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