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