I love this photo. Exemplified in this photo is where my life as a mom and as a pastor intersect. This is the day that my daughter was baptized. I love how my son is looking up and probably wondering what is going on. My husband who is also a pastor had the joy of baptizing my son. So on this day, I had the unique pleasure of baptizing my daughter. There is something special as a pastor/mother to be able to say the words to your daughter as you pour water on her head, “You are special. You are created in God’s image. God chose you and loves you before you are able to do anything to deserve it.” I often look at this photo as a reminder of the blessings I have in being a pastor/mother, especially on those days when the blessings are not so obvious.
Previously, I wrote a blog about women in ministry in the 21st century. In that blog, I shared some of my personal struggles and challenges I experience as a pastor and as a mother. I thought I would share a little more about my experience not because it is unique, but because I believe this experience is increasing for women in ministry. I have many women colleagues in ministry who often share the struggle of juggling both. My intention is not to give any advice or helpful tips mainly because 1) I don’t have any really helpful advice to give; 2) I don’t have the time to apply some of the wise, sage advice given me, let alone time to dole it out; and 3) some of the challenges I’ve faced have been real opportunities for me to grow in my understanding of what God is and has called me to.
My kids mostly go to church with me every Sunday because my congregation is very kid-friendly. My church makes it possible for me to be both pastor and mother. Recently, I asked my son what he thought I did for a living.
He said, “I don’t know.” I reminded him that I was a pastor.
He replied, “I thought John (my head of staff) was the pastor.”
“What do you think I am doing every Sunday alongside John?”
“I never thought about it. Just being mom, I guess.”
Now without reading too much into this conversation, I can see why my son may have not made a distinction between me being a pastor and being a mom. In many ways, I have a hard time separating the two myself . . . in the sense that I don’t have a luxury to just be a pastor and just be a mom, especially when my kids are with me. They often are going to church and presbytery meetings with me. They often see me hang out socially with other pastors. The church has become like a home to them. As much as I am blessed with a supportive environment, here are some of the lessons learned from the challenges I have faced being a pastor/mom:
Lesson #1: Patience
I start with patience because that is the obvious first lesson learned. Whether it’s patience with your child, spouse, self, or congregation – patience truly is necessary to get through the day and sometimes just the moment at hand. Honestly, my first lesson in patience began when I was hugely pregnant with my first child and I needed to exercise tremendous patience to put on my shoes every morning. Not being able to see one’s feet plus water retention meant extra time needed to squeeze one’s feet into man-size, unattractive (yet comfortable) shoes. But as a pastor/mother, I mostly remember my patience being tested when well-meaning congregants would generously share their unsolicited advice on how to raise my kids or how my kids should act at church. Once, a survey where worshippers were invited to evaluate worship was given and someone wrote that they would leave the church if my kids weren’t put into the nursery during worship. That person did eventually leave. Which leads me to lesson #2.
Lesson #2: Grace
Grace – receiving it, extending it, and overall exercising it – is a lesson that I continue to learn over and over again. Being a pastor/mother means that I am not going to be at my 100% all the time; that I will drop the ball at times; I will disappoint you; and I will make mistakes. No one is harder on myself than I am when those moments happen. Sometimes, I feel I am better at extending grace to others than receiving it myself. Often times my inability to extend grace to myself results in tremendous guilt. Last year, I missed my son’s Kindergarten graduation because I had a work-related trip already planned. To relieve some of the guilt, I spent two days baking and decorating 160 sugar cookies for his graduation party. I can’t say my guilt was lessened, but I CAN say that if I was able to extend a little grace to myself, it would have saved me the carpal tunnel symptoms I was having from frosting so many cookies.
Lesson #3: Letting Go
I think what helps with lesson #2 is developing lesson #3 – the art of letting go. I am not a control freak, but I can get frazzled when things don’t quite go a certain way or something unexpected happens. For example, I can’t control the moods of my kids. Most days, they love going to church. But there have been times when my son who refused to go to the nursery would play dinosaurs at my feet while I preached, then incessantly ask me to fix things or request my attention, causing me to be distracted while delivering my sermon. Some mornings, my daughter decides she doesn’t want to get out of the car and I have to carry her kicking and screaming, thinking to myself “is the day over yet?” And then one time, my 2 year old daughter escaped the nursery while I was presiding over communion and managed to steal the communion bread. This time it was her who had to learn the art of letting go – literally.
Lesson #4: Sense of Humor
Being able to let go becomes easier if one develops a sense of humor. Kids bring multiple opportunities to develop one if a person is lacking in such an area. I can immediately think of two incidents in which having a sense of humor is the only way to go: big booger on the blouse (and no it wasn’t mine) and a big chocolate stain on the butt from where my son slapped me after downing some chocolate cookies. Enough said.
Lesson #5: Ask for Help
I’m bad at asking for help. I also don’t live near family, which I think would make asking for help easier. It’s not that I want to be a super mom or a super pastor/mother at all. It’s mostly because I don’t want to put anyone out or inconvenience anybody. But there is a lot of truth to the saying “it takes a village.” And I’m blessed to have a wonderful faith community to be that village for me and my family, especially when I have to drag my kids to church even when they are sick and I need someone to look after them.
Lesson #6: Grief & Loss
In seminary and chaplaincy training, I was taught how to sit in grief with others, provide appropriate pastoral care, and create a safe space for the grieving. What I wasn’t taught was how to grieve a loss when I am the pastor of a congregation. I had difficulty getting pregnant with my first child, so when we easily got pregnant with our second, it was a wonderful surprise. Because my pregnancy symptoms are so severe, I was bedridden for three straight weeks and what I call functionally sick for the whole first trimester. What I mean by functionally sick is that I was able to show up on Sundays, but didn’t have the stamina to preach or even stand for long periods of time. Because I was so obviously sick, my congregation always knew when I was pregnant. I didn’t have the luxury of waiting until the second trimester to announce it. In my second pregnancy, I officially announced it to the congregation in the 12th week of my pregnancy. Unfortunately, it was also that week that I found out that I miscarried. I remember my Head of Staff telling me to take off all the time I needed to grieve, but all I kept thinking was “how long do I need? a week? a month? a year?” The ironic thing was that there was a baby boom that year: 2 babies had just been delivered, 3 were about to deliver, and 3 women were due around the same time as me. My initial concern was my ability to be a pastor when the mother in me was grieving. What I realized is that I didn’t have anything to worry about. My congregation was incredibly gentle, grace-filled, and understanding. I was surprised by how many women shared their own stories of miscarriage, loss, and grief. As a mother, I was able to grieve at my own pace and as a pastor, I was able to empathize with those who experienced similar loss.
Lesson #7: Self-care
Well, it wouldn’t be a good list of lessons learned if I didn’t throw in self-care. Frankly, I admit that I am not great at this in the traditional sense, meaning I don’t take a lot of “me” time, don’t exercise, or carve out time for a hobby. However, one thing that feeds into my sanity is the Google calendar, which is color coded according to mine, my husband’s, and the kids’ schedules. It also helps me to not over book, to resist having that third or even fourth night meeting . . . and if at all possible, not miss another graduation. I try not to live a busy life, but a full life and balancing that gives me great joy.
Lesson #8: Freedom
My last lesson learned (at least for this blog) is knowing when to give my kids the freedom to explore, be curious, and be themselves. As a pastor, there are certain things that I’m intentional about exposing my kids too – opportunities to serve others, develop empathy and compassion, and sense of awareness of what is happening in the world. But I am ever cognizant that my children are double PK’s, PK squared, or Pastor’s Kids x 2. I often joke whether or not I should save up for a college fund or therapy fund, mainly because I recognize the amount of attention they get at church, unsaid expectations placed on them, and special treatment they may receive. As much as I want them to grow up to be compassionate, empathetic, and caring people, I also want them to have the freedom to discover, make mistakes, and wonder. That’s what I hope for as a mother. And as a pastor, I will try to not use my kids to rate the Sunday School program or be guinea pigs to new ideas and activities I want to try.
So, to all the Pastor/Mothers out there, I commiserate with you. I am in awe of you. And I am blessed to be in such good company. It feels less lonely knowing you are there. I look forward to hearing your own stories of being a pastor/mother. I know that it can get more complicated if one is a single Pastor/Mother or part of a clergy couple, so it is important for us to stick together.
To all the congregations, thank you for your loving support. It means a lot to us when you see our role as a Pastor/Mother not as a liability, but as an asset.
To all the PK’s, we are doing our best. We love you. And uh, sure you can have another chocolate chip cookie from the refreshments table.