The Clergy Family Christmas: Tackling the Challenges

My previous post outlined some of the challenges which may be faced by a CS at Christmas. Below is a list of thoughts on dealing with these pressures. Some are practical, others are about our own perspective on Christmas. The more I think on it the more I feel that we need to reassess our approach, as individuals and as a church, to Christmas. Is the exhaustion of so many clergy and CSs (and often many other people within and outside the church) by the 25th a sign of a deeper problem? I would argue that it is and that many of us need to find a new way of doing things so that Christmas can be a joy-giver rather than a joy-stealer.

  1. Accept, grieve, get Christmas in perspective

I often dislike people’s talk of sacrifice with reference to CSs because too often the sacrifice they are referring to is not necessary and could be prevented with a bit of common sense and compassion. So I try to avoid encouraging CSs to grin and bear whatever sacrifice others require of them as the unnecessary difficulties many experience was my main motivation for starting this blog. In the case of Christmas I think that for most CSs the ‘normal’ family Christmas is a genuinely unavoidable sacrifice. I’ve found fighting the reality of this sort of sacrifice just breeds misery and resentment. So you probably will have to accept that being married to an ordained person will require the sacrifice that religious festivals will be different for you to most people and to life before being married to a minister.  It is kinder to yourself if you accept those things you cannot change and take time to mourn the Christmas you would be having if your oh was not ordained. Keep communicating with your spouse and let them know how you feel, not to make them feel guilty but so you can be supported. Keeping your feelings under wraps often just leads to brewing resentment and then some sort of explosion further down the line.

Having come out of the other side of this I have found I have been able to get some perspective on Christmas and some of the more excessive aspects of how we celebrate it in Britain (I say this as someone who cried on our first married Christmas because my OH just didn’t do my stocking as well as my mum – I find this amusing now but at the time it made me truly homesick) I’ve been able to see the many positive things in our vicarage Christmases and have learnt to hold traditions a little more lightly; after all as a Christian I have to believe that Christmas is still an important day regardless of whether I get to eat my own weight in turkey or not.

2. Put family time in the diary now

As at all other times of the year your family unit is important and should be a priority for your OH. There is no getting away from the fact that things will be busy but if you put time in the diary you can ensure you get time together. If getting the tree as a family is an important tradition put that in the diary so it can’t be booked up by something else. By having time set aside for family and friends you will all be better able to spread the joy of the season to others. It is a sad state of affairs when the people most closely involved in Christmas in the church are the ones who come to find the least joy in that time of the year through being overworked.

3. Be realistic about what you can manage as a family

When both partners are heavily involved in Christmas events along with all the other aspects of their life it can lead to a very exhausted pair of people. Be truly realistic about what you can reasonably do. Learn to say no. Keep a close eye on the diary and ring the alarm when it is getting too full. Do not feel you have failed if you buy mince pies instead of making them from scratch (unless like me you find making mince pies and eating them fresh from the oven to be one of life’s greatest pleaures, in which case set aside time for that in your diary so you don’t miss out).

This realism also needs to extend to arrangements you make for celebrating Christmas as a family. If some of the relationships between people in your family are a source of tension or conflict combining these difficult family dynamics with a very tired vicar and/or CS may not be for the best for anyone. There is so much pressure to see family on Christmas Day you may find not everyone understands if you choose not to but it may be worth standing firm in this decision if it avoids huge amounts of stress. You can make time to see extended family at another time when you hopefully have the energy to deal with it better.

4. Christmas is just a day we happen to have labelled ‘Christmas’

There is a tremendous amount of pressure to have ‘the perfect Christmas’ and although we seem to do Christmas for all of December the climax is still the 25th. It is easy to become fixated on this one day and feel you have to have the special meal/open presents/see all your family otherwise it will all be a failure. However it is worth taking a step back and asking whether all of these things really do have to be done then at all and if they are essential elements of Christmas Day or even of Christmas altogether. If they don’t fit with your OH’s schedule could you just do things completely differently to how we have learnt to think things have to be? Having a special meal a few days later with family feels just as great as doing it on the 25th. If opening presents on Christmas Eve makes more sense why wait for the next day. If you are too tired to cook on Christmas Day why not have a tradition of having pizza in your pyjamas. We’ve had years where New Year’s Eve has been our second Christmas with extended family and it has been lovely to enjoy it with a husband who has had most of the week off and is well rested. A bit of creativity and flexibility can go a long way and you may even find it refreshing to break with the old way of doing things.

5. Do Advent and the 12 days of Christmas

Since you are forced to some extent to be out of step with how everyone else is doing Christmas this can be an opportunity to find a calmer way of approaching the whole season. Advent used to be a time of preparation and expectation but now gets little attention as Christmas events run throughout. Ian Paul on his blog http://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/can-we-undo-the-consumer-frenzy-of-christmas/ draws attention to Ruth Grayson’s idea of reviving Advent and the 12 days of Christmas, even rescheduling church events to fall after Christmas to make Advent less busy. You may not be able to persuade your church to reschedule everything this year (although you have the Rev’s ear so you could give it a go!) but if you can revive Advent and the 12 days of Christmas in your own home you may find it takes some pressure off the 25th. I’ve found the important thing for me is having family time across the whole season of Advent and Christmas rather than focusing on what we do on just one day.

6. Do not do anything simply to fulfil expectations

I mentioned in my previous post that some people you encounter may have fixed ideas about how Christmas should be done both in the church and the vicarage. As ever with the expectations issue the advice is to do what you feel is right rather than what you feel (or have been told) is expected. Every family is different and just because something worked for the previous vicarage dwellers that does not mean every vicar who follows is committed to doing the same thing.

7. Make the most of the perks where you find them

There is an upside to most situations. Last year my OH did a christingle service which I took our toddler and baby along to, worrying it could be a bit challenging to manage Mikey on my own in such a big space as his little brother was only 6 weeks old. OH had a giant model of a christingle orange and had used dried figs as raisins. He recklessly left the open packet of figs on a pew at the front…and Mikey stopped running around for long enough to help himself, which then encouraged the other small children to tuck in too. There is a lot to be said for not feeling embarassed when this sort of thing happens because said child’s father is the one taking the service. It was also lovely that once other parents saw Mikey running around causing mischief they stopped trying to hang on to their own toddlers, making for a more relaxed time for everyone. Take the blessings where you find them, once you conciously try to notice them you find more and more even if you are simultaneously having a hard time.

My perspective is limited by the fact that our children are small and have no preconceived ideas of how Christmas should be. Our family Christmases will always have been formed to fit with the church schedule and will be their ‘normal’. I would guess that it can be harder helping older children to adjust to the change and that they will miss the parent who has to be very busy at this time of year. If you know other clergy families who have been through this it may well be worth seeking advice on how they coped. The CS support groups on Facebook are great places to ask what other people do and find inspiration for forming your own way of doing things. You never know, you may find rethinking Christmas leads you to a far more joyful way of experiencing the season….but if that doesn’t happen remember your fellow CSs know what you’re going through, you are not alone even if the festive season feels like a lonely time.

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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. Continue reading

Relocation, relocation, relocation

Relocation is generally an unavoidable aspect of clergy spouse (CS) life. If your other half (OH) is a stipendiary minister you are likely to move several times. If your oh is a self-supporting minister you still find yourself in a relocation of role even if you have not moved geographically. At this time of year in particular many clergy and ordinand families are in the midst of adjusting to a new life. With ordinations over the summer many are at the start of curacies while others are starting at theological college – this is a very intense few years for these families as they will go through 2 major relocations within 2 or 3 years. September is the ‘back to business as usual’ month and now that the moving dust has settled this is perhaps the time when reality really starts to hit. The point where the novelty of being called ‘the new curate’s wife’ has truly worn off or you are really starting to miss your friends and family. I have now been through 2 relocations and have a few thoughts to offer.

  1. Let yourself grieve

There is always some sort of loss in moving even if you welcome the change. You have left something behind whether it be friends, family, job, house, church or a favourite cafe. Sometimes it is not something so tangible – when I married my OH a few weeks after his ordination and moved to his curacy placement I was in some ways mourning the loss of other possibilities and the life I had once expected to have. There is nothing wrong in being sad and taking some time to mourn. This is not self-indulgent but actually the first step to moving forward. Continue reading

Do you have to go to your other half’s church?

As a church-going Christian marrying a newly ordained curate I never questioned the assumption that I would attend the church my other half ministered to. I thought it would pretty much be just like going to church had been for me for the previous 23 years of my life. I soon discovered that this straightforward relationship with church was over for me. I struggled through the Sunday services but without really understanding why. With time, and having read some clergy spouse (CS) related books, I have come to realise that being married to your minister is far from straightforward. I now feel that for CSs of faith whether or not to attend their partner’s church is something which can benefit from being carefully thought through, rather than simply feeling you have no choice in the matter. Some challenges which I wish I had been aware of include: Continue reading

The Perks of Living in a Chilly Vicarage

Having lived in the North we thought we were pretty hardy but this recent cold snap has had us shivering despite now living in the much milder South West. Even with the heating on all day our big vicarage doesn’t really get warm (partly because, as the man who did the boiler MOT cheerfully told us, the radiators in every room are placed in the most ineffective place for actually heating the room.) But never fear, I have thought of some perks CSs get to enjoy living in a cold house. Continue reading

Supporting your clergy spouse and family

Although this blog is aimed at CSs I am aware that people outside this group read my posts. So I decided to write something aimed not at those married to clergy but those who can have a huge impact on the lives of clergy and their families – the people in the pews. This is my call to all churchgoers: ask not what your clergy can do for you – ask what you can do for your clergy. The following suggestions are a mixture of my own and other CSs’ thoughts.

1. Pray for them

2. Respect time-off

So far we have been blessed in this regard and had congregations who have fully respected days-off and holiday time. However I know that some clergy families have a very different experience and find that the clergy person seems to be expected to be available 24/7, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. So here is my plea on behalf of all clergy, whether married or not: please do not contact them at the times they have indicated are their time-off. What may seem like a harmless 10 minute phone call for you is something which drags their thoughts back to work when they should be resting. Clergy and their families cannot function healthily if they do not get a proper break from church life. Continue reading

Facebook Support

A couple of weeks ago one of the admins from a Facebook group aimed at supporting CSs got in touch and they have kindly said that I can write a post about the group to help spread the word to those who may not have come across it yet. The group is called ‘Mrs and Mr Vicarages’ but is secret so cannot be found through searching Facebook – only members can see it and the content. This allows for a high level of privacy and makes it a safe space for CSs to bring their questions, worries, prayer requests and on occasion to let off steam. It also means that word of mouth is the only way for people to find out about it so if you know a clergy spouse give them a heads up!

There are almost 300 members so there is a wealth of knowledge and wisdom to consult if you need advice or information. I’ve been a member for a couple of weeks and already really appreciate the supportive atmosphere and seeing from others’ posts that I am not alone in the challenges and frustrations I have encountered. The normal way of joining is for a current member of the group to invite you and the admins approve new members before they are accepted. If you do not know a current member but are interested in joining you can contact Jo Perry at joperry014@gmail.com.