December 11, 2015

By Eddie Pipkin

Here we are – all of us in the business of ministry – hurtling non-stop through the busy season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, liturgically referenced as Advent, but colloquially known as Survival Mode.  Every ministry has dozens of extra events: special worship, seasonal outreach and mission projects, children and youth wingdings, not to mention the celebratory parties, lunches, and cookie-swaps we are all expected to attend.  As the very people who are supposed to help everyone else in our faith communities slow down and appreciate the true meaning of the season, we often function at the very edge of hysteria.  Stress is endemic, we are harried and sometimes less than patient, and we give our families short shrift (right when we are encouraging everyone else to be careful to take time to appreciate the blessings of theirs).

It’s part of the job.  But if we get caught up in the over-the-top ethos of the culture, we lose sight of our mission and ministry.  Here are some tips to navigate a glorious and challenging season with sanity:

  • Keep it simple.  Everybody wants to pull out all the stops for Advent and Christmas.  But remember that’s not just at church – it’s true at school and in homes, too.  Everybody’s shooting for the biggest and best, flashiest and most complex.  Why just do Handel’s Messiah when you can do Handel’s Messiah with holograms and a laser show, complete with Cirque du Soleil acrobats?  Why not spread some of that energy and some of those ideas throughout the year when there is less direct competition with school concerts and shopping frenzies?  Advent and Christmas also lend themselves so beautifully to simplified approaches.  It’s hard to improve on the sacred stillness of “Silent Night” sung around a campfire.
  • Let things be a little messy.  (Do your best to channel Barbara Robinsion’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.)  Things don’t have to be perfect.  Luke, chapter two, is a reminder of the serendipity of regular people coming together for something beautiful that glorifies God.  Design events that are a little less professional and a little more participatory, and don’t be disappointed when things go off script.  People are happy to be a part of something significant and sincere, minus the pressure to be flawless.
  • Take every opportunity to bring things back around to what really matters.  Whatever you do in this season – in every gathering – take a few moments to remind participants of Christ the Incarnate at the center of the story.  Take the lead in slowing people down to take a deep breath, hold hands, say a prayer, appreciate the beauty of togetherness.  We are leaders, and we can model this spiritual habit which celebrates meaning and bleeds off the stress.

It’s also an entirely appropriate season to celebrate and acknowledge the people who make your ministry possible.  And, again, we have to resist the urge to overdo, to get caught up in elaborate gifts for our teams or trying to throw the “best Christmas party ever.”  It’s very important to express our appreciation for our teams – where would we be without them? – but here are some tips to help make that process a joy and not a burden:

  • Keep it simple (part two).  We don’t need to spend a lot of money (that we probably don’t have).  People who are our partners in ministry are not looking to be impressed – that’s not why they partnered with us in the first place.  They are just looking to be noticed and have their value recognized (because that feels good to all of us and reinforces our sense of purpose).  Jesus was, of course, a master of this, not being a large gift giver, but generous with his thoughtful time and words and presence.  Be especially attentive to those team members for whom this might be a difficult time of year if they are dealing with loss, illness, or struggling financially – these are all conditions which magnify holiday-related stress.
  • Make it from the heart.  Try to avoid generic appreciation gifts that blare their perfunctory purpose: “Oh, yeah, here’s a gift I had to get you because it’s Christmas and that’s what people do.  You can see there was a great sale at the Christian bookstore.”  It’s almost as bad to give a book that’s a ministry how-to, unless you have a really great personal note inscribed on the inside cover (see bullet point below about words).  If you have time to put some personal love into a hand-crafted gift, that’s swell, but if not, do try to be thoughtful.  I have a youth director friend who just got his team tickets to all see Hillsong United together next month.  Great gift, and an exciting team building excursion to boot!
  • Words are more important than stuff.  Whatever you give, even if it’s just a card, be sure and take the time to write a nice note.  The note doesn’t have to be Tolstoy, so stop stressing over whether or not you will be in the literary hall of fame.  Here’s the surprising thing – even though sitting down to write a dozen notes is time consuming, it can be strangely calming and fulfilling, as it reminds us just how blessed we are by the people around us and just how special to us they are.
  • Personalize.  If you write a note (or I will begrudgingly acknowledge the efficiency of – yeesh – an email), focus in on what makes that person special.  What is his or her particular gift that has been valuable and inspirational to you?  People are passionate about their most profound gifts, and knowing that you see them and appreciate them can bring a glow that lasts.
  • Cast a vision for the year ahead.  Take a moment in your seasonal acknowledgements to let your team know not only how grateful you are for the past, but also how excited you are about the future.  Let them know how vital they are to the dreams you have for what comes next.
  • Do it publicly.  At parties, at worship, at public events, someone will inevitably hand you a microphone and ask for a speech or a prayer.  Use that time to the fullest.  Gush over your team.  Fawn over the people who regularly display servant leadership, and who grace your life and ministry with their faithful presence.
  • Don’t be thanks-shy.  I once worked with a Children’s Ministry director who never thanked anybody by name (in print articles or in public speeches) because she was horrified that she would leave someone out and offend that unmentioned person.  Get over it.  You will absolutely on occasion forget somebody you didn’t mean to forget.  But that is no reason not do the immense good that publicly thanking people by name can accomplish.  You’ll have plenty of chances to say a mea culpa for your oversight (if you make one — and sometimes that’s even a great opportunity for an extra-special thanks).

Christmas joy to you all.  It is a gift to be in ministry, to think and to write, and to send the product of these efforts out into the electronic void to be harvested by who knows who.  I hope always that these words bring you some inspiration for the days ahead, some reassurance that you aren’t crazy (that we all have common ministry stories together), and that we all hold the same dreams that the grace of God will carry us forward in good work together, making Christ’s hope real to the world.  The world surely needs it.

Share with me how you are inspired, reminded of your own experiences, or have advice that deepens and expands the advice offered above.  That’s what the comments section is for.  Don’t be shy.