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The period between Thanksgiving and Epiphany is a busy time of year for many people, but it can be particularly challenging for priests, religious and parish staff who must minister to large crowds while maintaining a healthy emotional and spiritual life.
“It’s a beautiful time in the Church year, but it’s stressful,” said Father Jim Gordon, a priest of the Diocese of Richmond and a psychologist on the clinical staff at Saint Luke Institute.
Thanksgiving falls on the last Thursday in November, Advent usually begins the following Sunday, and then the Christmas season arrives three or four weeks later. In addition to regular Masses, funerals and ministries, most parishes have extra offerings including penance services, retreats or days of reflection.
Fr. Gordon described this time as a “balancing act” for those in ministry.
“How do you attend to your own spiritual needs and pray through the season?” he asked. “At the same time you have to be there for people and make it meaningful for them.”
The first step is to acknowledge that not everything will go smoothly or according to plan, he said. Next, priests, religious and lay ministers must be sure to attend to their own spiritual, emotional and physical needs.
“Give yourself permission to plan things out in a way that’s healthy,” Fr. Gordon said.
Emily Cash, Psy. D., agreed that the ability to say “no” to requests or to ask for help in fulfilling them is important.
“When you don’t do that, you set yourself up for burnout or not being able to fulfill ministerial obligations in a way that is consistent with your vocation,” said Cash, the director of Saint Luke Center in Louisville, Kentucky.
An additional stressor can be the sheer number of people who attend Christmas Mass, many of whom may be estranged from the Church.
“There is some internal pressure to try to reach them and provide some welcome and message that can invite them back,” Fr. Gordon said. The most important thing is to be open and hospitable, he added.
Christmas can be particularly taxing depending on what day of the week it falls, Fr. Gordon observed. A Tuesday Christmas is hard because of Saturday and Sunday Masses for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Christmas Eve Masses on Monday and Christmas Day Masses on Tuesday.
Priests and religious often also have family gatherings to attend, and how they juggle them with ministerial obligations varies, Fr. Gordon said.
“You want to be with your family and you want to be with your parish, but you may not be able to balance those on Christmas Day itself,” he said.
During family gatherings, Cash said that priests and religious should take care to “just be present as a brother or son or sister.” Keeping the “ministry hat” on can prevent healthy connections with loved ones, she said.
“Take a break from ministering when you’re with your family and friends,” Cash said. “Just be Tom or Jane and I think you’ll enjoy it a lot more.”
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