By Laura Stephens-Reed
For many pastors September is the month when they begin looking toward Advent. The program year is underway, the stewardship team has begun its work, and the music director is requesting seasonal themes in order to select appropriate pieces and prepare the choir to sing them. That means there’s space and impetus for the pastor to plan.
I was coaching a pastor recently, and in the course of conversation she named that she first needed to grieve Advent in order to get ready for it.
Wait, what? Grieve Advent? Well, yes. Two and a half months out, it’s becoming clear that this will be an Advent like no other. If your church is gathering in person, this will likely not be the year for craft extravaganzas or Christmas pageants or more people than the fire code permits crammed into your sanctuary on Christmas Eve. Smiles will be hidden behind masks. Hugging friends you haven’t seen since last December will be strongly discouraged. Your worship leaders may or may not feel safe asking the congregation to sing “Silent Night” as you hold lit candles aloft. And if your church is still meeting online, all of these in-person changes will be moot.
These realities will no doubt prompt grief (and some related emotions) in church folks. And…these changed circumstances make the hearts of pastors deeply ache. Pastors, who live for those special seasons. Who plan their vacations and continuing education around them. Who work their tails off to create bigger openings for the holy to shine through.
This means that pastors will need to do their own grief work to be able both to think through Advent and to accompany others through their sadness and anxiety about a different kind of sacred season. Here are some questions to help pastors reflect so that they can lead well:
- What will my church not be able to do that we normally would?
- What would it look like to help people acknowledge that loss?
- How does the loss of a “normal” Advent connect to other losses people are experiencing, and what pastoral care is needed as a result?
- What can my church still do that is special to the season?
- How does Advent speak powerfully into our current situation?
- How do I want to show up as a pastor during this time?
- What preparation – including physical, emotional, and mental – does this require of me?
Remember, Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem and Jesus gets swaddled in that manger no matter what we do or don’t do, no matter what is going on in the world around us. Let us get ourselves ready to hope in the midst of difficult circumstances, allowing the Holy Family to show us how.
Laura Stephens-Reed is Peer Learning Group Regional Director for Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. She also serves as a clergy coach and congregational consultant.