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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - Brides, Grooms, and Babies Edition

This week's question invites us to think about if and how we allow our congregations to help us mark joyous transitions in our lives...

I’m wondering what advice other female pastors have to
give about baby showers. I am pregnant with my first child and serving as a
pastor at a church. I anticipate that folks at the church will want to throw me
a baby shower, but also anticipate feeling awkward about receiving gifts from
parishioners. What tips do you have for handling this appropriately? I’m
guessing a similar question could be asked about wedding showers, since that
applies to other clergywomen.

Sue from Inner Dorothy begins...
Hmmmm............I wish I could help you with this one, but unfortunately I had been married and had grown children before I ever entered ministry. Given that situation, I feel highly unqualified to answer this one. I did, however, just have a milestone birthday which the congregation wanted to celebrate with me. They had a lovely cake after the service and gave me the most beautiful flowers. A few people gave me cards, and our former admin assistant gave me a small but meaningful gift, all of which I accepted with a hearty thank you.

I understand however, that your situation is much different. On the one hand, there may be hurt feelings if you say "No, but thanks anyway" when someone wants to have a baby shower for you. On the other hand, there is that unspoken inappropriateness about clergy accepting gifts from parishioners. It's a dilemma, to be sure.

My thinking about baby showers (and maybe this is just a personal thing for me) is that they should never happen before the birth of the baby. Ever. Church showers or not. I'm not a superstitious person, but a practical one. The needs of the family are better known after the child is born.

What if, instead of a traditional baby shower, you asked them to have a Baby Blessingway like the one we had online for reverendmother? People could come and bring a favourite poem, or write a letter to the new baby for the keepsake box, or even record a message or a piece of music. Perhaps someone could be responsible for creating a prayer circle that will begin when your labour begins. Someone could make sure that a candle is burning and that your family is being prayed for when the birthing starts. That way, the gifts would be more symbolic and less "where are you registerd?" centered.

Just a few thoughts from someone who has not been there....

mompriest who blogs at Seeking Authentic Voice
It is a good idea to let our parishioners care for us, in a limited way. Done appropriately this builds mutuality and deepens trust. If they want to have a baby shower ask that it be a theme, like baby clothes, something relatively inexpensive. You can also make the theme a two for one: one baby item for the Pastors baby and one item for the local foster children's association - so that every little gift to you is matched by a gift to a charity. Also, one couple I know asked that all their gifts be a donation to a charity. That's an option too - have a shower, but all gifts go to a charity.

Earthchick at earthchicknits offers some first-hand experience
I would absolutely allow them to give you a baby shower if they desire. I feel very strongly about the importance of allowing ourselves as ministers to receive the care and love of congregants, in whatever appropriate ways they seek to give it. Accepting the gifts they seek to give is a way of honoring them, just as they are seeking to honor you by giving. You will be giving them a gift by allowing them to celebrate this milestone with you, and the celebration may also help to alleviate some of the anxiety they may be facing over impending maternity leave and/or your changing status (into a mother, and therefore someone who may not have as much time for them).
The women's group in the church I serve threw a shower for my husband (and co-pastor) and me when we were expecting twins five years ago. It was a church-wide event - there were some elderly men there who had never been to a baby shower! Even though other church members had only had showers attended by a small group within the church (the choir, or a women's circle, for example), the birth of pastors' children seemed like a nice occasion to include every part of the church family. It does feel a bit awkward to be the center of the entire congregation's attention over something that is not church-related, but mosty we just felt honored at how sweet and generous congregants were with us. Some of the drawings and notes the children of the church made for the shower remain some of our most treasured baby shower mementos. (In fact, we recently showed our sons some of these drawings, which they thoroughly enjoyed seeing)
My advice would be: yes, let them do whatever they would like to do. Just make sure that you give a small thank-you gift to whomever does the organizing, and that you write a thank-you note for each gift you receive (instead of a blanket thank-you note in the church newsletter, for instance).

And finally, a little something from Diane at faith in community
One of my friends went to seminary in the late 1970s, when there were still few women ordained in my denomination. She remembers talking with congregations who were having some angst about calling a woman pastor. "What if she gets pregnant?" someone asked. My friend's response: "Throw her a shower!"
If the congregation in question is a healthy one, my inclination is to go ahead and let them throw a shower, and receive the love and grace that they extend at this time.

What do you think? What stories or advice can you add? Use the comment function to let us know what you think...


  1. From a layperson's perspective, I have not experienced this with a pastor yet, but we did have a shower for a youth choir director. We also, in my former church, collected a monetary gift for the pastor at Christmastime (given as "from the church" so no one knew whether you gave a dollar or a hundred) and some people gave individual small gifts like an engagement calendar or a Christmas ornament. I think the comment "if it's a healthy congregation" hit the nail on the head -- in a healthy congregation gift-giving would not get out of hand or become a competition.

  2. I don't see a problem with parishioners giving a shower, and I really like the suggestion of "matching gifts," some for the pastor, some to be given to other moms-to-be in need. Congregants do need to be mindful that they have a stake in caring for their pastors, and this is one way that they can "take care" with ease.

  3. My experience is much the same as earthchick's. The church combined the shower with a potluck lunch, and everyone was included (I think this is important). We received so many beautiful, handmade gifts that were expressions of love from the church members. It was a way for them to express welcome to the baby and affection for our family.

    Also, it was something they would have done for anyone in the small congregation. To have refused would have been much more awkward than to accept.

  4. Oh, I forgot to say I really like the "matching gifts" idea too.

  5. We're a clergy couple, who thoroughly enjoyed the baby showers that our separate parishes hosted for us. My congregation invited participants to bring a gift for my family and a gift for a local organization that provides needed items for families in need, leaving me feeling especially proud of their outreach. My husband's, on the other hand, congregation hosted a shower simply for us.

    We debated whether or not we felt comfortable receiving gifts from parishioners but, in the end, we received both celebrations as acts of God's love and grace toward us.

    We received countless hand-made quilts and blankets (crocheted and knitted. We've always told our son that, even before he was born, God's love was being shared with him through the loving hands that worked on those gifts!

    Pastors often seem uncomfortable being on the receiving end of grace. My advice: Let the folks love their pastor--and their children (even the ones who aren't born yet).

  6. Here is a father/clergy perspective. The pastor - parishioner relationship needs to be two ways. We pastors need to be taking care of the spiritual needs of our parishioners but we also need to be opened up to have them take care of us some times.

    I know a clergy family who had a couple of miscarriages. The first one they did not share with their congregation, the second they did. The second one they felt taken cared of, loved, and God's grace.

    I feel a baby shower is the same way. Your congregation is excited for you, as they should. They want to share in this experience with you, which they will. Let them in and let them offer you the grace of God you offer them on a regular basis.

    I do have to say the matching gift idea is really neat!

  7. My husband & I were co-pastors at a small church in 1983. We announced that we were adopting 3 siblings from S. Korea. The timing of their arrival was uncertain. They were 2yr old twins and their almost 4 yr.old brother. Our church threw us a surprise shower at someone's home several months before they arrived. Every box had not one but 3 t-shirts, pair of pants, or whatever. They even gave us 2 car seats. I was shocked, humbled, and also relieved. together we were receiving a minimum full-time salary, working in theory half-time each. The arrival of our sons kept us more honest about our time. As one of our church members said,speaking for the congre-gation, "This is our first adoption."

  8. I'm also voting to let the congregation have a shower, give you gifts, feed you cake . . . whatever! You show up - look radiant, express gratitude, write thank you notes and generally be a well mannered guest. It's good for everyone to see that you are a real human being, having a real human baby.
    I have no idea where the "no gifts from members" comes from. Can anyone explain it to me? I get garden produce, fresh bread, little knickyknackys, going out to eat gift certificates . . . and they make a huge difference in how it feels to live on the modest compensation package that this church can afford. I give gifts, too. It just seems sort of . . . mutually supportive. Am I messing up here? What's the thinking?

  9. I received lovely and still treasured gifts on the birth of our daughter in my last call, and allowing the congregation to walk with us as we became parents made our relationship stronger. Now that I'm at 33 weeks of pregnancy (yay, almost there!) in my new parish, the folks here are beyond excited. I've shared some of the most intimate and important events in their lives (births, deaths, marriages, accidents, etc.) and they are thrilled to have a part in this event in my family's life. So when the shower comes (they are having such a blast planning and plotting!) we will celebrate new life together.

  10. I also heartily say that you should graciously receive what the congregation wants to offer you. I had a baby in January, and while there wasn't a shower (it was my second child), there were LOTS of gifts given after her birth. I did write a thank-you note for every single one of them (don't want to do the blanket thing and make people who didn't give feel like they should have; it's their choice), and I feel that if I would have rejected the gifts, it would have done more harm than good.

    Also, when I just left the parish I had been serving as assistant pastor, there was a huge outpouring of cards and gifts, and I graciously received those as well.

    My viewpoint is that if people want to give you a gift, you should receive it. I know on Christmas morning I get more excited to see how people receive what I've gotten them than I do about what I'll get! So it would be incredibly disappointing and disheartening to have a thoughtfully-chosen gift rejected, in my opinion.

  11. Oh, and I forget to say that I ADORE the idea to have a matching gift shower for a local non-profit agency that helps mothers. They are always greatly in need of baby items.

  12. There are still people at one of the congregations I serve that tithe from their corn harvest--literally, part of the harvest goes to the church. Actually, it is mostly a paperwork transaction (and good business sense, for the donor and for the church), but it's still related to the old way, when a country pastor literally lived on donations of produce and the occasional chicken. Not to accept gifts in that context would be unthinkable!

    The not-accepting-gifts thing gets to be more of a problem if the gifts are expected, or if they're especially large or inappropriate. I'm not always comfortable receiving money even for doing a funeral--but in many contexts, it would be terribly offensive to turn down a modest gift.

    The one that really gets me is the parishioner who insists on giving me money when I bring home communion! But there is no stopping it without getting really offensive, so I just smile, say "thank you", and discreetly look for a convenient offering plate.

  13. My church just threw a shower/BBQ for me a couple weeks ago (when I was at 34 weeks). This was a very important way for them to show they were excited for me and that they want to support/care for me at this time (expecting a baby/ deployed husband). It was a lovely day and the baby has received several handmade quilts, outfits and buckets of diapers. Though I strongly identify with those who don't want to have a shower prior to the birth, I don't want to deal with a host of visitors bearing gifts after the birth.

    In no way did I feel that the shower undermined my role or authority. I also have had to move past my "gift" stage, but no one showed up with a $400 stroller and a motion for the council in hand. The key is always healthy congregations and healthy parishioners. They are going to be happy for you and 98% appropriate.

    I do have to say that the few parishioners who are usually manipulative didn't come to the shower nor have said anything regarding my pregnancy. The council and I have had a talk about people who might try to use my maternity leave to their advantage.

    But I digress. Let people "shower" you. It's a way they can express excitement and love for you and your family at this time. And it's good for you to model self-care by allowing people to show that for you. It's on a very different level than having the contractor in the congregation re-roof your house or seeing your parishioner who's a masseuse a couple times a month- all off the books.

  14. Hi.
    When I was ordained I was 'with child' and I had a yoked parish and it was for them such a bonding time and important time for them to claim their responsibility in our son's life. I think it's fine. It is one way they can connect with you.
    My mother in law gave me a t-shirt that said Reverend Mother... They all loved it.
    God abide

  15. Oh one more thought...When I was close to my due date I prayed a prayer that said... "O Holy spirit come into our hearts....Help me now in all my labors... Christ you are love."
    Several people thought I was trying to signal my husband that it was "time" and rushed up after the service to see if I was ok.

  16. Bobbie, funny!
    A story from the church I just left as Interim:
    The pastor of eight years and his wife were expecting their second child. Shortly before the due date they learned they were having twins! The church threw an "emergency" shower to be sure they had all they needed for two babies, and kept the family in casseroles and helped with the care of the older child, too. Although this was a happy thing, it was still a shock for the family. And the congregation remains proud of stepping up that way even though the family has moved on to another church.
    I really have no problem taking modest gifts as long as they don't come with an agenda, and for me, so far, they haven't. It's been a spiritual growth exercise to learn to receive graciously.

  17. brilliant question and lovingly answered :)

  18. Color me ignorant because I am totally not seeing how this is a problem. I had a wedding shower and baby showers thrown me by the congregation. But they were all surprises so I had no say! They were all potlucks and everyone was invited. It was very nice.

    I've never felt awkward or weird about people giving me presents. I'm always very happy to receive presents! I always took hand me downs as well. Even if they didn't fit my kid I accepted everything graciously and found another use for it.


  19. I can see where, if you had a "buy your way into my way" kind of church it would be awkward. But I think this is a great time to demonstrate your gratitude. I had my first child as a new pastor, my second as a lay worship leader. Both times the church showered us with gifts, meals and lots of love. One couple gave us a cool gift - a year of diapers - two packs a month for a whole year! What a blessing! :)

    It is hard to accept such an outpouring... but it is also good to model for our kids and our spouse.


  20. oh, I had to come back and say how much I like the matching gift idea, too.

  21. Checking in late here.

    The reason I mentioned the "no gift" policy is that I've been in two churches (one as a seminary placement and another one) in which a clergy person - not me - was given a hefty sum of money at Christmas time by a particular member of the church. The VERY clear understanding on the part of the giver was that the gift entitled the giver to far more power on the church Board than anyone else.

    It was, for me, an interesting thing to observe as an outsider. It also helped me understand why our Congregational Life prof had warned us about similar predicaments that he knew of. In the same circumstance, I would say no to the gift of money.

    I guess this is a different situation, but I would still be cautious about who brought the BIG gift and needed to let everyone else know that they spent more money for the pastor. Just past experience speaking...

    And I do like the gift matching idea.

  22. Well, there are more than enough really good advice-bits here; but I'll add that the women of my congregation threw me a surprise bridal shower and it was fantastic. They LOVED doing it, and I had fun too. (I did receive 2 lingerie sets, which was every bit as embarrassing as you are imagining, but I could laugh it off.) Writing 92 thank-you notes was a bit tiring, but worthwhile. Sometimes we need to be confident enough to receive the generosity of others.

  23. I was part of a baby shower for our Minister and it was a great occasion. (We do the same for any member who is pregnant)

  24. I 've read all of these comments and thoughts with interest, and have to echo the question that has been asked by a few folk...why are we so bad at recieving gifts. Pastors are natural givers, but often graceless recievers, we must learn to say thank you with grace...

    Having said that the difficulty comes when the giving becomes competitive, so it is OK to ask for a price limit or for a charitable donation to be made instead, but we MUST allow folk to celebrate with us!

  25. I had a wedding shower in one congregation and a baby shower for each of my sons in another church. The whole congregation was invited to participate each time, and it was a wonderful opportunity for them to show their love for us and for us to feel showered with their blessing and affection. We were able to encourage group gifts, which made it easy for those with limited resources; we still use the ladder and lawnmower we were given at our wedding shower!

  26. I think everything here makes sense, but I would add one thing that hasn't been said yet. I got married in the church I was serving and was wondering what would happen with a bridal shower -- but they didn't have one. You said you "anticipate" that they'll want to. Just in case, be prepared that it's also possible they won't.


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