Thank You for Asking… A Response to Larissa Kwong Abazia

question-markLast week I wrote a guest post at Jan Edmiston’s blog. Today Jan shares her space again for a great post. Larissa Kwong Abazia writes about the sticky (and in some cases illegal) questions that search committees have asked her in interviews:

I’ve recently started interviewing for ministry positions and felt I was prepared for the onslaught of what I deem “inappropriate questions” from churches.  As a 30-something woman of color, I am familiar with comments that pose doubts about my age or experience, ability to minister to people older than me, slotting me right into youth ministry roles, assuming that hiring me will automatically grow the young adult population, or blatant misunderstandings surrounding race.  I’ve learned to take them as par for the course, as sad as it may seem in the life of the Church.  I was not ready, however, for questions surrounding my role as a mother.

Every single interview (Did you read that?  EVERY SINGLE INTERVIEW) that I have had in the past several months has included some form of the question, “How do you feel about going back to work?” or “What will your son do once you start working?”

I started to comment on the post but it got long. I want to give Larissa’s post a hearty “Yes… and.”

Every person’s experience is different. I know many women who have experienced a level of sexism, paternalism, and intrusiveness that I simply have not. That said, I’ve been asked similar questions, though not in an interview setting. In almost every case, the person was asking out of curiosity, concern, and in good faith.

Curiosity: The idea of women serving as pastors is beyond a no-brainer for me, but it’s still new to many people. Many of them are not looking for a reason to weed you out, or a reason for you not to succeed. They are simply trying to picture how the life of the pastor works, what with night meetings and hospital emergencies. Our busiest times in ministry coincide with the school’s winter break and spring break. (Fairfax County schedules spring break during Holy Week every flippin’ year. Grrrr.) So… “how do you do that?” they want to know.

Concern: Many church people I meet are genuinely interested in the well-being of the pastor and her family. Many church folks get the stereotypes surrounding the minister’s family—how kids are put under the microscope and spouses are expected to be a de facto “second pastor”—and conscientious ones want to mitigate that through expressions of care and concern.

Yes, in some cases, “How do you feel about going back to work?” is a trap. But not necessarily. Remember, the church is a community, a place where people care about people. Many people sitting on search committees have felt ambivalence about going back to work—and joy at being there. The question is not necessarily a wall. It can be a bridge.

Good faith: Again, I know women who have been the victim of appalling examples of sexism. That has not been my story, for whatever reason. I wonder all the time why that is. It could be that I’m simply clueless, that there’s sexism going on and I’m not paying attention. Or I got lucky with the congregations I’ve served. Or I’ve decided to give people the benefit of the doubt, and when those potentially iffy questions and comments come my way I see it as someone trying to establish contact and relationship, albeit in a fumbling or even frustrating way. Probably it’s a combination of all three.

(This is an aside, but I was asked some time ago how I view my leadership style as a woman—how do I understand authority and assertiveness, especially with people who may not be keen on a woman pastor? My approach is twofold:

1. a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor

2. really knowing my… stuff.

Both are vital. The former is what disarms one’s detractors; the latter ensures that they can’t write you off.)  

Recently I highlighted a pair of articles that touched on issues of clergy health and clergy burnout. I suggested that the traditional understandings of authenticity, boundaries and pastor-parishioner friendship are changing as the demographics of pastors change. So how do questions like the ones Larissa writes about play into these changing boundaries?

Am I suggesting that religious communities should be allowed to ask illegal questions in interviews? Well, no. But I want search committees to care about work-life balance. And if I have children, their child-care arrangements are a part of that. That’s just a fact.

Larissa writes:

It seems as though the underlying concern in [intrusive] questions is a distrust that a woman can care for her congregation if she is also a mother (and therefore caring for her family).  Perhaps, then, congregations should consider if they are asking for too much time and energy from their leaders that won’t allow them to maintain healthy boundaries outside of the church.  We aren’t parents of, but partners in ministry with our congregations.  It’s long overdue that we begin thinking about the ways we support our clergy, male and female, in their calls in ways that allow them to be whole people both inside and outside of the church walls.


I completely agree with the second part (we are partners in ministry), but am not at all sold on the first part (the questions show distrust). Of course, it depends. But if we are partners in ministry, don’t we have to hold one another accountable? Aren’t questions about self-care part of accountability?

I guess I’m arguing for more questions, not fewer. They need to be good ones, of course, Generative ones. But ask. Ask everyone. Congregations should be similarly concerned about male pastors, with or without children. They should care about single parents, and single folks without children.

I want churches to care about, and ask about, the self-care of their leaders.

18 thoughts on “Thank You for Asking… A Response to Larissa Kwong Abazia

  1. susan

    The advice I always give students interviewing is this: if you open the door, expect others to walk through it. If you don’t want to talk realistically about how you will manage life with a child and a job, don’t bring up your child.

    I do think that most questions like this are not intended as weeder-outers and are presented in a spirit of openness and curiosity, and perhaps desperation. I had a person ask me once how I managed to take care of my daughter while doing XYZ and I thought she was being mean. Turns out she was pregnant and just really wanted to know.

    1. MaryAnn

      Great points.

      I also think an interviewee can take an inartful or even inappropriate question and make it appropriate. You know the question’s coming? Then great: pivot and give the answer you want to give. Dazzle them with your thoughtfulness. Then tell them how much you appreciate that they care about the pastor as a whole person.

      Then if the question is a major red flag, decide whether it’s a deal-breaker.

  2. Mary Thorpe

    MaryAnn, I love the idea of the pivot. Sometimes I think it’s helpful to ask for the question behind the question. Like for instance “It sounds like you might be a little concerned about how I balance my role as a mom with my role as a pastor…” and see what they say.That might give you more data as to whether this is sexism or a (perhaps boundary-violating) interest in you and your family life. Having answered the question I thought they were asking rather than asking for further clarification, and having subsequently got it 100% wrong, I speak from red-faced experience. And on one occasion, when I thought the question was benign but it was not, from painful experience…

  3. Andrew Kukla

    I grew up with 3 sisters and I have 3 daughters so do not hear the next comments as a denial of any of what you are saying or the original post said, I agree completely. I cannot speak to the challenges of mothers in ministry and admit I benefit from privilege that I would love wasn’t there (and I do truly mean that).

    I just want to add one other aspect. I kind of resent the assumption that as a father in ministry I don’t have to wrestle with these same problems. My wife works full-time. Until just recently her work was less flexible than mine and I truly endeavor to equal parenting (not just the lame attempt some men make to rationalize that equal means about ten percent). The presumption that I can easily make evening meetings or don’t have spring break problems (and you aren’t making that, I know, but others do) shows how deep seeded the gender roles still are in our society. My favorite thing to laugh at in CIFs are churches who basically say I want you to demonstrate balanced home life but we do expect you to be at every church function, preach excellently at all times, and visit every sick member. Yah… sorry Jesus – you don’t actually qualify for this job.

    So I’m agreeing with you from my own perspective while venting some frustration that the status quo often assumes I will sacrifice my familial role for my vocational role simply because I’m a man and that is what men do.

    Thanks for sharing your words.

  4. Rachel Heslin

    Regarding your “aside” on how you deal with being a female leader: I recently read an excellent book about business presentations that drew a strong distinction between self-deprecating and self-*effacing* humor, favoring the latter over the former because, even in jest, saying negative things about oneself triggers questions in others about one’s abilities. Have you noticed this?

  5. Roy Howard

    I appreciate your response. It’s timely for us since we are now looking for an associate pastor. My former colleague had her third child a few months before she received a call to a full time solo pastorate. Many people, including me, wondered how she was (is) going to be able to balance all the demands of a full time pastorate with her family life. Distrust or disrespect had not entered the picture.

    1. Alex

      Being a “she” who balances what you’ve described above, Roy, I think one of the questions you need to ask yourself is whether or not you’d wonder about balance and demands if your colleague were male in a similar scenario.

      I’ve often been asked about work/life balance while my husband has never been asked. Yet we balance the same family life. I find that interesting.

      1. MaryAnn

        Yes… and that’s exactly what I’m toying with in this post. Ask the woman. Ask the man. Ask everyone.

        Or to cheekily put it another way: what a gift that as a woman, churches care about whether I am overfunctioning in my life and ministry. And what a shame that men are expected to bear these burdens and experience these struggles on their own and in silence.

      2. Roy Howard

        Hey Alex – Your point is well taken and I was not asked the same question when I was an associate pastor with two young daughters. Yet, I did try to have some balance in my life as a father and husband and pastor. In our current situation,I think we ask the same questions of a man about the family life balance. When I came as pastor the committee asked me a question about spirituality and work balance.

        And, having said all of that, my sense from my women colleagues is that the demands on a mother who is a pastor are different than those who are fathers. And I don’t know any single parent fathers who are pastors with children at home.

        It’s complicated; and requires the kind of nuance that I think Maryann is encouraging in the process.

  6. Meg

    For all… I have found this interesting to read. I suspect some of the balance questions come out of a sense of awe… as in, as a Pastor you have so many balls to keep up in the air…a calling that is not 9-5 M-F, a calling that touches many lives… your parishinors, children, spouse, a calling with so many different skill sets needed, etc… How do you do it? (as in please share your secret…we need the same help too!) All that aside… What questions do you want a PNC to ask…. which ones have you found to be the most insiteful, those that really allowed you to share so that the PNC can get to know you?

    1. MaryAnn

      Meg, I have frequently taken the questions in that light. (Humbly, of course, because I don’t feel like I have anything figured out.)

      Everyone else: This is a dear PNC member asking for feedback! Now’s your chance, everyone!

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