As ABHMS celebrates Mother’s Day, we look at high and low points of motherhood for “pastor-moms.” As women increasingly respond to the spiritual call to serve, they are faced with the realization that the call is also a type of career, and the familiar question “can you have it all?” also applies to them, if they decide to become mothers. And motherhood is definitely a call, too.

This constant balancing brings with it joy and challenges. For those worrying about how motherhood can derail a career, there are a lot of voices that argue the opposite—being a mother can make one a better professional. Interpersonal skills, time and project management skills, patience—even if one is not naturally inclined to these, motherhood will hone them.

Becoming a mother can empower, enlighten and change the way one sees the world. “Because I am a mother, I know that nobody is insignificant,” wrote Joanna Harader, pastor of Peace Mennonite Church in Lawrence, Kansas. “Everyone deserves to be heard, and sometimes the best ideas come from the most unlikely places. Because I am a mother, I know the importance of setting boundaries. … Because I am a mother, I know that we need to take time to play … being a mom makes me a better pastor. That realization is the deepest gift I have received in my ministry thus far.”

Conversely, being a ministry professional can equip one with skills needed in parenthood, which requires project management and interpersonal skills. Pastoral care requires listening skills, empathy and gentle guidance.

Yet, it is not all a bed of roses for ministry professionals who are moms.

Tasks such as deftly juggling sick children and sermon writing, negotiating maternity leave and household chores, or being the primary caretaker for both a congregation and a family can become overwhelming.

Pregnancy discrimination is, unfortunately, also common in churches. Women pastors share on online forums that they are anxious to share the news of their pregnancy with their congregations. In 2016 a pregnant and unwed Harlem pastor made international news only because she was pregnant and unwed. “What had my stomach turning, other than nausea, was me being pregnant AND a pastor. Let’s face it … ‘The church’ is already harsher on women for their ‘crimes,’ but being a pastor also meant that both me and my fiancé were going to go through this publicly,” wrote Desiree Allen (who now uses her married name, Desiree Elder.) “I didn’t know what that meant, how it would affect my job and if I was prepared to deal with it.” Allen was lucky. Her church embraced her and stood by her, but this was not a given.

Setting boundaries between a career and family life is always a challenge, and this challenge is multiplied for women who serve in caring professions, like ministry. Beth, a contributor to a clergy mom forum where women sought advice about how to juggle their two calls, wrote: “The advice I’d include is that at the end of the day, especially when serving a terribly needy congregation and a terribly needy baby at the same time, is that I regretted time not spent with my baby, but I never regretted time not spent with my congregation. I didn’t shirk my duties by any means; I just gave my daughter’s schedule and needs priority.”

Sometimes female pastors are faced with motherhood-related challenges that would, perhaps, be less difficult for women in other professions. For example, what if a female pastor is single and deeply desires to have a child? In 2011, the Rev. Leslie Callahan (who is still a pastor at St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) decided to undergo IVF treatment and had a daughter. The church welcomed the baby with joy; she described her child’s arrival as “divine regrouping.”

We asked ABHMS staff who have served in ministry and are mothers about their experiences juggling their call and motherhood. Here are some of their answers that highlight both the challenges and the things that are great.

Min. Dr. Chantá Barrett: “What I love about being a clergy mom is knowing that God trusts me enough to not only give me spiritual influence in the lives of my own children but also in the lives of other young people where this may be lacking. What I find challenging about being a clergy mom is managing time in a way that allows me to accommodate my needs and responsibilities, as well as my obligations to others.”

The Rev. Erica Van Brakle: “When my late husband and I were serving two different American Baptist congregations, my kids had two communities that loved them. Now that I am not serving a local congregation, I am trying to find an American Baptist faith community that will be safe and supportive of my youngest child, who identifies as trans. If I want to attend an ABC church, we’ll have to travel a distance to find an affirming church.”

The Rev. Jennifer Sanborn: “It’s extraordinary to serve and raise children in a faith community that fulfills their call to be loving. As a parent who pastored, I wanted my kids to have a different experience than my own growing up as a child of a pastor, with freedom to make mistakes, to doubt, to not always excel, and so on. Thankfully, I pastored a loving church that truly embraced all of us, just as we are. [But] I left church ministry when I began to miss my kids’ activities in high school due to time conflicts with church. I knew I had only one opportunity to be a present parent—and many ways I might serve my call.”

The Rev. Michele Turek: “I love being in professional ministry. I love being a mom. They don’t always intersect, but I love them both. They’re the main aspects of my life: ministry and family. [I struggle with] dealing with the mom-guilt of not being with them all the time because of ministry demands. I love what I do and am thankful for the calling, but sometimes that makes me feel even more guilty because I’m enjoying my time while traveling, visiting churches and ministry leaders, or attending life-giving events. The balance is hard.”

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl Price: “I love sharing the Christian faith with my children and their friends. Allowing them to ask me questions and finding answers or responses together. The challenging questions they ask are good and interesting. The challenge was often not having as much time to do more with my kids because of full-time ministry. Learning how to make time is something I wish I had started sooner.”

The Rev. Dr. Rachael Lawrence: “I love having the opportunity to share our tradition of church leadership with my children, involving them early and often in worship and the life of the church. [The challenge I encountered as a clergy mom was] during my children’s early years, which coincided with my early years in the pulpit, some congregants would express their displeasure if I was comforting my child while reading Scripture or preaching. My spouse worked at another church most Sundays, so if our three-year-old needed me during the service, I had no other choice but to hold them.”

The Rev. Dr. Gina Jacobs-Strain, general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA, said: “When we limit God’s gifts, when we limit the movement of God, because we believe that to be ordained clergy or to be a leader in a church you must look a certain way, then I think we do harm to our fellowship.”

There is hope that in the ABCUSA world, these attitudes are changing and a clergy mom at the pulpit holding her young child or a pregnant woman serving the Lord’s Supper won’t cause offence to congregations but will be wholeheartedly embraced instead. As the world is changing, so is the church and the expressions of faith within it. Mothers who serve in congregational ministry are indeed a sign of the movement of God. Let us heed the wisdom of Proverbs 31:31 (NIV): “Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.”


Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash