The Clergy Family Christmas: Potential Challenges

There are mince pies in the shops and I know more than one person who could tell you to the day where we are in the Christmas countdown. So I hope I will be forgiven for bringing this topic up in October but a bit of forward thinking and planning could help in tackling the interesting experience that is Christmas in the vicarage. I know that some CSs find this a particularly challenging season, especially in the early years of ordination when it is all new. I am now approaching my 6th vicarage Christmas and will outline below the challenges I have identified through my own and others’ experiences. In a second post I will look at potential strategies for dealing with them. It is by no means an exhaustive list but I hope it will help you in thinking about how to make Christmas a joyful time rather than a joy-stealer in your home.

  1. It really is quite busy

Even people who like to joke that vicars only work one day a week would have to concede that Christmas is a very busy time for most clergy, whether stipendary or not. The clergy facilitate a huge number of services, school christingles, community carols, nativities and so on. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day many clergy have several services in a row; last year my OH had 4 in less than 24hours and that was a light load compared to others. The busyness is not helped by the fact that Christmas, rather than starting on the 25th and being celebrated for the 12 days of Christmas, has essentially absorbed Advent so there are ‘Christmas’ events going on from the beginning of December at least. I know many CSs are also heavily involved in helping with church Christmas events, which on top of paid employment, looking after children, running a household and organising the family Christmas can mean some are as busy as, if not busier than, their clergy partner but find that the ordained person is the one who gets all the sympathy and offers of help!

2. Feeling out of sync with everyone else

While most people are slowing down a bit for the Christmas season and taking time out to be with family and friends, clergy are going in the other direction. They seem to get busier and busier until they can finally collapse on Christmas Day after their final service. This year Christmas falls on a Friday so where most people will get four days off clergy will have to be back in church on the Sunday. It can be tough when it feels like everyone else is having lots of family time while you have almost forgotten what your OH looks like.

3. The logistics of seeing family

Moving around with the job means that clergy families are often not that near extended family. When this is combined with having to work on Christmas Day it can be difficult or impossible to see family on the day. It may be further complicated by the work schedules of other family members, especially if you have more than one ordained person involved. Not to mention couples where one or both partners has family in another country.

4. Making Christmas happen for your family by yourself

Many clergy are so busy that they don’t have time to get involved in many Christmassy things at home. I know some CSs feel that this places full responsibility for Christmas on them (especially pressured if you have children and are trying to keep them entertained in the school holidays). It can be frustrating when your OH is putting so much time and energy into events which everybody else can go along to as a family while you are at home trying to make things special without any back-up. You and/or your OH can also find that you spend so much energy on Christmas events that by the time the 25th comes around you are Christmassed out and find it a bit of an anti-climax.

5. It is not like Christmases gone before

Unless you grew up in a clergy household your idea of a ‘normal’ Christmas is likely to be different to your new CS Christmas reality. If you were married before your OH was ordained you may have become accustomed to a certain way of celebrating as a family which will have to be adapted to the new ordained reality. I still find it strange being alone for so much of the morning as growing up it was the one day I would expect to be around my family from the moment we woke up to open stockings. You may have to sacrifice much loved traditions; in writing this I have realised that I may not go to a Midnight Mass service until my children are old enough to come with me as OH is not exactly available to stay at home with them. This is the downside to strong Christmas traditions – if you can no longer follow these traditions it just doesn’t feel the same.

6. Others’ Expectations

As with most aspects of clergy life you may have to deal with others’ expectations of how Christmas should be conducted, both in the church and the vicarage. It may be that the previous vicar always hosted a Christmas party or that it is seen as your responsibility to provide a Christmas Day meal for those who would otherwise be alone. It may be difficult for your OH to avoid overworking because parishioners have a very fixed idea of what services and events should be organised by the clergy. It will always be a delicate balancing act to get a reasonable balance between the needs of the parish and that of the clergy family, especially if the difference between ‘needs’ and ‘unreasonable expectations’ is not understood by some or all of those involved. You may find a tension between your own expectations and what actually happens in the parish.

Not all of these points will apply to everyone and I am sure there are CSs who do not struggle at this time of year and happily throw themselves into the mayhem. If you do struggle I hope this post at least lets you know that you are not alone and you are not a bad person to feel fed up at some points. You cannot help how you feel but if you are prepared you can at least take steps to tackle these challenges- or even better, turn them into opportunities to deepen the joy you find in Christmas. My next post will make some suggestions for not only surviving but thriving during your clergy family Christmas.

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