In the last five and a half years since becoming a mother, one of the topics that comes up regularly in the mom groups I am in, is the topic of nursing in church. Invariably, there will be a mother who posts that she nursed in church and was told not to and is (understandably!) upset. I have seen many comments of people religious or otherwise who try to offer their advice in the comment section. Some will say “I always nursed in the bathroom at church, and I was okay with it, so you should be, too!” Whereas others will say, “TIME TO FIND A NEW CHURCH! You can take legal action for that! Alert your local news station!”
I tend to get frustrated with both of those extremes, and having gone through this myself, I feel there is such a much better and healthier option!
A little background: When I began nursing five and a half years ago, I originally felt most comfortable nursing in the designated nursing room of our church. After some time, I felt segregated and alone and missed worshiping with my husband. My husband and I agreed it was time for me to come out of the back room so we could be together during worship. By the time we had our second child, it came to our attention that there was an older woman who was offended by my nursing in church, though I was always covered (I have a personal preference of nursing while covered in church. I don’t cover elsewhere, this is just what’s in my comfort zone.) After two years of prayer, meetings with the elders, letters back and forth with the leadership, support from my husband, and patience, we were able to make a policy change in our church so that nursing mothers would be welcome, whether in the nursery, sanctuary, or lobby! And about a year and a half after that, we successfully pioneered the way for a family room.
WAIT! DID SHE JUST SAY *TWO* YEARS??
Yes, TWO years. But it was worthwhile, because instead of quietly being bowled over by the naysayers or getting angry and suing the church and leaving, I was able to help make a difference. So how does this work? Here’s how it worked for us:
1. Someone in the church approaches you and tells you that you need to go nurse in another room, that nursing babies are not welcome in your place of worship. Take a deep breath, don’t make a scene, if you are nursing your baby, I would personally let the baby finish nursing, and then step out if you need to calm down.
When you get home, assess the situation. Is the person who confronted you in a place of leadership? Was this person kind in how they approached you? Even though their tactic was wrong, did they perhaps have good intentions? Asking these questions can help you to get some objectivity. In my situation, my husband had been approached rather than me, so we talked through it together. If you have a supportive partner, now is a good time to talk to them about this to bounce some thoughts off each other and pray.
2. Address the situation with your church leaders. Don’t complain to the woman in your small group who can do nothing about this, or to your neighbor, or the hairstylist and expect change. We are Christians, so this was a great time to exercise Matthew 18* principles. Airing the dirty laundry of your church will most likely only work against your cause. If you are already close to one of your elders or to your pastor, you may want to call them to set up a meeting to talk. This isn’t something I would want to bring up to the pastor right after preaching, because I would want to have time set aside for a meaningful conversation. In my case, the written word is always my friend. I find that both my husband and I get our words out clearer when they are in a letter that we can write, mull over, edit, pray over, and edit again before sending. We sent a group email to all of our elders, informing them of the complaint, showing from biblical texts that nursing has historically been a normal thing for the people of God (Joel 2:16 is a beautiful verse!)**, and asked for their counsel on the matter. Ask when they can meet with you to discuss this further.
3. Pray. As a Christian, I believe in the power of prayer. I prayed that God would give the leadership of my church wisdom and flexibility. I asked forgiveness for bitterness in my heart towards those who complained about my nursing baby. My husband and I prayed together about this and individually. This was really important to us, not because nursing is my hobby horse, but because being together as a family to worship is important to us, and making sure that a visitor or new Christian nursing in our church wouldn’t undergo the same situation is important to us.
4. Meet with your leadership. My husband accompanied me to the meetings we had with our elders as a show of support and solidarity. We both had things to say during our meetings. If you don’t have a supportive partner, maybe bring a spiritually mature and wise friend with you. The meetings we had with our church leadership were uncomfortable at times, healing in others, and could also be frustrating. It’s important to try and keep a level head. What kept me grounded was the desire to help normalize nursing in church not just for me, but for mothers who would be nursing in the future. In our situation, this became a marathon, not a sprint.
5. And, finally! Hopefully resolution and restoration after coming to a meeting of the minds with your leadership. It is possible you will find out the person who confronted you had their own preferences in mind and it was not church policy. Hopefully your leadership will say “OF COURSE your baby is welcome! We’ll talk to the person who made this complaint with you to inform them they spoke out of turn.” Or they may say “That was a policy we had, but you’ve raised some good points, and we need to change our policy to make worship inclusive for ALL our attendees!” And I hope that one of those responses will be the case.
But! If it was like ours, maybe you have to go back to step 1! In two years, I think there were probably 5 or so emails back and forth, 4 or 5 meetings with our leadership, and my husband and I prayed specifically for our elders every, single Wednesday about this topic. I cried many tears, felt frustrated, felt lonely, and sad. At one point, we even had to take a break from our congregation and attend another church as it seemed we weren’t going to make any progress on the matter. But we kept praying and kept in contact with our leadership during this time, letting them know we loved them, but that it was so important for our family to worship TOGETHER. Not scattered in different rooms each Sunday.
When we were finally able to come to an agreement, it turned out there had been some miscommunication between some of the leadership, and when all was said and done, we were told, not only were we all welcome to worship together, nursing babies and crazy toddlers alike– our leadership asked us to help come up with ideas that would help make our church more welcoming to families with babies! We now have a room for families to worship together, that includes a private nursing area within it for those who want privacy. But fathers and mothers, babies and young children have a place to worship TOGETHER if the sanctuary isn’t working out, due to noisy toddlers. No more moms only room apart from my family. (Take a look at the pictures below to see the family room we designed at our church!)
Because of our unfortunate situation, we were able to help turn the ship around and make our church a better place for nursing mothers and young families who would find themselves in our situation down the road.
Was it easy? No. Did it take a long time? YES. Was it a good learning experience? You bet. Was it worth all those tears, prayers, and meetings? Undoubtedly, so.
So, the next time Mrs. Jones from the seniors ministry tells you to go nurse in the bathroom, try to remain calm, and remember this is a huge opportunity– the opportunity to normalize breastfeeding, to cling closer to your faith, and to make changes for the next generation.
*Matthew 18:15-17 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church…
** Joel 2:16 “…gather the people.Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.”
Some inspiration for you! Here is the family room at our church. It has special consideration for nursing mothers who wish to nurse privately, but it is not a “nursing room” because we want our formula feeding mamas to feel welcome here too. It’s not a “cry room” because it’s not a place to be sad. It’s not a “mommy comfort room” because dads need a place to comfort their children, too.