BY: lhawkins

 

It Happens: When Childbearing and Job Seeking Collide

by Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean

I interviewed for my first position as a full-time pastor when I was three months pregnant. On the way to the interview (which was 20 minutes from my apartment), I pulled over to the side of the road twice so I could throw up. I pulled over a third time to get gas, which sprayed all over me due to a pump malfunction. I was not having fun.

 

I hoped I looked serene when I walked into the parlor of University United Methodist Church, but my face was gray and I reeked of 87 octane unleaded. I settled into an armchair conveniently located near an exit (just in case). I gazed around the room, my head swimming, and took in the hopeful anticipation exuded by committee members whose expectant faces told me they sure hoped this would be their last interview.

 

I hoped so too.

 

To save you the suspense, I got the job, and spent several happy years serving University Church as their Associate Pastor for Youth and Campus Ministry. I was blessed with the supreme gift of a relaxed senior pastor who was secure enough in his own skin to let me make my own mistakes without taking them on himself (harder than it sounds, because I made some doozies). Tom’s ability to treat me as a young colleague instead of as junior support staff afforded me tremendous freedom, and under his guidance and example, my pastoral confidence grew like an amaryllis plant after Christmas.

 

Yet my interview that April evening surfaced three dilemmas that present themselves to a lot of women when we negotiate our first jobs in ministry, including youth ministry.

Dilemmas

Plenty of complex issues surround the job seeking process without throwing pregnancy in the midst, but three primary questions weighed on me as I approached the interview:

  1. Should I tell them I’m pregnant?

Starting a job pregnant presents complications for the woman and her employer. In my case, I knew that the start date of the job (July 1) would put me at six months pregnant. I was due in mid-October—exactly a month into the new school year and only three months on the job. In other words, I would work with students for about four weeks, and then vanish to have a baby.

  1. How much maternity leave should I ask for?

On one hand, I wanted to be faithful to my new position. The young people and their families at this church desired a youth minister who would not only chart the course of the ministry but also be present in their lives—and as for the campus ministry part of the job, I was starting that from scratch. How could I do that if I were to take an extended maternity leave, especially so quickly into a new position?

On the other hand, I knew time with a newborn was time you don’t get back, and I wanted a chunk of time to adjust to being a new mom during our son’s first few weeks of life. That was an extremely high priority in my life—even higher than serving this congregation. I had seen pastors sacrifice their families on the altar of ministry, and had no interest in going there; I’m convinced that this not only destroys families, but ministries as well.

  1. How could I possibly fulfill my call as a youth minister and simultaneously live into my call as a wife and mother?

The job description for University Church’s Associate Pastor for Youth and Campus Ministry was clearly written with Jesus in mind. The 12 disciples together could not have met the expectations outlined in that job description, which included about 16 bullet points (no kidding) ranging from worship leadership to the campus ministry initiative I mentioned earlier.

I did not see any way that one human being could meet the expectations of that job description—especially a human being who was in the process of learning how to be a parent. Of course the temptation is to tell the church whatever they want to hear: that we can do anything and everything, well and with style. And I wanted the job; how could I risk being less than what they had hoped for?

My Response

  1. Should I tell them I’m pregnant?

Quick answer: yes. For one thing, this was an integrity issue for me; I have always laid my cards on the table, which has won the respect of employers far more often than not (in fact, I can’t think of a single time it has backfired). Then there was the practical concern: I couldn’t keep being pregnant a secret anyway, especially if I began throwing up during the interview. Finally, there was the matter of context: if I had to withhold the truth to get a job, I knew this was not a place where I wanted to work.

This turned out to be a simple answer for me, but I still had to face the second dilemma.

  1. How much maternity leave should I ask for?

My friend Drema gave me the answer: as much as I could get. Drema had two children while serving in parish ministry, so her advice was based on personal experience. “Ask for three months, full time, paid maternity leave,” she told me. “You can always go back to work early. But once you have the baby, you don’t want to wish you had more time and not have it.”

This was the hardest part of the interview, because after I told them I was pregnant, the committee asked me directly what my expectations were for maternity leave. The church had never had a pregnant pastor before; this was uncharted territory for everybody. I gave the committee Drema’s criteria: three months maternity leave, full time, paid. “I realize that I will have to convince you that I can do in nine months what it takes some people 12 months to accomplish,” I told the committee. I had tipped off my references that this would likely be a question they would receive so that they could be prepared for it when the committee called them. The church was convinced; they granted the leave without question. It was the wisest negotiation I have made in any job I have ever had, anywhere—and it told me a lot about the way this particular congregation valued parenting.

But there was still the third dilemma:

  1. How could I possibly fulfill my call as a youth minister and simultaneously live into my call as a wife and mother?

No quick answer here. If anyone else gets this worked out, please let me know. I had plenty of advice from colleagues on how to balance personal and professional time in ministry (and I listened to all of them, so I had lots of strategies to choose from). But I took one measure that helped enormously, and I have used it in every ministry position I have held since then. I prioritized the tasks in my job description with the personnel committee.

Even in the nauseous haze of my interview, I knew that agreeing to the job description the church had posted was unmanageable. I knew I could mount a pretty convincing case that I could do the things it listed; I had skills in all the task areas and a lot of energy to boot (as did everyone else they interviewed). But to promise to do the job as listed was both dishonest and irresponsible—and a fast ticket to disappointing the congregation and infuriating my spouse. Yet I did want that job. University Church had a growing congregation with a strong sense of mission to young people in the community. I had a good vibe on the senior pastor (the crucial ingredient for professional happiness), and it was in a location that allowed my husband to continue his doctoral work at the University of Maryland. You don’t get opportunities like that every day, so I didn’t want to squander it. So, impossible job description or no, when the bishop offered me the position, I took it.

But I did two things for sheer self-protection. First, during the interview itself, I asked the committee about its priorities for their Associate Pastor. I listened hard. I wanted to hear the way the personnel committee understood the job description—and what they sensed were the most important tasks of the ones listed. This committee ultimately would have to represent me in the congregation, and I would need their support if some tasks didn’t get done. If their sense of priorities did not match mine, I knew I would not be a good fit for the position.

Second, once I accepted the position, I rearranged the tasks in the job description according to the priorities I had heard voiced by the personnel committee. Now the job description listed the top priority as #1, the next priority #2, and so on. When I wanted to rearrange the committee’s priorities around, I did, but I picked my battles; I could defend shifting a couple priorities, but not all of them, so I picked the priorities that mattered most to me and made sure they were towards the top of the list. When I finished, I took the whole list back to the personnel committee. “As I understand it,” I told them, “this is the way you would like me to prioritize my time.” I gave them copies of my newly-ordered job description. Where I had flipped priorities, I explained why. Then I said, “Can you tell me if I have understood this clearly? Is there any priority you want me to rearrange?”

That got a lively discussion going, which was illuminating on a lot of fronts, but it also elicited hearty support. Just to make sure we were all on the same page, I reviewed the priorities and said, “Okay, this means I’ll spend this fall working on #1, #2, and #3. Then, when we meet in December, we’ll assess how those are going, and if it looks like we’re ready, we can add #4.” Since this committee was also supposed to represent the pastor’s needs to the congregation, I added: “And if you hear someone in our church wondering why a priority further down the list isn’t getting much attention, you can tell them why.”

Everyone readily agreed—and this became our practice every year. Each spring we established the priorities of my work for the following year, proposed through a combination of my listening to the congregation’s wants and needs, and my own pastoral sense of where the congregation needed to go. I don’t think we ever got past priorities #5 or #6—even though the job description still listed all 16 different tasks that I was theoretically responsible for. Presumably, had I stayed at the church long enough, we would have worked through the whole list…or, maybe not.

The point is, prioritizing the job description allowed me to focus my energy and let some things go for the time being. That made the job more manageable in a way that satisfied both the congregation and me. Because of the priority list, for instance, I let go of developing a Friday night college recreation program in my first year. It was #11 or #12 on the priority list, and Friday nights were the one night of the week my husband and I were home together with our son. By the second year, the recreation program was in place—but not because I was leading it. A couple of sophomore guys decided to organize rec night themselves. At first, I was guilt-ridden that I wasn’t joining them, even though it was still a low priority goal (and honestly, rec night sounded like a lot more fun than changing diapers). But then one of the guys, in an off-handed way, told me: “You know, we’d love to have you join us on Friday nights. But I think it’s cool that you’d rather be home with your family. I’ve never known anybody who would rather be home with their family.”

In Retrospect

I could not have asked for a better first pastoral experience. Tom, the senior pastor, was the kind of colleague we pray for: he cared about my vocation—the integration of multiple callings into a life lived with others before God. Tom encouraged me to capitalize on my strengths and not obsess over my weaknesses. The nine or 10 people on the personnel committee showered our family with grace and gently taught me how to be their pastor. They also taught me a great deal about how to be a “professional minister” and a wife and mother at the same time. Some things worked better than others. (The playpen in the office was a bust; all I wanted to do was play with my baby.) Scheduling some meetings at the parsonage on nights my husband was at work was generally helpful (except for the night I let Brendan cry himself to sleep during a trustee meeting; I should have saved child-rearing experiments for the off-nights.)

University Church was not a perfect church for a young wife and mother, either. We never did provide childcare during church meetings or programs, and my husband never fully escaped the feeling of being “the minister’s wife.” Still, University United Methodist Church loved us through our young adult years, filling our lives with dear friends, partners in ministry, and surrogate grandparents for our new little “P.K.” It made me believe that, given a chance, congregations want to make possible a pastoral life for their leaders—and not just a pastoral job. We just have to show them how.

 

Kenda Creasy Dean is a United Methodist pastor and Professor of Youth, Church and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. Her books include The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry; Youth, Religion, and Globalization; Almost Christian; Practicing Passion; and The Godbearing Life. Learn more at kendadean.com.

 

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