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When baby comes, too: the challenges of a reverend mother

10 March 2023

Julie McKee picks her way through the C of E’s maternity policy

The Revd Dr Rae Caro with her baby

The Revd Dr Rae Caro with her baby

IN THE drive to attract younger women towards ordination, one of the issues that is often overlooked, but can affect the decision to go into, or stay in, ministry, is motherhood.

What happens if you fall pregnant during your training, curacy, or even incumbency? As in other professions, clerical office-holders who become new mothers are entitled to statutory benefits already: 39 weeks of statutory maternity pay (SMP) plus an additional 13 weeks of unpaid leave.

The Archbishops’ Council recommends that dioceses go further, providing a minimum of 26 of the 39-week maternity-leave period on full stipend, with the remaining 13 weeks paid at the statutory maternity level.

Updated guidelines from the Church of England, published in March 2020, encouraged dioceses “to be as generous as possible in offering parental support”, and to “offer enhanced maternity pay in situations where the new parents have not yet met the statutory requirements”. These could include moving dioceses or posts while pregnant, or being in training that is tied to time-limited grants. In the latter instance, dioceses are encouraged to “continue to pay discretionary grants to ordinands for an additional period of up to one year, to allow them to take time off from training”.

On the ground, it appears that the culture in the C of E is slowly changing to accommodate the growing number of ordinands who need access to maternal provision. These are, however, only guidelines, and each diocese is responsible for deciding its own policies, after fulfilling its legal obligations. This can lead to some confusion. And, as yet, there also appears to be no centralised approach regarding less affluent dioceses that may have difficulty in funding enhanced maternity policies.

The Revd Sorrel Shamel-Wood with her husband, the Revd Dr Andrew Shamel, and their son Tobias

The Revd Jules Middleton is the author of Breaking the Mould: Learning to thrive as a ministry mum (SPCK, 2020). She says: “There’s a need to get information out there. . . that’s the biggest thing. And the lack of continuity, in that every diocese is different.”

Mrs Middleton is part of a group led by the national diverse-vocations officer, the Revd Em Coley, which is planning “Motherhood and Ministry” seminars to help new mothers to navigate the issues that they might face.

The Revd Dr Rae Caro, of Tynemouth deanery, whose children are now four and six, is in the process of researching diocesan parental policies in the C of E. The idea took shape after setting up a Facebook group, “Clergy Babies”, for clergy who are either pregnant or in the process of adopting, and/or with a child under five.

“We were finding that women, particularly, and also men wanting to take shared parental leave, were asking their diocese what the policy was . . . and they weren’t really getting the information,” she explains. “The C of E guideline maternity policy is actually pretty good . . . but it’s optional as to whether each diocese adopts it, or not. So, we have this lovely model policy . . . but, in reality, we have 40-plus different policies.”


DR CARO and the other administrators of the Facebook group Clergy Babies are working voluntarily to create a list of dioceses that comply with the minimum standards recommended in the Church’s Family Friendly policies documents, and those that do not. Besides providing information, the hope is that “there might be some impetus within each diocese for change.”

She continues: “It’s really hard to find these policies, and that’s been a big stumbling block in our research. [Or] maybe they’re just really old and they’ve not been updated, or hidden in several layers of website, or they’re not on a website.”

This is important, because, Mrs Middleton says, “If you’re a woman who’s thinking about vocation, you don’t want to go into that asking the powers that be: ‘What happens if I get pregnant?’ or ‘Do you have a maternity leave policy?’ Because it kind of feels like you’re automatically pushing a button, [or getting] a black mark against your name.”


THE Revd Jen Green was ordained deacon in July 2022, but has navigated her entire path to ordination alongside early motherhood. Her first child was nine months old when Mrs Green attended her Bishops’ Advisory Panel. During her training at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, she took a term out in her second year, after having her second child, completing her studies in three years.

When she found that she was pregnant on starting her curacy last summer, in the benefice of Basildon, Aldworth and Ashampstead, initially she struggled to work out what to do, as, according to Oxford diocese’s maternity policy at the time, she was eligible for six weeks at 90 per cent of her stipend, 33 weeks on statutory maternity pay, and 13 weeks unpaid, because she had not met the criteria of being employed for one year before taking maternity leave, although she had been in training before that.

The Revd Hannah Grivell

“We’re a one-stipend household; so . . . that would be six weeks’ maternity, and then I’d have to go back to work, because, as a family with three children, we wouldn’t be able to survive on statutory maternity,” Mrs Green says.

After talking to the Archdeacon and Bishop’s Adviser in Women’s Ministry, however, who then spoke to HR, the policy was changed so that first-year curates would be eligible for enhanced maternity leave, which is full stipend for 39 weeks, and 13 weeks unpaid. “I’ve only ever felt supported,” Mrs Green says. “However, it has taken more personal advocacy than I think other people’s journeys might sometimes do.”

Despite the challenges of combining training with pregnancy and early motherhood, for some women this can be a more opportune time, because it comes without the responsibilities that curacy, or incumbency, brings.

The Revd Hannah Grivell, who was ordained deacon in June 2022, had her first baby in the summer between her second and third year at the same college. She was given the option to delay her curacy for a year, but chose, instead, to take one term off so that she could complete her BA in Theology, Mission and Ministry on time, while her daughter was in nursery three days a week.

She is now a curate at a resource church in Lincoln diocese, but it has made her consider the issue of timings for the future. “It was tough, although we got there in the end. But it’s a bit different when you’re an ordinand to being in a curacy, because I changed diocese as well.” Had she been pregnant when she changed diocese, she thinks that it might have affected her maternity leave. “It’s making me think before, or if, I have another child, when that might [best] happen.”

The Revd Polly Kersys-Hull has been Vicar of Harrow Green, Leytonstone, in Chelmsford diocese, since February 2022, after being on maternity leave with her second child. She had her first child while in curacy elsewhere in the diocese.

Chelmsford diocese worked hard on the maternity package, she says. “[Friends] who work for the NHS, and in the corporate world — a lot of them had statutory, or just a little bit better than statutory. But, here, there was a lot of support. I think, in part . . . speaking to people who helped write the policy, it’s because they really want to encourage young women into ministry.”

What was harder was finding cover for her maternity leave. “When you are the lead in a parish, it’s challenging, because you are responsible for your own cover. So you have to make sure your entire cover — all your Sundays, for the year you might take off — is done, and . . . any loopholes, or pastoral things, handed over to the appropriate people, which is a really big job.”

Mrs Kersys-Hull managed this through a combination of “fantastic” support from her area dean, and plugging into networks of other priests and retired clergy.

The Catholic tradition of her church meant finding a priest to administer the sacrament every Sunday. One of the options discussed was whether there was scope to bring a curate to priesthood: “Probably a better move than . . . lots of visiting priests for nine months to a year. It’s quite unsettling for a congregation, as well as a lot of work for the priest taking the leave.” This wasn’t possible in the end, although, she says, Chelmsford is exploring this, and other options, for long-term cover for similar situations in the future.

The Head of Vocations at the Ministry Division, the Revd Helen Fraser, says that the best thing to do, if you are pregnant and need to find cover, is to talk to dioceses and colleagues early, so that the best solution can be found. “There might be a retired colleague or . . . a curate in another parish who would really flourish in having a bit more responsibility, in helping a parish go through a period where the incumbent is on maternity leave.”


IT IS not just the issues surrounding pregnancy, maternity leave, and cover which have to be taken into consideration, but also what comes immediately after.

“I think the point at which we’re really letting women down is coming back to work,” Mrs Kersys-Hull says. “Young women are either leaving ministry, or they are not taking up posts [with] leadership capacity, particularly not the bigger posts across the traditions.”

The Revd Jen Green

Mrs Kersys-Hull works three days a week, plus Sundays, at her church. She encourages “thinking flexibly” around work patterns and having “open and honest conversations about the reality of what it looks like to juggle motherhood and ministry” with those who are supervising you. “I think a phased return [from maternity] could be a really good option.”

The Revd Sorrel Shamel-Wood is returning part-time as an assistant curate in Dorchester, after a year of maternity leave with her first child. It will be her second year of a curacy. Her experience has been largely positive, she says. “I’m in a big rural benefice with 12 churches, and they were really excited to have a pregnant curate. . . I’d say that the diocese have been very supportive, but I’ve had to be proactive in doing all my research, if that makes sense. I’ve been quite proactive about arranging [returning to work] and being in touch with the Archdeacon.”

The Revd Jules Middleton

She refers to social networks, including Twitter, as being a useful means of finding support and information. “The women’s networks in the church now, we’re very supportive of each other. There’s normally someone that’s had a similar experience that you can reach out to, and you’ll find mentors out there. People are really happy to talk.”

She has not worshipped at the church where she is assistant curate, while on maternity leave, to create some distance, but is looking forward to returning.

And, when it comes to the juggle of early motherhood and ministry, Mrs Kersys-Hull says: “It’s definitely not impossible. . . I think it’s about being creative and communicating well. . . We believe in life in all its fullness: that’s what God calls us into. . . But he does call his priests into life in all its forms, too.

“It doesn’t mean that, as soon as you put your collar on, you have to be readily available to all people at all times. It’s OK to have clear boundaries. In fact, I think it’s vital, to be able to be in it for the long haul. That’s probably valuable advice for anyone going into the ministry.”

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