At the end of April, the Louisiana heat had already settled in for the summer. I expected it when I opened the creaking side door of our rural church, but I didn’t anticipate seeing one of the elders, wrestling with an awkward gift for my newborn. It was a beautiful: She rescued her daughters’ crib out from the attic and crammed it into her car. Then she maneuvered the piece of furniture out of her Buick and headed toward me, armed with a monkey wrench.
Now, a used crib could mean a lot of things. It could convey the message: “Here Pastor, I was cleaning up my attic, and I couldn’t bear to put this thing in the trash, so I figured you’re the next best thing.” Or it could denote, “I know this crib is way beyond any modern safety standards, but I knew you wouldn’t mind your child’s head slipping through the bars.”
In this case, it meant none of the above. It was, instead, a clear message of appreciation to me, and welcome for my daughter. I’m still moved when I think about it.
The church stood proudly in the center of Abbeville, the heart of Cajun country. I was the only woman pastor in town (I don’t want to discount the Prophetess at the House of Prayer, but I don’t think she technically considered herself a pastor or her gathering a church). I was an oddity, for sure, in that parish where a person was Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, or Pentecostal. Remember Robert Duvall in The Apostle? If you do, then you know where we were. Duvall shot the illuminating film just down the street.
Often, people in the community would visit our congregation just to see a twenty-something woman in a collar. It was so rare that when I made hospital visits, the attendant at the information desk would call her supervisor and say, “There’s a woman here, and she thinks she’s a priest.”
I would have less patience with all of this, except I wasn’t much different than they were. I grew up Southern Baptist, and although I had gotten used to the idea of women being pastors, I wasn’t quite used to the idea of being a pastor myself. That was clear when I found out I was pregnant. I was afraid to tell my session. I thought I’d let them down somehow. I planned on returning to work after maternity leave, but I knew that things would be different and I didn’t know how.
The fear was not so strange. After all, I grew up in a climate where stay-at-home moms proclaimed that women who labor outside of the home robbed their children of the affection and nurture that they needed. I was torn, knowing that I was called to work outside of my home, yet realizing that our modern notions of employment (especially as pastors) can become a strain on the family. The long hours, the evening meetings, and the lack of clear boundaries often create work situations that are far from family-friendly.
Things were quite different when Calla was born. I brought her to work, and learned to breastfeed in a preaching robe. Like a mamma kangaroo, I placed her in a little pouch and walked around with her. She was a good-natured infant, who rarely slept, so she just looked up at my chin while I went about my business. And when I gazed down at her, this flood of love must have punctuated my sermons, emails, and newsletters. My memories of that time are vivid and salient because my daughter became a part of my working days.
Abbeville, Louisiana is not the most progressive environment in which one can work. But my tiny congregation did have one thing figured out: They were a child-friendly church. I knew that when I helped the elder pull the mattress from her car. They literally welcomed my daughter with open arms, passed her around the congregation, and cared for her as if she were their own. And in the process, they helped me to become a better mom and a healthier pastor.
I’m not the only one. I’ve noticed a whole new generation of pastor-moms and pastor-dads handling the joys of parenting and ministry with undeniable grace. With sippy-cups in hand, they contribute to work environments that care for families, and as a result, our churches model faithful work for our society.
photo’s by adam melancon