In 1994, my wife Judi and I moved from being on church staff for the first 15 years of our marriage to being faculty here at the seminary. Our move to the “ivory tower” had a couple of surprises. First, I remember fall of 1994. We had only been at the seminary for a month, had not gotten plugged in as volunteers with youth ministry at the church (yet) and our children were still preschoolers. It was about the second fall Friday night and I had this feeling I was supposed to be somewhere. Then I realized that every Friday night in the fall, for 16 years, I had been at a high school football game or junior high fellowship.
Then the holiday season rolled around. We were used to going to Atlanta for Thanksgiving (to be with my family), then going to Christmas parties pretty much non-stop through the month of December, doing Christmas Eve services at church, and waking up on Christmas morning knowing that we would be driving to New Orleans to see Judi’s mom. Once again when we moved to New Orleans, we had a faculty Christmas dinner (no white elephant gifts though) and maybe a class party at church and that was it. It seemed awful quiet.
We actually looked at each other and missed the manic schedule of parties which allowed us to be reminded of the priceless friendships we had in our community of faith. I want to challenge you to look at this season of “get togethers” as a privilege and not a chore. We missed conversations with people that had little to do with the life of the church (although you always get pulled aside for “that guy” to say, “there’s something I have been meaning to ask you…”). We missed the community of friends who had become important to us as we had done life together.
So I want to challenge you to look at the Christmas party circuit as something more than a job to do. Let it be a strategic, but refreshing season of investing in relationships.
Some are more appealing for investment than others. A circulating internet quote goes something like this: “Friends are like Christmas lights. Some are broken, they don’t all match and others don’t work for you at all. But there are some of them that make your day shine bright and are just right for this time and place.” I have a few thoughts, so forgive me (again) for a list.
Invest and strengthen specific relationships. If you have breakfast or lunch with other staff, make it a point to be a great listener. If you are going to someone’s house for a party, get there early to help with last minute set up or stay late to help clean up. Guide conversation away from church matters and towards personal matters of family, job, and spiritual growth. Ask about dreams and goals for the coming year. You will be surprised at the intimacy of these conversations.
Be in the moment in your moments. Let’‘s be honest–the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas is usually a bit more laid back in terms of ministry intensity. We are usually waiting after the first of the year to begin new things, and the things we are doing are more celebrative. So instead of looking at your watch and moving on to the next party, meeting, or event, be in the moment. If you are eating dinner with a family, be all in. If you are reading the Christmas story to the preschoolers in Mother’s Day Out, be all in. If you are doing a scavenger hunt with the Senior adult choir, be all in. Relationships matter.
Unwrap some new gifts. What if this was a season where you investigated new ways to deploy your gifts and talents? What if you learned something new in order to build relationships? Take a guitar lesson, get a Rosetta Stone tutor to start learning a language spoken in a place where your church might one day do missions. Think of some creative ministry initiative and round up some friends and take a risk. Go lead Christmas carols at the retirement center, cook a turkey for the firemen on the night shift, take a cup of coffee to the security guards at the mall. You will build relationships with people who are with you as well as people you serve.
Be all in with your family. It is inexcusable for your own spouse, children, or parents to feel like you are so busy with holiday mania that you do not have time for them. Say no to things at church if it means your time with your family is harmed. If you take days off, be off. Don’t call, text, e-mail or smoke signal the church to remind them of how important you are. Relationships with your family matter most of all. It would seem a real shame if your family came to dread the holiday season because they never saw you.
Pray. Maybe the advent wreath can guide you to pray for some new and specific things. Maybe the change in rhythm can give you a few moments to pray and think. Maybe there are things coming up in the new year that concern you. Maybe you are exhausted from high school football, back to school retreats, recruiting and training your new volunteers for small groups. Maybe you need a sabbath and the more relaxed schedule allows you to get away and reconnect with the most important relationship of all.
I have said before in this space that I believe Jesus was very intentional about building relationships. He spent the most time with the people who were sharing the vision of the proclamation of the Kingdom of God. I think that is a good starting point when you ponder relationship building over the holidays.