Why the church is called to support paid family leave

February 9th, 2015

Responding to my request for paternity leave, the church leadership slid a thin piece of paper across the table, full of language resembling a legal contract. Shaking my head while reading the mechanical response, their decision made clear that my request for two weeks of paid family leave would not be honored. After three years of full-time ministry in this congregation, I stared at the table with a heavy feeling in my stomach as I considered my family's needs.

Knowing the congregation had not dealt with this issue in recent years, I asked the appropriate groups shortly after we announced our pregnancy to discuss the details of my leave, guaranteed in my pastoral call agreement, to avoid any last minute confusion. As a young married couple, living a long distance from family, we needed to plan in advance for the care and expenses involved in the birth of our first child. Discovering two months from the due date that my leave would not include pay forced my family into a vulnerable position.

Unfortunately, the unwillingness of the church leadership to follow denominational guidelines led us into the ninth month of our pregnancy without an agreement. The worst part was the toll on my wife’s health due to stress from the unresolved leave. Only a few weeks before the birth, thanks to advocacy from the denomination, an agreement including pay was reached but required me to remain on call and lead weekly worship. In the end, I was not granted a legitimate paternity leave allowing me to completely step away from pastoral responsibilities to care for my wife and newborn child when they needed it most.

A nation of family values

This situation is not unique to my family; rather, it affects countless families in both religious and secular workplaces. Our nation is significantly behind the rest of the modern world in offering paid family leave for men and women. “We are the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or maternity leave to our workers,” President Obama announced last month in his State of the Union address. Considering America’s pride in embracing family values, whether religiously or politically, this is surprising news. We are quick to claim the importance of family values, yet when asked to invest our financial resources in working families by providing paid family leave we stall.

The result is families, especially those with minimal resources and low wages, find themselves in the awful position of choosing between caring for loved ones and receiving pay. In a nation with abundant wealth and resources, it is unconscionable to discourage workers from caring for severely ill family members or newborn children by withholding pay during leave. This is the ultimate family values issue, and an opportunity to make a common-sense decision to support the well-being of families, which in turn leads to healthier workers.

In the early 1990s, the Family Medical Leave Act, a law guaranteeing family leave for workers was passed, but it did not go far enough because employers are not required to pay employees on leave, and employers with less than 50 workers are exempt. The law was a positive step providing leave without the risk of losing your job; however, without pay leave is not a realistic option for many workers with medicals bills piling up. If change is to occur so workers of all socioeconomic backgrounds are given an opportunity to care for their families, groups like the church must join the voices supporting paid family leave.

Gospel story is a family story

The church not supporting paid family leave is like the United Nations not supporting peace between countries. In the Gospel story, family is at the center of the narrative. God chose a young, powerless and poor family as a means to offer hope and salvation to the world. Mary and Joseph trusted God, putting aside work and the expectations of others, and in turn the Almighty nurtured them as they traveled to Bethlehem to birth Jesus. The birth of the Christ child reveals that family is precious to God.

Christian community participates in the ministry of Christ, which cares about the physical, emotional and spiritual dimensions of human beings, and the most basic unit they operate within, the family. As the body of Christ, our calling is to care for the whole person at all stages of the life cycle. Congregations who receive or call clergy with families are entrusted with the sacred responsibility of walking alongside them, through all seasons of life, whether a child is born or adopted, and when loved ones become severely ill.

Advocating for paid family leave is an opportunity for God’s people to live out their values and offer an alternative vision to mainstream culture, which often values productivity and material possessions over people. Followers of Jesus would do well to ask themselves this question: Are we using our resources to build the kingdom of God or are we using them to preserve our own kingdom? In other words, are we choosing to meet the needs of people, especially families, or our own agenda? Jesus teaches in the Gospel of Matthew that our choices reveal our values. He instructs, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Billy Doidge Kilgore blogs at OurDeepestSelves.com.

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