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. Usually the baptism of a baby is a joyful part of the Sunday service, but this time Pastor Stan had said no. Marcia was not married, and so he had told her it would have to be a private ceremony. To put her and her baby up in front of everybody just seemed wrong. The church would be practicing make-believe morality. 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 was not as if 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 is not so public, so visible. 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 drawn.

Spiritual Ping-Pong
While there is no lack of voices insisting, "The church should oppose abortion," Pastor Stan's dilemma illustrates how complex a situation can be. Marcia's situation tells 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 there are other branches, good and bad: premarital sex, single parenting, "shotgun" weddings, postabortion grief, adoption counseling, child-care problems, abstinence education, divorce, welfare, and child-support enforcement. It is not just a matter of Pastor Stan being goaded to "do the right thing" on the abortion issue alone.

Yet, whatever the church has been doing to combat abortion, the problem persists. Statistics tell a disturbing tale: of the 4,000 women who go into abortion clinics every day, almost one in five describes herself as a committed believer. A 1996 study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute asked women at abortion clinics, "Do you consider yourself a born-again Christian or Evangelical Christian?" Eighteen percent answered yes (31 percent said they were Catholic).

How this can happen is all too understandable. "I was totally pro-life, I knew that abortion was horrible," says Cindy, who underwent the procedure at 18. "But what other people thought was a big thing with my parents, and 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. Ping: If Marcia is admitted to the place of honor most new moms occupy, it appears to normalize sin. Pong: But if she is shunned, another Cindy, down the line, may conclude that a hidden abortion is better than a public humiliation.

Article continues below

Ping: If Pastor Stan makes a point of preaching against abortion it may cause those already crushed by guilt from having had one to feel further alienated and condemned. Pong: 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.

Ping: So maybe a woman like Marcia should not be treated like other moms but instead held up as a heroine. She braved social disapproval to have this baby. Pong: But then again, maybe social disapproval is not such a bad thing; stigma is the best reinforcer of all sorts of moral behavior, more effective than any law.

Ping: A caring church should help women who make mistakes and then take the heroic path of choosing life. Pong: But the church must be wise in charitable outreach, not doling out money to single mothers without personal discipling or accountability. A no-strings handout 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 must always support chastity, two-parent families, and uphold the goodness of responsible fatherhood.

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

Opposing abortion
Behind the scenes at pro-life organizations, heads shake over polling results. Year after year, it is clear that the strongest indicator for pro-life sentiment is not race, age, income, or political affiliation; it is 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, seems scant.

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." From the perspective of a pro-life professional, the church is an army in a box, a collection of underdeployed allies.

Article continues below

But the pastor sees something else: in this community-based context, abortion is not an issue or a cause, it is a tragic symptom of lives out of control. Whatever the pastor says or does about abortion is part of a larger scenario where pastoral care touches on a host of other issues: 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.

Still, 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 percent described themselves as pro-life, and the majority had counseled women in crisis pregnancies and women grieving past abortions. They agreed that the church should take a stand and that it was not too divisive to address from the pulpit. Yet, while exactly 70.2 percent said the church should support pro-life pregnancy care centers, exactly 70.2 percent said their church did not.

But pastors who would 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").

"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. Of course, there is a wide array of pro-life materials suitable for congregational use all year round; 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 is ready to make a commitment against abortion does not have to make up everything from scratch.

Article continues below

Healing postabortion grief
One of a pastor's fears is that, if he speaks out against abortion, a postabortion 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 scattering among the members of the congregation: some get steely-eyed ("Who are you to judge me?"), while others look downcast and pained. Neither is the sort of response preachers enjoy. 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 postabortion grief; postabortion counseling for men is a growing field.

Therapist Anne Speckhard, who helps train pastors in postabortion counseling, thinks 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. "It's a fine line on how to do it. Don't minimize and don't condemn."

Supporting pregnant women
If fear of offending postabortion women hinders some clergy from putting pro-life convictions into practice, the fear that there could be more postabortion women in their pews this time next year should goad them.

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 manipulated."

Article continues below

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 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 citywide 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."

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 locations of each of the state's nearly 50 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 for 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."

Article continues below

The Gabriel Project states that the woman "should be nurtured toward independence from and not dependence on 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."

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: single parenting while supporting herself and the baby, adoption, and marriage to the baby's father.

Single parenting is the road most travel, and of the many hurdles on that road, one of the highest is making ends meet financially. About 15 percent of the centers offer clients job training or placement. On the wall at the Rockville (Md.) 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 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. While there is still time to make another choice, other choices should be encouraged.

Some centers, such as the Care Net chain, are making an effort to improve counseling about adoption. The National Council for Adoption cites a study showing that programs that included a discussion of adoption, compared with those that did not, were seven times more likely to have teens make an adoption plan.

Article continues below

Of course, adoption is not the only way, or even the usual way, for a child to grow up in a two-parent family. Reardon's remark above should be expanded to include the father. God plans a father to be a nurturer as well, a resource that pregnancy centers have often overlooked. Efforts are made to reconcile a girl with her parents, but little has usually been done to encourage marriage to the baby's father.

Of course, some circumstances make the idea of marriage inappropriate. But even without such factors, a counselor encouraging marriage has to combat powerful cultural forces. Today a pregnant woman may not think of marriage as necessary or appealing. Single parenting, when relieved of its economic and social disincentives, can look more attractive 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 presumptions that "shotgun" marriages always fail (not so; 50 to 75 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 damaged lives, policies that encourage 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 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. 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."

Schrage finds that, in this case, 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 have both heard the relentless message that it is 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 communicating, 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."

Baptism is for sinners
In a more perfect society, where marriage, family, and sexual responsibility are generally upheld, where abortion clinics didn't advertise in the Yellow Pages, Pastor Stan might have found his job easier. In the complex and delicate dilemma of finding a viable pro-life posture in the church while not encouraging sinful behavior, it is difficult to know where to draw the line. After a good night's sleep, though, Pastor Stan knew he had drawn it in the wrong place with Marcia.

Article continues below

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. "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 had 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 acknowledgment. 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 is enough forgiveness to cover it all.

-Frederica Mathewes-Green is a columnist for Religion News Service. Her commentaries can be heard on National Public Radio. She is author of Facing East: A Pilgrim's Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy, published by Harper San Francisco.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.