We're about half-way through Advent. For the new pastor, this can be a very exciting time. It is the first holiday season since your Ordination. If you are serving as a sole pastor, you are now preaching at least twice a week, and you have an extra two services coming up on Christmas Eve and Day (This year, you only have one extra, because Christmas is on a Sunday, but anyway…) That's a lot of preaching. I recall my first year, discovering that all that I learned in seminary was used up after about six months of preaching. As one older and wiser pastor said, "You can't just keep going back to the well without refilling it. It will get empty."
But more important for the young (or even the middle aged) pastor is figuring out how to do all of these things while not neglecting your own spiritual life. How does this simple country parson keep himself from getting burned out on all the Christmas stuff?
There are two things I do each year. They seem to do the trick for me.
The most important is some advice I received from a veteran pastor in my circuit during my first year of ministry. He said that what he does to keep from getting burned out is visit all of his homebound members on the Eve of the Nativity. I can not stress this enough. Many pastors like to do them slowly throughout the week leading up to Christmas. If that works for you, I suppose it's fine. But for me, the anticipation of visiting all my homebound right as the calendar turns from Advent to Christmas, is greater than my excitement over any other part of the holiday season. As others are rushing about with last minute preparations, I am going from house to house, bringing the Christmas Gospel to those who can not attend church. The first time I sing the Gloria In Excelsis after putting it away for Advent is not at the service on Christmas morning, but for the sick and infirm on Christmas Eve. (Technically, it's during the day, but you get the idea.) The Gloria never sounds quite as beautiful to me as it does repeated over and over during that day. The Passage from Luke never seems so important and fresh, and rather than saying, "Here's the final push" as I get to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day service, I am filled with excitement from having preached and read to those who need it most. In addition, the homebound members hear the Gospel just as Christmas is beginning, so it is also fresh in their minds on Christmas day.
I can not commend this practice enough. I have done it every year since my ordination. My record is nine visits in one day. I do make allowance for those who live a distance away. I visit them earlier. But it is not the same. To bring the "good news of great joy which shall be to all people" to those who need it most, just when they would normally have been getting ready for church themselves in years past, means a lot to them. It is worth your time, and the exhaustion you will feel on December 26. It is a well-earned nap that I take that day, sleeping like a very contented rock.
The other thing I do is read. But not just anything. Advent is the time to read Athanasius "On the Incarnation." This is a more recent addition to my schedule, but no less important. Each year I try to read through it, and some years, I almost succeed. The point is not that I pack away so many pages or chapters each day, but rather, whenever I have a few quiet moments, I read and ponder a little bit. It helps focus me on what is truly important in the Christmas season, in my preaching, in my teaching, and in my own meditation. If this interests you, I have the public domain version formatted to fit in a coat pocket. It's a little large, but it does fit. I put plastic covers on mine, and carry it with me everywhere. You'd be amazed how often you have two or three minutes to read a few lines. Of course, this applies not only to pastors. Anyone can read Athanasius. I recommend it.
And that's how I prepare my heart for Christmas.