Do women in your church know their lives, bodies and minds are sacred and valued?
Are there safe and confidential spaces in your church for women to express grief or confusion and receive pastoral care?
Are their indications that your leadership team acknowledges reproductive loss, including abortion, as an experience that deserves a pastoral care response?
Perhaps you answered yes to a few of these questions. Perhaps you weren’t sure.
And, with the fact that women make up the majority of attendees and members of Christian churches, it is imperative that faith leaders think about providing space for women to acknowledge the sacredness of their bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
It is also a pastoral care opportunity to show up when congregants express pain or grief centered on their bodies and their reproductive lives.
In 2016, I went public about my experience of abortion in Parents magazine. And then, with the support of Exhale, I launched a pro-voice sermon tour across the country to preach in eight Protestant congregations about my experience of abortion.
The point of the sermon and the tour were not to get everyone to “agree” or even “support” my decision for abortion. The point of the tour was to open up sacred dialogues that rarely happen within Christian communities.
And, what we discovered throughout the tour was that though many people (including the pastors) were wary of the topic of abortion, much of the fear has to do with not having the tools to begin a conversation.
Exhale has been defining and refining our pro-voice approach since we opened our confidential talk line in 2003.
We started the talk line because we saw a void. There simply was no space to process a personal abortion experience whether it was positive, negative or somewhere in the middle.
The noise of the religious/moral and political fight on abortion stifled the stories of those of us who experienced them.
What women and, in fact, what all humans want is to be listened to, to be respected, to be loved and to find ways to process our experience free from stigma or shame.
Exhale coined the term “pro-voice” to stand in the middle of the pro-choice/pro-life divide and stand with all those with abortion experiences.
We recognize that men needed a place to process their feelings as well. In fact, our very first caller was a dad calling for advice on how best to show up for his daughter through her abortion experience.
Pro-voice is not about whether you agree or disagree with abortion. Pro-voice opens up a new space for abortion story-sharing without judgment or stigma.
And in this new space, women of faith can articulate what the experience was for them, what their spiritual needs are around it and shape the possibilities for their own path forward.
This is different than stating whether the church supports or opposes abortion. Pro-choice and pro-life women of faith have a wide range of feelings around their abortion experiences. And, at Exhale, we believe that all of their feelings are valid.
Our pro-voice approach allows for the acceptance of the pro-life woman who is relieved following her abortion and didn’t expect it, as well as the pro-choice woman who is grieving hers.
The feelings and experiences are all normal, and the role of the church is to show up in grace and compassion and support women in their unique journey.
Churches can learn a lot by listening to women, following their lead and responding to their needs.
As a little girl, I remember learning the stories of Jesus in my church and was moved and inspired by the ways he showed up for those who had been alienated from their communities time and time again.
Jesus did not ridicule, shame or even dismiss women who had been cast off from their communities.
Jesus showed up and listened and invited women into grace-filled, loving community.
That is what we Christians are called upon to do as well. This is the work of the church – to open spaces for healing, love, grace and care.
In the churches with whom Exhale has partnered, uniquely sacred conversations flourish, spiritual and numerical growth happens, and new ministries responding to the needs of women and families are created.
It is truly an opportunity for a congregation to be the hands and feet of Christ centered on the health and well-being of women’s reproductive lives and experiences.
Last year, Exhale launched a new way program for volunteers, the Pro-Voice Ambassadors program.
Pro-Voice Ambassadors participate in a training with Exhale on our approach to sacred abortion conversations, centered on listening with nonjudgment, reflecting back what is being shared and providing tools and suggestions for individual and community self-care, including prayer, journaling, Bible study and healing services.
Following completion, the ambassadors are given the curriculum to use within their communities and supported to launch the group in their networks.
This year, we are specifically focusing on building up the network of Pro-Voice Ambassadors within churches because we believe congregations have a crucial role in opening up sacred conversations on abortion and reproductive loss.
By opening your community to pro-voice conversations, you are welcoming in people who desire a community that is bravely standing in the middle of the debate on abortion by proclaiming the inherent goodness of all believers.
Churches are meant to be healing centers full of grace, acceptance and love with the possibility of transformation.
We at Exhale are on a mission to support the healers in our country to create more spaces for connection and repair.
We cannot begin to envision a new world until we have healed the current one. Will you join us?
Susan Chorley is an ordained American Baptist minister who is the executive director and co-founder of Exhale.