There are a lot of ways to approach the delights and demands of ministry and motherhood. Some clergy take a break from paid work when their children are young. Some accept part-time roles, whether because their households need the income, they want to keep a foot in the ministry world or they cannot find full-time positions that fit their family situations. Some go on parental leave from their full-time jobs and then return to work afterward. All these are good choices. Mothers should go the route that suits them best.
That said, women who step completely out of employment for a season inevitably will have to deal with questions and assumptions about the “gaps” in their work histories when they’re ready to return to clergy life.
I hope one day the church and the larger culture — because this is an issue in the secular work world as well — will get to a place where they don’t see a break in employment to care for kids (or adult family members with caregiving needs) as a period when women aren’t leading and growing. Anyone who has ever raised a child knows parenthood calls upon all our skills and nudges us to learn new ones too.
Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s new book The Power Code: More Joy, Less Ego, Maximum Impact for Women (and Everyone) makes this case.
One of the ways the utilization and development of strengths shows up is in the various facets of cognitive labor. Kay and Shipman quote research from sociology professor Allison Daminger that sifts out the stages of this work. In cognitive work, we anticipate the need for the task to be done, identify the possible ways to meet that need, decide between the various choices, and then loop back around to make sure the option selected is working. All this is in addition to the execution of the task itself.
Here is some of the cognitive labor moms do on a regular basis:
Anticipating household needs: Moms often plan for meals, purchase supplies, arrange for child care, schedule appointments and cleaning, among many other things.
Identifying options for meeting the needs: Moms may create menus, compare prices, interview child care providers, shuffle appointments around and find innovative ways to make sure the house doesn’t look like a set from Hoarders.
Deciding which option to take: Moms narrow all the many choices about all the many needs related to meals, shopping, child care, calendaring, cleaning and more.
Following up on how the selected options are going: Choices for ongoing needs are not one-and-done. Moms might have to loop back around to add to the options if the current approach to a particular slice of household life isn’t working.
While we might be more aware of the emotional labor (such as providing pastoral care in difficult circumstances, navigating conflict, managing congregational feelings during seasons of change), physical labor (such as being bodily present for meetings, proclaiming the word of God in worship or going on mission trips) and mental load (remembering all the things on behalf of the church) involved in ministry, it is cognitive labor that makes much of it actually happen. It takes a lot of executive skills to be able to lead as a pastor, including project management, budgeting, collaboration, communication, evaluation, administration, creativity and seeing the big picture.
That’s what moms do every day while also trying to keep tiny humans alive.
“Instead of looking at stretches of unpaid labor as fallow time for moms, we should be viewing it as the hardest, most rewarding leadership training program out there.”
In other words, mom powers are transferable to planning, recruiting leaders for, implementing, getting the word out about and assessing ministries; setting and managing a budget; working with a ministry team (staff or laity); trying new approaches to ministry; strategizing for the short and long term; and so much more. So instead of looking at stretches of unpaid labor as fallow time for moms, we should be viewing it as the hardest, most rewarding leadership training program out there.
Here’s what I’d tell minister search committees who are interviewing moms: Strike questions about why women stepped out of congregational ministry for seasons of their lives. Instead, ask about what skills and perspectives they learned during those times that would be invaluable in pastoral roles. And don’t ask how they’ll juggle being a pastor and a parent, because mothers are pros at doing all that cognitive labor that goes into making sure their kids are cared for. (You are most welcome, though, to invite input on how the church can support parents, and not just those who are on staff.)
Here’s how I would advise clergywomen stepping back into paid ministry: Don’t apologize or explain away your absence from church work. Do highlight all the strengths you honed as a parent. And do set boundaries around your home life and how much of your time with family you’re willing to give up for your ministry role. (This boundary-setting is in itself the demonstration of an important skill for ministry.)
I love being both a minister and a mother. Each of those roles very much informs the other, and I firmly believe others have benefitted from me being both. Yes, there are challenges with leaning into two vocations, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s time to purge the idea of resume “gaps” for caregiving and instead embrace the richness that being a parent brings to being a pastor.
Laura Stephens-Reed has been in ministry for 20 years, serving in a variety of roles and contexts. Her ministry now consists of coaching clergy and congregations through all kinds of transitions with faithfulness and curiosity. Laura is based in Northport, Ala., but she works with pastors and churches all over North America and across 17 denominations.
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Paternity leave and the church’s need for change | Opinion by Justin Pierson
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