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Thursday, October 04, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - A Pastor's Ministry with Young Women

Our RevGalBlogPals community is truly international in scope, and as a result we learn about challenges and joys in ministry settings far different than our own.  Today's question comes from a pastor who has a deep concern for pregnant young women, even though congregations like hers prefer to take punitive measures toward those young women.  Here's the story...
Dear Matriarchs - this one is probably one that more liberal cultures will have difficulty comprehending, but here it is!

The parish I have been in now for a year is from a community that is very conservative and rigid in its approach to church rules and regulations. When I arrived I found that if an unmarried girl fell pregnant she was banned from holy communion until she went to confession and was thrown out of groups - for instance the liturgical dancers. I put a stop to that very soon, as you can imagine. (I believe a neighboring parish even has a "penitents bench"!) Quite a few girls were in confirmation class when they fell pregnant and were immediately thrown out of that too. But this horrific tactic obviously did not work as, out of the 15 baptisms I have done here, 10 have been children of young unmarried mothers.

I am at the moment preparing for baptism and confirmation two girls who left confirmation (and baptism) classes (and the church thereafter!) because of pregnancy and have now come back to the church wanting baptism for themselves and the children. No problem. I have arranged with the bishop that he will come and baptize and confirm them at the end of October. But chatting to the girls last night I am wondering if one is again pregnant. I have no intention of canceling the confirmation, but know that I will face a great amount of criticism if she is pregnant. It seems that it's fine whatever they do as long as there is no evidence!

But in addition to my concern about this immediate problem is what to do about the greater one. I have spoken to these girls who assure me that they are still in relationships (one with the father of the child, one with someone else). When asked if they were taking birth control measures, one said yes but the other says that the pill makes her fat! Now I'm realistic enough to know that they and the community are not going to change their habits (and believe me the problem in the community is far worse - and aggravated by drugs and alcohol) but it breaks my heart when I look at the poverty of this area and see these children being born into such a desperate situation. I intend to call a meeting of teenage mothers (but have to find a way to do it in a non-threatening way) so we can discuss the matter but would appreciate any advice I can get!

Many thanks!

From Kathryn:

I'm not in a similar context as you by any stretch of the imagination. I apologize if I end up being out of line... It sounds like something revolutionary is needed in your community. Does the polity of the denomination advocate for withholding holy Communion or is this just the culture? Does the community need activities for their young people to help them make better decisions? (Or at least keep them from being alone together?) How can there be multi-generational accountability and not have the whole thing be the responsibility of the young mothers? Are there communities in the area who have dealt with similar dynamics?
I am so sorry I only have more questions. I also have prayers and they are very much ascending. I am grateful they have such an advocate as you to work for and with them.

From Martha, who blogs at Reflectionary:

I live in one of those liberal cultures you mention. Maine is 48th out of 50 states for teen pregnancy rates, and our low rate is attributable to education. You've told us of a pretty astonishing number of baptisms for the children of young, unmarried moms. The young women clearly see something significant about church and must trust you. Is it possible this is an opening for an educational ministry in your church? Maybe the focus could be parenting young children (which is challenging under the best of circumstances). You don't mention how the young women are supporting themselves and their children; is there a possible ministry there for the church in caring for the children while the moms finish school or go to work? 

In the short term, offering an opportunity for the young moms to have a support group (maybe with church folk providing child care) would be a way to show you care about them and provide an opening for talking about all the matters of importance in their young lives. 

God bless you as you minister to them.

Do you have insights, experience, or words of encouragement to share with this pastor?   Let's start some conversation around these concerns.

We have just one question in the queue right now, so it's a great time to send your questions to the matriarchs here.

May you live in God's amazing grace+


  1. First of all, thanks be to God that these young women have you ministering to them now.

    I would just back up what Martha said and ask what kind of support would most help these young women break the pattern--tutoring? Job skill training? Childcare? Parenting skills? And can your congregation come together to help provide this kind of care?

    And for all of us liberals: I am a member of a very liberal denomination but I am in a parish with a history of very conservative leaders, and to my horror I discovered that unmarried mothers who during that time sought baptism for their children had not been allowed to have the baptism take place during a Sunday service. Shunning is alive and well in many contexts and it falls heavily on young women...something sobering to think and pray about.

  2. If your polity does not require shunning or (to put it more politely) discriminatory practices in baptism, then you have a leg to stand on. Take them back to the documents of your denomination and remind them of that fact.

    If the polity is more restrictive, then it is possible to interject a story of mercy. Christ frequently used the poor, broken and mercy-seeking as an example of those who were close to God's heart. "Have mercy on me a sinner" wins over "look how holy I am." (OK. That's a paraphrase.)

    In any case, if you are not allowed by polity to baptize these children during a morning service, then at the very least you can list them by way of congratulations in the bulletin in a following week. I have done this when we baptized a NICU baby or a still birth. (In the case of the later, it included a message of condolence and inclusion in the pastoral prayers.)

    Finally... Jesus never asked for us to be self-righteous. Christ did point to our need for forgiveness and humility. Perhaps starting there and building a church climate of mercy?


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