Carol McEntyre says she had to battle her own work ethic and guilt to take advantage of a generous parental leave policy at First Baptist Church in Columbia, Mo., where she is pastor.
Many women clergy serve at churches where there are zero or inadequate maternity leave policies.
“The greater percentage of Baptist churches don’t give parental leave policy much thought until a woman staff member either brings the subject up or is pregnant,” said Pam Durso, executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry. “Then the conversation can move from being a healthy policy discussion to feeling very personal and reactionary for that minister.”
But that wasn’t the case for Carol McEntyre, pastor at First Baptist Church in Columbia, Mo., who is set to take 12 weeks of maternity leave to adopt an infant girl from China.
McEntyre describes her church’s leave policy as parental, not just maternal, enabling her husband and associate pastor for youth, Michael McEntyre, also to take off a chunk of time after the couple leaves today for China.
Both, she said, could have taken even more time and were encouraged by personnel committee and other church members to take what they needed.
Even so, McEntyre faced daunting challenges in actually going through with the process. And those challenges came not from lay people or other clergy on staff — but from herself.
There were two main obstacles: guilt and her go-get-’em work ethic, McEntyre said.
“I am a Type A person,” she wrote in a recent article for the Baptist Women in Ministry website. “I am competitive, and I am an achiever. I like to work, and I love being a pastor. It is hard for me to let go.”
Her article, “Fighting Myself for Maternity Leave,” explained that she and her husband were set to add the adopted infant to their family, which includes a son who is 6.
But her gung-ho work attitude was getting in the way, she told Baptist News Global.
“Even at my previous church, the staff always made fun of me for my to-do lists. I always have it with me, I’m always checking things off.”
She’s also known for her diligence.
“If I expect things to get done and I expect it to get done well, I am probably going to come back and check with you.”
The idea of taking enough time off to help her, her husband, son and the new baby adjust to each other, she explained, challenged those feelings of control at work and resulted in a good amount of guilt.
“I spoke with a spiritual director about all of this, about the guilt that I felt, and the spiritual director said, ‘You need to trade that guilt in and see what God may give you in place of that.’”
Healthy conversations needed
McEntyre’s self-imposed barriers to maternity leave place her right in the middle of the pack among those whose churches have adequate policies, Durso said in an email.
“Carol’s response, I think, is pretty universal. Women ministers often feel conflicted about how to best care for their families while still fulfilling church obligations and meeting the expectations of members.”
And the truth is, it’s not a problem faced by women alone.
“Male ministers struggle with those feelings as well,” Durso said.
The difficulty, whatever the gender, boils down to boundary setting, which Durso said can be tough for ministers — especially younger ones.
But congregations can do a lot to help, she added.
“Churches who want to have healthy ministers need to have conversations about boundaries and self-care, respect for family time and days off, and, of course, parental leave provision for new parents. In the end, the healthiest congregations are those that intentionally learn about ministerial wellbeing and then initiate steps to provide for their ministers.”
Durso has discovered from conversations with women ministers that a small percentage of Baptist churches have given careful thought and done strategic planning on parental leave. Those that do have plans “vary greatly from generous to following the ‘letter of the law’” as spelled out in the Family Medical Leave Act.
‘I had no idea’
McEntyre said First Baptist’s parental leave policy definitely falls into the generous category. It offers 60 days of paid leave for the adoption or birth of a child, with an additional 60 days off with congregational approval. On top of that, a minister may tack on all their sick leave.
What McEntyre decided to do is take a total of 12 weeks broken into shorter periods. So after an initial period when both she and Michael are on leave, they will take turns working and being off so that the church isn’t without two ministers the entire time.
But it took some creative thinking — initiated by others — to arrive at that plan, she said.
It started when she went to meet with the head of the personnel committee. Her plan was to pitch missing only seven Sundays.
“But the personnel chair said, ‘Let’s not talk about the policy, let’s talk about what you want,’” McEntyre recalled.
She was stumped.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do.”
She stumbled through the meeting before asking to reconvene later.
“I said ‘I have to get back to you. I was completely thrown off by his encouragement to take the leave.”
Two ongoing spiritual practices helped her open her mind to the possibilities. One was a years-long Sabbath practice in which she fasted from any ministry-related activities, including emails. Instead she focused on family and rest.
“The rhythm of that practice has helped me think about taking [more] leave.”
Another stemmed from her spiritual director’s advice to pray for what God would want for McEntyre instead of guilt.
“One of my prayers the last few weeks was ‘God, I want to trade in the guilt and what would you give me in its place?’”
The answer has been joy and the opportunity to bond with a newly adopted daughter with her husband and son gathered around, she said.
“And I got this sense the church is going to be fine” while she is away. “It has survived 190 years without me.”
One reason McEntyre said she wrote the article is to encourage churches to look beyond leave policies just for women ministers.
“I think this issue needs to really be seen as a family issue and not just a women’s issue. Men and women need to be able to take paid time off to care for their children without feeling guilty about it.”
If churches do that, they’ll be setting the example not only for other congregations, but for Americans in general.
“The U.S. is way behind other developed countries on this issue.”