It’s no secret that the church loves babies. We love cooking meals for families with a newborn, and we coo over tiny infants in their white baptismal gowns. Our lectionaries are full of Bible stories recounting miraculous births. But what happens before a baby arrives – and before a baby is even conceived – is another matter. It’s a matter that is virtually silent within church walls.
There are few spaces in the church for women to discuss decisions related to fertility, despite how interwoven these experiences are with our lives of faith. Whether implicitly or explicitly, women take their faith into account as they decide whether or not to have children, try to get pregnant, or cope with infertility.
In my own congregations, I have not found ways to authentically approach these issues beyond occasional one-on-one pastoral care. More often, I hear information come tumbling out later when a couple reveals they were having trouble getting pregnant, or suffered a miscarriage. I find myself regretting that I didn’t know at the time, and I wonder how I might have walked with them if I had.
It has become clear to me that many women do desire to talk through these issues inside their faith communities.
As I have spoken with women gathering the stories that make up this article, it has become clear to me that many women do desire to talk through these issues inside their faith communities. In particular, women who have been through difficult experiences with their fertility often express a desire for the church to recognize the stories they have to tell. Many express how much they could use the community’s support, even years later. And yet, the church has so far done little to put faith in conversation with these experiences.
The first fertility decision most women make is about how to “control” it. For many, this is a decision that permits a healthy sexual life without the prospect of getting pregnant. However, a recent Buzzfeed post also reminds us that there are an array of reasons women use hormonal birth control, often unrelated to sex or childbearing. Next comes the question of starting a family, whether the topic is raised by the woman herself (sometimes with her spouse) or by well-intentioned but unfortunately invasive inquiries. Though the church rarely talks about it as such, decisions about parenting are vocational decisions. It requires discernment to discover whether parenthood is indeed a place where, as Frederick Buechner said, “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Let me share some of the stories I have heard. Blessed with a happy marriage and a satisfying career, Caroline, 37, was unsure whether or not she was called to have a child. She and her husband eventually attended therapy to seek counsel about this weighty decision, as well as her equally weighty choice to have a tubal ligation after the birth of their baby. Their church did not serve as a resource in making this vocational decision, though the couple expressed that they would have utilized print resources or even a small group focused on childbearing decisions had either had been available.
Though the church rarely talks about it as such, decisions about parenting are vocational decisions.
On the other hand, Allison, 30, had been certain of her calling to be a parent for years. Even as she experienced difficulties getting pregnant she felt clear about her vocation. “I never really considered the idea that I wasn’t ‘meant’ to be a parent or that maybe God had other plans for me,” she reflects. “I just knew that it was what I wanted, and I wouldn’t give up until I tried everything to get pregnant.”
JoAnn, 32, and her husband knew early on that they were infertile, but they still felt called to parenthood. Their discernment consisted of seeking a way to live out that vocation, whether through adoption or fertility treatments. Though she felt certain that she was called to be a mother, JoAnn was clear that “at no point did I feel like God had promised us a child.”
Discerning one’s vocation in the realm of childbearing is an important first step, but finding a way to live out that calling can be a more complicated process.
For those who do make the decision to try to get pregnant, the journey often becomes an exercise in patience and trust in God – even when prayers go unanswered. A 2003 study in Human Reproduction followed 346 women using natural family planning methods in hopes of having a child. Though 68% of the women conceived after three months, it took twelve months to reach 92%. Healthy, fertile couples may try for as long as a year or more before conceiving, which can feel like an agonizingly long time in the month-to-month periods of uncertainty. Gretchen, 30, describes her experience of trying to get pregnant “an important faith practice because the whole process is out of your hands…It’s a lot of patience and praying.”
The Biblical stories of “barren” women who miraculously conceive can be a complicated resource for those facing infertility.
Personal and communal prayer can be major sources of support while women are trying to conceive, and they can help sustain them during any difficulties they encounter. Allison told me that she doesn’t pray a lot, but as she endured several miscarriages, she frequently prayed “for a baby to take care of…and for patience in understanding why [she] had to go through this process.” Fertility apps and message boards are filled with women promising prayers for one another as they freely share their hopes and disappointments. Comment sections display praying hands emojis alongside frequent references to “baby dust” – good wishes for a pregnancy.
Laura, 34, went through three miscarriages and a pregnancy in which her son lived for just hours after delivery. In her experience, being open about the situation enabled her church to reach out in care and to pray with her family as they dropped off meals or care packages. That support, she says, was an “amazing blessing” and an experience of healing in a very difficult time.
For those who cannot conceive naturally, the world of infertility treatments can be a place where confusion, anger, hopefulness, and fear all intertwine. The Biblical stories of “barren” women who miraculously conceive can be a complicated resource for those facing infertility. While these stories may offer a common experience and a sense of solidarity, God’s promise and ultimate gift of a child in Scripture do not ring true for many women in our world today. JoAnn, who went through IVF treatment, calls the story of Sarah and Abraham a “cruel tease” and found nothing in these stories of any use in dealing with her own experience. The Biblical narratives also treat infertility as a women’s issue, ignoring both men’s physical contributions and their emotional needs. The is one of many places where the church has the opportunity to step in and stand in this void.
To hear yourself named in prayer, even anonymously, is to know that your church and your God understand and validate you.
Pastoral leaders stand at a curious intersection when it comes to helping our members through these life experiences. On the one hand, I want to bring these issues out into the open in my ministry, to make discussion of them a normal activity. At the same time, for many people, these concerns are deeply private: additional attention could unintentionally invite embarrassment or compound heartbreak. As I ponder what steps could have a positive impact, I am certain of at least one thing: women and men are not seeking a program to help them through these times. Most of the people I’ve mentioned above are seeking prayer, peer support, and progress toward their goals.
In our worship life, we are already skilled in public prayer. We regularly pray for the aged and ill, for those who are rejoicing and those who are mourning. My hope, then, is that we as the church can offer better and more frequent prayer for the real situations couples are facing. Except for Mother’s Day when, inspired by the work of Amy Young, I pray for women situated all around the issue of mothering, it is rare that I publicly pray for people facing fertility decisions or trying to conceive. What I’ve realized recently is that I am missing a huge opportunity. Not only would such prayers attend to the needs and spiritual health of churchgoers, they could also help lift the burden of secrecy that shrouds this process. Even if women don’t choose to talk publicly, hearing these intimate issues addressed out loud reminds them that someone recognizes how hard it is. To hear yourself named in prayer, even anonymously, is to know that your church and your God understand and validate you.
Informal networks of support among peers may also be a way to focus on the faith aspects of fertility. Pastors and deacons could proactively connect women and men who have seriously considered their vocation in becoming parents or gone through a challenging process of getting pregnant with those currently in the midst. (Obviously, obtaining permission from everyone ahead of time would be of utmost importance). Such matching could instigate tangible support or even simply serve as a prayer partner network, helping people remember that they are not alone and that God walks with them in their situation.
Pastoral leaders stand at a curious intersection when it comes to helping our members through these life experiences.
Finally, raising awareness – both within and outside of church walls – that the church cares about the people facing these issues is the simplest way to bring the resources of our faith to bear on fertility-related experiences. Pastors who are willing to pray and preach about fertility choices create the opportunity to let people know that they are available to listen and counsel. Assembling resources related to vocation, miscarriage, conception, and infertility on the church website or in the library would also allow women and men to sense the church’s support on their own time and in a private space.  Pastors who find themselves on the receiving end of questions about their plans to have children could perhaps prepare responses in advance and respond in such a way that might sensitize members to the pain that those well-meaning questions can evoke. This also creates the opportunity for pastors to teach healthy ways to support those who may be struggling with childbearing decisions or the process of conceiving.
I can say from personal experience that crafting such a response is not easy. It’s inherently awkward, sometimes even painful. But those moments are an opening to gently remind our members that they, too, have a role to play in supporting people who have embarked on this challenging – sometimes exciting, sometimes heartbreaking – part of the faith journey.
 The names of women have been changed to protect their privacy.
 Many women report struggling to find theologically sound resources on many of these topics. Until the resources begin to catch-up with the needs, start building your library with Elise Erickson Barrett’s What Was Lost: A Christian Journey Through Miscarriage.
AUTHOR BIO: Emma Nickel serves as stated supply pastor of Ebenezer Presbyterian Church in Greensburg, KY. She is passionate about small-church ministry, homebrewing with her husband, Matt, and playing with her cat, Scout. Emma lives in Louisville, KY.
Read more articles from this issue, “Hearing the Voices of Peoples Long Silenced”: Gender Justice 2014!