mxSpXyWAsking for what we need in a pastor call agreement is difficult. Even more difficult might be anticipating what might be needed and figuring out what is reasonable.

The question today is about asking for family leave — including maternity leave/parental leave. 

Dear Matriarchs:

I have just graduated from seminary and am seeking a call to a church. Some of us soon-to-be pastors have been discussing ministry contract/covenant negotiations, and we get stuck when we think about asking for parental/family leave.

So we are looking to you experienced pastors to share how this actually works in your experience:

* How much parental/family leave time is reasonable/beneficial to ask for?
* What is the best way to approach this with committees? 
* Looking back, how has your amount of parental/family leave worked for you and the congregation?
* What do you wish you had done differently?

Our needs vary greatly. Some of us are in the “starting a family” stage, while others are in the empty nest phase of life.

We are looking forward to your advice on this.

This week, we added two matriarchs to our panel. Welcome, Stephanie Elizabeth Anthony and Camille LeBron Powell!

Jennifer Burns Lewis:
I’m PC(USA) and served congregations for 33 years before moving over to mid-Council leadership in 2016. If you have a higher governing body, I’d suggest checking in with them to see if they have a parental/family leave policy or guidelines for congregations. 

I’d suggest that it’s helpful to negotiate it up front as part of the terms of your call or contract, but it’s also feasible— and helpful— to work with your congregation’s personnel team or board for a policy for all staff serving your congregation. 

The last congregation I served had a generous sick day policy as well as parental/family leave that was pretty broad in allowing for any sort of needed family leave, including care for self or a relative at anytime. It was written to include birth, adoption, care for a parent or child or partner and was general enough to be fully inclusive of many possibilities. Birth or adoption was up to eight weeks and could be supplemented with the five personal days allotted in addition, and included negotiated time for other situations.

Stephanie Elizabeth Anthony:
I am PC(USA) and entered congregational ministry 16 years ago when I was 25. All three of my children were born while I have been a parish pastor, the first two when I was an associate pastor, the last when I was a solo pastor. I was single and not looking to be a mother yet when I began as an associate pastor in my first church; the issue of parental or family leave never even crossed my mind. Thankfully, my presbytery at the time had a policy for ministers within its bounds when the time came that I needed one. I would suggest anyone who is entering a new call of any kind ask the question I didn’t think to ask about parental or family leave when interviews are getting more serious. If we all get in the habit of doing that, whether we think we need it or not, it will send the message to churches and judicatories that this matters. I believe it also makes it easier for those who do anticipate the need. Advocating for our own leave is not an easy task. The solidarity of other pastors, I hope, will make it a little easier. 

When I moved to my second call, I was doing so at the end of a maternity leave. I asked the question about their policies or the presbytery’s policies during my interviews. When I learned that neither the church nor the presbytery had parental leave (I still wasn’t thinking wisely enough to consider broader family leave), I told them if called, getting a policy in the books would be one of my first priorities whether or not I ever intended to use it. It took a little while for us to do it, but we did get one passed when I was about 8 weeks pregnant with my third child before I announced my pregnancy publically. I was proud of the Personnel Committee that proposed a policy that treated male and female pastors equally as well as births and adoptions. They crafted a policy largely based on the policy I found in my first call, but expanded it for these issues of equality. I feel like the policy we wrote was fair to both church and pastor, although maybe not generous to pastor. It would have been a financial struggle for a small church to have done more; the policy met both of our needs.

The terms allow for a 6 weeks of full salary,full housing allowance, and full medical/pension coverage for any pastor who is adding to their family by birth or adoption. The leave can be extended to include up to 12 weeks with just 6 weeks paid salary, but still full housing allowance and medical/pension coverage based on the adjusted annual salary. If that pastor is a woman adding a child in a birth by c-section, they are granted two extra weeks (so, up to 14 weeks possible in total) of medical leave. The policy allows for vacation to be used instead of the parental leave if the pastor wants to extend the amount of time that they receive full compensation, but it still can’t exceed the 12/14 week limit.

This arrangement worked well for all of my births. With my first child I took 10 weeks, but came back to work just on Sundays and staff meeting days for two weeks because a new head of staff started during my leave. I didn’t want to miss out on the start of that new phase in the life of the church. With my second child my maternity leave coincided with my departure from the church when the congregation had to close my position for financial reasons. I was granted my full 12 weeks of parental leave before the negotiated severance period began. With my third child I used 10 weeks of parental leave and 2 weeks of vacation.

Tracy Spencer-Brown:
When I was an associate pastor at a large church, before I had children, I helped advise them as they wrote a maternity/family leave policy. They wanted to offer up to 12 weeks with no pay, because federal guidelines said that companies under 50 employees didn’t have to have such a policy. I don’t remember what they finally did, but they did offer some pay. When my first child was adopted, the church I was serving didn’t have a policy – to be honest I can’t remember if we wrote one or not. The Personnel Committee, then Session approved up to 12 weeks, with 6 weeks paid. You could add vacation to make it longer. I took 8 weeks – 6 plus 2 of paid vacation. When the second child was adopted, it was much tougher. Personnel brought a policy that was much like what I had with the first child. There was lots of argument – primarily from older women – who didn’t think it was appropriate or necessary. There was LOTS of discussion, which included whether or not it was needed for an adoption (since there was no physical recovery needed). One woman finally said that she didn’t get it when her kids were born, and she didn’t see that it was necessary. It was finally passed, 6 weeks paid plus added vacation if you wanted. Neither church wanted to worry about adding it to a personnel policy or writing a policy. Now, one church has a policy and one doesn’t. I like Sharon’s idea of putting one week of family leave into the terms of call each year, to be used as needed. Last year, my dad had two emergency surgeries and ended up in the hospital for 10 days (2 Sundays). This church was very gracious since it is almost impossible to get pulpit supply at short notice here. I think we need to insist that presbyteries (higher judicatories) have policies, and the Committee on Ministry (or equivalent) make sure churches do. Churches can be capricious sometimes, and we need to make sure we are covered for family leave and parental leave. And we need to model healthy systems for our members.

Dee Eisenhauer:
I had three months of parental leave in the contracts of my first two parishes, which was sufficient for me as I gave birth to two children. My current contract doesn’t have family leave; I didn’t negotiate for it, knowing I was not going to have any more children. Now that my parents are aging and their health is beginning to fail, I can see that that decision may have been short sighted. I feel confident that the lay leaders in my current ministry setting would work with me and find a way to grant whatever time I might need for family leave, especially since I am rarely ill and have not used all the sabbatical time offered during my long pastorate. That is not to say it should not be negotiated in advance, but I believe some flexibility is often earned over time.

Karen Sapio:
Nineteen years ago, I accepted a new call and then found out two weeks later that I was pregnant with my second child: not a great position to negotiate from. I relied on the Presbytery’s guidelines for parental leave–basically suggested that we move forward by adopting their recommendations as our policy. Looking back, I see I could have negotiated for an even better policy, as the Presbytery’s was pretty basic and not that generous to someone who had been in their call a short time.

Camille LeBron Powell:
I was single when I took my first call & assumed 1) I wouldn’t be there long enough for a sabbatical and 2) there was no chance I’d need maternity leave. Boy was I wrong on both accounts. 

In that call I was one of 4 pastors in a very large PCUSA congregation in a small city.

Before my first anniversary at the church I was married & in year 4 I was expecting my first child. 

Though one of the other associates I served with was pregnant when she arrived 15 years earlier, we had no parental leave policy. Thankfully our presbytery COM had come up with one to suggest to churches not long before. My personnel committee adopted the presbytery’s policy. I got 6 weeks at full pay + 2 weeks at half pay with the option to add more time for no pay. I stuck with the 8 weeks. The challenge then was what to do with the baby after 8 weeks. Our church preschool didn’t take babies until 6 months and there weren’t a lot of options in our city for tiny ones short term. I was able to negotiate 4 months of working 3/4 time. I was in the office 1 full day each week (my MIL drove 3hrs each way that day to care for her only grandchild). I spent 1 half day in the office with baby in tow. Then some evening meetings, Sundays, and the rest of the work from home as needed. We were fortunate to have a pastor who had grown up in the congregation in a time of transition. He was paid to cover very limited parts of my portfolio during my leave. 

3.5 years later with baby #2 I got the same deal for leave, but because we were down to 3 pastors (without cutting back on anything) I wasn’t allowed to do the 3/4 time for 4 months. That was much harder, but by then my mom had moved to town so I had more options. We also had gained a parish associate who took over my Sunday responsibilities while on leave.

I will say, I am quite the planner and organizer. I had notebooks available in the office labeled “How to Survive Camille’s Maternity Leave.” Chairs of committees, volunteers, and staff I worked with were brought in on the planning/preparation for my leave. I made it very easy for others to keep things going in my absence. I was also very clear with the congregation/staff/leaders what was agreed upon about my 3/4 time. There were things that just weren’t going to happen during that time. My head of staff was actually quite good at making sure people understood that & didn’t complain about me not doing my job. 

I would advise all call seekers to negotiate family/parental/sabbatical leave in their call, even if you don’t think you’re going to need it. It’s much easier to negotiate on the front end and when it’s hypothetical. 

As an aside- in year 8 I really needed a sabbatical. I felt stalled out, like I was just going through the motions. In year 9 I asked for one and was told that I had already had 2 maternity leave periods so I didn’t need sabbatical!!!!!!! Midway through year 12 I left, moved away by my husband’s non-church job.

Sharon Temple:
What you request definitely depends on your age/stage in life. Because I began pastoral ministry after maternity leave was no longer needed, I didn’t need to negotiate for that. When the first of my children got married, I began putting in my call agreements a week of grandparent leave at the occasion of a grandchild’s birth. I got to use that twice to visit and help with distant grand-babies!

If I had it to do again, I would simply negotiate one week of family leave per year. I would stipulate that this is to be used for the grandchild scenario or to care for an elderly parent in a critical situation or for another family crisis. I would not “use it up” on routine things — for example, taking care of the grandkids while their parents travel.

And a word of affirmation from Kelley Wehmeyer Shin:
Such wise advise from these women! I was always serving small, part-time church positions when I had younger children, so I never considered negotiating for family leave time. I am encouraged to hear that family/parental leave is becoming a standard part of pastor’s call packages.

Thank you, Matriarchs!

What do you say, dear readers? How have you negotiated family/parental leave? Leave a comment below.

Do you have questions about a transition to a new call? Send your scenario to AskTheMatriarch (at) gmail (dot) com


Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX. She is a contributor to the RevGals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.


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One thought on “Ask the Matriarch: What About Family Leave?

  1. I hope that whether we think we will need something or not is not the reason to skip negotiating for something…if every pastor negotiated family leave, then eventually we wouldn’t have to keep negotiating, it would be standard. Please remember, especially as women, that you are NEVER just negotiating for yourself, but also for the pastor who comes after you and will be told “but our last pastor didn’t have that.” Make the world better for everyone along the way.

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