Be kind to your Pastors: A Christmas Public Service Announcement

My number one piece of advice to anyone under any amount of stress (especially a crisis) is, “Be kind to yourself.” If it’s a couple experiencing stress, “be kind to each other.”

I think it’s time to name something. The holidays? This is a crisis, we are all under an amount of stress that is higher than normal. So here’s my advice, “Be kind to one another.” “Be kind to yourself.”

Now, one more thing I need you to do, “Be kind to your pastor.”

I had a parishioner, who is a retired school teacher, tell me today that the holidays were hard for him because he didn’t get out of school until December 23 and he would wake up and all of a sudden it was Christmas Eve.

Guess what? Your pastor wakes up and it’s Christmas morning, kids are running down the stairs, family is gathering. This week I’ve been preparing for 6 services. None of them are the same, it’s not just the same service over and over again, each unique. Next year we will wake up and go back to work Christmas morning.

When I wake up on Christmas morning it’s like someone has been holding my head under water, let me up to breathe and then pushed me back under.

Christmas is such a juxtaposition as a pastor. I have to stay in town, I do not travel to family, and my family doesn’t travel to me (which is their choice). I work Christmas Eve and sometimes Christmas Day. It is my job and I know that and I have made peace with that. But the stress is high, for all of us.

It is my least favorite time of year as a pastor, if I’m honest. People are the nicest to me they have been all year. I get goodies and presents and notes talking about the difference I have made in their lives and how much they appreciate me. And then I get “projection vomited” on by others.

They can’t get their mother, daughter, son, father, husband, wife, friend to do what they want and their frustrated and they’re angry and they can’t yell at them because they don’t want to ruin Christmas so guess who they yell at? Yep. Their safe place, their pastor.

Just this last week a friend, who is a pastor, got pulled aside and yelled at like a child in the hallway because of something petty. (This, BTW happens a lot as a pastor). When we tell our “higher ups” we get the advice to have “thick skin.” We are put on a pedestal we never asked for.

I was told recently that as a pastor I was not allowed to have a bad day, that I am supposed to perfect the art of “faking fine” and should never allow my parishioners to know when life is difficult.

I actually think my parishioners would disagree, I believe they like that I’m real. But I will say this… that is the expectation.

The week of Christmas the Pastor’s stress is high, really high for another reason. I’ll let you in on a secret, it’s the candles.

Every Christmas Eve I hear, “It’s just not Christmas until I stand in church with the candle and sing Silent Night.” Sometimes I wish we could all admit that and show up on Christmas Eve, say hi, light the candles and leave.

One year the person doing the lighting (because the lights go down when we sing silent night) messed it up. I blame myself (because that’s what pastor’s do) for not adequately preparing him for the lighting changes. Which were written out, with a chart, on which buttons to push at which word. Most of the lights were left on while we sang, no “mood” lighting for the candles.

As I shook hands on the way out the door a woman yelled, “that was the worst Christmas Eve service I’ve ever been to and you have ruined my entire Christmas.” Everyone heard her. It was everything in me to stay at the door. I cried through the entire night and Christmas Day. I loved this woman, her opinion meant a lot to me, her family’s opinion meant a lot to me. “It’s not about me, she’s under a lot of stress.” I repeated over and over and over. Still couldn’t shake the anxiety.

So please… Be kind this Christmas, be kind to your pastor, we are all under a lot. I mean a lot of stress. We have family stuff too. Yelling at us will only make US feel bad. We love you, we genuinely do, but we are not your wife, son, daughter, husband, mother, etc. We are not the “sunshine and roses” expectation of the holidays. We are not the person who cut you off in traffic or even the recipe that you’re following but still can’t seem to get your mother’s molasses cookies right.

We are your pastors, we love you, we wish you a very, merry Christmas, we’re here for you, but we have stuff too.

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the A word

We cannot please everyone. We know this. But sometimes it’s even our job to piss someone off, gently, but piss them off nonetheless, stand up for what’s right. We expect, anticipate fallout. It’s good. It means that a hard situation is being wrestled over, but at least it’s out in the open.

We can handle this, we feel in control of this. But it’s the completely unexpected, the unknown, the X factor that has us all flummoxed. Years ago I was standing at the door on Christmas Eve, shaking hands as people walked out. I served a small church in upstate New York. It was the kind of church where all the kids “came home” on Christmas and there was not a seat to be found.

I was burnt out, I was tired, and I forgot to recruit someone to do the lights for the candlelight/Silent Night portion of the service. I asked a session member, he was also the plant committee chair, he had also been a member since his youth. He should know how to do this, I would not need to micromanage.

I was wrong.

The lights didn’t go down all the way, and something just didn’t “feel right”. It was not my fault, it wasn’t even this guy’s fault. But on the way out the door the daughter a parishioner who I see a few times a year walked out without saying hello. “Where’s [insert name here]”. At that time she storms back in and exclaims that was the worst Christmas Eve Service she’d ever been part of!

Well…

It didn’t matter what it was or how it was or why it was. All that I heard was negative feedback. All I heard was someone was upset. All I heard is that I’d ruined Christmas. As if I had all that power. Or someone had given me that authority.

The truth is, I let her ruin my Christmas. I spent all Christmas Eve and all Christmas Day filled with anxiety.

Anxiety continues to get the best of us. Over the last few weeks I have seen a reasonable group of people tear apart decision after decision many people have made (including themselves as a body). There is no going back, but we do it because we hope we can find the mistake. We pray we can pinpoint the person and the thing that created the angst.

Truth is, that’s rarely the case.

Even if we could go back and anticipate everyone’s reaction and what everyone wanted and what everyone was thinking it probably wouldn’t have changed anything anyway.

On that Christmas my sermon could have been better, the lights could have worked great, and every single thing would have gone perfectly. That woman still would have had the worst Christmas. Because the anxiety she was feeling was not about any of it.

But it’s going to come out somewhere, and it happened to be me.

My mistake was letting it affect me. Yet, how could I not? It’s just who I am. What I didn’t do (what I constantly strive not to do) is continue the cycle and push the anxiety on other people.

I did nothing wrong and going back and changing anything wouldn’t change the outcome but this situation/circumstance/life is hard and we don’t like hard. Surely it’s someone’s fault. Surely someone is to blame.

As leaders we find ourselves in this position a lot, we are even taught that it’s the measure of us doing ministry right. I’m still learning not to harbor the anger I get from receiving so many people’s anxiety. I am still learning not to be disappointed in myself or someone else for not being appropriate with their anxiety. For it is a dangerous weapon.

Anxiety (and fear and the like) is a silent killer of relationships and it should be handled with thick rubber gloves. I look forward to the day that the CDC finds a vaccine for it, eradicates it, and sticks it in their vault next to Polio and Small Pox.

Until then, breathe, sometimes things are just difficult and we don’t need to go around blaming everyone else for that feeling. It doesn’t have to be your fault, but it’s not necessarily mine either, sometimes life’s just a little difficult.

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