Research carried out by Dr Gladys Ganiel, of Queen’s University Belfast, in partnership with the Irish Inter–Church Meeting, entitled ‘People Still Need Us’ found that 46% of faith leaders said their ministry had been more stressful than usual during the pandemic. You can read the full report here. The Irish Inter–Church Meeting has been keen to support and promote initiatives that assist clergy in their self–care as they seek to care for others.
One of the groups we have been engaging with is Care4Clergy and here we share details of an event they are organising to support clergy this Christmas.
Care for Clergy member Rev Jared Stephens writes:
There is a problem with Christmas time that happens every single year. It is a time of celebration and joy. It is filled with the ringing of laughter, the happy gatherings of family with family, friends with friends. Feasting and frivolity, presents filled with love. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to all peoples!” I love Christmas as does most of the human race most of the time. It’s funny that this Christian holiday celebrating the birth of our Messiah is in no way contained to our faith alone. It is celebrated by almost everyone of almost every faith; it is loved that much and it means that much to our Western culture. In this popularity and the exuberance of the celebration, and the expectations wrapped around the Christmas ‘experience’ lies the problem. Not everyone is happy on the 25th of December. Not everyone feels like celebrating, even if they want to, some people can’t.
Along with the revelry, happy meetings, and family gatherings lies a real and often ignored issue of sorrow, depression, and loneliness. Many people have lost family members they loved and Christmas time, a time so special to many families, often stands as a stark reminder of their loss. Many people do not have families or even friends with whom they can share the season, and many others have chronic depression, or physical illness, or financial woes to deal with during this time, and the social pressure to be happy often times creates an almost hostile environment for those people who are truly suffering at this time.
Our mindset is often that you cannot be sad and happy at the same time; that you cannot mourn and celebrate, so we are pressured into not feeling our pain, and not processing our grief in healthy ways, hiding these serious feelings away, packing them in a box with wrapping paper and pretty ribbons until the season of joy is over and it’s ok to feel them again.
This pressure to be filled with joy at Christmas and ignore the other feelings is not healthy, nor is it Christian, nor does it adequately explore the theological and spiritual depths of what it means that the Son of God is born in a manger. Written within the very pages of the Christmas story lies imbedded the depths of fear, pain, and suffering as from the moment Mary becomes pregnant with Jesus, his parents suffer fear, uncertainty, and danger, as does he.
We must take seriously the Good News that is given to all humanity, as the angel hosts proclaim Jesus’ birth to the shepherds in the fields, “keeping watch over their flocks by night”. The good news that will be to all people is that Jesus has come to love you. Even those who is suffer in darkness, who are lost in the depths of pain. Jesus has come to journey with them in and through the darkness, to love them as they are. And even though we often are hesitant to enter someone else’s darkness, especially when all we want to do is be happy, Jesus will never abandon them in their pain.
The Blue Christmas service is designed to acknowledge and give space for all people, allowing each person to be as they need to be. Allowing everyone a chance to breathe, to centre themselves, to listen to their own hearts, whether joyful or sorrowful, filled with darkness, or brimming with light. It is a service where those who have suffered loss, or those who are suffering loss can find space to grieve; where people who feel lost in darkness, or those who have found their way out of darkness can sit and seek the babe in the manger that they may worship him. It is a place for people who simply want to sit in the quiet and darkness and be surrounded by love with no judgement or expectation attached.
For me, it is one of the most meaningful services of the year for in it I find myself setting aside my expectations of what God is supposed to be and do, and I find myself open up to the mystery of the miracle of Jesus’ birth, as the darkness, and the silence gives my heart the chance to seek the babe once more and experience the miracle of his wondrous birth.
This year Care4Clergy will be running, for the first time, a Blue Christmas service for ministers. This year has been an extremely difficult year for clergy. Clergy are in a unique situation of caring for those who are suffering and part of the work is journeying with people through their grief. This has been a terribly difficult year for all who have lost loved ones. Our normal ways of mourning, and celebrating the lives of those we loved has been truncated. We have lost something important this year and we are all hurting. Not being able to experience the healing of community as we normally would has unsettled many of us and has left many feeling wounded. Our way of being community has been disrupted, and many feel lonely, disconnected, and even lost. We, at Care4Clergy, hope that this will be a time of centering, of healing, of grounding; as we find our hearts leading us once more to the manger in Bethlehem; as we sit in wonder at the miracle of God’s love drawing near to us once more, as we draw near to Him.
In addition to extending an invitation to attend the Care4Clergy Blue Christmas service, the organisers would encourage others to consider whether this is something you could organise in your local area. This could provide a helpful model for inter–church groups who wish to do something together to contribute to community healing in what may be a very difficult Christmas period for many. If would like further information, Rev Stephens and the team at Care4Clergy would be delighted to hear from you: email@example.com