“What are your holiday plans this year?” It’s a common question and conversation starter, since just about everyone regardless of faith tradition finds something to celebrate this time of year. It’s impossible to count how many times I’ve been asked this question, but I recall a very specific instance years ago while chatting with a member of our church during our post-worship coffee time. He asked what my family was doing for Christmas and I responded, “Well, Aaron is working through Christmas Eve and then we’ll head out some time on Christmas day to visit my extended family.”
There really is nothing out of the ordinary in this exchange, except when I said Aaron (who is the lead pastor of our church) would be working, it took a moment to register with my friend. After a brief, seemingly confused moment, he finally said, “Oh yeah, I guess Christmas Eve worship is work for him.”
By no means are clergy unique in having to work on major holidays–doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals are well aware that illness and injury don’t pause for Christmas. But there is a unique dynamic among clergy families when it comes to working on a major holiday, especially one where it’s common for families to attend worship together as part of their celebrations. Yes, nurses need to staff hospitals at Christmas, but it’s not a typical practice for people to gather at a hospital to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the way they head to the candlelight service on Christmas Eve. Unless you are the one actually doing the work (or planning your family’s holiday around your spouse’s schedule), pastoral work at Christmas or Easter doesn’t necessarily look or feel like work. Attending worship on Christmas Eve is what families do. So what does this mean for clergy families?
Courtney and her husband, Austin, both work at the same church and her reflection on holiday commitments illuminates this deeper issue:
“…[H]olidays and Sunday mornings, it’s not necessarily like being in a normal family where we can come to church together and sit together in the pew and worship together because, you know, he’s up front or running the sound board and I’m off with the kids. So that part is certainly different. Holidays are obviously affected because we either have to be here or find someone to fill in for us which is hard.”
A normal family–a relative term, of course, but one that clearly resonates with Courtney and other clergy families who truly feel what it’s like being the ones responsible for creating a space for others to experience God in these significant seasons. And yet, amid the tasks and coordination that comes with pulling together a great worship service, how might laypeople also be creating a space for clergy to experience God? Is this all about work, or is there something more? Jen, who co-pastors a church, expressed a sentiment not uncommon to the people I interviewed:
“And I think the other thing that’s just overwhelming about being a pastor is that people simply by virtue of the role that you are living into, people invite you into their lives in just overwhelmingly extraordinary ways…”
Indeed, worship is not a performance or a service the pastors provide to laypeople/customers. Worship is a communal, shared experience. When clergy (and by extension their families) give of their energy, gifts, and time to create an opportunity for families to celebrate Christ’s birth through worship, those families who participate are also inviting clergy into a key part of their journey through Advent and into Christmas.
As clergy families navigate numerous competing, overlapping commitments this season, I hope the demands are at least somewhat softened by this perspective. Would it be easier to be able to take the holidays off year after year? Perhaps…but consider what you might miss in this communal sharing of family time.
Blessings to you all this Christmas.
Lenore Knight Johnson
- Advent, the 3rd week
- Merry Christmas and Happy New Year