By Jeff Brumley
Mothers’ Day 2012 will dawn with more women than ever in Baptist pulpits. But even those who welcome the trend say the corresponding ascension of the minister mom is creating tensions, too, within families, and the hearts of female pastors.
“We as Baptist congregations are struggling,” said Alicia Davis Porterfield, a North Carolina-based Baptist minister and mother of three who’s compiling and editing a book on mothers in ministry.
The mothers, especially if they are new moms, often face agonizing choices between family time and church responsibilities, while most congregations scramble to create policies. “It’s hard for everybody,” Porterfield said.
‘Younger, married, starting families’
The number of ministers and congregations facing those struggles is growing, said Pam Durso, executive director of the Atlanta-based Baptist Women in Ministry.
While the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Baptist group, officially discourages women from serving as pastors, doors to ministry are gradually opening in other Baptist groups like the Alliance of Baptists, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and American Baptist Churches USA.
While women continue to be underrepresented in pulpits of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Durso says there has been slow but incremental growth in the numbers of female pastors and co-pastors since her organization began compiling reports on the state of women in moderate-to-progressive Baptist churches located mostly in the South in 2005.
Durso couldn’t say how many of those ministers are mothers, but with females comprising upwards of 50 percent of students at some CBF-partner divinity schools, they increasingly are of child-bearing age.
“Baptist women ministers are more than ever young, married and starting families,” Durso said. More and more, she said, callers ask questions like how many hours they should work, if model maternity policies are available and if it’s reasonable to ask for onsite childcare. “It is a growing concern for young women how they are going to balance motherhood and ministry,” Durso said.
Meanwhile, congregations are trying to figure out how to have their spiritual and pastoral needs met while also being “a place of grace” for their mother pastors, she said.
Bailey Edwards Nelson calls that “the dance” between women pastors and congregations as they seek to understand each other’s needs.
And from her experience, the dancing also goes on inside the hearts and minds of mothers, said Nelson, senior pastor at Flat Rock Baptist Church in Mt. Airy, N.C. Leaving her 2-year-old son, Aidan, at home or daycare still is heart-wrenching, she said.
On the one hand “there is not a single day that goes by that I don’t wonder what he’s doing,” she said. On the other, “I find myself feeling guilty spending time with my son if I am missing a meeting because he is sick.”
Nelson said there is something particularly difficult about a mom going through that situation. “When our children are younger they are tied to us pretty intensively,” Nelson said. “Many nights I am walking out the door to a deacons’ meeting and he is standing there crying ‘Mommy, don’t go.’”
Amy Butler, the senior pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, said she doesn’t believe mothers have special issues compared to fathers who are pastors. For her, it’s about the challenges and gifts that parenting brings to the pulpit.
But she did acknowledge that some moms, and even moms to be, can encounter situations dads probably never will. Like her job interview at Calvary a decade ago when someone asked if she was aware she “will have to choose between being a good mother or a good pastor.”
The question was withdrawn, but still Butler said she knew it hadn’t been asked of the male candidates. “That was a jarring question,” she said.
A lot of pastor moms get through difficult situations by exercising some creativity and setting firm boundaries with their biological and church families, said Sarah Jackson Shelton, pastor of Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham.
Boundaries include making sure staff and lay leaders know when to call her and when not to, and adhering to one-on-one and group family activities, said Shelton, who raised two sons, now ages 17 and 23, during her career as a pastor.
It’s also important to communicate with family that they, too, in a sense are living out a calling as the relatives of a pastor and must expect some sacrifices, she said.
Being creative means remembering to be flexible and thinking out of the box. When her sons were younger, she might take one along on a hospital or nursing home visit if no other options were available.
The extra stresses and work that comes with being a pastor mom are worth it, she added. “Regrets? If there were any, they are so small in comparison to the great rewards.”