories are reluctant to institute maternity leave, congregations are still skittish about hiring a solo pastor or head of staff who might "get pregnant," and anxious parishioners tend to sabotage clergywomen at their most vulnerable times - which can mean during pregnancy or first year of a child's life. I'd like to see an article really address this issue with more seriousness and understanding towards women who face this very difficult dual role.

    by Kerra English

    May 11, 2011

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