Beth Hayward knew she wanted to be a minister from a young age. Leading her congregation at Canadian Memorial United Church and Centre for Peaceon Sundays is an important part of her call to serve, but this parent with purpose works tirelessly off the pulpit too- helping better her community, and the world — while raising her daughters, now 12 and 14.
We wanted to find out more about Hayward, her work, parenting as a minister, and why her congregation is growing when many churches are struggling to stay relevant.
What motivated you to want to become a United Church minister?
I grew up in a house where questions were encouraged, and church — oddly enough — was the place where I was never shut down. People think of church — faith communities, spiritual communities — as being rigid and doctrinal and all about answers, and that was not my experience. So I was going to church as a kid, every time I came up with a question, “Why do you do this?” or “What about this?” I was met with people who were willing to meet me where I was and give me a chance to explore my questions without answers. My church was a lifelong place of authenticity for me.
I’ve never had any career other than this. I went to university and in my undergrad where I sort of explored a lot of other things. I did a year of journalism in my studies. I did a degree in international development studies. I wondered should I be a speech pathologist, or a teacher, but no. I’m this rare breed, certainly in my generation of people who have been doing this from the start of their career — it’s not as common.
There’s a huge community work aspect to what you do though, isn’t there?
Yes, for sure. I’ve been part of a group sponsoring a Syrian refugee family. There’s been lots of activism work; I have been to marches to protest pipelines, and went to the women’s march last year with loads of people from my spiritual community, for example. I’ve been involved in extensive reconciliation work through protest marches and educational opportunities. I do a lot of stuff that is outside the doors of what you’d expect on a Sunday morning.
How do politics and religion come together for you?
They have from the very beginning. I remember dinner time conversations when I was about 14, and the church was wrestling with whether gays & lesbians were suitable for ministry. That was a really political issue that wasn’t even on the radar of society so much at that point, but that for me was the key moment for realizing that here is an issue impacting real people’s lives and my spiritual community is wrestling with it. That’s when I realized these two things are connected and was probably the first moment I was engaged in social activism. That then led to environmental concerns all throughout the 90s, and other issues that have been woven into it. It’s never been an inward focus so much, more a, “What am I doing to make a difference in the world?”
In my experience being part of a church helps challenge our beliefs on all kinds of issues. It’s a place because you’re in a community that you wouldn’t really necessarily choose all of these people who are sitting in the pews beside you, and you’re being influenced in ways that you might not be if you were just hanging out with those of like minds. For me, church definitely has been about continually pushing me to, “Who’s being left out right now?” and, “How big is our tent, how wide is our circle?”
What’s the secret sauce to your growing congregation?
We’re intentionally offering a style of worship that is contemporary and engaging. The music is singable, and relevant, and we don’t make you sing stupid words. So it’s not, “Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus,” and it’s not really old fashioned doctrinal stuff. All the words we offer on Sunday are thoughtful and relevant to people’s lives. So there’s that piece so that when we gather together it feels good and appropriate. And we’re offering a theological a perspective that is super progressive and open. We’re never telling people what to think, or here are the right answers if you want to belong. So that’s not rocket science. It’s not magic, but it is intentional. I recognize that I’m in an urban centre, in an affluent neighbourhood, so it makes it easier to do things differently because we have the resources readily available.
Environmental issues are important to you, right?
Yes. I was a kid pulling pop cans out of the garbage in high school and putting them in the recycling bin in the early 90s, and it didn’t win me a lot of friends, I’ll tell you that. So yes, I was involved in a lot of environmental issues all throughout my life. But for me at this point, after all these years doing this work — it’s bigger than the pop cans now and I’ve started to understand — obviously we’re aware that we’re in much more of a crisis time. My church was the first congregation in all of Canada in the United Church to divest our monies from fossil fuels. So we have a 2 million dollar endowment and it’s not, any of it, in fossil fuels.
To me those are issues related to my faith and my values. I’ve done a lot of reading in recent years around the idea of the oneness of it all. We can’t deny this connection between humanity and the rest of nature, so at this point my approach to issues around the environment takes root or arises out of this idea that we are one with everything around us and that we have to start shifting our idea of having some type of privilege in creation.
What does this work bring to your life?
I don’t have any real tangible ways to measure whether I’m making an impact in people’s lives, and so my hope is when you’re acting from a place of authenticity and true conviction, that your offering is enough. So that’s what I hope my kids learn more than anything is my intentions are good. I seek to do good and when I don’t, when I don’t meet the bar I set for myself or when the results aren’t what I might of hoped for — it’s okay. Just to have a community of people who say, “You know what? You’re good enough and you’re going to mess up, and you’re still of value.” That’s kind of my hope of what I can contribute to my family and the world. You’re good enough.
Why is this work important?
Because it’s helping to support communities where people can come with whatever challenge they’re facing in their life, and have a place where it’s okay to not have it all together, but can know that you’re okay anyway. And there’s not a lot of places that offer that — it’s kind of countercultural to say life is not about getting ahead, or making the most money, but it’s really about supporting one another to become our best selves.
Has parenthood changed how you view your work?
When you have kids, no matter what you’re doing, things suddenly get real, right? In my early 20s I was going to bring about world peace, I was going to save the environment, I was going to be part of something really huge and amazing. And with children it just brings you back down to earth and it reveals to you, alright, what difference can I make day by day? So with my kids from day one we went with cloth diapers, we tried to make practical choices. But what my kids do each and every day is remind me about how the work I do matters right here, right now. So if my kids are struggling with anxiety and fears about the state of the world it’s about “Okay, what tools can I offer my kids to help them get through each day with hope and meaning in their lives?”
What do your kids think about what you do?
My kids come to church every week without being asked, my kids are just very involved in this community, but it was take your kids to work day last week for grade nines, and my 14 year old said, “Mommy, I don’t want to go to work with you. I know what you do and I’m not interested.” So, nice, thanks.
I think they appreciate what a spiritual community is in their lives, they appreciate the intergenerational aspect of it, they see the value in feeding the poor and being on protest marches. The flipside of that for them is it pulls mommy away from them at times that aren’t ideal in their lives. So it’s kind of that mix — it’s a good thing and a blessing and a bit of a nuisance when mummy has to go and visit someone at the hospital or is out three nights this week. So it’s a love / hate thing I guess.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other parents about working/living with purpose?
I think for so many women it comes back to placing value in your actions on you, on your own self. It sounds so easy in theory to say you need to make time for yourself, and yet I think when we allow ourselves to become all consumed with our work or our family it’s at the detriment of own sense of being fulfilled. The challenge and the invitation is to make time for yourself and while it doesn’t have to be huge, it has to be an effort. And whether that’s a 20 minute walk, joining a knitting club, or going to the parent’s meeting at school, that at least gets you grounded enough to be able to see how you might serve the world. I don’t think you need to start with the big vision of what you’re going to do to save the world. I think it might actually happen more in tandem, I don’t see it as a linear progression, but it’s a circle of taking care of self, and out of that sense of fulfillment is born that energy and desire to contribute more broadly.
What do you think you have in common with other moms?
The lack of balance. My eldest daughter took up yoga a year ago as a strategy to just help her cope with life, and seeing how that has worked for her has taught me to remember if I’m taking care of myself then I’ve got more to give my family and the church that I serve. We made a family decision about a year ago for my husband to stay home with the kids, so he’s working very little. He was in the ministry as well. So now he’s home a lot more which creates balance for the family. It’s a privilege to be able to do that. I get it, I understand that some parents simply can’t. But I also thank at any moment you have the privilege to do that take it. We think oh, our kids need us when they’re little but I find now with teenagers they need us in different ways, but it’s still so important to be there.
So, yes, my work is all consuming and yet part of that is my choice. At various moments I take more responsibility, or I guess I do a better job of keeping those boundaries in place. And I find when I’m going for walks daily, doing yoga, meditation, hanging out with girlfriends now and then that I’m more filled up, I’m more grounded, I’m less likely to lose my temper with my kids.
What’s been hardest about what you do?
I’d say the hardest thing is also the richest blessing: managing people. When you bring people together, even when you’re bringing them together around a common cause, tempers can flare and convictions can get the better of us. I’m not actually the most patient person, but I know what patience looks like and I work toward it. My family would say to you that I am more patient with my spiritual community than I am with my family. So that’s a challenge in life too, how do we be authentic in all circles?
What other moms do you admire?
I could give you so many answers to this one. Some moms that I admire are the same sex moms that are forging a path. There are lesbian moms in my circles, who are statistically making less money than heterosexual couples, and facing social challenges in terms of acceptance. Going to preschool registration and having to explain, again, who their family is and why their family counts. So it’s those people who are pressing the boundaries on what family is, it’s those moms who really stand out to me. They are forging new paths, they are breaking down walls.
The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Come join us on Facebook.