By Eddie Pipkin

December 8, 2017

Having written last week about the value of strategic stress within an organization, I realized how ironic it was to be writing such an article at exactly the moment that most ministries are experiencing some of the most stressful weeks of the year (the other time, of course, being the run-up to Easter).  There are numerous events and special activities, and there is always the debate about how to handle the influx of “chreasters.”  The Advent/Christmas season particularly stands out as a source for frazzlement, because unlike Lent/Easter (which are pretty much exclusively religious holidays in focus), Christmas and New Year’s come with all sorts of social and family obligations in addition to the church-based events.  Therefore, Advent and Christmas can be a pressurized time for the families we serve, but in a perverse twist, can be especially stressful for clergy and staff members.

There are plenty of articles out there for the general public about how to keep the stress manageable over the next month, but for ministry leaders, there are two unique considerations in our goal to de-stress the holidays.  The first is in thinking about how we are interacting with our community.  The second is in thinking about the additional burdens we are placing upon ourselves and our staff.  As for the people who are volunteers and participants in our ministry, it is important to maintain a balance between the activities we are offering and the demands we are placing upon schedules that are already filled with work parties, school recitals, shopping trips, and special family traditions.  We should work to be sure that the events and activities that we host provide unique opportunities for people to worship and to experience the spirituality of Christmas and what makes our church a unique community.  We should also provide ample opportunities for people to serve those who are less fortunate (a mark of the season since the days of Dickens, and a perfect opportunity to get people excited about service at the time of year when they are more open to such appeals to compassion).  Nor should we neglect the need for our ministry families to celebrate one another in significant ways.  It is a time of year when people love getting together and expressing their love for one another.

So, given that overview, here are some guidelines to remember:

  • For the events in which you are inviting in your community, differentiate yourself from secular events. Don’t do the same kinds of things that other people in the community are doing.  This season is uniquely about Christ, and although our events should be accessible and even fun for the community, the emphasis should be clear.  It is one of the few times of the year during which even non-religious people are looking to connect spiritually.  Give them the chance.
  • Don’t forget it is a sad and depressing season for some. With all of the focus on family and relationships, Christmas can be a very difficult time for those who have lost loved ones or those who have suffered in relationships.  Don’t forget to make a safe space for them, to acknowledge the reality of the “blue Christmas” season for some, and to be attuned to the presence (or absence) of those who are lonely and alone, so that you might help them make joyful connections.
  • It’s better to offer a true snapshot of who you are than put on a big, fancy show. We add a lot of stress to our organizations by insisting on making this “the biggest Christmas ever!”  And it’s great to offer a showplace for your talented musicians, singers, actors, and designers.  People enjoy that, but it’s not really what they are necessarily looking for.  People have a very nostalgic sense of Christmas, and simple often works best.  They want to hear the familiar Scripture lessons and sing the familiar carols.  Oblige them!  Also, for all those “chreasters” who will be in attendance, you don’t want to create a false sense of who you are as a congregation.  Give them a true sense of your congregational personality, the people they can expect to find if they try you out again next week.
  • For events in which your ministry family is celebrating their own relationships, keep it simple. A little food, an easy game that gets everybody laughing: for your internal celebrations, give people a chance to enjoy each other in a low-pressure environment.  If you make things too complicated, it just stresses everybody out.

In terms of reaching out to the community, you can also establish yourself as a welcome refuge of less stress in the midst of all the chaos.  Amy Grisham of Orange Leaders writes about her church’s plan to host a fun and safe place for kids to hang out while their parents did holiday shopping:

My church found out recently that you can actually find people to watch the children, for free—AND be of assistance to those who do the watching! Our family ministry team connected with the early education department of a university near us to see if they had a list of students who might be able to help with childcare for an event we were having. What we found was, not only was there a lengthy list, but the students are required to have a specific number of community outreach hours, and helping at our event would qualify toward those needed hours!! This meant we got 20 sets of hands of early education majors to help at our event for three hours and it cost our church nothing! We kept staff on hand to oversee bathroom visits, etc., to be sure to stay in compliance with our safety policies. High school students from your youth group could also be a great source of helpers for these kinds of events. If you want to still be able to do some of the service projects you do for your community, the “cost” of the childcare could be an item or two needed to fill a food basket.

That’s creative thinking that meets people where they have a need (safe, engaging child care), while giving them a strong sense of who you are as a faith community (a place that values family and children).  And note that this is not a fundraiser grafted onto a holiday activitiy—so many of us, as churches, are guilty of turning holiday events into money grabs!

Your staff members have the pressure of thinking about how to reach people through Advent/Christmas ministry, while also experiencing the same holiday frustrations and pressures as everybody else in the workplace.    A recent Chicago Business Journal poll asked people what they hated most about the holidays in general and what they hated specifically about the impact of the holidays in their workplaces.

Here are the top general holiday season frustrations:

  1. Extra traffic.
  2. Extra expenses/money pressures.
  3. Having to come up with gift ideas for other people.
  4. Gaining weight.
  5. Others’ expectations of gift receiving.
  6. Busyness.
  7. Having to give others gift ideas for yourself.

Your staff members and ministry partners feel these frustrations just like everybody else.  There are two insights for us to take from this list.  First, don’t add to the frustrations of the people on your team by coming up with uncomfortable gift exchange plans, etc.  Secondly, look at all the opportunities in that list to speak to people’s needs out there in the big world.  We have an opportunity to offer them peace and a larger sense of purpose as they confront all those too-much-weight-too much-money-too many-expectations pressures they have identified!

Here is the summary of workplace holiday points of stress:

  1. Pressure to get year-end tasks completed.
  2. White elephant gift exchanges.
  3. Pressure to buy gifts for supervisors and/or colleagues.
  4. Pressure to participate in “Secret Santa” exchanges.
  5. Having to work on the holidays.
  6. Not being allowed to take time off.
  7. Feeling required to attend after-hours holiday celebrations.

Again, there are opportunities in this list to give our team members a break. We should NOT be adding to their financial pressures with expectations of gift-giving.  We should spread the holiday work so that everyone gets some time off.  We should offload administrative tasks until the dull days of January and February if that is possible.  And we should even consider pushing back the staff holiday get-together until at least Epiphany (where it will not be in competition with a lot of other office parties).

What are the ways you feel most stressed during the Advent/Christmas season?  Where do you see the most stress in the people around you?  What strategies have you been a part of to help reduce that stress and holiday anxiety?  What opportunities in this season do you see for us to be a place of peace and tranquility for the community?

Share your stories and questions with us here at Excellence in Ministry Coaching.  We love hearing from you.