Courtney Ellis learned about the importance of maternity leave the hard way. She was in her first pastoral position at a small Presbyterian Church (USA) in rural Wisconsin when she became pregnant with her first child. As the church’s only pastor, she felt like every day off was a day she was taking away from her calling, so she took an apologetic approach and tried to minimize the inconvenience to the church. She decided six weeks would be enough maternity leave before returning full time to the pulpit. It wasn’t.
In a country with the weakest parental leave standards of all its economic peers, church policy to support new parents is rarely more generous than what one might get from a public school, an architecture firm, or a dentist’s office. In many cases there is no set policy, and ordained and lay staff are sometimes treated differently. Many, including Ellis, would like to see that change.
“Family leave is a justice issue,” Ellis said, and it’s one where churches can lead.
In countries where paid parental leave exists to an extent that it can be studied, it has shown to have direct, positive effects on children and families. The first three years of a child’s life are important for forming lifelong bonds and stability, and parents' presence and wellbeing has a lot to do with that. A study of adolescents in Denmark found that, “for each additional month of leave (their parents took upon their birth), the children have 4.7 percent higher well-being, 3.5 percent higher conscientiousness, and 2.8 percent higher emotional stability. In addition to these self-reported improvements, the children also have 2.7 percent fewer days of school absence.”
PC(USA) to mandate paid leave
In 2022, a task force proposed an amendment to the PC(USA) Book of Order — the denomination’s governing document— that would require 12 weeks of paid family leave for pastors. The amendment includes maternity and paternity leave for birthing, supporting, and adopting parents. In late April the amendment reached the threshold for adoption, and so far 104 of the 166 presbyteries (which represent all 8,705 PC(USA) churches) have voted to ratify, meaning the denomination will join the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Unitarian Universalist Association in mandating denomination-wide paid leave following the birth of a child. The UMC and ELCA require eight weeks paid and UUA requires 12 weeks.
Six weeks simply was not enough, Ellis said, recalling her first maternity leave. Her body hadn’t fully recovered from the birth, and her baby was not yet in any kind of regular sleeping and eating routine.
“I had no idea what a sea change it would be,” she said. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Her church probably would have agreed to more time if she’d asked for it, she said, but most of the board was older and knew about as little as she did about what to expect for a first-time mom who is also a pastor. Like many church employees in denominations without a set policy, Ellis' first experience of parental leave was self-advocacy, without a precedent to guide her or her congregation. And she was vulnerable — the baby was on the way.
“When you’re in that posture of real need it’s just so hard to negotiate,” Ellis said.
That’s one reason parents on church staff — both clergy and laity — have begun making the case for denomination-level policies.
Policy weak across many denominations
Churches with strong congregational polity — like Baptists, Congregationalists, and Mennonites — are usually hesitant to mandate any sort of policy for individual congregations, but voices within those traditions have been calling for churches to be proactive. Baptist Women in Ministry, a consortium of clergy from across various Baptist affiliations, published a roundup of sample policies that other churches could use as models.
“Initiating the conversation is often left to the woman minister, which can be difficult or awkward,” the resource reads. “And the conversation often does not take place until the woman minister announces that she is pregnant. A better case scenario is for churches to be proactive and establish a maternity leave policy well before it is needed, which will make the discussion less personal and not as urgent and will help the conversation participants to be less defensive.”
Traditions that do not ordain women, like the Catholic Church and the Presbyterian Church in America, do still employ women, and their family leave policies differ between individual churches. The organization FemCatholic surveyed 176 dioceses across the country and found that only 31 offered any fully paid maternity leave.
When the Ellises — Courtney’s husband, Daryl, is also ordained in the PC(USA) — were considering their next job after Wisconsin, Courtney said, they looked for churches with parental leave policies in writing. Raising children was a calling, just like pastoring, and they wanted to treat it as such. No apologies this time, she said.
“God has called us to pastor this church, and to be parents … we believe that the start we get with this tiny baby has an outsized effect.”
The Presbytery of Los Ranchos in Southern California had a recommended parental leave policy that gave the Ellises confidence that they would get what they needed in future pregnancies, and they did. Starting with the presbytery’s recommendation, they were able to negotiate what Courtney called a “humane” plan for their two younger children — three months at full pay for her, and a mix of paid leave, partial leave, and vacation time for Daryl. The extra time made all the difference, Courtney said. She considered adding another two weeks of vacation to her leave but felt like being back in church life for Lent would be even more edifying. She took that desire as a sign that she was ready to be back in the pulpit.
Like many Christian denominations in the U.S., the PC(USA) average membership age is increasing, and church leaders are anxiously trying to figure out how to appeal to younger people. Many are making the case that mandated paid family leave, across the denomination, should be part of the recruitment strategy.
“If the church wants to be vibrant in the future … we need to make it possible for young families to be there,” said Ginna Bairby, a 35-year-old minister in Taos, N.M. “If I were looking for a call right now I would take (the church’s family leave policy) into account.”
Bairby presented the paid family leave amendment to the General Assembly in 2022, and responded to concerns that the amendment would bring the Book of Order too deep into the details of running a church. She understands the concerns about overreach, she told Sojourners, but “sometimes you do have to operationalize things. If you want something to happen and it continues to not happen, you have to get specific.”
The hurdles to clear
Finances are the main barrier to paid family leave for solo pastors and support staff. Since most churches employ fewer than 50 people, they are not required to follow the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act. Still, most governing bodies and denominations typically encourage their churches to mirror the law in guaranteeing job protection for new parents. But most families — especially those with young children — rely on two incomes to make ends meet, so a job guarantee, and no income during leave, provides very little. Because the United States does not offer any paid leave for new parents, employers have to fund whatever policy they create, which includes filling in the duties of the new parent. So a small church with limited funds must get creative to fill the pulpit and other pastoral or administrative duties, said Bairby, who is the only pastor in her 80-person church. It comes down, she said, to treating parental leave like one would treat the electricity bill — essential to running a church.
There’s a potential blessing to the congregation in the process, Bairby and Ellis both suggested.
“It’s an opportunity for the congregation to step up into those leadership roles and for the pastor to step back and look at where they might have been over-functioning,” Ellis said.
The varying financial capacity of churches shows in the language used by The Episcopal Church in its guidance to dioceses on the adoption of a uniform parental leave policy for all full time church employees.
A resolution approved at the 80th General Convention of the church recognized “the difficulties that currently exist with the implementation of a paid family leave policy, given that there is currently no commercial insurance offering available,” and urged “all dioceses of the Church to adopt the proposed policy as soon as practicable.”
The resolution offered assistance through its pension fund and made several other suggestions on length and salary percentage that churches could offer as they seek a sustainable policy. Ultimately, the implementation is left up to individual dioceses.
Networks and denominational hierarchies could help in other ways too, Bairby suggested, by sending in “pulpit supply” and helping churches strategize for administrative coverage. Seminary students, furloughed missionaries, retired pastors, and college pastors can all be brought in to preach, and denominational organizations could help pay their honorariums. Pension funds and some insurance plans can be used to cover the birthing parents’ leave as disability leave, she said.
All of the policies all have room to grow, including the PC(USA) amendment. Lay staff are not covered by any mandated denominational policy Sojourners compared for this article — though they are included in some recommendations, such as in The Episcopal Church’s. “That is a hole that needs to be filled,” Bairby said.
The PC(USA) policy covers all family-related leave, but the policies of other denominations do not cover non-birthing parents. Cultural barriers continue to exist as well, as a UMC report found in 2014: Many female clergy early in their career are hesitant to take leave that will inconvenience their congregation who never had to deal with leave when they had an older or male pastor, and many are unaware of the leave offered to them.
But according to Ellis, the disruption of paid leave, of any kind, offers churches an opportunity for spiritual growth and reflection, a chance for a pastor and their church to consider their expectations of work and life. Rushing back to the business of running a church — whether as a custodian, children’s director, or lead pastor — shortchanges a holy season in a person’s life, she said.
“It really does speak to how we struggle to be patient with the healing process,” Ellis said.
Bairby also sees a theological basis for allowing the birth of a child in particular to be inconvenient, to disrupt business as usual. The births of Jesus, Moses, and John the Baptist were fraught with inconvenience if not danger, she said.
“If we look at our tradition, we have a lot of disruptive births.”
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