In your seasons of deepest despair and disappointment, who do you turn to? For the nearly 10% of women in the U.S. who are struggling with getting or staying pregnant, the answer is often “no one,” or only a few close family members and friends. And while many of us might think of turning to religious leaders for comfort or encouragement, unfortunately the words we often hear back from them are less than reassuring. Many couples say that their faith communities are the least safe place when it comes to their fertility woes — a place that regularly hosts child-oriented rituals and ceremonies and that celebrates Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, elevating the stories of biological parenthood above all others.
As a Christian pastor who battled infertility for eight years before making peace with a child-free life and then being surprised by an adoption opportunity last year, I often wondered: If I wasn’t the pastor, would I come to church during this difficult time? The answer on many occasions was no.
Here are five ways I believe the church gets infertility wrong.
Playing the Role of Judge
Many church leaders will say to couples pursuing fertility treatments they are playing God. That the only way children should come in the world is naturally. That to introduce a surrogate into the relationship to carry the child or to use donor sperm or eggs is adultery. These are heavy theological statements, and while pastors may hold their own theological beliefs about fertility options, the church gets it wrong when making absolute statements about what is right or what is wrong for a couple. God works in unique ways in the life of every person.
A more compassionate response for a pastor or a church leader is to name how difficult these decisions are and to support a couple’s choice. Working with a trusted pastoral counselor or spiritual director, experienced in helping people make difficult decisions, might help a couple to explore God’s perspective on their journey.
Comforting with Platitudes
Rebecca*, a regular church attendee from Florida, shared her fertility woes with members of her congregation. Rebecca told me she heard over and over: “Maybe it was not God’s will for you to get pregnant.” Sarah*, a woman who struggled with infertility in North Carolina, added in our conversation that her church boasted that her infertility “was all a part of God’s plan.” Did either of these platitudes comfort or welcome these women’s struggles into the faith community? No. It pushed them and their pain away. More of the church’s attention could be spent listening and crying tears with those who mourn.
With the idea of immaculate conception sitting center stage every December, the church is a sucker for a good miracle story. It’s not that miracle babies aren’t possible. A friend in my Facebook feed just last month declared that she’s pregnant, after her doctors told her it was impossible. But not every couple gets a miracle. Instead of focusing on the few miracles that do occur, the church needs to highlight stories of resilience. For example, the woman who still gets out of bed in the morning after her in-vitro fertilization cycle didn’t work.
Calling Infertility a “Sin”
Horrible things happen when the word sin is used in the same sentence with infertility. Tamra*, from North Dakota, told me about being sought out by her pastor’s wife after her fourth miscarriage. The pastor’s wife offered this counsel: “Maybe God is teaching you something.” Tamra replied, “Four times?”
Sarah*, from Missouri, shared that when her daughter was stillborn, some church folks told her, “God withheld your blessing because of your sin.” Can you imagine the subsequent emotional wounds on both of these families? The bottom line is that the church would be wise to learn that infertility is a medical condition, not a spiritual one.
Asking, “Why Don’t You Just Adopt?”
In many church circles, adoption is often seen as the answer to infertility. In an interview last month, Second Lady Karen Pence opened up about her own infertility struggles and beliefs about adoption, saying it’s “a real, viable alternative, and I just think I would encourage anybody who is struggling with infertility and considering adoption, you know, start pursuing it.” As an adoptive mom, I don’t disagree that is a wonderful way to parent, but it’s a choice of an altogether different process. Adoption does not make the pain of infertility disappear.
If the church wants to offer its spiritual resources to women and couples struggling with infertility, being willing to say “I’m sorry” and “teach me” would be a great start.
*The above subjects requested that their last names not be used for privacy.
Elizabeth Hagan is the author of Birthed: Finding Grace Through Infertility, a spiritual memoir about her experience of being both a pastor and an infertile woman. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area with her husband and daughter.