The Dilemmas of a Pro-Life Pastor

[Christianity Today, April 7, 1997]

In his darkened office Pastor Stan put his head in his hands. It had been a difficult phone call, and Marcia was beginning to cry when he hung up. The baby, in the background, was already crying. Usually, the baptism of a baby is a joyful part of the Sunday service, but this time Pastor Stan had said no. Marcia wasn’t married, so he had told her it would be a private ceremony. To put her and her baby up in front of everybody, as if it were the same as any other family, just seemed wrong. The church would be practicing make-believe morality, looking the other way. It would mean pretending sin wasn’t wrapped all around this situation.

The desk lamp cast a pool of light over his sermon notes. It wasn’t like he was going to call Marcia to the front and pin a scarlet A on her dress. He wasn’t going to point at her from the pulpit and accuse her of iniquity; the Lord knows, we all have plenty to repent about. But most of the time, the sin isn’t so publicly visible. The church couldn’t wink at obvious sin. You had to draw the line somewhere.

Pastor Stan pressed his fingers to his aching temples. He just wished he was sure this was where the line should be.

The worst fruit on the tree

While there is no lack of voices insisting, “The church should oppose abortion,” Pastor Stan’s dilemma illustrates how complex a situation can be. Abortion begins with an unwanted pregnancy, which began, more often than not, with sex outside marriage. Marcia made the “right choice” when she chose life, but unqualified approval can send some wrong messages. On the other hand, shunning her might prompt another girl to choose secret abortion over public scandal.

Marcia’s situation illustrates only one of the many possible, and perplexing, stories facing a pastor in an age of sexual revolution. The most bitter fruit is abortion, but it sprouts from a tree with many branches, good and bad: single parenting, premarital sex, “shotgun” weddings, post-abortion grief, adoption, child care problems, abstinence education, employed moms, divorce, welfare, and child support enforcement. It’s not just a matter of Pastor Stan being goaded to “do the right thing” on the abortion issue alone.

Yet it can’t be denied that, whatever the church has been doing on abortion, it’s the wrong thing. Statistics tell a disturbing tale: of the four thousand women who go into abortion clinics every day, one in six describes herself as a committed believer. A 1988 study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute asked women at abortion clinics, “Do you consider yourself a born-again Christian or Evangelical Christian?” Sixteen percent answered yes.

How this can happen is all too understandable. “I was totally pro-life, I knew that abortion was horrible,” says Cindy, who nevertheless underwent the procedure at the age of 18. “But what other people thought, that was a big thing with my parents. And with me, too. So I didn’t do what was in my gut, believe in myself and have the baby.”

Church leaders like Pastor Stan play a mental game of ping-pong in such situations. If Marcia is admitted to the place of honor most new moms occupy, it appears to normalize serious sin. But if she is shunned, another Cindy, down the line, may conclude that a hidden abortion is better than a public humiliation.

The ball pings off at an angle. If Pastor Stan makes a point of teaching and preaching against abortion, how will that affect those women who have hidden abortions in their pasts? A tough message that it’s an unspeakable evil may cause those are already crushed by guilt to feel further alienated and condemned. Yet if he doesn’t speak against it, the loudest message his congregation will hear is from outside the church: it’s just a woman’s choice.

A new approach, a new serve: so maybe a woman like Marcia should not just treated as well as other moms, but held up as a heroine. She braved social disapproval to have this baby, even though abortion offered an easy way out. But maybe that social disapproval isn’t such a bad thing; stigma is the best reinforcer of all sorts of moral behavior, more effective than any law.

A final swing at the ball: then a caring church should be doing everything they can to help women who make a mistake and then take the heroic path of choosing life. But the church must be as wise in charitable outreach to pregnant women as it is in any other ministry. It shouldn’t repeat the mistake government welfare does—doling money to single mothers without personal discipling or accountability. A no-strings handout to single-mom families backfires, teaching men that they don’t have to be financially responsible for their children, teaching unmarried couples that, when the bill comes due for the sexual revolution, someone else will pick up the tab. Whatever the church does to help, it can’t just give away goodies. It must always support chastity, two-parent families, and uphold the goodness of responsible fatherhood.

No wonder Pastor Stan feels confused. Breaking down the problems into smaller pieces helps a bit, and four areas naturally emerge: opposing abortion, healing post-abortion grief, supporting pregnant women, and resolving the problems of single-parenting.

Opposing abortion

Given sufficient time and coffee, the conversation among pro-life leaders eventually drifts along these lines: “Where are the churches on this issue?” The grumble gets elaborated: “Why won’t pastors speak out against abortion? Why don’t churches get behind pro-life projects? Why don’t they do more to support pregnancy care centers?”

Behind the scenes at pro-life organizations, heads shake over polling results. Year after year, it’s clear that the strongest indicator for pro-life sentiment is not race, age, income, or political affiliation; it’s church attendance. The more involved a person is in a church, particularly a church that clings to the classic faith, the more likely that person is to oppose abortion.

Yet, from the point of view of movement activists, the response of the church has ranged from weak to wimpy. Denominations may have grand anti-abortion statements on the books, but active support for the cause, especially at the local level, is scant.The lost possibilities grate.

Of course, many churches are doing a great deal for the cause; examples of these activities and opportunities will fill the remainder of this article. But there will probably never come a time when movement activists are satisfied. From the perspective of a pro-life professional, the church is an army in a box, troops ready to give their all if only properly instructed. Toiling in the pro-life cause is admittedly hard work, and the death of children galvanizes like no other catastrophe could. It’s understandable that battlescarred movement leaders would see the church as a collection of underdeployed allies.

But the pastor sees something else: a collection of people under his care. His relationships to them, and theirs to each other, are complicated and often life-long. In this community-based context, abortion isn’t an issue or a cause, it’s a tragic symptom of lives out of control. Whatever the pastor says or does about abortion must be of a piece with other areas of his leadership: marital commitment, sexual morality, use of contraception, child-rearing and adoption, the discipling of young men, the protection of young women. Whatever he says or does must take into account the teen who had an abortion last year and the grandmom who had an illegal abortion decades ago, impressionable girls who see single moms valorized for choosing life, and small children for whom the mere topic could cause nightmares. A random sample of people sitting in church will not completely overlap with people sitting in the hall at a pro-life convention.

Though the pastor may feel a strong duty to promote the pro-life cause, he may not quite know how to do it. Pressure from cause true-believers can be just one more pressure pastors have to bear.

Brad Mattes, of Life Issues International, observes, “With the issue of slavery, it was when the church got involved that gains were made. If we saw the church mobilized and speaking out against this new civil injustice, we would see history repeat itself.” Mattes thinks the reluctance to get involved has to do with a reluctance to rock the boat. “The clergy don’t want controversy in the church; they might lose members and financial support. And if anything’s going to cause ripples, it’s abortion.”

Other leaders cite other causes. Jerry Horne, Vice President of American Life League, believes the primary problem is the church’s desire to avoid any source of pain. “Leprosy is a disease that causes an absence of the sensation of pain, and our churches are leprosariums. The number-one selling drugs in America are aspirin and ibuprofen. No one wants to confront pain.” Yet, he says, when he talks with pastors privately they will sometimes even weep over the issue of abortion. Horne believes this immobility is partly the movement’s own fault: leadership has been inconsistent and too willing to compromise for political ends.

Yet Horne remains impatient with churchgoers’ unwillingness to act. “I was going to a lively prayer service, but I would keep hearing people pray, ‘O Lord, how long will you let abortion reign?’” he recalls. “As long as you let it,” he imagined the Lord’s reply. After awhile he got so annoyed he quit going to the service. When the pastor asked why, Horne replied, “If I hear one more prayer like that, when no one will lift a finger to help a girl in trouble, I’m going to throw up.”

Movement leaders’ frustration is borne out by at least one study. In a master’s degree thesis for Regent University, Molly M. Stone surveyed over a hundred pastors in the South Hampton Roads area of Virginia. About 75% described themselves as pro-life, and majorities had counseled women in crisis pregnancies and women grieving past abortions. Most of the clergy said that their position on the issue was firm. They agreed that the church should take a stand on the issue, and stated that it was not too divisive to address from the pulpit.

For somebody else to address from the pulpit, that is. Only about a third of the clergy sampled had ever devoted an entire sermon to abortion. (In fairness, some pro-life pastors simply believe that even worthy causes are to be promoted elsewhere than the pulpit.) Good intentions abound: nearly three-quarters said that the church should support pro-life pregnancy care centers, those storefront operations which give aid and services to pregnant women for free; there are about three thousand of these across the nation. Exactly 70.2% said that the church should support these centers; exactly 70.2% said their church did not. Putting beliefs into action is harder than it appears.

Stone reports that, “When asked the open-ended question, ‘Is there anything that would prevent you from addressing abortion in your church?’ the overwhelming response was ‘No.’” Yet even in churches that are largely pro-life the abortion issue may rarely be raised. In the Virginia survey, “The strongest participation in pro-life actions comes from Catholic and charismatic clergy” while “Fundamentalists…exhibit a tradition of non-action” and “more efforts are needed to bring evangelical pastors into fuller participation.”

Pastors who’d like to speak out but don’t know what to say will find many pro-life organizations eager to help. A good place to start is with an annual pro-life Sunday, which the Catholic church observes on the first Sunday of October (“Respect Life Sunday”) and Protestants on the Sunday nearest the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, January 22 (“Sanctity of Life Sunday”).

The Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the National Conference for Catholic Bishops produces a “Respect Life Program” each year, including posters and fliers in English and Spanish, clip art, a liturgy guide, and essays on abortion, euthanasia, the value of women and other topics. For Protestants, “Sanctity of Life” church bulletin covers, sermon outlines, prayers and other materials are produced by various pro-life groups. J. Thomas Smith of America 21, for example, provides a “Devotional for Sanctity of Human Life Sunday” for distribution to local churches by pregnancy care centers, with appropriate scriptures and prayers.

Other groups offer materials to help pastors to confront the issue year-round; the Catholic organization, Priests for Life, offers booklets and suggestions aimed at mobilizing a parish. Of course, there are a wide array of pro-life materials suitable for congregational use; videos and speakers for adult classes, posters and books for the church library, even pro-life rock songs and t-shirts for the youth group. A church that’s ready to make a commitment against abortion doesn’t have to make up everything from scratch.

Healing post-abortion grief

One of a pastor’s fears is that, if he speaks out against abortion, a post-abortion woman in the pew will burst into tears. David Reardon, author of Aborted Women: Silent No More, has written a book for clergy called The Jericho Plan: Breaking Down the Walls Which Prevent Post-Abortion Healing. His aim: to give pastors the training and confidence they need to heal this grief. After all, letting it go unresolved helps no one.

Reardon believes that, when clergy speak against abortion, they can see a reaction rapidly scattering among the members of the congregation: some get a steely-eyed “Who are you to judge me?” expression, while others look downcast, anxious and pained. Neither is the sort of response preachers enjoy, particularly when they don’t know what the most constructive next move would be. Reardon recommends a plan of empathy, education, repentance and reconciliation. His approach is notable in that it presumes that men as well as women will bear the marks of post-abortion grief; post-abortion counseling for men is a growing field.

Among Catholics, Project Rachel was formed in 1984 to communicate the church’s intention to bring forgiveness and healing to post-abortion women. Because the popular caricature of the Catholic Church presumes vehement condemnation of abortion, this gentleness may be a surprise to the woman in the pew. In “The Gospel of Life,” Pope John Paul II writes, “The wound in your heart may not have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. … The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace.”

Therapist Anne Speckhard, who helps train pastors in post-abortion counseling, agrees that “Women really need to hear it was wrong.” Whitewashing the sin, or coaxing the woman to see herself as a helpless victim, may initially seem compassionate, but these approaches ultimately complicate and delay healing. Speckhard goes on, “But it’s a fine line on how to do it. Don’t minimize and don’t condemn.”

According to Bobbie Woollen, director of the Washington, D.C., project, Project Rachel is active in 80 Catholic dioceses. Priests are trained to consider such questions as these: “Who is this woman? What has she experienced? What do I need to be sensitive to and aware of?” Some dioceses offer a hotline or referral to a trained priest for the sacrament of reconciliation; other provide, as well, support groups for post-abortion women.

Supporting pregnant women

If fear of offending post-abortion women hinders some clergy from putting pro-life convictions into practice, the fear that there could be more post-abortion women in their pews this time next year should goad them. Pastors need the assistance of pro-life groups as much as pro-life groups need their support.

Pregnancy care centers are churches’ best partners in providing help and encouragement to women, and these centers’ services have been steadily upgraded in recent years. The approach has become more polished, and more oriented toward loving the pregnant woman and meeting her needs. Pam Stearns, director of the Hope Unlimited Pregnancy Care Center of Paducah, Kentucky, says, “The face of our ministry changed from ‘Truth’ to ‘Truth with love.’ Before, we had pictures of aborted babies in the lobby—we had an aggressive agenda of saving that baby. Now the focus has been enlarged, and our mission is to serve the client. Everything is done to make her feel comfortable, not used and manipulated.”

David Reardon points out that this is in fact our calling. He writes: “In God’s ordering of creation, it is only the mother who can nurture her unborn child. All that the rest of us can do, then, is to nurture the mother. To help a child, we must help the child’s mother.”

The local pregnancy care center may well see a woman in a local congregation before her pastor does. In a mutually-beneficial arrangement, clergy can encourage members of their congregations to pledge money and volunteer time at the local pregnancy center, and include the center in the church’s charitable budget as well. The center, in turn, can present church programs on abstinence, communication between parents and teens, and the pro-life cause in general. When a member of the church is in need, the center can be there, trained to offer material and emotional support.

In Maryland, this idea of interdependence between church and pregnancy center is being tried on a larger scale. The Gabriel Project began as a few city-wide initiatives in Texas, but in Maryland it will cover the entire state. Participating churches place on their front lawns a sign that reads, “Pregnant? Need Help?” and gives a toll-free number. The message goes on, “The members of this church community see in the birth of each baby a fresh expression of God’s unfailing love. We offer immediate and practical help to any woman faced with a crisis pregnancy.”

That last line could make a pastor nervous; however, it is extremely rare for a woman to knock on the church door for help. Usually she will write down the number, think it over, and then phone. The number is answered at a central location staffed by pro-life volunteers who are available 24 hours a day. These phone counselors can begin giving encouragement on the spot, and are also familiar with the resources and location of each of the state’s nearly fifty pregnancy care centers. The pregnant woman is referred to her nearest center, where she will be given a pregnancy test and counseling—abstinence counseling if she is not pregnant, and advice regarding practical assistance if she is. The center may decide to refer her to one of the Project Gabriel churches, taking care to honor her faith background. The church could then partner with the center in meeting the woman’s material, emotional, and spiritual needs.

Participating churches develop a Project Gabriel Team, involving members as volunteers in a number of ways; when representatives of Project Gabriel make a church presentation, they distribute a card that includes check-off lines for babysitters, mechanics, health care professionals, donors, drivers, and prayer supporters, as well as “angels” to give friendship and homes to give lodging. The Project Gabriel “Question and Answer Resource for Churches” states that “In other areas of the country…the load per church community has averaged two to four clients a year.” The project trains volunteers in each job category, and does appropriate screening; for example, good references and a clean report from the Motor Vehicle Administration are necessary for Gabriel Project drivers.

In all this outpouring, it’s important to use discernment, offering only the help that helps. The Gabriel Project states that the woman “should be nurtured toward independence [ital]from[unital] and not dependence [ital]on[unital] the Gabriel Project church. Once in a while, there will even be a client who is very skilled at manipulating the system in order to take advantage of the generosity of those trying to offer help. Gabriel Project Teams [will receive]…specific guidance on how much help to give.”

Resolving the problems of single parenting

In Pastor Stan’s dilemma, all these hurdles had already been overcome; Marcia had rejected abortion and had navigated the difficulties of pregnancy. Now she was a young, single mother. What next?

For the young single mom in the maternity ward, three roads diverge in the wood: single parenting while supporting herself and the baby, adoption so that she can continue her life plan while the child enjoys a two-parent home, and marriage to the baby’s father.

Single parenting is the road most traveled by, and of the many hurdles on that road one of the highest is making ends meet financially. About fifteen percent of centers offer job training or placement to clients. On the wall at the Rockville (Maryland) Pregnancy Center there hangs a “Point of Light” letter from President Bush, recognizing the success of their “Computer Moms” program. A baseline of client responsibility has been set: participants must be regular, punctual, and dressed for the office (a “dress for success” closet makes this easier). In return, clients learn keyboarding, and become familiar with spreadsheet and word-processing software. When a client finishes the course, a temporary agency works with the center to move her into her first job.

While such programs are admirable, Pastor Stan feels some regret that it seems necessary to set up more single-parent, working-mom homes. Isn’t there a better alternative? It’s troubling enough that these homes are as common in our churches as they are in the secular world, especially as evidence of the negative effects on children accumulates. Still, there’s a difference between a divorced mom trying to do her best, and a pregnant woman wondering whether single-parenting is a good idea. While there’s still time to make another choice, other choices should be encouraged.

Some centers, such as the Care Net chain, are making an intentional effort to improve counseling about adoption. The National Council for Adoption cites a study showing that programs which included a discussion of adoption, compared with those that did not, were seven times more likely to have teens make an adoption plan. On the other hand, programs to introduce pregnant teens to teenage moms, demonstrating the status and joy of parenting, were four times [ital]less [unital] likely to lead to adoption.

Of course, adoption isn’t the only way, or even the usual way, for a child to grow up in a two-parent family. David Reardon’s remark above could be corrected; the mother is not the only one who can nurture her child. God plans a father to be present as well. It’s a resource pregnancy centers have often missed; though efforts are made to reconcile a girl with her parents, little has usually been done to encourage her consideration of marriage to the baby’s father. But Dad is a natural resource beyond all calculating, and one that is truly irreplacable.

Of course, some circumstances make the idea of marriage inappropriate, and the goal of a two-parent home would put adoption back at the top of the bill. But even without such factors, a counselor encouraging marriage has to combat powerful cultural forces as well. In the mid-90’s, a pregnant women may not think of marriage as necessary or appealing.

She may say she’s waiting for some imaginary better guy to come along; while marriage has been debased it has also been, ironically, impossibly idealized. The presumption is that marriage should be forsaken unless Ozzie-and-Harriet perfect, which results in both a stunning divorce rate and a reluctance to marry in the first place. Single parenting, when relieved of its economic and social disincentives, can look more appealing than trying to get along with a guy who is less than perfect (that is, most of them).

Also working against the client’s inclination to consider marriage are the presumption that “shotgun” marriages always fail (not so; fifty to seventy-five percent are still intact ten years later) and that glamorous Murphy Brown single-parenting is fun and risk-free (also, and disastrously, not so). Beyond the damage to the participants’ lives, policies that enable the establishment of new single-parent households feed a cycle that creates more of the same, by reducing the natural penalties for sex outside wedlock, and freeing men from their responsibility for their children.

At the Pregnancy Support Center of Groton, Connecticut, director Dorothy Schrage is training her staff and volunteers to make an intentional effort to promote marriage. “We don’t like it when we end up setting a woman up on welfare,” Schrage says. “It’s not empowering, and it’s not God’s plan.” As an adoptive mother of two special-needs daughters, Schrage is well-prepared to present that option, but as wife and mom she can recommend marriage as well. “I was married at age 18,” she says. “Teen marriages can work, yes! I am proof of that. In the right circumstances, we need to draw that possibility out.”

Sometimes, of course, marriage is not an appropriate option. But Schrage finds that here, as with adoption, it helps just to talk about the possibility. “Until you talk about the baby’s father, the client feels like she’s not supposed to.” They’ve both heard the relentless message that it’s her body, her life, her choice, and the man is not supposed to have anything to do with it—not even when she needs his help. “We try to get them communicationg, get him to talk about it and take some ownership of the situation. They may have differences, but it’s possible to blend those differences and create something beautiful.” The small center currently has two client-couples engaged and preparing for marriage.

Baptism is for sinners

In a more-perfect society, where norms of marriage, family, and sexual responsibility were generally upheld, where abortion clinics didn’t advertise in the yellow pages, Pastor Stan would have found his job easier; for one thing, there would have been a lot fewer Marcias around. In this complex situation, bristling with hard-to-measure factors, it was difficult to know where to draw the line. After a good night’s sleep, he knew he’d drawn it in the wrong place.

A week later Marcia stood with him before the congregation, with her baby in her arms. “We want to baptize this baby today, and affirm Marcia for choosing life,” Pastor Stan said. “We have been talking. She understands that her actions were wrong. She knows that they were not pleasing to God, and she is repentant. And now, putting the past behind, we want to walk alongside her.”

Looking out at his congregation he could see many whom he’d counseled, who had come to repentance for various misdeeds. In no case had the person been obligated to stand up in front of the congregation and make such a public acknowlegement. Marcia represented in a painfully explicit way the cycle of sin and repentance, and the good news of forgiveness.

The bent to sin reigns in every heart, thought Pastor Stan, as he looked at the sleeping baby in her arms. Even that one, hard as it is to believe. But there’s enough forgiveness to cover it all.

His eyes returned to the words of the baptism prayer. After all, that’s why we’re here today.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.