The transition from summer to fall, in terms of pace and schedule, is significant. Because this is true for families (and even for the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and others whose lives revolve around family schedules!) it is also true for the church. Unless you serve a church in a vacation community, this is likely the time of year when your calendar is filling up. In the midst of all of that, some of the most important tasks tend to be most quickly forgotten. Especially vulnerable are the ones that that involve long-term planning (what Stephen Covey calls “quadrant 2 activities”).
With that in mind, here are three crucial practices all pastors should remember this time of year:
1) Care for teachers and students
No matter the size of the congregation you serve, you should encourage your people to care for the teachers and students both inside and outside the walls of the church. A “Blessing of the Backpacks” during worship is one way that the church can put its students, teachers, school workers, tutors, and others involved in education front-and-center. Also. consider making tags for the students to place on their backpacks so they are reminded throughout the year that they are loved. Here are some more ideas:
Prayer is free. Get permission to take a group through your local school and do a prayer walk.
Get specific. Adopt a classroom for whom your church can pray and support. You could even get first names for these students and ask the teachers if their are specific needs throughout the year (school supplies, clothes, Christmas gifts, tutoring, etc.). If you’re in a larger church, you might consider adopting a whole grade level or inviting different groups to adopt classrooms.
Don’t disconnect from your college students. Send care packages during midterms and exams each semester. Plan to recognize them and support them when they are home on breaks.
2) Plan Advent, Christmas, & Lent now
Once fall gets going, it will fly by. Start planning Advent, Christmas, and Lent with your musicians and worship team immediately. I would encourage a sermon planning retreat so that you know where your preaching is going for the upcoming months. I’ve done them at a local monastery and at my former seminary. This is an equally valuable practice whether you preach series or from the lectionary. Once this is done, it’s much easier for your worship team to plan worship around specific themes and for your musicians to choose music that builds upon and enhances your preaching. Also consider:
Don’t get left behind. Advent is a time when Christians look back to the promise of Jesus’ first coming and forward to his glorious return. There are also cultural releases connected to this season. For example, with a new, Nicholas Cage-ified Left Behind film coming out, how could your church capitalize on the conversation and controversy that is sure to ensue?
Remember the hurting. If your church or community has experienced a difficult summer or early fall, are there ways that you could minister especially to them? One way to do this is by offering a “Blue Christmas” service late in Advent which recognizes the difficulty that many people have around the holidays and offers the Spirit’s hope and healing to the those who need it.
Christmas is a significant opportunity. Remember that other than Easter, this is the time unchurched and de-churched persons are most likely to be responsive to an invitation to church, so make it easy for your people to invite their friends and neighbors. Also, consider holiday travel plans; are there ways you can serve people who are traveling for the holidays, perhaps with an earlier than usual Christmas Eve service?
Get ahead of yourself. Start planning for the seasons of Epiphany and Lent now. Adam Hamilton describes the value of a “fishing expedition” sermon series following Christmas and Easter; these are sermons designed to attract and speak to the concerns of unchurched and under-churched persons, which need to be advertised when they are mostly likely to be in worship—Christmas and Easter!
3) Make sabbath and renewal time happen
Last but not least, set aside some sabbath time now and hold it sacrosanct. This seems obvious, but more than once I’ve gone from Labor Day to Easter and realized I had never really stopped. Time flies—don’t assume rest will happen “when things slow down.” They probably never will. Plan your time away, get your supervisor’s or administrative council’s blessing, and ask them to hold you accountable. I usually try to get some kind of time away between Christmas and New Year’s, for instance. Trust me on this. Your family and your church, not to mention your own soul, will thank you. Additionally:
A commandment, not a suggestion. Make sure you are taking your regular sabbath during this busy season, not just after. In many ways, Christmas is one of our most critical times of the year, and the opportunity that it presents is worthy of our best efforts. You cannot give your best when you’re exhausted.
Don’t be afraid to retreat. Consider some mini-retreats, alone or with colleagues, during the Fall. Even a 24 or 36-hour renewal getaway can do wonders for your spiritual peace, emotional stability, and creative capacities. You may also consider a brief retreat with staff members or others to plan for some of the above items.
Pay it forward. Encourage your colleagues to get away also. Offer to cover for them when they are away, and they’ll probably return the favor. I recommend you to pick up a copy of The Power of Full Engagement by Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr, which encourages us to look at all arenas of life as a series of sprints rather than a marathon. The marathon approach is where a great deal of clergy burnout comes from. Start sprinting instead. Run hard, and then rest adequately. Then repeat. This is a great approach, not just for the Fall, but for one’s entire ministry. Practice it yourself, set an example for others. The Body of Christ will be the better for it.