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My Struggle with Maternity Leave

What I learned when I took 10 weeks away from my ministry

I started my first full-time ministry position as a youth and family pastor shortly after graduating from seminary. I had been married for a little over three years, my husband had a stable job, and we had recently purchased our first home.

Just like that, my biological clock started ticking.

After about a year of acclimating to our new church and my new position, we started the process of researching the church’s maternity policy. We wanted to know what to expect before we were expecting.

The research process didn’t take long. As it turned out, there wasn’t a maternity policy. There hadn’t been a need for an official policy in the past because all church employees had either been male or past childbearing age. I sought out the advice of a friend who encouraged me to put in a request to formulate a policy before I needed it.

The process didn’t start out as smoothly as I’d hoped. The mere mention of maternity leave was quite foreign in our small, traditional church. It was especially uncomfortable discussing the issue with my male supervisor. In fact, his initial response was, “Do you really need to take maternity leave? Can’t your husband just run the ministry for a few weeks when you have a baby?” I had to gently remind him that my husband had a full-time job outside of the church and that he would also want to spend time with our newborn child.

As we engaged in further discussion, the need for an official policy became apparent. After many months of consideration and research, the subject was brought before the elder board and the decision was made to institute a policy allowing for up to 10 weeks of partially paid leave.

The Hidden Struggles of Maternity Leave

My husband and I soon found out we were expecting. We were thrilled, of course, but I spent a lot of my pregnancy worrying about and even dreading my maternity leave. Even though I didn’t have to worry about the official maternity leave policy, I had other things on my mind. I began to worry that the ministry would lose momentum and students would stop coming when I stepped away for 10 weeks.

I was also anxious about what the church would think if I actually stepped away from my ministry responsibilities for 10 weeks. Would they think I was lazy? Selfish? Not fit for full-time ministry? Would they still take me seriously as a pastor? Would they find a replacement who they liked more than me? Would the other staff members feel resentful that I was able to take so much time away?

And then I started to worry about the kind of mom I would be. I often found myself wondering if I’d be able to enjoy and appreciate the time off with my newborn daughter—or if I’d be too distracted by what I was missing at work. I knew how important that time would be for me to learn the ropes of motherhood, to rest and recover from delivery, and to manage the sleepless nights. As much as I was anxious about taking full advantage of the maternity policy available, I also didn’t want to cheat myself out of this special time with my daughter—time I knew I could never get back.

In an effort to reduce my anxiety, I spent most of my dwindling energy ensuring everything was set to go off perfectly during my time away. We hired a wonderful college student as an intern, and I put together an exhaustive binder with every piece of information she might possibly need, including detailed schedules, spreadsheets, contact lists, contingency plans, and calendars. I met numerous times with her and my other key volunteers to adequately prepare them. By the time I felt the first labor pains—on my way to a church meeting, of course—I was able to hand over the reins (mostly) willingly.

Even so, during those first few days postpartum, I found myself resisting the urge to call the intern to find out how things were going. My mind would wander during a midnight feeding to that one small detail I forgot to communicate about the spring outreach event. I would see a picture on Instagram of the inner-city mission team and wonder why one of the students looked disengaged.

As I received more and more positive updates from students and friends from church, I slowly started to believe our intern when she graciously reported that all was well. I was particularly encouraged to hear that our volunteer leaders were engaging more with students.

When we took our daughter to church for the first time when she was a month old, my friends and colleagues greeted me with joy and encouragement, rather than skepticism or resentment. Realizing that my fears and worries were quite obviously unwarranted, I was finally able to relax and enjoy the remaining weeks of my maternity leave.

The Surprising Results

My first week back to work was the week of our annual summer camp, so my husband and I took our daughter up to the mountains to visit. I announced to our students that I would be available to meet during free time. A few other leaders offered to join me, and we told the students to find us at the coffee shop at 2:00 if they wanted to talk.

My 10-week-old daughter apparently was not aware that I had made this announcement, as her midday feeding was uncharacteristically long that afternoon. As a result, I got to the coffee shop at about 2:15. As I approached, I worried the students and leaders would be upset and disappointed that I was late. As I entered the coffee shop, though, I was surprised to see that no one was waiting at all. Instead, spread out over the coffee shop’s outdoor patio, I saw every single one of our youth leaders deeply engaged in conversations with students.

In that moment, I realized how deeply I had fallen into a trap. I had believed the lie that the youth ministry I was entrusted to lead was only functional when I was present. I had been deceived into thinking that I was the one drawing students to Jesus, when it was always Jesus drawing students to himself. As I observed these wonderful men and women sharing their hearts with students on that patio, I was amazed and reminded of God’s desire and ability to use everyone as a vessel of his love, not just those of us with “pastor” as our title.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I returned to full-time ministry as a new mother. I was continually reminded, however, that everything had gone just as God had wanted during my time away. Becoming a mother hadn’t made me a liability or an inconvenience for the church as I’d feared. Students didn’t walk away from their faith because I wasn’t able to give them my full attention. Instead, the ministry actually grew while I was away, and our leadership team expanded. God used this time to allow our youth leaders to build deeper relationships with the students, and that made the ministry stronger.

Those 10 weeks away were also an invaluable gift to my family. I was able to bond with my new daughter, take the time needed to learn how to be a mom, and enjoy those first few weeks as a family. As a result, I was able to return to my ministry role refreshed, filled up, and ready to resume my calling to serve the students and families that God had continued to provide for, not in spite of, but as a direct result of my absence.

Jessica Charney is a wife, mother, pastor, and teacher. She lives with her husband and daughter in Sacramento, California, where she also serves as an adjunct professor for William Jessup University. You can learn more about Jessica by visiting jessicacharney.com.

March17, 2016 at 8:00 AM

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