Visit our new site at

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - From Family Leave to Full-time Ministry

This week's question provides an ample introduction of its own...

Hi Ladies,
I wrote a blog post on this topic (which you can view here), but I thought it might also be an appropriate topic for the Matriarchs. Here's the situation: I am United Methodist clergy and have been on "Family Leave" for the past three years. I am 35 years old, married for 10 years, and have two children who are 4 1/2 and 2. I have essentially been a stay-at-home mom while moonlighting (on a VERY part-time basis) as a hospital chaplain. I am preparing to go back "under appointment" (i.e. take a full-time ministry position) this year. That will begin on July 1 (in my annual conference, appointments are made from July 1 to June 30). I have no clue where I will be appointed, and will not know the details of that until the third week of March at the earliest. It could be the second week of April (the Cabinet meets once a month in February, March, April, and May to make appointments for conference clergy and churches) before I know anything. I have requested to remain in my current area, but there is no guarantee of that.
I am aware that my life is going to totally change once I re-enter full-time ministry. I have never been a pastor with two young children, and while I know that many many people "make it work" I am attempting to prepare myself and my family for how we will "make it work." My spouse is supportive (but also has a full-time secular job) and I am aware of basic "self-care strategies" that I have already or will put in place. However, I am experiencing a lot of stress over how I'm going to balance being a full-time pastor, wife, and mother (not necessarily in that order).
What I am looking for is concrete advice based on personal experience. What are some practices that you and your family have found helpful in achieving balance? How do you protect your children and spouse (if you have one) from church drama? How do you handle childcare? How do you enforce boundaries on your days off, vacations, and sickness? Those are just a few questions that have come to my mind.

I know that each family is different and what works for one family might not work for another, and that so much depends on the parish and community context (urban, suburban, etc). However, it would greatly quell my anxiety if I could begin making plans/strategies now rather than simply wait until July to do so.

Thank you!

Joy and peace,
 Wounded & Healing, blogging at "Free Falling and Defying Gravity"

From The Vicar of Hogsmeade, blogging here  

I have been a full time solo pastor and single mom since my kids were 3 and 1 1/2. In my first church as solo pastor, I could almost visibly see the older women relax when they learned I had full time childcare arranged. They were afraid I would either have the kids with me all the time or expect them to care for my kids. Once they knew I had found someone to care for my children during "regular" hours so I could be available to them as pastor, they were more than willing to be the occasional "back up" care for emergencies at night or on weekends. And then they set about loving my children so they could do just that!

The main thing about boundary setting is to remember that you have to set your own boundaries. Churches and church members will push against those boundaries. You are the only one who can hold them. Come up with phrases you can use regularly to hold your boundaries. For calendaring, an example would be, "I'm sorry I'm not available then," without explanation. If you provide explanations regularly, you'll hit a time when you don't want to explain either for personal reasons or professional confidentiality and you might feel stuck. So whether you are getting a pedicure, or have a pastoral counseling appointment, or a doctor's appointment, or a district meeting, you have control of your time and your boundaries.

For a different kind of boundary setting, there are "tricks" depending on your context. One church I served is very rural and their boundaries are not the same as mine. I was there about 15 years ago when boundary setting was not as talked about as it is now. But as I understand it from pastors who have served there after me, the culture is much the same as it was when I was there. The parsonage is across the alley from the church. The parsonage driveway is visible from the main road and the house can be seen for blocks. It can serve well as an example for "living in a fishbowl." It became important to be able to put my vehicle in the garage so people were not tracking my coming and going. What time I took the girls to childcare. How late I was out the night before my day off. How long it took me to go to the hospital and return. How many bags of groceries were being unloaded. Or any other purchases that could be observed. (Yes, those things were fodder for discussion and not everywhere is like that.) Having room in the garage required some work on my part but it gave me much more privacy.

In that same church, I had caller ID and used it to answer calls from family but not church folks on my days off. I had an answering machine that allowed me to hear messages when they were being left so I could screen calls. If it was an emergency, I would pick up or call right back. If there was no message left, I would not call back. If it was not an emergency, I would call back the next day. Several people in that church had a habit of saying, "I tried calling you ...?" and I would ask "Did you leave a message?" They always said, "No" and I would say "Well leave me a message next time and I'll call you back." Most of them did eventually learn that if they really had an emergency I was available but non-emergency calls could wait.

When you go on vacation, arrange for another pastor to take call for you, another nearby Methodist or a trusted pastor in that community. I have usually traded call with nearby Methodists. Taking call for them when they needed it and them covering for me when I needed it. Then while you are gone use the caller ID on your cell phone and listen to messages. Do not return messages that are not emergencies until you are back "on duty" not just back home. If the message is an emergency hospital call or death, call the on-call pastor first to make sure s/he is aware of the situation. Then let them cover for you, that's why you set it up. If you must, a phone call to the family expressing your trust in the pastor on-call to provide pastoral care for them and that you are sorry you are not available will let them know you care. You can remind them of when you will be available to them on your return. If you come back from vacation for "this" one, you'll end up coming back for others, too. Respect your family enough to protect your time together.

For sickness on Sundays, after you have been at the church for awhile, you can ask the leaders informally how that has been handled previously. There may be a lay person with speaking skills that is willing to fill in at the last minute. They may expect to have a hymn sing on those Sundays. They may want someone to read your sermon in your place. Once you hear their solutions, you can start working on a plan that you find acceptable. You may also want to find out from the district office who the certified lay speakers are in the area. Many of them have limited opportunities to speak and are more than willing to be pulpit supply for vacation or be a sick day back up.

From earthchick, blogging at earthchicknits:

This is a tough issue, and one I feel I am constantly sorting out for myself (and probably will be until my kids go to college - and maybe after that, too!). My children are in grade school now (2nd grade), and I can say that it does get easier. When they were toddlers and preschoolers, it was much more intense. That is where you are now - but know that it will get better.

In terms of achieving any kind of balance, it is a constant juggling act. The flipside of a job that knows no time bounds is that I have built in flexibility - I have the freedom to leave the office to chaperone a field trip on Tuesday because I know I'll be at the church till 9:30 on Wednesday night, for instance (assuming I have set up my appointments and meetings in such a way that I can make the time on Tuesday). I can stay home with a sick child and still get work done because so much of my work is on the computer and on the phone. Whenever I get frustrated at the number of night meetings I have, I remind myself of all the things I'm able to do (like pick my kids up from school) that I wouldn't be able to do if I worked a regular 9-5 job.

I know that some people have found successful balance in working with a sort of "block time" schedule for the week. Others commit never to work morning, afternoon, and evening in one day - to only do two of the three each day. I take a more organic approach, adjusting to the demands at home and at church as I go. However you strike the balance, it will take a serious commitment to personal well-being (which it sounds like you have). A supportive spouse and an understanding church go a long way, too.

The question of protecting spouse and children from church drama is a good one. My spouse and I are co-pastors, so the issues for us are a bit different - we process with each other a lot - but we try not to talk about church business too much in front of the kids, especially as they get older. We try to engage them about their own experience of church - what did you learn in Sunday School today? what did you sing in Children's Choir today? - so that their predominant sense of church isn't coming only from us. They are still at an age where they think it is cool that their parents are the pastors, but I don't know how they'll feel about things as they get older. For now, it works well to save the serious discussions about conflict or challenge for times when their ears can't overhear.

Childcare is maybe the trickiest issue of all. With a regular 5 day a week, 9-5 job, there are some fairly straightforward options. With a schedule that is different every week, and without the financial means of people in other demanding professions, we have found this a real challenge. When my kids were toddlers, we hired in-home part-time care, using craigslist, and we had good luck both with hiring other mothers and hiring college students. Our church also has a commitment to providing childcare for any night meetings, but that can be tricky, too, because you don't necessarily want your toddler to have to be in the church nursery till 9:00 at night! Childcare is another thing that does get easier as they get older, but even now we find it to be a hassle.

In terms of enforcing boundaries on days off, vacation, and sickness, that's something I don't think is any different for parents than it is for other clergy. You just have to decide to do it, and then do it. Decide what your day off is going to be, and then stick to it - even avoiding email, if possible. On vacations, make a plan for back-up pastoral care, so that you don't have to be contacted. You are the only one who can set your boundaries and enforce them - no one else will likely do that for you, but they can honor them.

Though combining ministry and motherhood can be extremely challenging, I have also found it to be a really wonderful combination. I think being a mother has enriched my ministry, and I think my role as a minister has provided me the flexibility to be the kind of mother I'd like to be. There's actually so much in common between pastoring and mothering, so I feel like my skills are constantly getting sort of mutually sharpened. The better I am at being a minister, the better I am at being a mother, and vice versa. 

I hope that as you move back into full-time ministry, you will find every grace and blessing you need to navigate this adventure!

From Martha, blogging at Reflectionary

My children were all in school when I was ordained in 2002, but since 7-year-olds need Mama when they’re sick just as much as 4-year-olds do, here’s my 2 cents worth.

What are some practices that you and your family have found helpful in achieving balance? -- Even though that 7-year-old is now a high school junior, I still do what I did then: if at all possible, I'm home at the end of the school day. There is nothing like being present, just in case. My kids were 16, 11 and 7 when I began my first call, and just checking in, even if I brought work home, helped. We all understood the concept of homework, because we had lived through my seminary education together. :-) I was able to do this because I lived under ten minutes away from church. I was very frank about my intention to do this, especially on days when there were meetings or activities scheduled in the evening. I think the important thing was being clear about it. I was the first settled pastor not to live in the parsonage (which was in the parking lot, literally), so talking specifically and directly about what would work, for the church and for my family, was important. I felt safe in laying out this boundary because my Church Administration professor, an older guy who served a very large church, told us he did the same when his kids were at home and his wife had a job that didn't allow her to be home in the afterschool timeslot. I figured if Rev. Professor Tall Steeple could do it, so could Rev. Mama Small Church. 

How do you protect your children and spouse (if you have one) from church drama? -- Yeah, I'm not sure that's entirely possible. All three of my kids were sitting in church when the organist resigned during the announcements, about three months into my first call. We lived and learned. ("Some people don't handle things well. We bless them and say goodbye as kindly as possible, and if we need to get mad, we find an appropriate venue for it." These are good life lessons, in church or out of it.)

How do you handle childcare? -- Since I didn't have preschool age children, I'm not sure I can answer this one the way it's needed. During school vacations, I tried to find a balance by having their dad cover part of the week, while I did the rest in some combination of bring the younger child along with me or working from home. The key there was getting my schedule information to the people who needed to know it.

How do you enforce boundaries on your days off, vacations, and sickness? -- I would suggest a different word. "Enforce" sounds like you expect to need to lay mines in a demilitarized zone. How about "how do you *maintain* boundaries," instead? Boundaries are like the fence around my backyard. The fence is sturdy, mostly, and it keeps my personal life enclosed safely. I have to keep up the fence, literally maintaining it if I want it to stand. So I maintain a healthy boundary around my days off. Maintaining also means paying attention to the places where the world is most likely to encroach. If there is a repeated event or need that coincides with days off, I reconsider the calendar. (For instance, my first church served at the soup kitchen once a month on Friday night - my day off - but I loved going, and they needed my help. I tried another day off, but in the end Fridays renewed me more, and if it really conflicted with something personal, I didn't go every month.) Most of the churches I've served have been very respectful of vacation time, so it hasn't needed defending, but turning off the cell phone helps if not. And where sickness is concerned, especially with younger children, I would just say, "I'll do what I can when I'm at home with 7-year-old, but the work will still be there when I come back, and it will be done." Once people could see that was true, I never heard a word about needing to work from home or even taking an honest-to-goodness sick day off.

One last thing, there is also a gate in the fence, and sometimes opening it is the right thing to do. I don't recommend opening it all the time! But when the temptation is there (a death while you're on vacation, a person in distress on your day off), remember that if you open it for one person, people will expect you to open it for others. Be clear about the impact of opening the gate and discuss it with your Pastoral Relations or Pastor-Parish committee. Engage them in maintaining your fence. When they're on your team, they'll tell others why it's good for your fence to be painted or refurbished, or why you need to replace the 3 foot picket with a 6 foot stockade. :-)

From Ruth, blogging at ‘Sunday’s Coming!’ 

OK – concrete advice based on personal experience: bearing in mind my ‘baby’ is now grown to the grand old age of 17!

I hear your anxiety to do your best for everyone in this situation, and the first thing I want to say is thanks be to God that you are in this wonderful, rich ministry (to your family & the church) and that you recognize the need for planning and adaptation.
I remember a wise woman saying to me when I had my daughter ‘just as you get used to the stage she’s at, it will change!’ - and that has been true of my ministry alongside her growing up, as well as the growing up itself.

Involve your church folk in what’s going on. This doesn’t mean letting anyone think they have an equal vote with you as parents! But I have been blessed my church ‘grandparents’, ‘baby-sitters’, ‘big brother and sisters’ - who have all made my daughter’s life richer – and my life far, far easier. They have loved to help – she has loved them – we have all been a happy family in God.
But there have been times when I have had to listen to my child, or listen to my instincts and NOT ask certain people to help – you then have to make sure that you know how to ask for the help you need from the people you need it from, and not be too ‘general’ in your requests and get landed with someone you don’t want (I hope you know what I’m saying, here).

Be prepared for the guilt – that you should be working for the church when you’re with your children; that you should be with your children when you’re at church; that you should put your spouse first more often...Guilt, Guilt, Guilt. Have good friends who can say ‘you’re doing an OK job in all three areas – stop feeling guilty’ and good allies who will help if other people try to put guilt on you. You WILL miss some work commitments because a child is ill at an inopportune moment – but Jesus DID NOT put adults before children & had some quite tough things to say about those who thought kids were not the ‘real work’ of the kingdom. (Having Jesus on your side is such a bonus in churches!).

The thing I really wasn’t ready for was the way that being a mother opened doors in ministry that would not have been open otherwise – God has taken me to places where I have been able to share Gospel love with people in really exciting ways. I am NOT saying being a mum/minister is the only or best way, but it is different, and people in churches have seen this difference and appreciated it. God will use you in new ways as you – Rev & Mum -  believe it!

Final thing that I found – sometimes it was the other mums who helped me cope with the church folk – not the other way round. I have always tried to be ‘loyal’ to my church community – but it is another aspect of being open with people that sometimes I was honest about problems I was having – and it was my sisters in the playground who helped me through. Jesus had something to say about that, too ‘whatever did for the least of these, you did for me’ - that cuts both ways – sometimes I have been the servant, sometimes the served.

I pray God blesses you & strengthens you for this great challenge!... And that you get joy from it, too.

And from Jennifer, blogging at An Orientation of Heart

You have a lot of good questions and it’s understandable that you have some anticipatory anxiety. I hope we can help a little bit with the anxiety….

I’d suggest two things, right off the bat:
When you know where you’ll be serving, explore lots of this with appropriate leadership in the congregation. If you have a parish-pastor relations committee or a personnel committee, a person or two from such a group could be very helpful to you in discovering what the congregations expectations may be. They may have some policies and procedures in place. If not, it would be great to have some casual conversation with a supportive leader or two in your midst about what re-entry into ministry is feeling like for you and what some of your joys and fears feel like at the outset. They may be able to allay some of your fears or work with you to formulate some plans and emergency policies, etc.

When I was a young mom and my spouse and I served two different churches, we had a great childcare arrangement and a back-up plan in case our childcare arrangement blew away. It worked beautifully, and we were able to pick and choose which church events our children would attend with one of us (primarily because both congregations loved opportunities to enjoy our children.) Note to self: have a great child care arrangement. It’s very challenging to parent on the job and everyone feels shortchanged. I did take my infant on some visits with me, but only occasionally and only if I was expressly invited to. I didn’t impose my children on my workplace and think I kept good, clear work/family boundaries. I think that’s important. When the roles and the boundaries get blurry, it’s very difficult to feel as if you’re doing well in any of your roles. At the same time, don’t be too hard on yourself if you have to take a personal day because a child is ill. All professional people have to, at one time or another. Life is complicated at times, but with good communication and some anticipatory planning instead of anticipatory anxiety, all manner of things can be well.

The answer to the self care question is the same for every clergyperson, married or single, children or not.  Take your day off!! Don’t check your e-mail. Don’t break the rule and stop by the church office. Take your day off!! Ideally, negotiate to have one day off and one Sabbath day. That’s not always possible, but it’s a great thing to strive for. If you have church staff, ask them to take messages and only contact you in case of an emergency—and define for them what an emergency is. Arrange for pastoral coverage when you take vacations or attend continuing education events. Take your vacations. You can’t recharge your batteries without taking them. An exhausted, drained clergyperson is not a pretty sight, and your family and congregation want you to be well.

As a third suggestion, find a clergywoman who has walked this road before you. Perhaps it’s someone local with whom you can have lunch once a month. Perhaps it’s a RevGal who can be your online buddy. Find support—you clearly have lots of questions and some worries as you return to ministry. A mentor can be a great help. My kids are elderly at this point (17 and 22) but I’ve been in ministry for 29 years, as a single person and as a married person and a parent. I’d be happy to be a source of encouragement to you, and I’m sure there are even better sources out there as well. IF you have the resources for a spiritual director or a therapist, they can be super helpful, too.  Find a mentor and confide in and learn from her, and know that ministry, marriage, and parenting can all be so fulfilling if you just expect that they will be nutty at times.

Thanks to all of our matriarchs who chimed in!  Come join in the conversation by posting your comment below.

May you live in God's amazing grace+


  1. Wow, these are great responses. Thank you!

  2. I am not in parish ministry, but am single parenting a 5 year old with no family nearby (while in ministry, but not parish ministry). I cannot over state the importance of GREAT child care. It helps so much to know that your child care providers are wonderful and that your child is happy while they are there. In my case, I found that sending my child to non-Christian center for pre-school, and now after school/vacation camp/summer camp is really helpful for creating some boundaries. And for her, it's been helpful to not have any kids at that space know her as the preacher's kid.

  3. Excellent ideas...even if you don't have kids or a spouse.

  4. I'm in my first call, and my youngest(16) is the only one at home. One of the things that has been a great boundary for us is, because of the crazy school districts that consolidation brings, he goes to school in a town 30 miles away. Yes there is a closer school, in the same town as one of my congregations (not the town we live in). But it's tiny and he was already making a BIG adjustment in his high school years. I know there are congregation members who think I should have sent him to the closer school, but we did what was best for our son. And then we discovered a bonus - he gets to be himself at his school, not 'the pastor's kid.'

    Arranging afterschool activities has been a challenge. My spouse is currently on 2nd shift, so sometimes he hangs out with a friend until I can come and get him, sometimes I can find him a ride with someone from the church who works in the same town and once in a while I call a teacher and see if him missing a practice is a problem. A different set of boundaries, and he's learning that there are priorities.

    As far as protecting him from the church drama, I am careful to never discuss sensitive issues when he's around. I shield him as much as possible, and where not possilble, he is old enough to learn that drama is part of the reality of living in a community of both saints and sinners.

  5. What great advice! Just a few brief ideas to add:

    Your family life will change repeatedly, and now is a good time to put systems in place to deal with that change. You will get LOTS of advice from people who have an interest in your doing it their way. I found it very helpful to assure people that I had my life under control (child care, for example) without giving them details that would allow them to second-guess my decisions. That's not to say I wasn't transparent in what we were doing — I pastor a small church in a small town — but I kept the decision-making private.

    I was also very open about what I needed from the church: "Our meetings need finished by 9 p.m." "Would any of you be willing to be on a list of emergency babysitters in case I need to make a hospital visit when my husband (an on-call health care provider) isn't home?" "Please respect my family commitments as our family respects my church responsibilities."

    When something unexpected happens, as it will, you have an opportunity to model the same tools your congregation should use: Prayer, grace, humor, confession and forgiveness. When drama occurs in full view of your kids, relate it to drama at school, on the playground, in the news, and teach them, at their own level, that the church exists in the real world.

    One mantra that I found very helpful: My job is not to manage what the congregation thinks of my kids. Tempting as that is, it serves neither family nor congregation well.

  6. "Having Jesus on your side is such a bonus in churches!" Well said, Ruth!

  7. Loving all this advice and wishing I would have had it years ago.

    Just want to offer a word of encouragement and a thing that works for us.

    Word of encouragement: I think when you leave full time homemaking and enter full time working, it's a bit scary to make this adjustment, because you are already working full time taking care of kiddos and house, and now you are adding another full time thing to the full time thing you already do, right? So, make sure to be gentle with yourself on the home stuff. You aren't going to be able to have the same kind of quality time with the kids you had before, but you can still do special things together. The laundry's gonna pile up, and the dishes are too. You'll get into a new rhythm, but it won't be the same as before. And hire out as much of the housekeeping as you can possibly afford. I would let ALOT Of things fall off the budget before I would let this go - it's way better for my sanity than many other self care things.

    Thing that works: I have pretty strict family time set aside. But I find it works best for us to have one night that we know I'm going to work thru dinner and into evening. I go in a little later that day, and my son and his dad have a kind of boy's night which is fun for them. I have other evening things too, sometimes, of course, but the church is used to scheduling things on my late day, which minimizes those other night things.

  8. On church drama...just this evening my 17 year old, who has never known anything but a mom who is also a parish priest, was telling me that he was discussing with his girlfriend (also a PK, though a diffent denomination) that clergy kids are like Mafia kids : "I didn't hear anything." This is a long standing joke with us, one he first developed, but I think it says something about how he has learned to negotiate the dual yet overlapping worlds of our family life. He hears stuff, he sees stuff, but mostly he simply sets it aside as my business. Of course I keep private what needs to be private and don't share most of the church drama, but kids pick things up despite our best intentions.
    I wish I could tell you how he learned this, but I really don't know; however, I think it is a helpful attitude. Maybe we have been very matter of fact about my work as a job as well as a calling. His 13 y.o. brother seems to have the same approach. Granted, like so much else this is so much easier with an older child, but he wasn't always older!

  9. Not a pastor, but I worked a fairly demanding job through my kids pre-school years. I found 2 phrases invaluable in dealing with well-meaning but inappropriate comments on how I was raising my family, particularly in church. "Thankyou for your concern" and "Thankyou for the idea". Both made the commentor feel "heard" while implying no agreement or commitment on my part. I found they allowed me to close down conversations gracefully and move on.

  10. Regarding childcare - I have a two boys, 7 and 4. What worked for me and my spouse - both working the odd hours of ministry at different sites, was to hire a nanny. She came to our house. She made lunch. If the kids puked, she cleaned them up and gave them a bath. She dropped them off at pre-school or school functions. I HIRED her, so I registered with the state as an employer, I did the whole nanny tax thing with the IRS, but I also got to set her hours, and my kids got to go to bed in their own beds on nights when both my spouse and I were out late. Oh, and while we're talking childcare, be sure to talk to your tax professional about taking the $ 5000 childcare FSA pre-tax deduction.

  11. Hey there! I've been following your web site for a long time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Austin Texas! Just wanted to say keep up the fantastic job!
    my webpage :: food storage


You don't want to comment here; instead, come visit our new blog, We'll see you there!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.