The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. has a crèche collection gathered from all over the world. Various hands sculpted these figures from every conceivable material: stone, wool, glass, and even cow dung. The tropical regions portray Jesus under palm trees with very little cloth swaddling him, while cold climates show the holy family wrapped tightly, huddled and surrounded by snow. They remind us that we interpret this beautiful story in our own contexts; we pick up what the gospel writers leave out as we imagine the earthy smell of the hay, the rough texture of the feeding trough and the gentle sounds of the animals. These miniature mangers capture that crucial period after a baby is born, when the bonds of relationships strengthen as an infant is introduced to a family with care and attention. It is a time for welcoming, healing and wholeness.
In our culture, family leave policies enable this opportunity, yet within our church, that time off is often seen as an unnecessary benefit. Although sick leave after major surgery is expected, congregations can be unclear about the fair expectations of parents when a child enters their family. When I look at the adoring Mary and Joseph, a startling love bubbles up as I recall the birth of my own child. I also remember the confusion in our churches and Presbytery.
It was Saturday night, and I was standing over the laser printer in my home office, finishing up the final draft of my sermon, when it suddenly became clear that I would not be preaching. I was nine months pregnant, and just then, I realized I needed to go to the hospital. I called an elder and asked her to read my sermon to the congregation, while my husband, Brian, and I rushed out the door with a pre-packed suitcase stuffed full of anything that we might possibly need.
The delivery room was beautiful; it was spacious with textured wallpaper the color of mud. Brian turned on the “labor tape” that we recorded together: a compilation of soothing music from James Taylor to Lauren Hill. I wanted to have the baby without any pain medication, so we spent the evening relaxing, breathing deeply, meditating, and generally doing everything that we could to let my body do the work of welcoming our precious little girl into the world.
On Sunday morning, Brian and I were groggy and full of expectation. He was reading a labor book and I was dozing between contractions. Every few minutes, he would hold my hand and breathe deeply with me, and the nurse would come in to check.
When I was almost twenty hours into labor, I had an unexpected visitor in the delivery room–Ron, one of my elders. He stopped by, right as Stevie Wonder began singing “Isn’t She Lovely,” because he was concerned about our Presbytery’s parental leave policy.
“How did you get in?” I asked, in shock that he was actually standing there. He said he just walked in, and then he explained his worries that I was getting all of those Sundays off and the church would not be able to pay for the pulpit supply while I was gone. He reminded me of our congregation’s bare bones budget and that ninety percent of the church’s income went straight to my salary. Although I had made sure that the plans and resources were in place, when Ron found out that I was in labor, he thought of some other questions.
Brian looked over at me and he suddenly did not have the gentle face of the man who was holding my hand just moments ago. He had the eyes of a bouncer just waiting for the nod to get rid of this guy. I could feel the serenity of the last twenty hours draining quickly from the room, and when the next contraction hit, it was excruciating. I thought my pained expression would get rid of Ron, but when I opened my eyes, he was still there, and Brian was still waiting for a signal.
I did not have any strength for a confrontation. For my sake, I just wanted his departure to be as peaceful as possible. So, I picked up my straw, sucked on the little blue sponge on the end and said, “It’s going to be okay, Ron. The money will be there. It will be okay.” He objected and cited every foreseeable problem, but I just kept repeating my mantra until he finally left.
The fact was that our presbytery did not have any family leave policy. When I joined, the Committee on Ministry said that they had not needed one in the past, but they assured me they were working on it. Two years later, I got pregnant and there was still nothing on the books; yet, I was promised that something would be put in place in the next couple of months. After eight months, I got a call from the COM explaining that they did not prepare a motion for presbytery. They dreaded a great debate on the floor since the policy would be closely related to what my family was experiencing. They were going to wait until after I had my child. In effect, I was nine months pregnant and left scrambling, trying to get some time off, sacrificing my vacation time and negotiating budget items in my delivery room.
After twenty-four hours of labor, my beautiful baby girl was born, and I stayed home for six weeks. For a month and a half, Brian and I rested from our busy lives as a clergy couple. We did not have a stable and a manger, but we did have a manse and a comfortable couch, and I had an amazing time studying her tiny fingers and appreciating those paper-thin nails. I discovered what lullabies soothed her, what the top of her head smelled like, and what made her smile. I learned how to hold her in just the right position so that she could burp. I spent long hours nursing her, changing her, napping with her, and developing a loose schedule. It was a time for my body to heal, a source of great spiritual growth and nourishment, and an occasion that I always recall during the Christmas cycle.
In the excitement of Advent, we learn to slow our pace, to welcome the Christ child and to remember that young family resting in the midst of chaos. As we sense the birthing pains of this season, we begin to see how this ancient scene ripples into our daily lives and we know that we should take care to receive every child in our midst. We have to struggle with our family leave policies; we have to ask what our clergy and staff require to take care of themselves and their children. And we should plan ahead for these things, because if we wait until the policy is needed, that can lead to some very uncomfortable situations.
CAROL HOWARD MERRITT is the associate pastor of Western Church in Washington, D.C. and the mother of one child.