Mommy, minister and unmarried: Single mothers in the pulpit

The Rev. Leslie Callahan, pastor of Philadelphia's St. Paul's Baptist Church, holds her daughter Bella at the child's dedication.

The Rev. Leslie Callahan, pastor of Philadelphia's St. Paul's Baptist Church, holds her daughter Bella at the child's dedication.

(RNS) When Philadelphia’s St. Paul Baptist Church hired the Rev. Leslie Callahan as its first female pastor, in 2009, she was nearing her 40th birthday and the tick-tock of her biological clock was getting hard to ignore.

She delighted in her ministry but also wanted a husband and children in her life. The husband she couldn’t do much about -- he just hadn’t stepped into her life.

The Rev. Leslie Callahan worships during the 2012 Palm Sunday at St. Paul's Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

The Rev. Leslie Callahan worships during the 2012 Palm Sunday at St. Paul's Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

“But it was clear to me that I was going to do everything in my power to realize my dream of becoming a parent,” she said.

Now Callahan is mother to 22–month-old Bella, who was welcomed joyously by what the pastor describes as “a pretty traditional Baptist church.” She describes Bella's arrival as “a divine regrouping,” a different answer to her prayers than the traditional mommy-daddy-baby model she had envisioned.

Ever since unmarried sitcom anchorwoman Murphy Brown shocked much of the country in 1991 by deciding to raise her baby on her own, the culture has changed. Once unthinkable and later unacceptable, single mothers by choice today are met with less judgment.

In fact, according to federal statistics, more than 40 percent of births are to unmarried mothers. But what if, like Callahan, the single mom by choice is a minister, or a rabbi?

The phenomenon is impossible in traditions where serving as clergy is off-limits to women, including the Roman Catholic Church and most Southern Baptist churches. These prohibitions have drawn upon traditional views of women as mothers, and married ones at that.

Ann D. Braude is a senior lecturer on American religious history and director of the women's studies in religion program at Harvard Divinity School.

Ann D. Braude is a senior lecturer on American religious history and director of the Women's Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School.

"There’s nothing that points up the traditional conflicts that religious groups have put forward between ordination and womanhood than motherhood," said Ann D. Braude, director of the Women's Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School.

But even in houses of worship that have accepted women in the pulpit, an unwed mother can still unsettle the pews. "Traditionally, motherhood by Christians and others was viewed as a vocation, and you can only have one vocation: You could have the ministry or motherhood as a vocation, but not both," Braude said.

While their numbers are few -- and no one is keeping count -- some female clergy are concluding that their congregations can handle their choice. "These women are putting forward the possibility that not only can you have a vocation to ministry and a vocation to motherhood, but that marriage is not necessarily a part of that," Braude said.

But the path from pastor to single mom still seems to matter. For Callahan, she chose adoption.

“I definitely feel that God brought Bella and me into each other's lives,” she said.

Did she ever consider assisted reproduction or donor sperm? St. Paul’s had already taken a big step by giving the pulpit to a single woman. To ask the congregation to accept a pregnant single woman -- “I didn’t think it would be a fair thing to do,” Callahan said.

For many congregants, a pregnant single mother leading the congregation would cross a line that an adoptive mother would not, Braude said. "Religion conveys ideas through symbols, and the presence of a pregnant woman at the pulpit is a very challenging set of symbols for some religious people to bring together," she said.

Rabbi Felicia L. Sol hugs her two songs. She has worked for 18 years at B’nai Jeshurun, a progressive New York City synagogue.

Rabbi Felicia L. Sol hugs her two children. She has worked for 18 years at B’nai Jeshurun, a progressive New York City synagogue.

Rabbi Felicia Sol chose assisted fertility to bring her 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter into the world.

Her vision for her life was the Jewish version of Callahan’s: rabbi mom plus dad plus children. But in her 30s, with no prospective husband on the horizon, Sol made a plan for a family. She knew it could work at her congregation, B’nai Jeshurun, the progressive New York City synagogue where she has worked for the past 18 years.

“I don’t know that I spent a lot of time worrying about other people’s opinions,” said Sol, whose story was included in a recently released documentary about Jewish clergy who opted for single motherhood: “All of the Above: Single, Clergy, Mother.”

She -- like the other women interviewed for this story -- knew she had the financial means to support a family on her own.

But Sol, now 43, still worried. She still wanted a husband. Would having children on her own make people think she was not interested in men? And while most parents struggle to balance work and children, the feat is harder still for public figures whose work is to nurture a congregation.

“That’s what I had the most anxiety about,” Sol said. “As a rabbi, I have pressing responsibilities for a community. I don’t have a 9-to-5 schedule. I don’t have weekends off. Would it be possible for me to do this without having to hire so many people that I would never see my children?”

Sol did figure it out, and gives great credit to her parents, who help care for their grandchildren on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. Colleagues at the Conservative synagogue understand that she isn’t always as readily available as she was before her children were born. And importantly, she said, she herself -- no longer a rookie rabbi -- more easily sets limits at work.

But just because a potential minister mom lives in anything-goes New York City doesn’t mean her congregation is going to be thrilled with her pregnancy.

The Rev. Beverly A. Bartlett is associate pastor for congregational life at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church.

The Rev. Beverly A. Bartlett is associate pastor for congregational life at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church.

The Rev. Beverly Bartlett, associate pastor of Manhattan's Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, had made a motherhood pact with herself when she was in her 20s. If she were still single in her mid-30s, she would try to have children on her own.

In her 40s, she learned that her chances to have a successful pregnancy were not good but that a toddler in Nepal needed a home. Emily, now 10, is the minister’s daughter. “The church,” said Bartlett, “is her extended family.”

And what if Bartlett became pregnant, instead of adopting?

“The church probably could have handled it, but not without some discussion, and there probably would have been some people who would not have looked upon it favorably,” she said.

Bartlett has spoken with only one other woman in the clergy who has embarked on single parenthood without a partner. She has heard of a second.

Carolyn L. Gordon is an associate professor of communication at  Fuller Theological Seminary.

Carolyn L. Gordon is an associate professor of communication at Fuller Theological Seminary.

The Rev. Carolyn Gordon, who chairs the Department of Preaching and Communication at Fuller Theological Seminary, said women preachers are still new in many congregations, and their presence is bound to bring change. The first wave of ordained women may not have considered unmarried motherhood an option, she said.

“But I would not be surprised to see more as time goes on,” she said. “The women groomed for ministry are different now.”



  1. Yes, no doubt, murphy brown did it for me. Entertainment changed my mind. I’m simple like that.

    40% born to single mothers…geez. I wonder why the incarceration rates keep going up too. Great job society. Libs have done us proud.

    Of course when more and more lives of those around you suck as bad as yours, you will face less “judgement”. Duh. Base becomes the norm. Its not “better” cause there is less judgement. There is less judgement because you all are allowing your gifts to rot in your dumb choices, all made in the name if freedom. At least you feel good about it though.

    And how ironic is it that a poop slinging site like RNS posts 5 pieces a day criticizing traditional christian doctine on thr basis of liberal ideology. …yet on thid one turns around and praises religion because it look just like them in this case? Did the writers think no one would notice?

  2. I do not believe women should hold authority over men. and the reason is very simple its not because some women can not be better at things than many men.
    we all know many women are better at things than some men..

    its simply because God has assigned a different role model for women.

    women are to be helpers not leader’s of men.. again it not because women can not be better leader’s than some men it imply because God has assigned them to be helper’s.

  3. Rude and ignorant “comments” notwithstanding, I appreciate this article, and am glad to be counted among the women clergy who are also single-mothers-by-choice. It’s nice to hear about others who have taken this path, especially in my own denomination. It’s been wonderful to be a mom, and to have a loving and supportive congregation as my daughter’s “extended family.”

  4. Stories like this are hopeful for many reasons:

    1. It is great that women are growing in importance in the churches.
    2. It shows biblical literalists are losing the debate.
    3. It reveals church to be little more than a feel-good, sunday social club.
    4. Women preachers help destroy the power of the church because they usually support women’s rights and that goes against the religious establishment 100%.

  5. L-O-L

    I can hear the sound of many collective jaws dropping when reading Rob’s comment.

  6. Really? It reads like pretty standard Christian gender politics to me, and the readership here seems to be mostly Christian (judging from the comments, anyway).

  7. @Rev. Lauren Jones,

    Looks like there is plenty of hate
    coming from the source of your teachings you preach:

    “If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be cursed!” – (1 Cor. 16:22)

    Sorry, but that is not a very nice welcome mat.

  8. @Larry,

    Rob’s comment reminds me that religion is definitely good for one thing; blasphemy. I don’t know where i’d be without it.

  9. Rev. Callahan did it the RIGHT way. Either adopt, or else adopt. Period.

    And you know it’s true, baby !!!!

  10. Am generally ambivalent about womyn preachers in any case; but if we must have them I can only hope the children of these single moms were at least initially produced within the context of a matrimonial relationship; otherwise scripture clearly disqualifies them. I know…I know, fundamentalist, anti-womyn, reactionary, regressive, etc., etc., etc. Well, this is still America and that’s my point of view.

  11. I would be interested to know what these women think about the lack of a father in the home from a biblical perspective. It takes a man and woman to make a child and clearly this is by God’s design, so when you eliminate the other half by choice, then how is this reflecting on their view of God’s authority and sovereignty? With medical technology where it is today we can do what was not possible in the past, but is there a theological issue here that is not being discussed? God’s design does not seem to be an issue, nor an understanding of why God made them male and female with different gifts and strengths. As a Christian minister, did she even struggle with any of this, or was this just a decision based on what she wanted and what she could now medically do? There should be some deeper consideration on this issue from her position. We are too willy-nilly today and too quickly throw out the bigger spiritual issues to satisfy our wants and desires.

  12. “This is still America,” Diogenes wrote.

    Actually, it’s only America until Obama gets done with it. Then it will be pure HADES !!

  13. Nah, all larry hears is the sounds of bombs dropping and kids dying….and dancing israelis.

  14. Look, assuming u are religious Rev Jones…you can see you will catch “hate” from the nonreligious groupthinkers regardless of what you say. See below. They will “hate” yoy simply because you are religious…not like them.

    Yes they are hypocrites like that but most are a subset of some legally protected variation of human in this country…so they act differently. Meaning they criticize you in ways you are not supposed to criticize them. Them when you do, they call u “hater, bigot, racist, etc” and any number of media buzzword names intended to bring an emotional but unthinking response in an attempt to escape the confrontation.

    Which brings me to my second point. You whipped out thr big “quit your hating” claim pretty fast there. Perhaps you did that in jest…I do too sometimes to make fun of thr liberals here. But if you did that seriously, then you will catch “hate” from the conservative religious people here because we know what a totally brainless buzzword “hate” is and honestly just flat doubt the intellectual abilities or those who use it of their intentions.

    So please, pick a side. One side will always hate you, its a given. Humanity is rotten that way. But you might be of a mindset that rides the fence. Just saying so yoh don’t get it from both sides.

  15. Usually they are a little less obvious about it. 🙂

    Max’s response was the kicker. It got him to declare OMG!

  16. John, Diogenes, Doc, you both seem to act like you are the sole arbiter of what God’s word is and that your views of gender roles and child raising are the only ones available to Christians. You all engage in the most obvious s1ut shaming you can dredge up. You would never show respect to a woman in position of spiritual authority anyway. So you hurl rather demeaning insults at them and their lives.

    They chose to raise families as Christians and take on the mantle of minister. It is not something for your approval or any of your business how they go about such things. Nobody has to live according to the way you want them.

    It is obvious there would never be a place for these women in your churches. First of all because they dare to take the role of clergy, which according to all of you requires being male…because. Also the fact that they chose to raise families that don’t show obedience to some guy. Because to your version of faith only men are real people.

    They are not part of your church, nor ever would be. You can stop the phony pretense that your views are the only ones in Christendom.

  17. Rev’s Appel and Jones, and the ladies of this article, I admire your efforts. You are choosing a difficult path, on your own terms.

    Even though I am an atheist, I appreciate what you are doing. It comes from understanding that one’s beliefs and choices do not have to apply to everyone. To each their own. It is wonderful that you have found denominations which are open and accepting.

  18. Wow, you missed the point entirely and then resorted to typecasting and name calling. Very mature and really makes me want to carry on the conversation with you. Good luck…

  19. I called it as I saw it. You were the one denigrating these women for not choosing to live how you would have wanted them to. That they might not have considered your position on such subjects.

    You weren’t interested in a conversation. Merely making a fairly contemptuous backhanded remark that they are not living according to your view of “God’s design”.

  20. No, this is not “standard Christian gender politics.” Just because some fundamentalist misogynist spouts off doesn’t mean that’s what the Christian church believes in general.

    And Rob… read Romans 16 again – sounds to me like a whole lot of female leaders within the early church to me.

  21. I wonder what Jesus would say? After all, wasn’t it his own unwed mother who received her pregnancy as a gift, not knowing at the time whether or not she would remain unmarried for the rest of her life.

  22. Beth, as you know I am with you. Like Beth, I adopted my daughter while I was single and serving as a pastor in Colorado. Best decision and biggest blessing of my life. Also a wonderful gift to the congregation.

  23. What’s wrong, Larry? Didn’t I give Rev. Callahan sincere kudos for obtaining a child in the right way? She did good!

    But, now, some of that OTHER business with some of these other women, you know there’s something queasy with THAT kind o’ mess.

    After all, Larry, do you salute MALE Christian pastors for generating babies without getting married first? I bet you don’t. Nobody does, honestly.

    So I’m just saying, either adopt a child like Rev. Callahan, or hunt yourself a good hubby or wifey. Git that shotgun wedding loaded up, and bring plenty of shotguns. Double Zero Buck, yeah!

    But whatever you choose, remember: NO RINGIE NO DINGIE, BABY!!!!!!

  24. And if she didn’t have a child “the right way” then what would have been your reaction? Scorn, derision and s1utshaming.

    “After all, Larry, do you salute MALE Christian pastors for generating babies without getting married first? ”

    Do males give birth or are expected to be homemakers “as a religious duty”?

  25. Equating Jesus with this issue only exposes ignorance.

  26. Children deserve both a mother and a father. Let’s not ignore this vital truth.

  27. Vital?
    Because you say so?
    Cruel nonsense!

    Tell that to a child who lost a mother or father at an early age!
    Cruel. cruel, cruel. And not true.

    Religion makes people say the cruelest things on earth.

  28. Jesus was born to an unwed mother and had a deadbeat dad. 🙂

  29. Rob, I agree with you. God made things to work as they work for important reasons. When things don’t work like He made them to work, there are always problems– some expected and some unforeseen.

  30. I agree. And, having read the rest of these comments (and I hated to waste my time with self-centered or hateful ones), I want to acknowledge that the selfish and self-centered are after what is good for them or right in their eyes, but that only mature people can honestly appeal to truth and facts on a matter.

  31. The Bible says that women shouldn’t have authority over men. Immature people (i.e. self-centered people) don’t really care about the truth or the facts; they want what they want and care about how they feel. Many of them complain about Obama trying to change the Constitution to fit his agenda; but they don’t mind changing the Bible to fit their own agendas. Mature people, however, are firstly sincere and secondly objective when approaching a topic. They go with the facts above feelings and are therefore much less inclined to confusion (within their arguments also) and rebellious and angry feelings and behavior.

    Apparently, according to Bible examples, God allows women to preach and prophesy and speak in public; but God does not allow a woman to exercise authority over men (this is different from preaching)– i.e. to rule over or have right of way before men. God created the man with authority, which means he goes first, because authority is the twin to responsibility. God has not created women to go first nor with broad shoulders so to speak. I am pretty much 100% sure that every single woman who cries for her right to ‘rule over men’ is 100% unwilling to shoulder the real responsibility (not position or popularity) that God has given to the man. If a woman was to accept God’s responsibility which He placed on men, she would have to abandon all needs for comfort and security, be willing to always lead a charge, always be the pioneer and the first to go into all the unsafe areas, be on the frontlines in war and battle, and abandon every complaint she has against men not taking responsibility in society as those responsibilities now all rest on her narrow shoulders. The real masculine responsibility (not this partial, “I can now lead church” responsibility) is as impossible for a woman as child-bearing would be for a man. (Women, think about it.) God made each gender the way He did, and only within our God-given limits are we beautiful.

  32. Hey Larry, everything else being equal, you missed on subject / verb agreement with this post, listing three and referencing them as “both.”
    Further I am on record as being ‘ambivalent,’ not against womyn preachers.
    And as usual you’re wrong on scripture, the bible sets qualifications for the office of minister, an unmarried mother, or for that matter unmarried father is disqualified, unless a widow/widower. Those are not my rules…they are the commands set forth by the bible. As an atheist aren’t you butting in to someone else’s family quarrel.

  33. I’d tell them that they deserve both a loving mother and father but because our world isn’t perfect they don’t have it but they are still loved.

    All true.

  34. As usual, I don’t care what you think scripture says on a subject. Its your attitude that it is only open to your view which I take issue with. They are “your rules” because you chose to interpret them in a manner you found acceptable. You apply them to others because you want to pretend your opinion on the subject should matter. Your attitude towards these women is derisive and patronizing.

  35. You don’t have to worry. Those ladies would never be part of your church anyway. Obviously whatever church you belong to would never let a woman in a clergy role and would probably ostracize single mothers as well. So its not like you would be dealing with such people anyway except as an outsider to their various sects.

  36. Larry, you are absurd. When a plain statement is made in any text, its straightforward meaning is generally apparent to anyone with the least amount of objectivity. With respect to leaders in the Church, the scripture plainly sets for qualifications in plain language, there is no wiggle room, no need for subjective interpretation. In the words of Mark Twain, ‘Even a jury would have the penetration to see that.’

  37. I hold equal disdain for your misguided point of view, but really an atheist has no business commenting on an internal debate among professing Christians, as the Supreme Court might rule; ‘You have no standing in the case,’ we will sort out the arguments among ourselves without reference to unbelievers. You know have my permission to ignore me or rage away, your choice.

  38. Thank you for your article. It certainly has generated some interesting dialogue. As a mothering, single, senior minister with a very liberal theological worldview, it is disheartening to read the comments here. From slut-shaming to misogyny and every kind of patriarchal posturing in between, the people who have commented here reveal just how inhospitable the “Christian” church has become. It is little wonder that people are increasingly abandoning the religion of Jesus given what the remaining alleged followers spew as gospel via commentary on websites such as this. My beloved child, conceived and born in love, apart from wedlock, has been the greatest inspiration to my ministry. We are no less holy nor biblically unrighteous because I engaged in sexual acts outside a marriage to conceive. For those of you who need to stand behind some misappropriated scriptural texts and condemn us to feel better or more righteous within yourself I pray. It is time for people of faith to demonstrate the faith relationship and love ethic that Jesus modeled unbridled from the social constructs of normative interaction, and subsequent female reproductive policing, that has become commonplace. We have come a long way, yet there is still a great distance more to traverse.

  39. It doesn’t take belief in Christianity to see that you are both self-absorbed and insulting.

    The scripture is so plain and closed to interpretation that there is only one Christian sect and no variations on views on any given subject. Right?

    So these women are somehow from heretical sects, or do you just want to come out and say they aren’t Christians according to you. As far as I see, you are not the living incarnation of Christ on Earth. Nobody is answerable to your take on such subjects.

  40. I grew up in a rural Baptist church in the later 80s and early 90s. My first pastor was a young widow who was raising two teenage children. One of them is now a medical doctor and the other is an engineer. This woman was my example to follow as a pastor (I am now ordained myself — and I am a guy, just an fyi) and I think she did an extraordinary job as a leader, pastor, and role model for all of us. Interestingly, my second pastor was also a woman… a young single woman without children. I believe that ANYONE can be called by God to be a minister and I am proud and thankful of all the women ministers in my life.

  41. Wow! Rob, I guess it’s not because women might be better at writing in english than you are?

  42. I wish people wouldn’t be so sarcastic. I would appreciate a thoughtful discussion.

    I was married when I was ordained and had children and step children. A blended family then was an issue. I can hardly wrap my head around single motherhood. Women in ministry now live in a different world and have different choices. My only concern is bringing up children in a one-parent family by choice.There are costs to that.

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