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Our Church’s First Mat-Leave: An Interview with Sarah Stevens

Editor’s Introduction: My family and I have been attending Bethany Memorial Baptist Church in Aldershot. We have been blessed by a warm community and a passionate pastor. Our pastor, Sarah Stevens, went on maternity leave in December 2019. This was a new challenge for both this pastor and her church, so I invited her to respond to some questions (in bold) on the whole experience and how mothers, pastors, and churches can walk together better. My thanks to Pastor Sarah for her honesty and grace.

What has the last year been like for you?

This past year of maternity leave has been many things. It has been a good season of focusing on family. It has been full of love, tears, joy, laughter, challenge, and growth. The first three months are always a blur with a newborn as moms seem to be in this survival mode of eating, sleeping, feeding baby, changing diapers, and repeating. With both of my sons, I seem to feel more like a human after the third month. Showering more often seems to become a new norm around that time also, haha. (Just preparing you).

Overall, it was a good year even amidst the pandemic. Maternity leave is isolating enough on its own, but it was even more so during the pandemic while restrictions were heavy. After they opened up the walking trails and beaches again and we were allowed to see our family, I was so happy! (And so were the boys, as I am sure they were getting bored of just hanging out with mom).

Tell us about your baby and your little family.

I have two sons. Blake is four, and Vincent is now fourteen months. My husband’s name is Raymond, and we have been married since 2012. He works as an arborist, trimming around the power lines. He has been such a great support over the years of me in ministry. When we were first married, and I was leading a youth group, he would come along with me Friday nights and play games with the kids, and at special events, he would be there assisting in various ways. He was like a big kid with the teens (which they loved), many of which we still have relationships with today.

Tell us about Bethany Memorial Baptist Church. When did you come on as pastor there?

Bethany Memorial is close to my heart. I have worked there since 2012, first as their associate pastor and now since 2018 as their lead pastor. They are a church that serves with love and humility. They are a church that is there for one another and is eager to know the word of God. They love to worship and are so heartfelt when they do it. They are a church of missions, involved with many global and local projects over the years that have helped others with their ministries, food, finances, and more. I am very privileged to be their leader and a part of the church family there.

What was it like stepping back from church ministry for a year?

It was very strange as I felt like I just started as their lead pastor. I was there for a year and then got pregnant and went off for a year. I was thrilled to be growing our family but felt a bit guilty at first as I was stepping away so fresh into the ministry they called me to. I asked God, “What is up with this timing of a new baby Lord?” Little did we all know there would be a global pandemic around the corner, a perfect time to have a year away from ministry as responsibilities look different now. Hours have changed for this season as we figure out how to do ministry in a new way. God knew the timing was right, and my feelings of guilt for being on maternity leave so soon after the call quickly subsided as I was thrilled to be having another baby to add to our family!

How did your church support you? What were ways the church had to learn to support you better?

The church has been very encouraging and supportive of my growing family. They have thrown a baby shower for both of our boys and continue to celebrate them as they grow with their love, gifts, childcare, visits and prayer. I honestly can’t think of where they needed to support us better. They have done such a beautiful job of it.

What kind of pressures did you face, whether from other people, the church, or yourself?

When I went on maternity leave, the biggest pressure was making sure all of the loose ends were tied up and that I had everyone trained and in place for the things that needed to be done while I was off. I would recommend starting this process very early - thinking through all of the things that need to be done and in place before you go. I would also begin the process about three to four months into your pregnancy of getting your interim pastor lined up. This will give you lots of time and relieve any stress of a time crunch as you find the person God is calling to lead your flock for a short time. Think through the qualities, the character, and the experience level you want them to have. This was helpful for us. God led us in His direction, and we were blessed by the leader He chose.

When I was on maternity leave, I felt that the church did a really great job of respecting boundaries as I didn’t feel like I was getting calls every other day to ask about things. I was also very appreciative that our leadership and the interim pastor included me and kept me updated on things. So, though I was off, I was still a part of the loop, which was a great strategy I would recommend for any mom pastor going off on maternity leave. I was never surprised about decisions being made, and I was always included in the ones I needed to know.

What would you want other young female pastors to know (and the congregations they serve) about ministry, having children, and going on mat-leave?

To the moms who are pastors:

● Get a healthy rhythm of life that balances both your work and your family well. Don’t burn yourself out trying to be all things to all people.

● Find out your specific calling and the ministries that will flow from that and stick with it. If you are overworking and taking on too much, you, your family and your church will suffer.

● Equip people in your church. Each one has a gift(s) from God to use, and if you can identify what those gifts are, you can help train them in their areas for ministry and service in the body.

● Try not to be out more than 2-3 evenings a week. Spending the supper hour and bedtime routine with your family is important, especially if you have been away from them all day already at work.

To the churches looking to support their female leaders who are now moms:

● As she goes on maternity leave, help her to have everyone in place so that things can run smoothly as she transitions out.

● Not all moms are this way, but a good rule of thumb would be to give her and her family those first few days in the hospital in private (unless stated otherwise). There is a vulnerability, a rawness that comes with bringing new life into the world, and most need some private time to adjust and heal.

● I know many are excited to see the new baby, but until mom specifies, texts and emails are probably the best way to reach out for those first few weeks/months as she will have her hands full. This will relieve the pressure of someone who may not say they aren’t up for a visit, the freedom to text back when they can.

● If you are looking to offer a kind gesture besides a text, you could bring her a basket of fresh fruit and other snacks like granola bars, crackers, a water bottle with a straw, things that she can easily grab throughout the day to eat as she takes care of the new baby. A freezer meal she can pop into the oven. These are all very appreciated gifts for a new mom :)

● When she begins to welcome visits, stay a short time - maybe 20-30 minutes if the baby is still very young. Also, wait until mom offers for you to hold the baby. Some are more comfortable than others to allow this.

● As she transitions back to work, be flexible with her and her new family. Try not to have too many evening meetings or other events on the weekends to take her away from her young family often.

● And pray, pour into and love your pastor and her children as they grow and learn about God and the Christian community as well.

What would you like any young mother to know about God’s grace during times like this?

That God’s grace is sufficient enough for you. In your time of healing from childbirth, physically and emotionally, that He can carry you through the many twists and turns of raising your children. We all carry our “stuff” with us into our relationships with people, and our relationship with our children is no different. One thing I have learned about myself over the past four years of raising babies is that I need God more than ever. I am so not capable without Him to raise human beings and help shape them into the people that God is calling them to be.

I have learned a lot about myself in where I need healing still. I have learned that when I mess up (which is often), God’s grace is enough for me to keep moving forward. I know He is doing a transformative work in mothers (and fathers) as they seek God’s help in this crazy but beautiful work of parenting. My advice would be that as you make mistakes, tell your children that you have made a mistake and apologize to them. And forgive yourself. Keep seeking God, and He will give you all that you need for this calling He has entrusted you with as pastor, mother, and wife.

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