by Sarah Schlieckert*
Every year, the holiday gauntlet is laid down: a frantic pace of family and social obligations that, while well-intended, can quickly overwhelm the joy of the season and turn Christmas into one more item on your never ending to-do list.
Church leaders, staff and clergy are particularly prone to becoming snowed under in the final weeks of the year as Advent and Christmas also bring added worship services, fellowship and study gatherings, and community service commitments. All of this combined with increased financial demands and pressures can create a powder-keg of stress and anxiety.
So prevalent is this onslaught that many of our churches offer Longest Night or Blue Christmas services to support people as they grieve during this season, and more broadly, to offer a gentle intermission to the breakneck pace of the season.
Though data from the CDC consistently ranks December as the month with the fewest suicides, there is no doubt that patterns of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues can be horribly debilitating, particularly at a time when the cultural expectation is joy, light-heartedness and celebration.
When I started out in ministry, my father told me never to make work for myself in slow seasons at church — he assured me there would be seasons seemingly without break, and that this was the trade-off and balance of ministry. Of course, balance is an elusive target, and for many of us, it is a target easily set aside until that “after” time: after Charge Conference; after Christmas; after Easter.
In truth, there is no real “after “season. There are meaningful choices you can make today and throughout the holiday season to not only survive the marathon of obligations, but indeed to find healing and wholeness in your personal and professional life. Here are a few ways to start:
Eat healthy. Balance holiday treats with common sense portion sizes and healthy options. Bring a healthy option to potlucks or gatherings to be sure you (and others) have alternatives to the standard fare.
Exercise. Keep up with training or exercise programs you are already doing, and consider adding at least light cardio and strength training to energize your body.
Say no. Remember, by saying yes to one thing, you are necessarily saying no to something else. You are a finite individual. Stand firm against becoming what Dr. Stanley Hauerwas cautions his seminary students against: “a quivering mass of availability.” Dr. Deborah Haskins, both a counselor and clergy spouse, asserts, “I think because clergy love God and ministry it can be challenging to set limits even on our love of ministry. Working hard does not always lead to effective ministry.”
Get outside. Beyond a myriad of anecdotal evidence, studies are now objectively demonstrating the benefits of spending time outdoors.
Cultivate spiritual disciplines. Do not allow increased preaching or teaching obligations to replace your daily Bible study, or to diminish the time you spend in prayer or other spiritual disciplines. Indeed, intentionally living into the season of Advent calls us into a time of increased discipline and preparation.
See a counselor. Continue with your regular counseling schedule if you are currently in the care of a counselor. Increase or begin work with a counselor if you find yourself struggling with depression, anxiety or stress that feels overwhelming.
If you find yourself in a mental health crisis, reach out for help just as you would in the midst of a crisis of your physical health. The National Suicide Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. Do not refrain from seeking help because of a fear of being a burden for others. Do not put off seeking help in hopes you will snap out of it. No one would expect this of someone suffering a heart attack or diabetic crisis. If you fear someone you care about might be having a mental health crisis, you can learn more from resources such as the American Association of Suicidology (www.suicidology.org). If you are concerned someone is in imminent danger of hurting themselves, call 911.
As United Methodists, we assert our confidence, rooted in Scripture, that we have meaningful choices to make about our lives and world. As beloved children of God, may each of us care well for ourselves even as (and so that we may) care well for others during this season.
*The Rev. Sarah Andrews Schlieckert serves as pastor at Melville Chapel UMC*