Time (and Money) For Family: What Clergy Need to Know About Family Leave

The last two weeks I have advocated both for an end of clergy student loan debt, and adequate compensation and benefits.  I feel very strongly that all clergy need to advocate for these things.  All too often we leave it up to denominational bodies to argue this for us, but we need to be our own advocates. Maternity leave is a relatively new concept for many churches.  Many congregations are not used to their pastor needing to take time off to have or adopt a baby.  Most congregations don’t expect fathers to take time off for paternity leave as well.  As seasoned pastors retire and younger clergy enter pastoral ministry, it is time to rethink our family/maternity/paternity leave policies.  I blogged my “top ten tips” for considering family leave for clergy and congregations last summer.  Please check out that post, along with your congregational and denominational guidelines to family leave.  Remember that sometimes denominational guidelines are seen as just that—“guidelines”—and aren’t always adequate.

I had a baby during my last pastorate.  But before I had my child, I went through six years of professional, full-time pastoral ministry, first as an associate and then as a Senior Minister, without a family leave policy in place.  As an associate the first church I served refused to add in maternity leave “because you aren’t married.”  Then when I became married, they said it would have to be negotiated in the future.  At that point, I was already looking to move on from that position.  At the second church I served as a Senior Minister, it was not included in my original contract and it took two years before they would include a policy for family leave.  As it was, it was finally unanimously approved by the Board of Finance less than a month before I announced my pregnancy at the end of my first trimester.  That’s cutting it close.

For an institution that is supposed to be like a family, to have a leader that models Godly family life, to not support families when they grow and expand is hypocrisy.  Clergy who are pregnant need a full paid maternity leave.  They need time to recover from birth and bond with their new little one.  They need not be worried or stressed about finances or benefits during this time.  Same goes for the spouse of one giving birth.  I have met far too many male clergy members who were not allowed any paid paternity time, or very little.  When bonding between infant and parents is most crucial during the first six weeks after birth, why would our church structures deny this basic need to its clergy and families at such an early stage?

And then there is the case of adoption.  Unlike a maternity leave that can be planned at least a few months in advance of the arriving child, adoption is waiting, waiting, waiting—and then it happens all at once.  It’s not something that can be planned out and known ahead of time.

I was blessed in the birth of my son in that when he arrived late and I had complications in my recovery, my congregation did not once mention money as a concern.  There first and foremost concern was me and my family.  They called us and prayed for us.  They set up a meal schedule for us.  They did not worry that my return date was going to be delayed a month nor that I could not return to a full-time schedule at first.  There was no question about continuing to pay me or my benefits.  The church ministered to me and my family.  They modeled a Christ-like response and care for me.  And that is how it ought to be, every time.

But again, like benefits as I mentioned last week, if you don’t advocate for them, you won’t get them.  Clergy and congregations need to advocate for family leave and they need to do it in contract negotiations.  Clergy need to do this whether they are married/partnered or single.  You never know when your circumstances will change.  And you need to do it not only for yourself, but for the pastor that comes after you.

Churches should be the most family-friendly institution and instead, we find our clergy often overworked, underpaid, not receiving the benefits they should, and not receiving the same benefits and care for their families as they should.

Overall, family leave is one of the least costly benefits to provide.  Most congregational policies I have seen require full pay and benefits, but churches do not have to pay for mileage or other professional expenses during this time.  Some churches that grant longer leaves may need to hire a short-term interim, but in my case and in the case of many others, it’s treated just like any vacation time would be: the church pays for pulpit supply and has a minister on-call for emergencies.  When my church finally budgeted for my family leave, they only budgeted for the preaching supply.  And when my leave needed to be extended, there was no concern (at least that I was made aware of, and I was usually made aware about budget concerns!) about going over the budget for the preaching supply as it was only a few more weeks.

So my challenge is this: for congregations to provide at minimum two months of paid family leave with the option of adding vacation time, and for clergy to all advocate for family leave in their contract negotiations.  Even if you never plan on having children, remember the person who will come after you.  For male clergy, I suggest advocating for a full family leave time as well—so that it isn’t unusual should a female clergy member follow you, or should you or someone else choose to adopt in the future.

And don’t forget, advocate for paid health care for your entire family.  Most plans (but not all) are the same cost for a family of three or more as they are for a family of two, though there are some plans that are broken down by number of members in the family.  Many healthcare plans offered by denominational bodies also don’t cover full maternity care.  Before my husband and I decided to have a child, we had to change insurance plans to one that did cover maternity.  If we hadn’t, we would have had to pay out of pocket at least 20% of the costs.  The plan we found covered everything after an initial copay and deductible.  Be sure to check your insurance policy and advocate for one that is more family friendly.

Advocate, advocate, advocate.  We clergy need to speak out and speak up for our families and for each other, to assure not only that we are cared for, but that we can be models of Godly families in the future, and also for our congregations to recognize the need to model God’s family in the congregational life.