Paid Family Leave and My Experience in The United Methodist Church

3954211071_630580ddc8_zThis is a tale of two Family Leaves. Paid family leave changed my life. It allowed the most hallowed moment of my life to make me a better person. I am forever grateful to be employed by an organization who answered the paid family leave question decades ago. And yet, I experienced the anxiety that many Americans are expressing now after President Obama entered  the conversation during his State of the Union address. As I experienced the anxiety of family leave, I experienced two different reactions. The first reaction shows what happens when people listen to their better angels. The second reaction uncovers the root of the anxiety and shows what happens when we allow fear of the unknown to win.

Family Leave #1

In 2010, my first-born entered the world. She scored a 9 on her APGAR test and has been as impressive ever since. Her mom and I wept like we were the babies. In the run up to the due date, both my wife and I approached our churches about taking family leave. The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline mandates a maximum of 8 weeks of paid family leave upon request of clergy with an additional 4 weeks to be determined by the congregation. My wife asked for and received 12 weeks, 8 of which were paid. I asked for 8 weeks paid to begin after my wife’s leave ended. Our thought was that our daughter would get 20 weeks of direct parental care before having to enter professional child care. Furthermore, we foresaw the fatigue and the mind-blowing nature of early parenthood. Personally, I was quite anxious to get a good rapport established early with my daughter.

As I approached my 3 churches, I was met with 3 different attitudes. One church was overjoyed and immediately supportive of the idea. One church was agreeable but more confused than enthusiastic. The third expressed mostly concern. All three churches were civil. The conversation included all the churches working together to work out the logistics of pastoral coverage while I was away. Conversation about the concept of family leave was on topic. Questions were fair and the answers given were received graciously. During those 8 weeks, I took my daughter to worship at each of my three churches. Each congregation got to see me in a vulnerable light and each encouraged me in their own way. Furthermore, I got a great 8 weeks with my daughter! I learned her cues and saw the first glimpses of her personality emerge. It was indeed a holy season for me.

I gained some perspective about the concept of family leave. For most parishioners, it was a new concept. It was especially strange to hear of a man wanting to take such a time. It was inevitable that family leave would rub people politically. Nevertheless, the congregation grew to be a bit more tolerant of new ideas. And the beauty of a new baby went a long way toward resolving any consternation.

Family Leave #2

Three years later, my wife and I had moved to new appointments, and our family of three was expecting a new addition. My wife and I decided that our newborn deserved the same kind of attention our first born received. So we approached our respective congregations requesting family leave as we had before, 12 weeks for my wife, 8 weeks for me. I was smart enough to anticipate some questions and concerns from my congregation. But I was naive about the level of anxiety my request would uncover. During my initial meeting with the Pastor-Parish Relations committee (kind of like the HR department, charged with carrying out employment policies of the denomination), there was a sharp concern that the church didn’t have a say to a mandated policy in our Book of Discipline. There were also many doubts to how feasible the logistics of coverage would be. I tried to address these concerns as fairly as I could while stressing that Family Leave was mandated by the Book of Discipline, just like medical insurance and other benefits. That particular conversation didn’t last that long as we moved on to address other anxieties in the church. This was an important contextual factor that I recognized too late. Later a meeting was called of the entire congregation to discuss the matter. I was supportive of the meeting and saw it as a chance to explain myself and allay fears. I learned that night that an erroneous idea had spread that this meeting would include a vote to approve or disapprove of family leave. There was quiet anger, I learned later, when that idea was vanquished. One woman expressed dismay that a pastor would receive a privilege that she didn’t receive when she was pregnant 35 years earlier. Another concern was raised that I was abandoning the congregation. I was accused of being rude. I took the floor to speak and tried to assured them that I would remain on-call and should a dire emergency arise, I would certainly respond. I even volunteered to be available for Vacation Bible School. I also defended the concept of family leave as good for children and dads. I also spoke to my desire to be a strong father and gave some spiritual reasons why I wanted this leave. No assurance was good enough. The idea of family leave was too new and too different.

I have since come to understand that this sharp opposition to family leave was based on gender role expectations, work ethic ideals and gaps between people’s ideals and their logic.

When my wife and I would go to childbirth classes in preparation for our son’s arrival, there would be 8 women in the room and only 3 men (does the man sleeping even count?). I couldn’t help but notice and wonder what that meant for men of that area. I have always believed in taking an active role as a parent. It’s what I experienced growing up. That flew in the face of the mainstream ideology of what men are supposed to do. Traditionally, ‘real men’ worked hard with their hands for long hours often forfeiting the opportunity to build healthy relationships with their kids. Even though it was a disheartening trend, the idea that a man would want to work at caring for their children was, as one parishioner put it, “foreign”. While I was negotiating this leave with my congregation, I was also participating in a county health assessment through which I discovered that our county led the nation in babies born exposed to drugs. I shared that statistic with the congregation and was met with understandable concern. It was easily understood that strong families with dedicated and principled parents reduced the instances of these kinds of tragedies. And yet, when I felt the need to focus on my family, there was a great disconnect between what I was doing and what most men of that area were doing. I am still stunned that otherwise bright and good people didn’t get it.

The conflict got so heated that the Bishop was called, the District Superintendent was brought in to mediate and I was removed from that church. I offered a compromise that would allow me to take family leave if I agree to leave the church early. The bishop accepted that request. My son was born on Good Friday 2013. We missed Easter recovering in the hospital. He made his debut at that church about a month later…on my last Sunday. My removal plus the fact that my wife decided to give up her appointment to take a 1-year leave meant that I spent my family leave packing and moving. I never got the holy season with my son that I had with my daughter.

What’s All the Fuss About?

Paid family leave is good for families. It creates happiness in our society. It prevents the kind of trouble that arises out of unfulfilled family relationships. It creates so much value to our world at large that it should be a joy to support this financially and politically. Most opposition to paid family leave is petty and illogical. It’s time to let society progress.

Image: "Dad on Mother's Day" by Olaf Gradin (CC)

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