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Caring for the Mothers in Our Midst: The Church’s Responsibility

by Christine Teng-Henson | May 04, 2022

The one thing that would have made my last decade a little easier to endure: paid maternity leave by any of the three churches I served over those years.

When I left InterVarsity to finish my MDiv and pivot into local church ministry, I remember a wise mentor telling me, “It won’t be easy to be a woman in church ministry.” But somehow I thought, having graduated from Harvard, with six years of ministry experience under my belt, I would be impervious to those challenges. I sincerely thought having a pure heart, willing spirit, and hard-working ethic would override whatever challenges my gender might pose. Arrogant? Naive? I had no idea how the next decade would play out.

Juggling Separate Callings: Student, Church Worker, Mother

The first church I served was vibrant, beautifully diverse in ethnicity and class. My seminary internship there became a part-time staff position as the outreach pastor. I took two classes per quarter so I could progress toward degree completion while working ten to twenty hours per week. After fundraising my salary and ministry expenses for six years on InterVarsity staff, it felt great to be paid by a church, even if it was only twenty dollars an hour.

That summer, I felt God’s leading to try to have children with my husband. After prayer and discussion, we went for it —and amazingly enough, got pregnant on our first try! I remember being excited to tell our lead pastor, because he himself was the father of two young boys. But this was his reaction: there were two other women (key lay leaders at our tiny church plant) who were also pregnant—what was he going to do? He probably said congratulations. But all I remember is that he felt concerned for the future of the church.

When our daughter was born at 9:29 a.m. on a Sunday morning in mid-July of 2013, my first words were, “Call the pastor! Tell him our baby came safely!” I knew the church would be gathering to pray a minute later, just before our 10 a.m. service. I loved that our firstborn was a Sunday morning baby who was born right before the church prayer meeting. Just two weeks later, I brought my baby to church. I wore a lavender nursing top and comfy black yoga pants. I held my tiny little baby and told a friend her birth story. 

But being an hourly worker meant feeling unspoken pressure to get back into the swing of things as soon as possible, to contribute however I could. I was happy to do work I cared about, serving people I loved. I loved Jesus, and I loved serving his church. But years later, when I was talking to a new dad at his one-year-old’s birthday party, he told me he got five months’ paid paternity leave at Salesforce. I couldn’t ignore the surge of anger that surfaced within me. Looking back through the veil of years of postpartum depression and too many job transitions, I realized what an injustice I’d experienced within the church.

As a new mother, I had quickly resumed leading our weekly Bible study from our home until I couldn’t anymore (baby’s bedtime ended up conflicting with hosting small group). I went to staff meetings with baby in tow. I took Hebrew,  drudging through with the help of a compassionate Latina classmate whose children were older. I took communications, and tried not to embarrass myself with extemporaneous speeches that didn’t feel nearly as polished as you’d expect from a Harvard English major. My baby girl didn’t sleep as much as I’d heard other babies did. I didn’t have enough family support. By December, I knew I had to step down from my role, even though I loved my church community and all I got to do there. Considering all that went into my various callings in seminary, church work, and motherhood, I realized I could only do two. I picked seminary and my baby.

Juggling, Part Two

By the time Easter rolled around, I needed more from God and more from the church. I needed to find a church with older and wiser folks around to mentor and guide me and my husband. We needed more support, more direction, more care.

So one Sunday, when my daughter was about nine months old, I walked up to the pastor after service to let him know as gently as I could, in my soft-spoken way, that I sensed my husband and I would eventually be transitioning from the church community. In his shock, the lead pastor misheard me. He thought I’d said that today was our last Sunday—and he walked off abruptly to go talk to my husband. That response made us feel awkward about returning the following week, and thus it cemented our departure, leaving us without closure or a chance to bless or thank the community that meant so much to us.

Two months later, on my thirty-second birthday, we walked with hope into a Presbyterian church in our city that seemed to have what I thought I needed next: a church of folks who looked older and seemed wiser, an established church with a pastor who had been serving there for twenty years, in a denomination that had historically supported women in ministry. God moved me during the time of worship, and I remember resting profoundly in that moment. By the end of the year, the pastor had figured out how much ministry experience I’d had, so he invited me to come on as an independent ministry consultant very, very, very part-time. After all, I still had about eight seminary classes to complete—plus my daughter to care for!

As time rolled on, God blessed us with another pregnancy, amidst lots of solid ministry developing at that Presbyterian church. Some of what unfolded was more of the same. Great pregnancy, good delivery, but I got back into the swing of things earlier than I should have. I saw a need and stepped in to fix it. I created programs. I reached out to the community. I looked at our budget and suggested changes. No one spoke up to encourage me to rest instead.

Overworked and Burnt Out

After serving multiple churches over the course of multiple pregnancies, uncomfortable patterns emerge upon self-reflection. Many of these I personally own: a tendency to overwork, a desire to give sacrificially to God and his people, a drive that came from the Holy Spirit but perhaps also from my flesh. Some aspects I attribute to being a second generation Asian-American whose parents emigrated for educational opportunities. My parents didn’t do much by way of exercise, self-care, or Sabbath-keeping. They worked extremely hard, and I watched and learned from the best.

But some responsibilities do belong to the institutions and organizations we choose to serve and be part of. The care that churches and other Christian employers give to their pastoral staff and their congregants should reflect the loving protection of God. Companies give generous maternity and paternity leave because they value the quality of their employees’ family lives. Churches should do the same, because God values his people so much.

When I was essentially pushed out by the third church I served after telling them I was pregnant with my third child, a lawyer told me to “take whatever severance they’re offering and leave, because churches are so exempt from our nation’s laws.” This was a shock, but getting the four-page letter from my bosses detailing their discontentment with my work had already traumatized me so much, I just took her advice. I needed to exit that system to take care of the baby growing in my womb. I left.

By God’s grace, I am back in church ministry now. I have experienced significant healing. Some patterns within me still make pastoring a challenge. But God help us, I write this in the hope that the church would change, and generous provisions would be made in every denomination and every non-denominational congregation to care for the mothers who bravely choose to serve in their midst. To care for them—and for the children God gives them to bring into the world.

Photo by Bảo Huỳnh from Pexels.


Related Reading

An Ethic of Sacredness and Justice: Recovering the Imago Dei of Mothers 
Pregnancy and the Pastorate: An Opportunity to Reflect Christ 
The Unholy Division of Motherhood and Ministry