By Dr. Mark A. Croston
It might not surprise you to know that August and September are the most popular months for babies to be born. These babies are generally conceived around the Christmas holidays.
It might also not surprise you to know that while all those babies are being conceived during that season, the Christmas holidays are not all tidings of comfort and joy. No, December and January are also the deadliest months of the year, and deaths are projected to be at least 20% higher than normal this year due to the impact of COVID-19.
I began my first pastorate in the late autumn season of the year. Shortly after my arrival, there was the tragic death of a young teacher in the community who had recently graduated from college. She was killed in a traffic accident on her way home for the Christmas holidays. But then, on Christmas day, a new baby was born to a family in our congregation.
Our church family was mourning the loss of life while celebrating the birth of a new one. I quickly learned that, as a pastor, the Christmas season is clearly a mixed bag of challenges and emotions. Death and grief are not the only things that fill the holiday season, though.
In addition to bereavement, many are faced with financial pressures, time crunches, family tensions, divorce dilemmas, blended family maneuvers, reflection anxiety, and isolation issues that have all been exacerbated by COVID-19.
This year pastors are fatigued, congregations are frustrated, and the pandemic is ferocious. What a combination!
One thing pastors know all too well is that critical emergencies cannot be put on hold. If there is the death of a loved one, a life-threatening surgery, or a family at the brink, you can’t just say, “Sorry, it’s a holiday.”
So, what can pastors do to survive this season and provide all-important pastoral care?
Pastoral Self Care
1. Lighten your regular load.
There was a time when I felt like I had to do it all. Christmas season would come, and I preached all the extra services. I taught the special Bible studies.
I made personal pastoral visits taking a good word, a prayer, and a gift from the church to everyone on the sick list, homebound list, hospital list, nursing home list, and local prison list.
I attended every special gathering, member event, community service project, ministry party—you know the drill—and then on top of it all I did all the Christmas season emergency pastoral care.
After a few exhausting Christmases, I lightened my load. I preached the Sunday before Christmas. I rarely preached the Christmas Day message, the last Sunday of the year message, or the Watch Night service message. Think of all the sermon preparation time and energy I saved.
I found that our Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) was happy to deliver the church’s Christmas gift, greeting, and prayer to all of the people on all the lists. Amazingly, the world didn’t come to an end if I didn’t show up to every Christmas event of the season.
2. Schedule—no, BLOCK—time off.
This is critical for you and your family. I said “block” because schedules get changed too easily. Blocking a time is making a firm commitment to your family that this time is going to be reserved for you and them.
1. Determine that only actual emergencies are emergencies.
Things are going to happen, but some things can wait, and others can be handled by someone else. This year, because of COVID-19, we’ll also have to determine which emergencies require our physical presence and which, if any, can be handled virtually. Use your God-given wisdom to make those determinations.
2. Delegate the emergency.
There are many care duties that can be appropriately carried out by a deacon or someone else in the congregation. But some of us never delegate because we feel like the church would never accept it.
My previous church did a survey before I became their pastor about expectations. Near the top of their list of expectations was “visits by the pastor.” They took a survey as I left 26 years later and “visits by the pastor” was literally at the bottom of the list. Why? Because I had learned to delegate the pastoral visits.
Every person on the church lists got visitations from someone in the church at least two times a week or more. By the end of my pastorate at that church, I rarely conducted the regular visits.
I was the appointed visitor in two scenarios. The first is when members called and specifically requested that I come. The second of the times I was the appointed visitor was in life and death crises: births, deaths, major surgeries, etc.
3. Protect your time; make emergency visitations as brief as possible.
Some visits will still take a while, others may not. I would sometimes make the visit brief by not sitting. Sometimes by not taking off my coat. And sometimes knowing most of these emergencies don’t really require you to stay a long time.
In the midst of crisis, people need to see your face and hear your prayers. Know that your presence has symbolized the presence of God in their time of crisis. But your visit doesn’t need to be long to be effective.
Pastoral care through Christmas, COVID, and crisis is a vital part of pastor’s work. One thing to always remember is that self-care—and caring for your family—makes it far easier to effectively care for the congregation.
Dr. Mark Croston
Mark is the national director for black church ministries at LifeWay Christian Resources.