by Pamela Cooper-White
Images of birth have long held power and meaning in Christian theology. Indeed, the sacrament of baptism has birth as its central metaphor. What more powerful image of the flowering of human sexuality into birth than the ritual in the Great Vigil of Easter, plunging the Paschal candle into the baptismal font, from which the catechumens will then arise newly born of water and the spirit? A parental role has also figured prominently in ancient paradigms of ministry—albeit only as “Father” and not “Mother,” until the recent ordinations of women in some branches of the Anglican Communion.
And yet, both the sacramental image of birth in baptism and the parental title “Father” have remained at the level of metaphor for two thousand years. With the exclusion of women from ordained ministry until very recently, birth-as-symbol has but rarely been brought together with actual birthing experiences of the church’s ministers. This separation is not accidental. A longstanding bias in western civilization has elevated culture over nature, mind over body, and creation over procreation. The mind-body dualism inherent in Christian theology from its sources in Greek philosophy has been a vehicle for the subordination of women, whose experience largely has been—consciously and unconsciously—fused in patriarchal imagination with the bloodier realities of life, nature, the body, and mortality, and therefore to be subdued, denied, isolated, or excluded.1 Thus, the symbol of birth was appropriated into Christian theology, but the actual lived experience of giving birth was quarantined from the church’s rituals while women were excluded from the ministerial hierarchy.
Women’s advent into ordained leadership has the potential for shifting more than just ecclesial power structures. The relatively sudden juxtaposition of metaphors of birth with the actual enfleshed experiences of birthing in the persons of the church’s ministers may well impact some of the church’s deepest rituals and the ways in which Christianity’s deepest symbols may now be received by believers.
As an ordained woman, having experienced many inner and outer shifts after giving birth to my own daughter, I began to wonder how either the church, or women in ordained ministry, could move unchanged through such an enormous encounter between life and symbol. So this study was born: How do clergywomen who have given birth experience the transition to motherhood in relation to their vocations as women and as ministers? What happens to women’s ministry as they become mothers for the first time, and what are the responses of those they serve?
Recognizing the richness and uniqueness of individual women’s stories, the method I chose was a form of qualitative, ethnographic research, using open-ended questions with the goal of inductively achieving an understanding of these clergy mothers’ experience in depth, detail, and nuance. The study included lengthy face-to-face interviews with three clergywomen, plus an online discussion among 28 clergywomen on “Ecunet,” an ecumenical communications network. Participants represented the full spectrum of mainline Protestant clergy: full- and part-time, in parish, in campus ministry, and in agency and church administration settings. Their responses suggest common threads in the experience of birth and motherhood, by both clergywomen and their constituents in ministry.
At the core of the study’s findings is the recognition that becoming a clergy mother, like all major life passages, is not an event but a process, impacting both the clergywoman and those she serves. The respondents identified six phases or dimensions to this process: annunciation, nativity, sacrifice, redefining, the “mommy track” in ministry, and a new experience of God.
Congregations or constituencies that were receptive to the announcement of the minister’s pregnancy tended to be supportive of the clergywoman in preparing a space for the newborn arriving in their midst. Congregations that were less receptive were generally not described as hostile but as “clueless” or in denial. Such congregations typically did not include many children.
This often paralleled the clergywomen’s own inexperience and denial. Some women, with a first pregnancy, had been unrealistic about how much a baby would change things. One woman was planning an overseas church-tochurch delegation and could not fathom how being pregnant would affect her involvement in this demanding project. Friends were crucial for many women in helping them to see reality: “My friend came over and was just stunned to the point that she had to sit down. It just took her breath away, because I had taken all the stuff out of the room and I had transformed my study into a nursery. Symbolically, for her, that was just so powerful that she needed to sit and regroup,” said one study participant. Clergywomen support groups often helped mark this transition through conversation and ritual.
Many women reported being nervous about breaking the news to the congregation: “‘New Woman Minister Arrives Pregnant!’ While I’m sure there were concerns, no one said a negative word to me. In fact, the women of the church were much more concerned with planning a baby shower than an installation service!” Another woman reported how the community’s prayers became incorporated as support for all pregnant women.
Pregnancy had a unique way of highlighting the fact that “Pastor is a woman”: “[When] I was in hospital chaplaincy, the Roman Catholic sisters would ask what I was called, and I said, ‘I’d really prefer to be called by my name.’ ‘Well, no, no, we need a title. . . Why wouldn’t you just be called Father?’ ‘Well, notice any difference?’ They said, ‘We don’t think of our priests as men!’. . . I periodically chuckle when I think you might be able to sort of get away with pretending that this person up there [was] genderless. . .but when you have a pregnant woman standing up there it’s very different. . .You can’t pretend I’m not female!”
A greater adjustment occurred after the birth. Initially, most women experienced positive responses: “It was like it was our baby almost. For the first few months it was just this honeymoon.” Most women took their babies to work soon after the birth, had them in meetings, and chose to nurse, even publicly, with little resistance. The more experience the parishioners had with children of their own, the easier the transition went: “Having child on hip or stuffed dog over the shoulder with the clericals and the whole thing, I think I’ve been blessed to be in places that saw that as a gift and . . . a strength.” More than one congregation supported their clergy through tragedy, as when one pastor’s baby died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Pregnancy and birth forged new bonds between clergywomen and women parishioners. As one minister explained, “When I first went there, there was a huge gap—I was an urban professional who hadn’t taken her husband’s name. They were small town, rural folks who really saw me as ‘other.’ Then I got pregnant. The women came together for the first time in years to throw me a shower. They excitedly awaited our first child’s birth.” Another clergywoman described a similar experience: “The first time I staggered into the pulpit bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived after being up all night with a colicky baby, a barrier between them and me was broken down. Finally, we had a truly common experience.”
A Reasonable, Holy, and Living Sacrifice
Following an initial adjustment period in which they attempted to “do it all,” clergywomen who had become mothers almost universally came up against the reality that something had to give. They began to examine the ways in which they were being called to pour themselves out for their children, their congregations, and their intimate relationships, and they began to make choices—often sacrificial, but necessary for health and good ministry.
– Facing Limits
Most women attempted to resume work at the same pace and availability they had managed before: “I went back to work after eight weeks and nearly collapsed from exhaustion,” said one clergywoman. Most reported that the absence of maternity policies for clergy forced them to return much sooner than they felt was appropriate. “I was chronically tired,” said another.
As with all mothers working outside the home, juggling became a major preoccupation: “Whatever the situation of the call, the demands of the congregation, family, and friends create a tension.” As one single mother wrote, “Sunday morning, 2:00 a.m.: child wakes with a 104-degree fever and earache. Do I leave this tiny person with a sitter and go to the churches I serve, or do I get an emergency replacement?” A clergywoman married to another pastor, both “PKs” (“preachers’ kids”) wrote, “We have resolutely stuck with 50 hours or less a week as full-time. Because of our experience as PKs, and because one of the parishes we served had experienced a sexual boundary violation by a previous pastor, we have come to believe that working any more than this is a recipe for trouble. How can you do a decent job of parenting or ‘spous-ing’ if you are working more than six eight-hour days a week? We don’t know our fathers because they were always at church. We don’t want to do that to our kids.”
Clergywomen had few role models for coping. Mentoring was rarely available, and existing models were often experimental and problematic: “Literally three or four days after the birth, [my seminary professor] was at home having a class in her house, nursing her new baby. . . It made such an impression—‘what a great model!!’. . . I don’t know her well enough to have ever heard her say, ‘It was the dumbest thing I ever did,’ I don’t know if she thinks that. But. . . that was one of the only models out there.” The same pastor realized “having a baby was the most wonderful thing in the world in terms of forcing me to slow down. . . I began to realize that I needed some boundaries.”
Another clergywoman described this same notion in terms of ethical responsibility: “Pastor-moms have an opportunity to model ways of parenting that are healthier. . .We have a duty not to try to be superwoman, but to be honest and open about what a struggle it is to combine these roles well. . . Corporate America. . .has had no mandate to put families first, whereas the church should have a harder time justifying a failure to do so.”
– “It Takes a Village”
Family, friends, and others were crucial in helping clergy mothers to manage, especially during the early years of their children’s lives. Often, helpers came from outside the clergywomen’s congregations: “As soon as [my son] was weaned, he started attending my husband’s church. . .which had a regular nursery attendant, an elderly Catholic grandma who had been there forever. I believe she was for some time the face of God for my son!”
Women who attempted to ignore new constraints on their lives simply crashed. Tending a baby’s needs caused women to realize, often for the first time, that they did not have endless amounts of time, energy, and money. This was frustrating, even painful: “I had so much that I wanted to do and accomplish professionally and personally. . .it was just crushing to realize that I couldn’t do it all. . . And I crashed. . . I actually called in sick on Mother’s Day. It just seemed totally symbolic.”
The limits clergy moms faced after giving birth caused them to look carefully at roles and priorities. In almost every case, clergywomen reported someredefining after they became mothers—of boundaries, leadership, and church policies designed only with male clergy in mind. New paradigms for ministry emerged.
– Who’s Really My Child?
Like the little bird in the children’s book who runs frantically from the kitten to the cow, to the big backhoe, asking “Are you my mother?”2 many clergy mothers began to look at their parishioners and ask themselves, “Who’s really my child here?” They began to recognize that old patterns of ministerial caretaking no longer made sense once they had an actual child to care for: “I knew that my baby daughter needed me in a constant and dependent way that adults in my ministry settings did not. I became much clearer and more natural about setting limits and boundaries, and much less likely to fall into traps of codependency.”
With this new clarity came realism: “It’s not going to be perfect, it’s not going to be great. It usually is always good enough. But I know that I could do better if I had the single-minded kind of concentration that other people have,” commented one study participant. Balance and self-care were frequently mentioned. As another participant reported, “It has forced me to try to achieve some sense of balance in my life and to re-evaluate my priorities. I am also more aware and attentive to the need to take care of myself in all areas of my life so that I will be more effective in my relationships not only with my kids, but with others.” Some women found it easier to claim time away from church duties once they had children: “People would much more readily tolerate my saying, ‘No, I have to go pick up my daughter from daycare now’. . .where they would not have understood if I simply wanted time with my husband or just alone-time for myself.” When a partner could share a full 50 percent of the load, women reported much greater ability to manage all their areas of responsibility.
– Sorting Roles: Mother and Pastor
Clergy mothers also felt they frequently had to clarify their roles: “If I felt any conflict, it was between my role as mother and my role as priest. I would call up the Sunday school person and say, ‘I’m speaking as E’s mother now. I have a concern. . . I found myself constantly having to define which role I was speaking out of, literally to get some kind of understanding.”
Especially for Episcopal clergywomen —who frequently struggle with the problem of “What shall we call you?”—having a baby helped settle the question of whether or not to accept the title “Mother” where male colleagues were “Father.” One woman commented, “It’s an adventure to be both a biological mother and a priest Mother. . . Most people do call me ‘Mother Pat.’” But many women priests find the idea of any parental title problematic. Noting the psychological transference inherent in such titles, one wrote, “This transference stuff is a common experience. If Church = Mother-Church = Pastor Mom, then the parishioners are jealous siblings who resent sharing Mom with the new baby. Somehow this doesn’t seem to happen to male pastors so much.”
– Enhanced Relationships and Capacity for Compassion
Many of the clergywomen who participated in the study felt their ministry had been directly enhanced by experiencing motherhood. Many said their compassion and capacity for empathy was enlarged. One pastor, whose baby was born prematurely, stated, “I learned more from the ICU [intensive care unit] social worker on how to be a pastor. . .than I have learned from some pastors.” Becoming a mom also allowed clergywomen access to some of the most tender feelings and experiences of some parishioners: “I had. . . visits from women who told me about their pregnancy stories that only their doctors and husbands knew. . . Several 70- and 80 year-old women told me about miscarriages and problem pregnancies that they have never spoken about with anyone.”
Becoming a mother also facilitated relating with children: “I’ve been much more sensitized to the needs of children as full-fledged members of the Body of Christ.” This new responsiveness sometimes led to new energy, even evangelism: “The churches are growing and indeed there is new vitality. . . Having young children has opened up many relationships with people already in the church as well as folks outside the church. The pregnant priest and the ‘lady priest with the baby’ have. . .been a real magnet for children, youth, and families.”
– More Shared Leadership
Changes in traditional assumptions about the caretaking role of clergy further opened avenues to increase the relative power of the laity and mutuality in leadership: “We were experimenting with some real new, and I think important, forms of conceptualizing and doing ministry in partnership with laity and pastor. . .having some really neat conversations about what are our unique roles in this community.”
Flexibility and trust became lived realities as some women shared parenting with their parishes. “Rolling with things definitely has to do with being a mom: The flexibility of being able to pick up and do what needs to be done in the moment,” said one clergywoman. “People are also responding to our trust in literally handing over our son. He is teaching us what church community is about—caring for one another,” commented another.
– Creating Policy
Motherhood sensitized clergywomen to advocate for policy changes that helped many church families. Clergy mothers had to lobby for maternity/parental leave: “The presbytery didn’t have any parental leave policies, so I was the test case. Fortunately, the presbytery as a whole was supportive after the initial ‘what do we do now?’ reaction. . . But [the personnel committee chair’s] partially kidding response was, ‘Don’t you women know how to prevent these things?’”
Many women initiated or upgraded childcare at parish, regional, and national levels: “Following the birth, we did have a few Sundays where I threatened to take the baby into the pulpit with me, since the childcare people didn’t show up. I noticed an increase in the timeliness and regularity of the childcare people following my delivery! This had a positive effect on many who needed [childcare] to participate.” Childcare also was linked with evangelism: “We can’t wait for people to ask—they’ll go somewhere where it’s already happening.”
– Sacrificing the Relationship
Most women’s greatest regrets concerned leaving the ministry setting in which they had had their babies. Some, though not all, departures hinged on clergywomen’s realization that they could no longer keep up the pace they had been managing prior to becoming a mother. This sometimes caused sadness, even guilt. Women also wondered whether the positive changes they had initiated as part of the mutual process of adjustment would last after they left.
One woman in particular grieved leaving a parish where the responsibilities had simply become too overwhelming, and part-time ministry was not an option. Her passion for parenting, however, surprised her: “It was just an amazing revelation to me that I was willing to give it all up. . . My child’s a lot more interesting. The people I [was] spending my days with were really fascinating, and. . .it’s every pastor’s dream of a job. . . It was perfect, and yet I was ready to walk away from it.”
This may have implications for why more women than men leave ministry altogether.3 All the respondents in my study were still in ministry, but many had left the parish for other settings.
A “Mommy Track” in Ministry?
Some women felt the shift from a more demanding ministry role as a sacrifice, and some felt marginalized by a perceived preferential status for fulltime senior pastors working overtime in large congregations. Is there a slowerpaced, if sometimes prejudicial, “mommy track” in ministry? As one clergywoman explained, “I made some real calculated decisions about giving up stuff. But it’s hard. . . I don’t think less of myself as a human being, but I sure pay for it professionally.” Several women warned that leaves of absence could be detrimental: “I have never served in a permanent pastoral position . . . since then (our daughter is almost 10 now). . . I can’t prove it, but I think taking the leave of absence nixed my career.” “It was so hard to get off leave of absence that I would encourage anyone not to try it.”
More generally, many women perceived that there is reluctance among large, thriving churches to call clergy moms. Some identified a double standard around parenting and gender: “I sometimes feel envy towards men who may also be parents but who don’t seem to go through quite the same emotional stress about it, and who don’t seem to sacrifice as much.”
Single mothers tended to have more positive views: “In some ways there was more understanding when I was a single mom. . .an understanding well, of course, no, I can’t do that at 5:00, I need to pick up my son from daycare. . .” This woman also believed being single had enhanced mobility and therefore career options. Another conceded, however, “Whether I have been as good a mom as I could have been if I had had a spouse, and hadn’t had to work as hard as I have, is another story. My daughters have no idea of the obstacles that I have overcome, of the cost of what I have achieved to me personally and physically —and perhaps intellectually, too.’”
Other women felt that the shifts occasioned by the “mommy track” enhanced their ministry: “Maybe the mommy track has ‘held me back,’ but I don’t think so. I think it has helped me be a more effective and compassionate minister.”
A Deeper Experience of God
Finally, relational and organizational changes were accompanied by new or deepened theological perspectives, in which the mothering and nurturing aspects of God were more fully experienced by both the ministers and their congregations. The incarnational aspect of God’s presence was often perceived more readily, as pregnant women and women with babies on their hips were seen publicly celebrating the church’s rituals.
– Sacramental Experiences
Many clergy moms had rich experiences doing liturgy. A woman who was pregnant in Advent wrote, “I imagined some of the things Mary must have kept in her heart to ponder. And I understood incarnation in a whole new way when I gazed at each of my infant sons.” On Christmas Eve, another woman was touched when a parishioner said, ‘This is great, it’s Christmas Eve and there’s a diaper bag in the sacristy!’”
Celebrating the Eucharist while pregnant was powerful, joyful, and at times humorous: “Having another life inside me while I’m celebrating the Eucharist is really amazing. It’s quite an experience being in front of a whole congregation of people of all ages, with a baby jumping. This is a very active child!”
One of the most moving remembrances involved officiating at a funeral while pregnant: “I was really struck by standing at the graveside pronouncing the final words over the body and at the same time feeling my child kicking inside me.”
– God as Holy Lap
“I began to think of God as Holy Lap/hospitality/comfort/nurture and definitely more truly female. There was a completeness in the nursing relationships, both with my first child and with my twins. . .that informed my imagining about God. Yet the babies grew and began to pull away, as each of us strives for independence while longing for oneness with our Creator. My sermons became full of womb and breast imagery, because those were the images that had meaning for me, and the ways in which God had been revealed to me.” Wrote another woman, “It was a wonderful, rich time because it was one of those congregations that was very open to reconceptualizing who God is and how God relates to us.”
Several women commented how seeing God through their children’s eyes enhanced their theology: “Just watching a child grow. . .and his faith and how he sees things has helped me to see things.” This seeing also intensified many women’s awareness of sexism in the church, and their commitment to change this for their children: “When my daughter was two, she insisted that God was a boy and that boys were better. At two, she had already heard this loud and clear. I struggle with biblical stories and the tradition, which, frankly, supports this notion. How can I help them unhook from this idolatry so they can see themselves as made in God’s image, too?!”
Parenting also brought women closer to God in their own spirituality. As one clergywoman explained, “Theologically, having my children has opened worlds for me. I have come to understand the power of El Shaddai (the great breasted one), the God Naomi appealed to when she felt most bereft. The interdependence of a profound way to understand how God needs to love us as much as we need to be loved. I understand Isaiah’s references better now—can a mother forget her sucking child? No way—those breasts need to feed!” Another clergywoman described her experience this way: “I have come to appreciate the parental imagery for our relationship with God so much more. I know now how God could be both fiercely protective and exasperated with us at the same time.”
One woman’s theological reflections sum up many themes in this study: “Being a parent has tempered my ministry and encouraged a wonder for the world which surrounds us. . . I cannot imagine how being a co-creator in a very active sense cannot but change your life, and that of those around you!”
1. This theme is elaborated further in Pamela Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar: Violence against Women and the Church’s Response (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 43–60.
2. P.D. Eastman, Are You My Mother? (New York: Random House Books for Young Readers, 1960).
3. 13 percent of clergy women vs. 8 percent of clergy men. Barbara Brown Zikmund, Adair T. Lummis, and Patricia Mei Yin Chang, Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998).
Summer 2004, Number 3