I was geared up for a battle.
I had just announced to the congregation that my spouse and I were expecting our second child this fall, my first pregnancy while serving this congregation. The congregation’s employee handbook spelled out a six-week paid family leave policy, but I knew from my first pregnancy that that wasn’t enough time. It had been more than 20 years since any staff member at this church, let alone pastor, had had a baby so there wasn’t historical precedent. Personnel reviews were coming and asking for 12 weeks of paid leave felt like a huge ask, mostly because we’ve all heard horror stories of churches who were unwilling or perceived themselves to be financially unable to provide a generous leave, or any leave at all. So I had done my research, knew the presbytery minimum recommendations and had maternity leave policies from other congregations ready as examples. I had talked with my head of staff, who was profoundly supportive and encouraged me to ask for what I felt I needed (within reason). But I was still nervous.
Here goes nothing, I thought. I asked for a full 12 weeks of paid maternity leave.
The day came for my personnel review and I sat down with the committee and my head of staff. After some conversation about hopes, goals and feedback, the time came for the conversation about my upcoming leave request, a proposed change from the current policy. And then the Holy Spirit showed up in the form of an human resources lawyer and a bank president, two members of the personnel committee. She began: “I think the church should be better than most corporations when it comes to leave and caring for our staff, and I’m proud to go to a church that can be. So we’re happy to approve your request for 12 weeks of paid leave.” While I picked my jaw up off the floor and figured out how to articulate my gratitude, the other committee member continued: “And let’s be clear that maternity leave is not vacation. This will not impact your vacation time for the coming year. We want you to be rested and cared for and that includes making sure you can have time away with your growing family.”
All I could do was say thank you. Again and again.
The conversation, of course, turned to what coverage would be needed during that time and what they could expect from me to ensure that the church continued to run smoothly. I offered that my professional expenses could be used to cover the cost of supply preachers for the Sundays I would’ve preached during those 12 weeks, since that was the primary financial burden to consider. We began making appropriate plans, ones that are still unfolding as the due date for my delivery approaches. But as I walked out of the personnel meeting, all I could do was breathe a sigh of relief and rest in deep gratitude. I felt a huge burden lifted as I realized that I would be able to care for my newborn child through those most precious, most exhausting, most challenging first months without undue financial hardship. There are enough challenges in those early weeks of parenting – sleepless nights, nursing woes, surviving flu season with a newborn, allowing time for my own body to heal – that the anxieties of returning to work after just a couple weeks or surviving that time without a paycheck can feel like an insurmountable obstacle. But above all that, in this moment of generosity, I felt like God, through the actions of the church, was offering affirmation that both of my most profound vocational callings – that of a pastor and a mother – could be celebrated together.
Why generosity in family leave? It’s good for everyone.
A couple weeks after this generous gift, General Assembly considered an overture on family leave. I’d been watching the conversations and organizing of some faithful young servants of the church for several months and was hopeful that the whole church might practice an equal level of generosity to what my particular congregation had afforded me. And then I woke up to the news that through some fancy parliamentary procedure, the overture had been directed to a taskforce for further study without great debate. While it wasn’t dead in the water and I remain hopeful, our denomination chose delay rather than the spiritual practice of abundant generosity.
And I grieved. I grieve for the pastors who are given six weeks (or less) and made to feel like their leave is a burden rather than allowing the church to celebrate with them in the blessing of new life. I grieve for the pastors who have to face hard decisions about whether they will continue to serve the church at all. I grieve for the mamas (and dads) who weep as they leave their child in the care of another, returning to work before their hearts are ready. I grieve for the churches who get their pastors back, but begrudgingly and exhausted rather than ready. I grieve for the churches who allow anxiety about finances or fear of change to stymie their ability to practice generosity. I grieve for the churches who miss out on the opportunities to learn and grow during the time that their pastors are away.
When I had my first child, I was similarly able to take 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. I was serving as a campus minister and I had helped the board craft a personnel policy with a generous family leave when I first arrived. Because I was young and single, they were in a position to be generous and we were in a place to have an open conversation without immediate consequences. When I announced my pregnancy to the board five years and a marriage later, we began talking about what 12 weeks of leave would really mean for the ministry, what tasks and responsibilities needed to be covered, what I could do in preparation and what others would need to take on. But when the time came, here’s what we learned:
- A new, variety of preaching voices are a gift to a faith community.
- A lot of things that had fallen to the pastor could be shared by the whole faith community.
- Some things that we did weren’t that necessary and it was OK to let go.
- Some things will fall through the cracks, which opens the door for all of us to practice and experience grace.
- The community learns to support one another and pray for each other differently.
- Most importantly, God still shows up in unexpected ways.
Taking 12 weeks of maternity leave didn’t stifle the faith life of the campus ministry. If anything, it enhanced it. And if college students can have that kind of experience, then an intergenerational congregation can surely experience blessings, God moments and holy surprises as they continue being “church” together. Practicing generosity turned out to be good — not just for me as a new mother, but for the whole community.
There is a part of me that hesitates to tell my story at all. I have experienced abundant generosity more than once. I didn’t have to fight that hard to receive such a blessing. And for some that makes this really hard to read, because right now our policies and practices as a denomination aren’t “fair.” Some of us have been blessed while others have been dealt an impossible situation. But ultimately, I think it’s important that we tell the good stories too: the stories where churches and ministries brave generosity and practice lavish care toward their pastors, the stories where God shows up in surprising ways before and during times of necessary leave, the stories where vocational calling as a pastor and parent aren’t viewed as competing priorities but as blessing upon blessing. It’s important to tell these stories of abundant generosity and to articulate outpourings of gratitude because when practiced, those spiritual disciplines open the door for God to work in new and surprising ways. And isn’t that what new life is all about?
KATIE OWEN AUMANN serves as associate pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. She has a passion for preaching, creative worship, teaching and working with young adults. In her spare time, she enjoys baking cookies, reading novels and being a partner to her husband Wait and mom to her daughter Mollie Grace. She originally hails from Topeka, Kansas, has never met Dorothy, but has seen a tornado.