Adaptation and Flux: Pregnancy During the Ordination Process
Today on The Feed, we hear from Claire Sauerbrei-Brown, a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School and a postulant for ordination in the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee. In this piece, Sauerbrei-Brown reflects on going through the Episcopal ordination process at the same time as her pregnancy. Addressing issues that connect directly to our topic Gender & Identity, Sauerbrei-Brown offers a profound call to openness to the the shifts and changes away from traditional expectations in worshipping communities, especially when it comes to gender.
By Claire Sauerbrei-Brown
I am a postulant for ordination in the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee. With the support and discernment of my faith communities, the last year and half has been an intentional and sometimes fraught, stepping into a calling to be an Episcopal priest. I’m also six months pregnant.
The pregnancy test declared a new vocation a week before the Commission on Ministry. A priest and a mother—these callings are unfolding simultaneously in profound discernment and intense demand for focused attention and prayer. Through the last few months, I’ve continued on this simultaneous journey of postulancy and pregnancy in profound physical and spiritual transformation. I watch my body shift and expand. I plan with my partner for the growth of our family as I wrap up my Master of Divinity degree and serve as a ministry intern for a local congregation.
Through the last few months, I’ve continued on this simultaneous journey of postulancy and pregnancy in profound physical and spiritual transformation.
For many women, particularly in the South and for those coming from more conservative communities, discerning a call to ordained ministry is sometimes an impossible path or a poorly charted one. The Episcopal Church has been ordaining women for only two generations – while we’re becoming more present in the ranks of clerical leadership, the expectations of women, their ministries, roles, and comportment in this context are still tinged with uncertainty. Add this to the normal concerns and discernment of approaching parenthood, mommy war culture and the struggle to have a family and a career, and there is a toxic cocktail of maddeningly ambiguous expectation and the return to the old question of how the church deals with bodies, particularly female bodies, in worship.
This lingering anxiety around changing gender (and sexual identity) dynamics in ecclesial leadership is also characteristic of a broader angst in the church as it navigates roles and identity in a changing world.
But this lingering anxiety around changing gender (and sexual identity) dynamics in ecclesial leadership is also characteristic of a broader angst in the church as it navigates roles and identity in a changing world. Hundreds of years old institutions do not adapt quickly or sit well in ambiguity. These new horizons for sacramental inclusion accompany new needs and calls for the church in the world and the dramatic decline of mainline Christian institutions.
For me, slammed into the rootedness, limitation, and glory of my pregnant embodiment, everything is flux and uncertainty. This pregnancy has been a crash course in process theology as I must relinquish control, trust the Spirit’s timing and immanence, and attend to the presence of God in nature’s functions. My body is doing dramatic work and change without my cognitive assent or direction, and needs that might otherwise be put on the back burner—hunger, thirst, tiredness, muscle soreness—drive me in the moment; I have no option but to care for them as they arrive. My changing hormones feel like a second adolescence, and I find myself crying joyfully at beautiful music and enraged over traffic and politics. Such rapid change that leads to new ways of being and working is anything but subtle. With my protruding belly and engorged breasts, this distinctively forming, gendered body proclaims the work I am preparing for and called to, without any promises or plans for the particulars. This embodied shift is spectacularly ordinary, as my unique experience stands in an evolutionary legacy of people bearing babies.
With my protruding belly and engorged breasts, this distinctively forming, gendered body proclaims the work I am preparing for and called to, without any promises or plans for the particulars.
The Church, thankfully, has acknowledged my female embodiment in this role and season with celebration, embrace, and support. My congregations and ordaining body are sympathetic and joyful, flexible in the need for balancing vocations of priesthood and parenthood. But how might this bodily process serve as a lens for a larger need for the church to relinquish anxieties and welcome dynamic shifts beyond our control? Our response to non-masculine bodies, those seeking inclusion and ordination in the fullness of their non-traditional embodiment, is not unconnected from our response to role confusion in our changing context and the new calls to ministry and theology. The church is being called to adapt, to yield to the dramatic changes occurring both within and beyond it, embrace the flux, and stand in its legacy of saints, spectacular and ordinary.