As a minister you know all too well how intense it is to feel burned out, especially during the High Holy days. You wonder sometimes, is there any way to avoid it? Does it come with the territory?
The holidays can be especially stressful for ministers and their families; not only because of the significance of these celebrations in pop-culture but also because churchgoers have very high expectations. We also put high expectations on ourselves as this season is when we are most likely to have an influx of visitors. We feel the pressure to up our game, to ensure first time visitors become recurrent worshippers in our community.
In addition, for the small church minister, the expectations of pop-culture and
church-culture collide resulting in an explosion of to-do lists, laborious
tasks, and never-ending details: worship design, music selections rehearsals, letter writing, printing, folding, mailing, distribution of flyers, writing copy for promotions, updating social media, writing and preaching sermons, and much, much more.
In Christian tradition, Christmas is preceded by the observance of Advent, a season of waiting, expectation, and preparation. Services during this season are meant to keep Christmas celebration at bay, until it’s time! However, in pop-culture Christmas celebrations start officially with Thanksgiving. This has also found its way into the church pattern of behavior. Therefore, the Christmas season at church starts much earlier. And because it has expanded, the celebratory expectations of worshippers increase much earlier as well. The demands are so high many ministers report the feeling of dread even before the season starts.
As a pastor of a small congregation that still has muscle memory of being a bigger church in its heyday, I know too well the challenges of wrestling with what is doable given the resources, and reasonably satisfying the spiritual needs of the people. I have noticed the rollercoaster of emotions I have experienced: the burn out, feelings of inadequacy and regret (I could have done more), fear, and anxiety especially around criticism.
What would it look like for a minister to also have a spiritual enriching holiday season? What would need to be different so that the minister and their families would experience joy, peace, hope, and love? I expect my colleagues’ push back here, as I’ve heard too many times that a minister ought not to expect to be ministered to. However, is a minister to minister to God’s people from a place of emptiness? I strongly suggest: Not! I’ve come to consider this a big lie from our enemy.
If I were to stand on the other side of the Christmas season, I would want to be a minister who stands victorious, renewed and energized, feeling really good and ready to start the new year on the right foot, like everyone else. Lofty expectations! But wouldn’t it be awesome if that were the case? I suggest to you that it is attainable with God’s help.
To say the least I would want to avoid at all cost, feeling like I just gave birth, and hosted an extended stay party to angels, shepherds, wise men, and their animals.
In previous years, I have felt so exhausted I would hardly peel myself off the bed. I felt jealous of all the other people who got to observe these Christmas celebrations and be spiritually energized. I asked myself: What is stealing my joy? How can I minister if I barely have nothing to give?
So I decided to be mindful and noted my emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. First of all, I noticed that I was so busy that I ate a lot of junk food. Stuff that was readily available, but not the healthiest. I did engage in some meditation, devotional, and prayer time here and there, but for the most part was inconsistent and intermittent. There was always a tyrannically urgent thing to do that would demand attention like a toddler in full tantrum mode. Once the week of Christmas arrived spiritual practices went out the window. I neglected to give time for myself, my family, and friends. No, don’t dare to nod your head at me self-righteously. If you are a small church pastor, you know you’ve done it too!
I decided we all deserve to fully benefit from the observance of the holy days, but also your family, friends, and especially your congregation deserve your best, and not the leftovers.
So here are a few things I know are going to change your emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical landscape during the holidays. You are just going to give yourself permission to do them, or not!
#1 Edit Your To-Do List
Stephen Covey’s habit #2 “Begin with the end in mind” is my favorite of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People because it forces you to focus on what is really important. What are the extras you just added because it would be really nice to do? Weed those out immediately! Last year, for me was baking fresh bread for communion. What was I thinking? Start by asking yourself: What does our community need this season? Pray about this, and once you arrive to a reasonable, spiritually filled answer this may help you weed out all the tasks that do not help you achieve this goal. You and your team (if you have one) ought to stay focused on what really matters. Also expand these questions to your personal and family life. What do you need from God this season? What does your family need? I decided this year that I did not need to make a hand-made ornament to give away at our parsonage open house party as I did in previous years. I love to cook, so opening my home, and providing food is sufficient.
#2 Delegate! No, really, keep your hands off
A lot of us ministers like to complain how we do not get much help. But if we are honest, perhaps we do not because (a) we do not invite people to help, (b) because we are controlling and have demanding high expectations of ourselves, (c) because we are exceedingly overperformers. We are not just ministers, but operate as class A super lay people. We insist in doing both! I may be talking about me here, but I have encountered it in many clergy circles. If the laity of your church is especially timid and tired, as the minister you must give them permission (out loud) to let go of their own expectations. That means that sometimes things need to go wrong before they get better. For example, manage the “we used to”s. We used to have a choir. We used to host a pancake breakfast. We used to have a cantata. We used to go caroling. Chaplain them though the process of grieving the “we used to” and usher them into the acceptance of “this is who we are”. How can we best honor God with our true self? Do we really need to trim more than one tree? In other words, K.I.S.S. – keep is simple…servants! If there is insistence on implementing, yet another event just to because we do it every year, resist the temptation to put your hands in it, limit yourself to just show up. If they want to do it, it is theirs!
Maybe all halls need not to be decked out and the boughs of holly ought not the be hanged this year.
#3 Schedule ME-time!
Put it in your calendar! Honor at least one day off every
week. Especially the week of Christmas. Plan to take off the week after Christmas and invite a lay person or guest preacher for the Sunday after Christmas.
As a small church minister, you may be the only one who will watch out for your self-care time.
- Me-time can be spent reading an Advent devotional daily. Make it a highly effective use of time by incorporating the reading of the synoptic narratives around Jesus’ birth to guide your meditation, reflection on Scripture, and prayers. Your preaching will be infused by the insights you glean from these practices. In other words, try not to separate your personal devotional from your sermon preparation, make it one and the same.
Me-time can be implicit sermon prep time!
- Me-time includes paying attention to your physical health. Plan your meals so that you have healthy food available. The $10 fee for online home grocery shopping is so worth it and a life-saver! Plug in 15-20minute work-out: you need no more. If I go out for a walk, even a lazy one, not only does it clear my head, but a lot of good stuff surfaces for my sermon prep. Honor your sleep, take that pastor’s Sunday afternoon nap religiously, and rest at least 10 minutes for every hour you are in front of the computer! Remember sabbath is a commandment, especially because we are prone to break it.
- Me-time includes: socializing! This may sound insane but, allow yourself to enjoy family time, not thinking about church. Come on, you can do it! And while you are at it, make sure your phone is off somewhere you can’t recall. This does not have to be a three-hour block. A simple sit-down meal or snack may be what just what your little soul needs. This year, I planned a simple trim-the-tree evening with my family. We ended up stuffed from eating home-made lasagna, and watching Netflix, while the tree remained up and untrimmed for another week. It was fun, and just fine! Lower your expectations! During a particular hectic high holy day season, I somehow found myself sitting around the table with a group of friends. It was informal, and it happened organically, we caught up with each other’s lives, laughed, cried, it was a mighty good time. I jot down how much positive energy and outlook I gleaned from this gathering, so that I would always make time for friend no matter how hectic life in ministry gets. It is the best gift you can give yourself. So stop what you are doing, reach out and say: “Yes!” Go grab a cup of coffee with a friend, it is not time wasted, it is soul investing!
Dear fellow minister of a small church, Advent and Christmas are also for you and your family. Do not deny yourself of the gifts that come with Jesus’ birth! Be courageous, and know that Christ would expect you too, to follow the star and seek Him.
Let me know what practices you incorporated and what worked (or not!).
Enjoy the Season & Merry Christmas!