Pastor Luke, a young minister in his first call, serves a rural, midwestern congregation, Faith United Church of Christ. He was ecstatic when he learned that his wife was pregnant. Once he finished calling family, parishioners, and friends with the news, Luke began to think about the great changes happening in his life. He knew that he would want to take some time off with his wife to adjust to their role as parents.

Young clergy are increasingly asking for parental leaves at the birth or adoption of children. Over the past few years I’ve watched each of my friends from seminary try to negotiate parental leaves for childbirth or adoption. This trend arises from several cultural changes. Many young women entering ministry do not want to choose between family and work. Answering the call to both vocations often requires benefits like parental leaves. Many young men grew up with attitudes different from those their fathers had about parenting; they expect to share responsibilities more equitably with their partners. Parental leave is a benefit that both male and female pastors anticipating a birth or adoption seek from their congregations.

The larger business community increasingly offers substantial parental leave benefits. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) prescribes maternity and paternity policies at corporations employing 50 people or more. The law covers roughly 50 percent of U.S. businesses and the majority of U.S. workers. It applies to employees across the economic spectrum, from cashiers at Wal-Mart to brokers on Wall Street.

The FMLA allows employees to take a 12-week unpaid leave with benefits to care for newborns, newly adopted children, or other family members. Employees are guaranteed that their jobs will be available when they return to work. Many corporations and public-sector employers exceed the FMLA standard. One adoptive father in my congregation, who works at a large financial services corporation, was given a four-month paid leave with benefits and financial assistance toward the adoption of his son. Many corporations are offering extremely generous family and parental leaves.

Implications for Recruitment 

Congregations and denominations looking to recruit and retain young clergy might consider the importance of parental leaves for their pastors. Young adults entering ministry face challenges common to all new clergy—for example, adjusting to a new call and paying down seminary debt. A good salary and benefits package takes account of this situation.

Yet young clergy face other likely transitions, such as getting married and starting a family. Younger clergy (and some in mid-career as well) need benefit packages that recognize these kinds of transitions. A parental leave can be a substantial benefit for a pastor at a time of tremendous change, and at a relatively low cost to the congregation.

Congregations need to consider the implications of their younger ministers’ needs and the practices of the businesses around them. The Connecticut Conference of the UCC informs congregations of the value of generous benefits, introducing its guidelines by saying:

In order for a church to attract (and retain) qualified, competent, gifted, caring pastoral leadership which will enhance the spiritual life of the congregation, it will have to offer more than good potluck suppers and people in the pew. Its financial package must be attractive and offer a salary consistent with the community.(1)

Maternity or paternity leave is an important part of a salary and benefits package.

Discovering the Policy 

The pastoral call contract at Faith UCC stated that Luke could have a paternity leave “according to conference policy.” This wording is commonly used in employment agreements between pastors and congregations in the United Church of Christ. Luke could not find any policy on parental leave in the church office, so he called the conference office to inquire about paternity leave guidelines.

Calling the conference office turned out to be a bit of a farce. The conference minister explained that there was no policy on paternity leave because “none of our pastors ever need it.” The conference minister was unaware of any male pastor who had ever taken a leave at the birth or adoption of a child. Consequently, the conference policy allowed only for maternity leaves. Fathers in general and mothers of adopted children are not covered by the personnel policies in Luke’s midwestern conference.

Over the past year I have gathered information about maternity and paternity leaves within my denomination, the United Church of Christ. Gaining access to this information was not easy, despite repeated requests. Nearly half of UCC conferences either did not have policies or had policies that were not easily accessible. And conferences that had official policies in force reflected an alarming discrepancy of practices. The consensus policy was that congregations should allow eight weeks of paid leave to female pastors who give birth; fathers of newborns should receive two weeks of paid leave, as should adoptive mothers or fathers.

Pastor Luke and Faith UCC began to discuss the idea of a parental leave. Luke was the first pastor at Faith whose wife had worked outside the home; the idea of a leave seemed utterly foreign to his rural congregation. A few parishioners worked for companies like a manufacturing plant and a large retailer that offered FMLA benefits. But overall, the congregation’s familiarity with parental leave policies was minimal.

The congregation wanted to give emotional support to Pastor Luke and his family. Church members held a baby shower. The board of trustees helped prepare a bedroom in the parsonage. The church as a whole sought to affirm the pastor in his new role as a parent. After some negotiation the congregation allowed Pastor Luke to take an extra two weeks’ vacation plus two weeks of light duty in which he did not preach. Lay members of the church took on most of the additional work. The parental leave benefit did not result in a substantial cost to the congregation. While the policy was not up to FMLA standards, it was an important blessing for Pastor Luke and his family.

Negotiating a Leave 

When Pastor Joanne of Community UCC became pregnant with her first child, she faced a situation similar to Luke’s at Faith UCC. Her suburban, West Coast congregation and conference did not maintain clear policies on family leaves. Joanne brought her request for a leave to the congregation.

The congregation greatly valued the perspective and enthusiasm Joanne brought to the church. They realized that part of calling a young pastor involved journeying with her through the formation of her family. Joanne, reflecting on the negotiations for a leave, remembered that many people were supportive, saying for example, “I hope you get whatever you want in a maternity leave.” Other members worried about the effect of a leave on the male senior pastor. Some wondered aloud, “Is Joanne abandoning us?” Members of the congregation encouraged Joanne, the senior pastor, and the lay leadership to negotiate a workable plan.

The negotiations were guided by two questions: What is done? And what ought to be done? The lay leaders looked at business practices in their community, particularly the policies established by the FMLA. The lay leaders felt that the church should lead the community and not lag behind on employment issues. They wanted to design a policy that would express their care for Joanne while acknowledging the needs of the senior pastor and the congregation. Together the congregation agreed on a policy that would reflect its values and speak prophetically to the community.

A congregation must seriously consider its own needs even while responding positively to a request
for parental leave. The absence of a staff member, even in a multistaff church, can disrupt programs and create a leadership vacuum. That effect is compounded by the unpredictable nature of parental leaves. A congregation will need to inventory its pastoral and leadership needs. The congregation must also identify its resources, asking questions such as “Who might teach confirmation?” and “Can we hire an interim?”

The eventual policy was crafted to suit the unique needs of Community UCC, while also reflecting the best business practices of the community. Joanne was allowed to take a 12-week leave. It was a combination of parental leave and her regular vacation and continuing education time. Her full pay and benefits were covered throughout the leave.

Reflecting on the arrangement, Joanne said, “The church didn’t make me choose between being a mom and being a pastor. Why would I go anywhere else?” The parental leave did more than make Joanne a loyal employee. It allowed her to care for her baby and to develop a balance between her call to ministry and her call to parenthood. Joanne noted, “Now the church is getting a better me, a better minister, one who is more solid and focused.”

Following Best Practices 

Parental leaves are important to clergy and their spouses, and yet few congregations and judicatories have thought through their policies. The United Methodist Church does maintain a national policy that translates the FMLA into the local setting. The UMC policy grants male and female pastors, birth and adoptive parents alike, a generous leave. Parish pastors can receive a 12-week leave, with full pay for the first 8 weeks. Health and pension benefits are maintained throughout the parental leave. All congregations would be well served by such a policy. This guideline would give congregations a policy consistent with the best practices of the business community and would express our own faith perspective on the importance of children and families.

Many congregations may not be prepared to offer the kind of benefit envisioned by the United Methodist policy. Congregations need to develop a policy informed by the values of the FMLA but consistent with their own needs. Even a parental leave like Pastor Luke’s—two weeks off, two weeks light duty—can be a meaningful benefit.

A parental leave benefit can be a blessing for a pastor just beginning a family, without incurring a significant cost to the congregation. Luke and Joanne negotiated very different kinds of leaves based on the particular resources and experiences of their congregations. Yet each of them was renewed by the leave and became a better and more loyal employee. Among my clergy friends, those who have taken parental leaves, whether for three weeks or three months, plan to remain at their congregations. These short-term leaves are resulting in longer pastorates.

1. Connecticut Conference Clergy Compensation Guidelines, 2001 (Hartford, Conn.: Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ, 2001), 1.