According to the Christian calendar, the seasons of Advent and Lent are often viewed as important seasons to help lead us into and appreciate all the more the holy days of Christmas and Easter. As such, the church spends a great amount of time and effort focused on these two seasons, doing our best to ensure that we and our congregants are ready to receive the Christ child or to live with Him in His death and resurrection.
However, I have to admit that, in my early years of ministry, I got to the point where I dreaded the Advent season. Why, you ask? Because it was often my busiest and most stressful time of the year. It’s hard to actually enjoy the season when you’re constantly busy, always being pulled from one task or activity to another, and never have time to slow down enough to actually appreciate what you’re doing to help others appreciate the season.
I know, you’re a minister. You know the Christmas story already. Shoot, you’ve already planned all four Advent worship services plus the Christmas Eve service. If anyone’s got a handle on what the Advent and Christmas seasons are about, it’s you. Right? And so, the thinking goes, we just need to push through, giving our all. After all, we can rest after Christmas.
This, of course, is problematic, because the season of Advent is intended as a time for slowing down, for preparing ourselves for the coming of the Christ child. It is a season best described as a longing for deliverance from oppression. So when we allow ourselves to be sucked into the busyness of ministry such that we come to look forward to the season being over, we have fallen into the very oppression from which we are trying to help liberate others.
To make this Advent different, let me offer some ways that may help you better handle the stress of ministry that can come during this season.
1) Make time for personal renewal.
Yes, I know you’re busy. We’ve already established that. But if you can’t carve out a few hours a week to focus on your own renewal, you’ve got bigger problems to address. Consider any (or all of the following) possibilities: Watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Let Linus remind you of the reason for the Advent season. Buy and read The Uncluttered Heart: Making Room for God During Advent and Christmas by Beth Richardson (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2009). As the subtitle suggests, this helpful book will give you the tools to create space during this season. Reflect on what it means to wait.
2) Learn to say “No.”
The Advent season is full of parties, festivities, and activities. As a minister, you receive enough invitations to attend events that you could literally be out every evening. And since you’re a minister, you feel compelled to attend them all. However, saying “Yes” when you should have said “No” will leave you feeling resentful and angry. Let me suggest that if you don’t show up, it won’t be the end of the world. Congregants will learn that they can, in fact, get along well when the pastor isn’t present. And who knows? Spending some more time with your own family may just be the best thing that you can do.
3) Create rituals.
Research has shown that rituals help us to value things more. What would it look like to either begin or continue with some rituals that can help you better appreciate what this season is about? Here are just a few examples. Use an Advent calendar or wreath with your family. Start an Advent Journal. Meditate on the nativity set. Make time to volunteer weekly, serving those outside your faith community. Daily sing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and really think about the words of the song. Each of these rituals has the opportunity to reinforce the importance of the Advent season and help you learn to better appreciate it.
4) Keep healthy habits.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, there is a lot of rich food available. Eating too much sugar or fatty foods can make you feel sluggish, which makes you less able to concentrate and fully engage in the moment. Continue to eat healthily and stay active. Eat slowly so you can fully savor the food you eat. Get enough sleep. Running on fumes doesn’t help anyone, and it certainly doesn’t allow you to be fully present when you’re ministering to others.
5) Take time to laugh everyday.
Look for the humor in the little things. Subscribe to a humor listserv. Read the daily comics. Watch a funny video. Listen to a comedian. Laughter helps reduce stress hormones and elevates your mood.
These five suggestions aren’t meant to make you feel guilty because you’re not doing them. Don’t try to do everything. Instead, start by finding just one thing that works for you and do it. Over time, you may discover that you are able to incorporate other things as well.
Even in the midst of seemingly inescapable busyness, you and I are called to seek peace. That only happens as we learn to seek first the Prince of Peace, which means making time to do just that. May this Advent season be one where you find the space and time to longingly wait for the Christ child.
Dr. James Hampton is a member of the Soul Care Collective Steering Committee.
Image attribution: shadrin_andrey / Thinkstock