Family leave


A little background here: I wrote an article for the Presbyterian Outlook, talking about how an elder from my congregation came into the delivery room when I was 10 hours into labor, asking how the church was going to pay for family leave (true story!). All the ducks were in line before I left. I had worked out a deal with the Presbytery that they would cover pulpit supply for our small, revitalizing congregation, but someone at the P office had not gotten the memo, so the elder felt compelled to pay me a visit when I was 7 cm dialated. The article was basic. Just something to encourage governing bodies and pastors to make sure they had a good leave policy in place before a birth.

Here is a letter to the editor that the article generated:

Dear Jack,

The following is my response to an Advent meditation.

Carol Howard Merritt’s meditation on Christmas and family leave left me with very mixed feelings. It is absolutely outrageous that an elder would walk into the birthing room and negotiate her family leave between contractions, but his presence there makes we [sic] wonder what she had been doing to prepare the congregation during the previous nine months.

Why was he wondering what the plans were? Why is she so dismissive of the concerns she says he raised? Her reflections also brought to mind my own experience with family leave which I think every family leave policy must consider.

I arrived at a new call to learn that my new colleague, the associate pastor, had been promised a 6-month maternity leave when she had her child. The plan was that she would receive full salary for the first three months and medical benefits for the next three months. In the months before she took the leave I also learned that my new congregation was running a deficit and there were no savings to hire an interim pastor to cover during her absence. Apparently like Merritt, she had not thought to raise this as a concern with the Personnel Commission prior to my arrival. Before she went on leave I told myself that this was going to be a good thing, we were modeling good family values and all the other sentiments Merritt appeals to in her article.

I was unprepared for how difficult her absence would be. I realize things were made harder because I was new and trying to get to know the congregation, but at the same time people did not stop dying or needing pastoral care. During her absence some people did step up (which was good), but also outreach was dropped, decisions were delayed, and some programs were put on hold until she returned. I keenly remember coming home exhausted after my 2nd funeral of the week and trying to gather the energy to write the sermon. I was consoling myself with the mantra that we were modeling family values when my wife interrupted, “It’s great for the church to provide this and for her to have time with her baby, but do any of them realize that it has been at the expense of your own children?”

My associate did not return after she took the leave. In counseling others I have learned that my experience is pretty typical. Many people (some of them women) feel used and abused, as if family values don’t apply to them. They are expected to pick up the extra work and give up time with their families without any extra compensation. They are labeled anti-family if they complain. If this is what we institute it is not fair.

I truly am glad that Merritt had time to coo with her baby, but I can’t help wondering who covered the funerals and who spent extra nights at the church to make it possible? The relational nature of ministry and the small staffs of most congregations make family leave (over and beyond the 4 weeks vacation most pastors receive) extremely difficult. An interim pastor, assuming we could have afforded one, could have covered committee and program work (once they were up to speed), but grieving families and people in crisis want ministry from someone they know. Many small congregations do not have the money to hire a stranger to preach and cover for an absent pastor.

I’m all for a family friendly policy, but let’s make sure that it is good for the church. Let’s also make sure that it is family friendly for everyone.

Please discuss.

the photo’s entitled “birthing room vigil,” uploaded by Patrick T Power

21 thoughts on “Family leave

  1. Four weeks? Of YOUR vacation time? As in, you get your four vacation weeks to be home with a brand new baby while recovering from having said baby? Wow.

    It appears that writer-with-no-name stepped into a situation that he was not prepared for, and maybe the congregation was not prepared for it either.

    If things are planned out, there is no reason that a new parent (yes, I am using parent, not just mother) should not be able to spend an extended period at home to care for the new member of their family. I only spent two weeks, of my sick time, at home, and really wish that I had taken more. As the dad.

    It is not time to “coo with her baby” at all. It is time to (1) recover and care for yourself; (2) care for your newborn; (3) establish a lasting connection with an infant that you will care for the rest of their lives.

  2. Letter-writer has issues that have been brewing for awhile.

    The letter presumes a couple of things that are not necessarily true:

    that parental involves mostly cooing (see Rob’s comment),

    that parental leave – and preparation for it – is mostly the responsibility of the pastor (when this is actually congregational issue)

    that having a baby is a pain/congregational inconvenience,

    The letter also reminds us that when we are looking into a move/new call/shift it’s essential that we ask every question, review every detail, and clarify every jot and tittle ourselves. New Pastor could have prepared for this new call, perhaps, by asking what provisions had been made for the Associate’s maternity leave prior to taking the position. It’s a good reminder to ask anticipatory questions like:
    – Are any staff changes expected in the coming months?

    It’s also key to have a parental leave policy before anybody gets pregnant.

  3. Jan, I love the way you nailed the assumptions. This letter is a great example of the pressures on clergy — pressures that are literally killing the church — as ministers burn out and drop out and move to other (more reasonable) professions. Which is why I still have some sympathy for the letter-writer — as he doesn’t seem to be good at caring for himself and his family. He could have learned something from the Assoc Pastor, who did take care of herself and her family. (I would like to know more about her decision to quit, wouldn’t you?) It’s obvious that this particular church system was not thoughtful about dealing with its leadership needs. However, I do believe that’s the norm. Perhaps this sounds cynical — but I believe that, without thinking about it too much, churches will demand everything they can of their pastor, until that no longer works. Either the pastor dies, quits, and they can’t get someone to come in and work in the same way. After all, churches have had this for years — it’s going to change slowly and painfully and who is going to push that change? Clergy! Having said all that, every minister knows, there are times when things get crazy because people die inconveniently. It’s not a litmus test.

  4. Ruth said, “(I would like to know more about her decision to quit, wouldn’t you?)”

    Yes. I’m assuming she did the right thing–as gutsy as it was after 3 months paid leave…(I think in our system, the church has to pay a good portion of the benefits whether there is a pastor there or not, so the 2nd three months was not really a monetary loss, although a huge drain for the Head of Staff, no doubt).

    But, can you imagine, being the AP and a mom to a new child in this situation? I’m guessing that she heard about his frustration….

    The thing that strikes me, is the assumption that having a child is like taking a cooing vacation. Aside from the important aspect of attachment and bonding, there’s no consideration of the real, physical realities of healing from the event of childbirth.

  5. Pingback:

  6. I’ll echo what others have said. This Pastor’s real issue is not with family leave but with the church. The church made an agreement that it was apparently not prepared to support. On top of that, the Pastor’s relationship with the church appears not to have been healthy enough to communicate the unreasonable burden put upon him so that solutions could have been sought.

    I literally winced at this line, “I truly am glad that Merritt had time to coo with her baby.” As I Dad, I was fortunate to have three weeks of paternity leave and I don’t remember it as a time of relaxed, familial bliss. It was wonderful, but it wasn’t simply lounging around bathed in baby giggles. And I wasn’t even the one dealing with recovery from a major physical trauma.

    It’s this attitude that makes me recommend to anyone entering a new call to get your family leave detailed in your terms of call, because it’s usually pretty hard to negotiate it after you are there.

  7. I have serious issues with an elder tramping into a hospital room like that with those concerns. Why? Because that elder has no idea what it means to be the church. The letter in response from the Pastor shows the exact same lack of understanding.

    The presumption here in both these instances is that the pastor is the only one who is doing any real ministry in this place, when it ought to have been the elders who said: How are we going to support our pastor in this time? How as elders are we going to insure that the pastoral care needs of are congregation are taken care of?

    Churches may indeed have ‘small staffs’ and small budgets, but has anyone ever heard or read what the BOO says about elders responsibilities and duties? I go on vacation and an elder or two steps up to preach. I will hope the same thing happens when I get a few weeks of paternity, when the hopeful need arises in the future.

    If that is not happening in other churches then shame on them for crippling the ministry of elders. And then we wonder why our denomination is in the state it is in?

  8. Previous comments said it better; I will merely point out the flashing neon sign above his letter:




    I remember when the response was printed, I thought, “This guy totally missed the point of the article.” I think the part about you not adequately preparing the congregation was left out in publication, because I think it goes beyond missing the point into something else entirely. Namely, assuming the worst about a colleague, and for no reason. He painted a picture based on his own experience. Which is a shame.

  9. RM, Whoa. You’re right! You have amazing retention. They did edit the letter, taking out the bits that were more inflammatory toward me. I’ve known the editor since I was 12, and this was my first published article, so maybe he was having some mercy on me.

    The thing I wondered as I read it was:

    How long should familiy leave be? I had six weeks, which was perfect. But then, I took my infant to work for the first year…. My husband had two weeks out of the office, but he still had to preach…and endure a significant amount of grumbling.

    I actually like how letter-writer’s church set it up–with paid leave (let’s say 6 weeks family leave, 4 weeks vacation, 2 weeks study) and optional extended unpaid leave. That way, they could have hired someone part-time for a couple of months.

    I think Jim rightly answered the “Who’s going to do the work?” question. We hopefully have elders who do more than show up for a monthly meeting. Hiring a stranger to preach would not have been such a terrible solution (although a new pastor always wants to appear competent…) and some things might get left undone…which would not be the end of the world either. We’re always in situations where people die, we’re swamped, things don’t get done, expectations are dashed. It’s an unfortunate part of the job. But it is a real part of the job.

  10. Suburban Pres has that policy: in our case, 8 weeks’ paid leave + the ability to supplement with vacation and sick time, plus the option of unpaid if you want it, for as long as you want it, up to six months.

  11. I don’t have any personal experience with this (not a parent, etc.) but it seems like in both cases there were two kinds of failure – a failure to make what was going on clear, and a failure to be the church.

    What the respondent describes to me sounds a lot like a classic bait-and-switch, where the pastor arrives to find out that they’ll be doing far more work than anticipated in a new congregation – but only after they’ve accepted the call of course. Family/maternity/paternity leave should be right there on the table from the beginning, spelled out clearly so no one is taken off-guard.

    I think that, in this case, expectations should have been ratcheted down significantly during this time when the AP wasn’t in the office. Part of the commitment to a just family policy is, yes, the realization that having children is actually kind of time-consuming, so other people are going to have to step up.

    I think this also dovetails into the problem of absurd expectations for pastors that are so common. “We’ll pay you less than an inner-city school teacher to work 60 hour weeks and expect you to have mastered a half-dozen skill sets that, in the rest of the working world, are distinct jobs.” Then we wonder why half of PCUSA pastors burn out in five years. Go figure.

    I think in Tribal’s case, I’ve definitely seen my share of Elders who are a little slow on the uptake and quite easily alarmed. Clearly walking into the hospital with those concerns is absurd. Its also another failure to be the church, to be either compassionate and understanding towards a new mother or to be trusting in God to provide.

    So, in brief:

    1. Make the family policies clear and talk about them up-front

    2. Remember to actually *be* the church, and not just have meetings in one

  12. Eight weeks is nice.

    I know in France, women have at least four months of paid maternity leave and the right to stop working for up to three years and have jobs held for them.


    I agree, family policies ought to be clear. Unfortunately, I have taken on the cause in two Presbyteries and three churches, and I’ve only gotten one policy through. For some reason, they’re very difficult, even with a lot of persistence.

    I should negotiate before the call, but I haven’t. Has anyone out there actually done it during the salary negotiations?

  13. Wow, I kind of took it for granted that all presbys have the same as ours: 6 weeks maternity and 2 weeks paternity leave as part of its policy for all pastoral contracts.

    I however now recall a negotiation with another church prior to my current call that I was able to get them to agree to 2 weeks paternity, but only under the condition that I would still preach and cover on-calls to hopsital.

  14. Jim — that is absurd! What is the meaning of “leave” if you still preach and cover emergency needs? Isn’t that the guts of the job description? I literally think Jesus is cringing at these comments.

  15. I’ve wondered whether or not I should even weigh in since my leave (hopefully) starts in a week. I don’t read the Outlook much any more, mostly because I get tired of some of the comments…
    With the worship ministry team, the session, the deacons, and other key leaders, we have really tried to see my maternity leave, which comes a little earlier in my tenure than I had expected, as an opportunity for the whole church to grow. (I’ll go 8 weeks, given that I will most likely be recuperating from a C-section, and then ease back in the first month with only basic preaching and worship responsibilities, plus session.) I’ve invited the congregation to join me in a new spiritual practice (observing 5 minutes of breath prayer a day – about as much as I’m imagining I’ll be able to muster myself), to open themselves to a wonderful preacher/singer/seminary student who will be in the pulpit while I am gone, and who brings a different cultural perspective than most of the congregation, and to grow a care team for pastoral care and visitation. Other pastors are on call to provide pastoral care in a crisis and to moderate session. And I’ve been as up front about everything as possible.
    Who knows how things will all come together? And sure, some things will be on hold… updating the web site, growing small groups, etc. – but I’m so grateful for these folks here, and for their support.
    I think it’s because they understand, at least most of the time, that their pastor is human – a pregnant human, more specifically – and they can live with that.

  16. I am glad I stumbled into this conversation. I did talk openly with my APNC about the need for a family leave policy as I arrived as a part of a staff. I was still in seminary during these conversations and I remember being very nervous. I almost did not even ask the question. But then, one of the faculty said this: “Why wouldn’t you ask about family leave? If they freak out, then you may not want to go on staff there. It is better to discover that now.” So I did talk with them. And it surprised them because they had never thought about a pastor getting pregnant (!). But, even though we did not actually decide on the exact family leave policy they eventually adopted, everyone was clear that it needed to happen. And no one was surprised when I got pregnant after being there for 1 year.

  17. Texas ClergyPal,

    I’m so glad you stumbled in as well! You were way ahead of me. That’s great that you brought it up during the APNC discussions.

    You made me think a bit…sometimes nominating committees promise things that personnel committees or sessions are not aware of (shocking, I know). But it sounds like you did it perfectly. You mentioned it as an expectation, then let them work on adopting a plan at a later date. I think this might have to be the route we go for a while–until it becomes something we take for granted.

  18. Breath prayer begins whenever you – or the new life within – is ready! I’m also a big advocate for talking about family leave before you’re even on staff; I think it has happened with almost every church I’ve talked with, unless it’s a short-term interim or part-time position.

  19. I remember seeing this at the time and it took me a month or two, but I did write to the Outlook to respond and it is at least on their site. At the time, I said that I don’t think Outlook should take anonymous letters and that I thought the whole point of your article was to encourage good policy so that no one gets skrewed. It is a very powerful story.

    Oh, another thing. The letter you mentioned was I believe written just a day or two before Christmas. It was almost Christmas and this angry pastor was still mad at his associate from years earlier. Sigh…

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