I sit on Ash Wednesday, a smear of ashes on my forehead, typing in a coffee shop. Lent has begun, and I feel unprepared. There are several good reasons for this – but the specifics don’t much matter. Does a clergyperson ever really feel prepared for one of the busiest seasons of our year?
Several years into the practices of weekly preaching and worship leading, I’ve found that the “high holy” seasons of Advent and Lent are exhausting for reasons that go beyond the inevitable extra events on the calendar. There’s a certain sense of spiritual and emotional whiplash that comes, for me at least, when I’m writing a Christmas sermon in the midst of the waiting of Advent, or shaping Easter worship while still in Holy Week. It is a strange feeling to be putting the finishing touches on a victorious resurrection sermon, and then stand up from the desk to preach a Good Friday service.
Although our personal rhythms vary, here are some things that help me personally and professionally:
- Gather resources well in advance. Okay, ideally, I’d actually write the sermons in advance. But I’m not a person who finds it easy to write sermons far ahead of their preaching. Sermon writing is, for me, an occasional experience – it depends on the particular circumstances of a community at any given time, and that changes from day to day and week to week. That means that sermons must be written as close as possible to the day they will be delivered.
What I can do, though, is to gather the resources I will use in my writing. Before Lent begins, I set aside a study day (more than one, if I can!). On those days, I begin by reading the texts on which I will preach. Then I pull relevant commentaries from my shelves, and order additional reference books I need. I do as much of the technical exegetical work as I can ahead of time – take some notes on the meaning of a significant word, or the structure of a passage. I look at the world around me – are there news headlines I might reference? I pull those stories into a folder on my computer desktop. I’ll add current events to the folder as the preaching date nears, too.
Piles and folders – one for each service – become my short-term organizational system. It isn’t especially elegant, but there is something satisfying about working my way through those piles as the season goes on, so that by the time Christmas rolls around or Easter arrives, each pile has been reshelved and my desk is clear again.
- Keep your schedule as light as possible. These are the seasons when interruptions multiply. During Advent, the social invitations and family obligations skyrocket. I’ve yet to get through Lent with fewer than five funerals. I’ve learned to prepare ahead by clearing my schedule as much as I can, so that I have space for the interruptions. If the SPRC doesn’t have pressing work to do, cancel the December meeting. If a dentist appointment can be rescheduled for the week after Easter, reschedule. It helps.
This is also a time to be intentional about my own self-care and family time. I schedule family traditions on my calendar before the season begins. By late-October, tree decorating and Christmas shopping are on my calendar – and I protect those dates fiercely. Before Lent begins, I schedule time to color Easter eggs with my kids. If I don’t, it won’t happen, and then it is easy to resent the “church work” for getting in the way of family time.
- Use music, art, and poetry to guide your own spirit. One of the hardest things about leading worship during Holy Week, especially, is the emotional ups-and-downs. On a typical Tuesday of Holy Week, for example, I might schedule the delivery of Easter lilies, prepare the sanctuary for Maundy Thursday communion, rehearse music with the soloist for Good Friday, finalize the bulletin for the Easter vigil, and work on my Easter morning sermon. Each one of those activities takes me to a unique spiritual and emotional place. Moving between them repeatedly through the week is exhausting.
The best way that I’ve found to navigate these behind-the-scenes realities is to keep good lists of what needs to be done (that helps keep my mind from racing), and then to intentionally pause between activities. This is where the music, art, and poetry help. If I am finalizing the Easter morning bulletin after reflecting on the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, it helps to listen to the Hallelujah Chorus while I work. Music, art, and poetry help me to engage spiritually and emotionally where I need to be at the moment.
- Plan ahead for rest. The best thing I can do, for my own spiritual and emotional health, is to schedule Sabbath time for the week or two after a holiday, and put it on the calendar before the busy seasons begin. I need that time. My family needs that time. It is critical to my fruitfulness as both a pastor and a follower of Jesus.