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Clergy mothers and the pandemic: exodus or opportunity?

The pandemic might erase decades of progress in the area of women's equality. How are clergywomen coping?

In a widely-covered report on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on working women,[i] researchers have recently warned of the danger that the pandemic might erase decades of progress in the area of women's equality in the workplace. Multiple sources have attracted the public’s attention to the risk that the current crisis might seriously impact many women's careers and financial stability. Female workers—especially individuals of color—have been more likely to be laid off or furloughed. And even when they have kept their jobs, the challenges they traditionally faced in the workplace have only been intensified. Women have always worked a double shift[ii]—a full-time paid workday, followed by another full shift of unpaid household labor. The pandemic emergency has often upended the complex arrangements—babysitting, daycares, or schools—that made their paid work even possible. As a result, "1 in 4 women are contemplating what many would have considered unthinkable less than a year ago: downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce."[iii]


To what extent has this crisis affected clergywomen and mainline protestant church organizations?


Even before the pandemic, an analysis of ordained clergywomen's demographics would have revealed that young mothers are very rare in this role. According to Carroll, women's average age at ordination is 38.[iv] In our sample,[v] less than 10% of our female participants had young children, while the average age was 51. [vi]


For many younger clergywomen, entering the ministry with the possible future perspective of getting married and having children is a real act of faith in their congregations and church organizations. Denominational policies have often followed the line set by American society. Women need to work almost until their delivery date, and maternity leaves generally imply salary losses on the worker's part. In some organizations, a pastor's pregnancy may involve financial implications for the congregation, which has to find a temporary replacement. These arrangements may significantly impact small congregations—where clergywomen disproportionately serve—and create tensions between a pastor and her members. A few of our clergywomen participants reported their parishioners openly labeling them as "greedy" for having more than one pregnancy over their tenure.


Despite the minimal number of mothers who make it into the ministry profession, it is essential to highlight that contemporary congregations' attitudes towards their female church leaders are often positive and accommodating. A number of our female (and male) participants emphasize that some aging churches welcome the idea of having a pastor with young children and generously support them.


As in many other areas, the pandemic has exacerbated unbalances that were already present. During summer 2020, we interviewed all our clergywomen participants who had young children. To different extents, they were all coping with significant congregational challenges at a time when the support networks that made their ministry calling possible (daycare, schools, babysitting) had all but been wiped out.


Organizing pandemic safety plans, suspending physical gatherings, shifting to digital communication, and leading a congregation at a time of great divisiveness are only a few of the challenges that have aggravated church leaders’ burden during the COVID-19 crisis. The shift to digital, in particular, has made it even more difficult for pastors to maintain the notoriously precarious boundaries that protect their wellbeing. If clergy had a hard time “switching off” before the pandemic, now they feel even more unable to do so. In the words of a clergy mother:


As time has worn on, I've realized that it's like really difficult for me mentally to turn off. It’s gotten way worse… especially because from March to June, I didn't have childcare, and my husband's job was less flexible. So, I was functionally working two full-time jobs… It was really hard to turn off my brain to go to sleep.”


When it comes to motherhood and ordained ministry, the crisis has highlighted a stark divide. Clergy mothers who work as associate pastors in larger and better-staffed congregations—often in suburban areas—have been only minimally affected by the pandemic. Their job description is more defined; they are subject to lower pressures and can count on more resources to support their work. On the contrary, solo pastors in charge of small congregations are bearing the brunt of the crisis. As we conducted our interviews, these clergywomen confessed they were seriously considering leaving the ministry altogether.


One of them was Elaine, a mainline Protestant clergywoman well-loved by her congregation:


I'm not gonna lie. I mean, up until… the last time I threatened this was a week ago. I wanted to quit… As you can tell, I love this church and this congregation, and I do not actually want to quit my job, but sometimes in the pandemic, I think the only thing to keep my kids safe is to keep them home. And my husband has a job that is not understanding, you know, and so it has to be me then, to quit. And he always talks me down, you know?

Elaine’s congregation has been very supportive, but she bears a double burden of guilt. Her childcare is closed, her parents live away from her, and she is now entirely in charge of her two small children. She feels like the hours she dedicates to them are a way of “stealing” from her congregation—even if her church members have repeatedly expressed their solidarity to her. Exhaustion and isolation play a significant role in her crisis:


I think the exhaustion that's been coming from motherhood has been having me question if it sustainable for me to continue to raise two small children and also pastor a 200-member church. At the moment, the answer is yes. But if the pandemic returns to [my state] and I have to bring my kids home again, is that still going to be a yes? I'm not sure.


Elaine’s case is far from being an isolated occurrence. To different extents, all our clergy mothers in solo positions were considering leaving their jobs.


In my next post, I will delve into what lies at the root of the double burden of guilt Elaine and other clergywomen describe in their interviews—the idea that ministry and motherhood have absolute and non-negotiable demands that put women (never men) in the position of feeling personally ashamed for dedicating less than their entire lives to one of them.


In the meantime, it would be essential for church organizations to seize this opportunity to consider how to support young clergywomen as mothers. How can a job and benefits structure defined when the ministry was the exclusive domain of men be adapted to women’s needs? How can church organizations support maternity leave negotiations between small and under-resourced congregations and their female leaders? Our research found out that the pandemic may be helping to reshape congregations as more empathetic, flexible, and supportive workplaces. Particularly for clergy mothers, the shift to digital communications has allowed some to make their humanity, including their being mothers—more visible. Many are claiming their motherhood by involving their children as a visible part of their online worship celebrations, rather than reducing them to “incidents” in a staged performance.

Can church organizations seize this movement of empathy and humanization of the pastor's role to reshape congregations’ attitudes towards clergywomen? Could the pandemic be an opportunity for religious employers to reflect on how to retain one of the categories most impacted by today’s crisis and create more opportunities for women to succeed in the future?


Manuela Casti Yeagley, PhD


[i]“Women in the Workplace 2020: A Crisis Is Looming in Corporate America,” LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, accessed December 11, 2020, https://womenintheworkplace.com/. [ii]Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung, The Second Shift: Working Families and the Revolution at Home, Revised edition (Penguin Books, 2012). [iii]“Women in the Workplace 2020,” 6. [iv]Jackson W. Carroll, God’s Potters: Pastoral Leadership and the Shaping of Congregations, Illustrated edition (Eerdmans, 2006), 69. [v] Our research sample included participants from three mainline protestant denominations: the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA). [vi] These data are generally consistent with Carroll’s findings, according to whom only 10% of American congregations are led by a clergy aged less than 40. This percentage is likely to be smaller in mainline protestant denominations. See Carroll, God’s Potters.

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