Chances are high that you know someone who has struggled or is struggling with infertility this Mother’s Day weekend. Statistics tell us that 1 in 8 couples face infertility each year. And what do they say about this super charged emotional holiday? Many couples say that their faith community is the least safe place when it comes to their baby-making woes.
As a Baptist minister who battled infertility for eight years before making peace with a child-free life and then being surprised by an adoption opportunity last year, I often wondered whether, if I wasn’t the pastor, would I come to church? The answer on many occasions was no.
Here are five ways I believe the church gets infertility wrong:
1. Playing the role of judge.
Many church leaders will say to couples pursuing fertility treatments they are playing God — that the only way children should come into the world is naturally, or that to introduce a surrogate into the relationship to carry the child or to use donor sperm or eggs is adultery. These are heavy theological statements, and while pastors may hold their own theological beliefs about fertility options, the church gets it wrong when they make absolute statements about what is right or what is wrong for a couple. God works in unique ways in the life of every person.
A more compassionate response for a pastor or a church leader is to name how difficult these decisions are and to support a couple in their discernment process. Working with a trusted pastoral counselor or spiritual director, experienced in helping people make difficult decisions, might help a couple to explore God’s perspective on their journey.
2. Comforting with platitudes.
Rebecca, a regular church attendee from Florida, shared her fertility woes with members of her congregation. Rebecca told me she heard over and over: “Maybe it was not God’s will for you to get pregnant.”
Sarah, a woman who also struggled with infertility in North Carolina, added in our conversation that her church boasted that her infertility “was all a part of God’s plan.”
Did either of these platitudes comfort or welcome these women’s struggles into the faith community? No. It pushed them and their pain away. More of the church’s attention could be spent listening, passing the Kleenex and crying tears with those who mourn.
3. Elevating miracles.
With the virginal conception of Jesus placed center stage every December, the church is a sucker for a good miracle story. It’s not that miracle babies aren’t possible. A friend in my Facebook feed just declared pregnancy last week after her doctors told her it was impossible. But not every couple gets one. Same-sex couples don’t even have a chance. The church needs to uplift more miracle stories that look like couples getting out of bed and putting one foot in front of the other with hope though they just found out their IVF cycle didn’t work.
4. Calling infertility “sin.”
Horrible things happen when the word sin is used in the same sentence with infertility. Tamra, from North Dakota, told me a story of being sought out by her pastor’s wife after her fourth miscarriage. The pastor’s wife offered this counsel: “Maybe God is teaching you something.” Tamra replied, “Four times?” Sarah, from Missouri also relayed when her daughter was stillborn, some church folks told her, “God withheld your blessing because of your sin.” Can you imagine the subsequent emotional wounds on both of these families? Bottom line is that the church would be wise to learn that infertility is a medical condition, not a spiritual one.
5. “Why don’t you just adopt?”
In many church circles, adoption is often seen as the answer to infertility woes. In an interview recently, Second Lady Karen Pence, a woman vocal about her faith and pro-life values, shared about her own infertility and strong beliefs about adoption, saying: “It’s a real, viable alternative, and I just think I would encourage anybody who is struggling with infertility and considering adoption, you know, start pursuing it.” As an adoptive mom, I don’t disagree that is a wonderful way to parent, but it’s a choice of an altogether different process. Adoption is not a “consolation” prize that makes the pain of infertility go away.
If the church wants to offer its spiritual resources to members of the 1 in 8 community, being willing to say “I’m sorry” and “teach me” would be a great start.