(Or, more accurately, in the Children’s Corner, on the floor, at the back, pushing a pushchair down the aisles… anywhere but the pews..!)
I’m now four months into my second stretch of maternity leave. Taking a time of extended leave from parish ministry is a bit of a contradiction in terms: as ministers we live incarnationally and try and share every aspect of everyday life with the communities we are placed within, and I can only ‘leave’ that way of life to a limited extent.
Both of my mat leaves have given time for reflection and a change of pace to my ministry, as well, of course, as the cherished time it allows us as a family. Here are three things I am learning this time around:
The view from the pew is very different to that from the priest’s stall
There is currently a photographic exhibition running in Florence which exposes what worship looks like from a priest’s point of view. More information here.
As clergy, we forget that our view is a unique one, not shared by those in the pews. We may look down upon a sea of faces, but there is much that we can’t, or don’t, see from the front. And unless we take time out and delegate some of our ‘up front’ ministry, the pew perspective is one we will never have.
This is when constructive feedback is vital and valued. Banner blocking your view? Sound system dead spot? Notices too long? Preacher incomprehensible? We probably have no idea. I’ve noticed all of these things since I started maternity leave, having been previously completely unaware. Of course, this works on a different level too, and it’s not just about minor logistics.
Getting to church with two kids is HARD
Getting out of the door complete with shoes, coats, blankets, pushchair, hats, gloves, snacks, drinks, baby milk, nappies, wipes, dummies, entertainment, keys, phone, money, muslin cloths and two children is hard enough. It becomes almost impossible when we’re aiming for a set time, and one kid has an explosive nappy while the other kicks and screams because they wanted the other coat on.
The walk to church is full of worry. Will there be room for the pushchair? Will someone open the double doors for me? Did I remember the baby milk? Are we going to be late?
And then through the service, keeping a baby and a toddler quiet at the appropriate moments is exhausting. Seriously. I rarely manage it.
I am endlessly thankful to the kind parishioner who turned to me after a midweek service of Holy Communion and said: “I love having your boy here, and I don’t care how much noise he makes. It makes us like a family”. A profound moment. We are a family. And I know that we are a parish who welcome children, and who understand that “if there’s no crying, the church is dying”. This support for me as a mum helps me to keep bringing the kids, week on week.
But it’s still hard, and clergy are not exempt from the stress of parenting in public.
Sometimes, it’s easier to be a pastor without the dog collar
Without many of my usual duties, I find I have more time to chat and listen. I really value this time, and it’s challenged me to reflect on why it doesn’t happen as much when I’m working. Do the demands of professional ministry sometimes get in the way of effective pastoral ministry? Does the dog collar become, at times, a barrier? Is the perception of others that “the vicar’s too busy for a proper conversation”? I hope that when I return to work in June, I will still make it known that I have as much time and space to give to conversation as I did on leave.
Few clergy have the luxury of taking a time of extended leave, and yet still be fully present within their ministry contexts. It’s a great gift to be able to take this step back for a different perspective, and I hope the gift will be as much for the parish and the wider church, as for myself.