What does it really mean to be family-friendly?

The term often applied to all-ages programming and welcoming environments takes on a new meaning in the workplace, where it refers to increasingly popular employee benefits like paid family leave and flexible schedules.

Last year, legislators in 20 states considered family leave mandates. Such laws—currently enacted in four states and Washington, DC—require employers to cover a portion of wages while a new mom or dad stays home with his or her new child. During his address to Congress this week, President Donald Trump said his administration wants to work with the legislature “to help ensure new parents that they have paid family leave.”

Meanwhile, millennials—young parents with shifting expectations for work—are seeking out better policies from their companies, and forward-thinking workplaces from Starbucks to Etsy are boosting family benefits on their own.

Adequate paid leave and subsidized childcare is the most significant way an employer can support workers’ families, according to University of Texas sociologist Jennifer Glass. Her 22-country study found these policies notably impact working parents’ happiness and quality of life, citing examples primarily from the tech and business sectors.

In theory, the demand for paid family leave fits well with Christian values, which encourage and celebrate marriage and the raising of children. What could be more pro-family than polices that allow parents to be home with their child during the first weeks of the child’s life? How then do explicitly Christian institutions navigate paid parental leave and other flexible work policies?

“We strive to create a culture where the family can not only survive, but thrive,” said Dan Dumas, senior vice president for institutional administration at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. “Whether that's flexibility in the workplace, campus activities designed for the family, or other initiatives, we believe being a committed follower of Christ is synonymous with being a committed husband, wife, father, or mother."

Many evangelical seminaries across the United States share these commitments to offering faculty and staff a family-friendly campus. Yet few of these seminaries offer new parents formal benefits beyond the federally mandated Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which requires that employers with 50 or more staff members offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave for pregnancy, adoption, or illness.

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Some experts say institutional culture is more significant than institutional policies, but if Christian seminaries have family-friendly cultures, why are these cultures not officially protected and supported in their institutional policies? When it comes to creating family-friendly work environments, many evangelical seminaries tout the importance of informal flexibility over formalized policies.

How Evangelical Schools Support Women

I have been involved in higher education for over a decade. After completing my PhD at the University of Connecticut, I began my MDiv at Yale Divinity School, envisioning a career in Christian higher education and imagining evangelical seminaries would be more family-friendly environments than their secular counterparts. The real situation has proven to be slightly more complex.

An oft-cited 2007 study by the University of Michigan Center for the Education of Women notes that the majority of American universities offer at least some paid maternity leave, with large research universities most consistently offering the best formalized family-friendly policies (although, ironically, the researchers noted that these same large research universities also had the fewest tenured or tenure-track female faculty).

What has changed over the decade since this study was released? Have smaller private institutions like evangelical seminaries kept pace with their larger secular counterparts in embracing women in tenure-track positions and offering formal paid family leave policies?

Not entirely. Last year, women made up less than a quarter of full-time faculty at the 270 seminaries and divinity schools in the Association of Theological Schools. Numbers on female staff members are more difficult to pin down, but schools like Asbury Theological Seminary and George Fox Evangelical Seminary affirm that roughly half of all their employees are female.

While many evangelical schools promote and support women in positions of leadership on campus, their formal policies do not generally provide for any paid family leave. I spoke with faculty and/or staff members at Asbury Theological Seminary, Dallas Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, George Fox Evangelical Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Although some schools did not wish to publicly disclose their policies, Asbury, Gordon-Conwell, and George Fox confirmed that they offer no paid parental leave beyond regular vacation days. Gordon-Conwell, however, emphasized that they offer generous time off policies in general, averaging 18 holidays a year including the week from Christmas Day to New Year’s Day.

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Trinity has a slightly better parental leave policy, offering two weeks of full-time pay after employees have used 10 of their vacation days. One human resources employee noted that they had previously offered three weeks of full-time pay but budget cuts forced them to make some adjustments to their benefits.

Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, represents a unique exception. Thanks to the state’s paid leave program, Fuller employees get six weeks paid of “bonding leave” that can be combined with 12 weeks of FLMA benefits. Costs get split between the state (55%) and Fuller (45%).

For Fuller, the PFL program aligns well with a campus-wide culture that encourages time away to rest and recharge.

According to Bernadette J. Barber, the executive director of human resources and organizational development, Fuller employees are often asked: “Are you taking enough time away?” (For the last three years, Fuller has also granted all full-time employees Fridays off between the Fourth of July and Labor Day with no change in pay.)

Unofficial Flexibility Matters Too

Though the formal policies at the majority of these seminaries offer little more than the federal minimum, many employees were quick to cite numerous examples of flexibility and accommodation within individual departments.

Both staff and faculty at schools like George Fox, Dallas, Trinity, Gordon-Conwell, and Southern cited examples of supervisors and deans who allowed them to work from home for extended periods after a child was born, made it possible for them to work part-time as they tried to manage new family responsibilities, and even shaped the semester’s teaching schedule around the employee’s childcare needs.

Sandra Glahn, a professor at Dallas, described the flexibility and informal accommodations she has experienced over the years as “personalizing win-win situations in love, so everyone benefits.”

As she explained, Dallas “has done a lot of great stuff to accommodate me that was not part of any written policy. When my daughter was in school and I needed to take her in the mornings, my department head did not schedule me to teach morning classes. Instead, I took some hard-to-fill evening teaching hours as a trade off.”

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Janel Curry, provost at Gordon College, is co-leading a national study of women in leadership in evangelical institutions that asks, “What institutional, cultural, and theological factors seem to encourage (or hinder) the use of women’s gifts in leadership?”

When it comes to paid parental leave and other family-friendly policies, Curry said, “it’s complicated.”

“We expected policies to be important,” she told CT. “We have concluded that actually it is the culture of the institution that might lead to the policies rather than the policies leading to the culture.”

According to Curry, a culture of flexibility is the most important aspect for making organizations family friendly. In her experience, state and institutional policies are often too rigid to be helpful.

“The law [in Massachusetts] requires that you treat faculty exactly like a staff person, yet faculty have the challenge of semester schedules. So whereas before I would try to use an overarching principle of equity but within flexibility, the law does not allow me to do that.”

Jennifer Lundquist, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst who studies parental leave policies in academia, agrees that department culture is one of the most significant factors in determining the flexibility individual staff and faculty members will receive:

Institutional cultures, unless strongly enforced, usually fall second to local [departmental] cultures. As an example with parental leave, if the informal policy is to discourage parents from taking leave, we can have all the good policy we want to promote it, but you can't force someone to take a leave if they feel that it will be held against them by their immediate boss.”

Not all experts agree that institutional policies are secondary concerns. “I don’t think we should just be rewarding superstars, and that’s what happens when there’s no regulatory base,” Glass said in an interview with CT. “It’s an individualistic negotiation, one-on-one, and that means some people get goodies some of the time and most people don’t get anything at all.”

As she emphasizes, institutional employment policies exist to protect both the institution and the employees; they equalize and standardize benefits and clarify expectations and consequences. Without them, employees who are more assertive or have better relationships with their supervisors can potentially receive more flexibility than their peers.

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Expecting More Than the Minimum

Rather than Christian organizations being at the forefront of promoting family values and a healthier work-life balance, tech companies are leading the charge in offering paid parental leave to their employees. These companies are far more profit-oriented than most educational institutions, yet they understand the benefits of caring for the needs of their employees with formal policies.

Studies have found that paid family leave policies can decrease premature births, prolong breastfeeding, lower employee turnover, improve mothers’ mental health and increase their longer-term productivity, thus providing benefits for the parents, child, and organization.

Providing the federal minimum in terms of parental leave does not communicate that either family or women in leadership are high institutional priorities. The culture of flexibility and support that many evangelical seminaries cultivate is admirable, but these informal, case-by-case cultures do not ensure equitable work environments for men and women at all levels of the institution.

Curry’s research suggested that institutional cultures can shape institutional policies, yet many of the accommodations at the seminaries I spoke with remain at a strictly informal level. As these schools often advertise their family-friendly cultures, it is time for their policies to match their cultures.

To be institutions that live out the value of women in leadership in both word and deed, these schools have to examine the gap between their policies and their practices and explore new options for formalized family-friendly policies.

Emily Dolan Gierer has a PhD in American literature from the University of Connecticut and is finishing an MDiv at Yale Divinity School. She and her husband live in northeastern Connecticut.