By Jeff Brumley
The first time around as a pregnant Baptist minister, Stacy Cochran Nowell harbored worries few other moms-to-be are likely to share. Chief among them was that older church members might object to the sight of an expectant mother in the pulpit.
It never happened, said Nowell, the associate pastor at Harrisonburg Baptist Church in Virginia.
“I just never received any negative feedback,” she said of the pregnancy that produced her now 3-year-old daughter. “I anticipated them, but they never materialized.”
Hoping to help other women negotiate the same challenging experience, Baptist Women in Ministry yesterday hosted a conference call titled “Pregnant while Ministering: The Joys and Challenges of a Very Public Pregnancy.”
The event was part of the organization’s ongoing presentation of family related topics. Others include marriage, divorce, aging parents, being single in ministry and men who are married to ministers, said Pam Durso, executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry.
Thursday’s hour-long call featured a panel of Baptist women who have experienced at least one pregnancy while serving either in church or state-level ministry. They answered questions on topics such as maintaining privacy, maternity and paternity policies and how church members and staffs can be supportive of pregnant ministers.
As more women become pastors and other kinds of ministers, many are finding churches ill prepared to handle issues around clergy maternity. Even well-meaning congregations have no or inadequate maternal leave policies and aren’t sure how much space and grace to give pregnant ministers, the panelists said Thursday.
And women often are unprepared themselves, the panelists said. They may not know how hard to push for the policies or personal boundaries they need.
“We are charting new territory here and a lot of younger women are trying to figure out how to balance ministry and motherhood,” panelist Julie Long, associate pastor and minister of children and families at First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Ga., told Baptist News Global ahead of the conference call.
‘OK to speak up’
She and other panelists were asked to recall how they and their respective ministries were prepared for those first pregnancies.
Long, now the mother of a 5-year-old daughter and 16-month-old boy, said her church had no maternity policy at the beginning of her first pregnancy.
So she researched what other churches do and handed the information to the personnel committee. What emerged was a policy approved for ministers and staff allowing six weeks off at full-time pay plus an additional three weeks at part-time play, Long told conference call participants.
Meanwhile, she found the congregation itself elated about her pregnancy. In part this was because she and her husband, Jody, the minister of missions and students, had met and become engaged as staff members.
“The church was super excited to birth minister kids,” Long said. “With my first child we didn’t buy diapers for seven weeks.”
Another topic was boundary setting for well-meaning church members.
That’s where panelist Mary Beth Foust, ministry coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Virginia, said she had to learn to honor the needs of her body and child while pregnant.
For Foust, that sometimes meant turning down exciting travel opportunities for work. It also meant refusing well intentioned advice from women at her church about the child-birth process.
“It’s OK to speak up” on your own behalf, she said.
In addition to setting boundaries with others, Foust said she had to come to terms internally with her pregnant-while-ministering situation.
That meant learning to let go of the powerful urge to control everything.
That message came to her during yoga, when she felt God urging her to ease up during the pregnancy. A calm accompanied a voice saying, “You’ve got to let go and realize I am in control of this,” Foust said. It added, “Quit worrying so much.”
Pregnancy also gave Foust insight into God’s role as creator. She saw the pain of childbirth “as the pain needed to birth the Kingdom of God into the world.”
These were some of the major ways in which Foust said her pregnancy positively altered her understanding of God.
Long shared significant pregnancy related spiritual experiences during her first pregnancy, too.
Advent fell while she carried her daughter. Leading services during that season was especially powerful for her and members — especially women members — of the congregation, Long said.
She recalled serving communion at this time and a woman remarking how powerful it was to see a pregnant woman ministering during Advent.
“Being pregnant, I think, was the most holy experience I ever had,” Long said.
Both Foust and Long said pregnancy has made them better ministers.
Nowell said that, too, in her interview with BNG.
“It’s given me more sensitivity into how difficult pregnancy is,” she said. “It is not for sissies.”
Being a parent has enabled her now to identify with other parents. And it has given her a whole new understanding of what it means to be a child of God and how God can love his children so much, Nowell said.