Christmas means a lot of different things to different people. For some it is a celebration of light in the middle of winter, for others it is a time to gather with friends and family, and for others still it is a time of magical wonder. For many people, Christmas is still a faith based festival where the incarnation of God in Jesus is celebrated. Whatever the reasons for celebrating Christmas, there will also be an equal number of reasons why people will attend church over Christmas when they may not have attended all year long. No judgement from me! But that also means that clergy will have extra work to do that may not be expected.
Something to remember as we approach this season are the clergy that will be preparing for this season long before it gets here. Here are a list of common struggles clergy have at this time of year.
Families– all the things you do with your family, the clergy family will do as well. Except they will be working when most other people are off work. They work Christmas Eve, sometimes Christmas Day. They will have to help buy and wrap presents, have visitors, be a Santa to someone and write Christmas cards. For clergy folks that are in relationships, the partner often becomes the sellotape of the season-holding things together for everyone in the family. For clergy folks that are not in relationships, all those things become a solo responsibility.
Funerals. This could be fact or fiction but the perception is that there are an usual number of funerals, often unexpected deaths due to accidents or suicides, just before Christmas and Easter. I recall one Christmas where two congregants took their own life in separate instances a few days apart from each other, and, another young person died in a car accident the week before Christmas. Three funerals in the same community the week before Christmas is incredibly difficult to handle as clergy and for the community. It is very hard to hold the balance between offering a congregation a message of hope and joy and peace while at the same time wrestling with big questions and realising the huge loss for the community. Ministers will often be awake late at night wondering how they can honour both those things with integrity.
Feeling helpless. On more than one Christmas I have gazed out from the pulpit and have seen a person sitting by themselves crying their eyes out. I did not know who the person was and they left the church before I had a chance to speak with them. This can leave clergy feeling helpless and praying that what ever wound needed to be healed, it could be found.
Feeling alone. Most clergy go where they are called. If your minister is not in a relationship, it could be likely they are far from family or friends. Waking up in a house alone on Christmas morning can be a lovely thing but it can also have a thread of loneliness as well. Most times I was invited around to someone’s house for Christmas dinner (which I really appreciated a great deal) and that is lovely, however, not having someone to share the joy of Christmas morning with can sometimes be a bit challenging.
Feeling uninspired. I’m not one to repeat sermons but sometimes after your fifth Christmas, it becomes difficult to find something new to say about the wonderful story of Christmas. There is an unseen pressure to be creative and relevant but not preach last year’s sermon. If clergy do, please just listen and find a new level of understanding from the same message.
Fiddling with tradition. Chances are, clergy will uphold the tradition of the congregation out of respect. But there are times when clergy may challenge some Christmas traditions for a variety of reasons. Some may be theological. Some may be pastoral. Others may be personal. But if clergy gently suggest a slight change in a Christmas tradition, allow them the ability to suggest a change and implement it. If it doesn’t work, chances are the minister will be the first to know and will assess for next year. Personally, I really dislike seeing the Wise Men at the manger (that is a harmonization between Luke and Matthew and the Wise Men were never at the manger and Epiphany is a different portion of the church year which begins at the end of Christmas!…let’s tell an accurate story shall we?) however, I know that most people would have a revolt if there were not wise men at the manger in the church. This is something I do not get too upset about, but I do have the conversation. Some people respond well. Others don’t. But I’m open to fiddling with that tradition for the sake of telling an accurate Gospel story.
Forgiveness. For many people Christmas is a time of year to forgive and forget. For many clergy, Christmas is a time of reflection on what they have done well and what they have not done well. It can be a time of introspection and reflection. If your minister is wise, they will have a spiritual advisor or trusted person to work these things out with. So don’t be surprised if in the new year, your minister has a few new ways of doing things or has a new approach to a situation.
How to support your clergy person at Christmas (and all year long)
- Recognise the unseen stresses that clergy have, some of which are listed above (I assure you there are many more!).
- Pray for them, or, ask them if there is anything they would like prayer for.
- Honour their time off. That means not contacting them unless it is very urgent. In most cases, ministers will have someone in place to deal with emergencies when they are off.
- Personal circumstances- this could be a ‘first’ Christmas for some clergy. A first Christmas away from family, a first Christmas without a loved one, or a first Christmas in a new congregation. Either way, the learning curve is steep, and knowing that can make all the difference.
Clergy Self Care at Christmas – if you are the clergy
- While it is good to have the support of your parish/community, practice good self care to continue to be the leader and not the ‘identified patient’ (meaning, you need more care than the congregation can provide or should provide).
- Take frequent breaks, ask for assistance for projects that others can share in, and take your time off wisely. Give yourself permission to take the time off to do what energizes you, even if in short increments. If you are off, turn off the email, the phone-whatever you need to do to fully disconnect.
- Go to another church service (if you can) so that you can be fed yourself. If you cannot attend another church service, go to another church and spend some quiet time in reflection. A change of scenery can be just as good.
- Plan White Time- schedule time wisely but leave blanks (White Time) for those unexpected things- like funerals or those who become sick. Those blank periods of time are not to be idle but things that can be done, that, if interrupted, can be easily resumed.
- Keep a record for future planning. It is easy to forget all the little details that can be stress inducing. I keep a copy of the order of service and make notes for next year about what worked for and what didn’t. Keep them together so you can see previous years. I usually have a binder that has different pages for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s, Easter, etc., with notes for each year with a brief synopsis. One Christmas Eve page I wrote in pen “SIX SERVICES IN FOUR CHURCHES ON CHRISTMAS EVE. I got home at 0200. Review for next year.” and on another wrote “keep cloth at pulpit in case Baby Jesus vomits on vestments.” (True story!)
- If you are alone at Christmas plan it out anyway. Just make sure that you have some good things planned for yourself. I spent a Christmas alone one year and it was great Christmas.
Wishing you a blessed Advent and a Happy Christmas.