Recently, I drew my signature “annual church calendar” diagram for a room full of staff members at a large church in Atlanta.
I’ve been using this image since 2002 to provide a visual for executive leaders to help them think about the annual rhythms of the church, the topics we tend to prioritize, the optimal times for gathering and developing leaders, the times when leaders and congregants alike are most inclined to be thinking about the well-being of their souls, and more.
I draw a big circle, starting at the top center, and trace out the annual year by moving counter-clockwise down through February towards March/April (Easter), through May graduations and Mother’s Day, then Father’s Day, the summer doldrums months, and then up again through August/September (ministry year kickoff!), October (conference season), through Thanksgiving, then that one week in December when you can do something before it’s truly head’s down as we push towards the end of the year.
Heads nod as I point out the sermon series topics we always preach, the recruiting and development we always do, the various parts of the year when it’s nearly impossible to hold a special event of any kind.
A central feature of this diagram is the zone I depict with red heavy lines between roughly December 10 and December 26, which I not-so-affectionately refer to as “Death by Church.”
But a central feature of this diagram is the zone I depict with red heavy lines between roughly December 10 and December 26, which I not-so-affectionately refer to as “Death by Church.”
I’ve drawn this many times, and each time I’m reminded of how prevalent this reality is simply by virtue of the fact that no one, not once, not ever, pushes back. No one disagrees. This includes last week, when I drew this diagram as an aside in my main session, and later learned that it was at that moment that the group finally leaned in completely to the topic. They were convinced that I get it.
And I do… on so many levels. Here’s just a few features of the season between November 1 and Death by Church:
- ‘Tis the season of creating and/or implementing plans that have been in design since July, or possibly February. Or July last year.
- ‘Tis the season we write resources and study guides and songs, and build sets and create special services to support a congregation’s journey into Thanksgiving, through Advent, and towards multiple creative Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services.
- ‘Tis the season when children’s ministry still goes on, donor engagement goes through the roof, when we need to recruit a next round of volunteers to pull it all off.
- ‘Tis also the season we navigate this special time of year for our own families.
Ultimately, it’s the time of year that is often most difficult to keep our own spiritual health intact. The relentless pace, the higher than normal pressure, the business-as-usual work that still needs to happen… it’s hard and it’s been hard for years.
And why? Why do we do this to ourselves? Again, I get it! Historically, ‘tis also the season we steward with great care the one time in the annual calendar that folks in our community might be open to the gospel. Much of the world’s culture becomes willing to pause long enough to consider spiritual realities and to extend generosity and hope to those in need.
It’s a good thing both to celebrate well and invite others into the fold.
And, it’s the most predictable crisis ever.
This year, it’s likely to be a bit harder even still. Now there’s not just one, but two horrific wars occupying world headlines. In the US, we’re on the brink of another likely-to-be-contentious and divisive presidential election. Our housing market is in trouble, interest rates keep rising, inflation is still happening….. Blah blah blah. You know the headlines.
What’s the best thing to do in the face of a predictable crisis? AVOID IT.
Well, that’s not likely. Next best thing? Be ready and prepared.
Here’s what I mean by both those words in this context.
Prepared is the easier, the usual suspect. Prepared means the pre-work has been done. There’s a plan, it’s on path, and it is adequate to what’s needed. Most of us show up prepared.
But then there’s ready. Ready means personally grounded. Able to notice what’s going on in the moment rather than being consumed by fears, doubts, and insecurities. Ready means my soul is present to myself, alive to God, connected to the people in my life who matter most.
Protect what must be protected.
Of the two, we tend to prioritize being prepared, and not even think about being ready. In my experience, though, the reverse is actually what matters most. If you have time for both, of course… do both! But often life’s circumstances throw impossible wrenches in our carefully orchestrated machinery of a prepared plan. And when that happens, as opportunity for doing both falls away, which will you choose?
In a life of partnership with God, we must remain ready. I know it’s a contrarian view, but I’m glad for the debate. In partnering with God, your ability to remain sensitive to the Spirit’s leading matters way way more than the thing that must be done.
It will get done. Or it won’t. How many times have you pushed and pushed and pushed only to find out the thing wasn’t needed anyway? Or that the goal had changed or another person had shifted the due date?
Now, again, I want to be clear: The ideal is that we are both ready and prepared. That’s what we work towards. But when a choosing time comes, when a forcing factor emerges unexpectedly, choose life.
What do you want your life to feel like on Monday, January 2? That day is coming, whether we live well towards that day or not. Will we be living with regret and fatigue or will we be energized and ready for the new year, grateful for the impact we had and memorable times we had with God and loved ones and neighbors and friends?
Just for kicks, pull out your calendar and create a note for yourself on January 2. What do you want that day to be like? Jot some words down – yes, right now – about how you think you’d like to show up on that day. I’ll wait.
For the remainder of this piece, I’d like to offer some very specific practices that can help you navigate these next few months successfully.
Likely you’ll be doing this anyway… but perhaps some focused intentionality on this front could provide some much-needed calm to your overstimulated Central Nervous System. Intentionally slow your breathing down for just a few minutes (think, 8 counts inhale, hold for two counts, 8 counts to exhale hold for two counts…).
I’ve written about this so many times… hopefully you’re starting to incorporate it into your practice! But the benefits of silent prayer extend waaayyyyy beyond the domain of time spent in silent prayer. Build this into your practice. Whatever else you do…. Learn to embrace an uncomfortable, difficult, and transformational wordless way of resting in God’s presence with an attitude of openness, contrition, and longing. For more on this, and help with your personal practice, please join our Semi-Silent Retreats each month! (soulcare.com/join-semi-silent)
Your body already knows how to activate the proverbial factory’s “third shift,” the night shift, to restore what gets depleted, threatened, and just generally beat up during the course of a day. Some experts paint the picture this way: At a minimum to keep going, you need at least four hours. That’s not any healing, no replenishment to the brain to support your creative output, your relational skills, your overall health. Those four hours are the bare minimum to keep you alive, but not a good trajectory. And some of us aren’t even getting that. But the second four hours are when the healing happens. Talk about the ultimate delegation… this stuff literally happens while you sleep! So, let it. (Learn more here)
A very simple practice, that really takes no time whatsoever, is to simply notice. Right now… notice: How are your shoulders? What are the people around you focused on? What is your sense of God’s presence right now? What is factoring into that? What small physical object could you keep with you or near you to remind you to pay attention?
Keep Your Sense of Humor
My brother and his wife are not involved in vocational ministry at all, but they – like most of us – still have crazy challenges that arise at this time of year. They have an endearing and truly helpful way of adding humor to the outrageous things that invariably go wrong. Each year, they notice when it happens. They embrace it. They see it for what it is: The Christmas Test. Just by simply re-framing whatever colossal mess has suddenly appeared as a test, it activates our imagination and reserves. Of course, this can’t be weekly, daily, or hourly. You gotta know which one really is the test. That’s just one idea. But humor and humility go hand-in-hand and it’s vital to not take ourselves too seriously. Step aside mentally. Take a look at yourself. And have a good laugh.
January 2 is on its way.
Whether you find yourself looking with anticipation or dread towards the next few months, they are in fact coming. January 2 is on its way. How do you want to arrive there? What can you do now to ensure that a healthier version of yourself arrives? Can you imagine a scenario in which you have more gas in the tank at the end of the holidays than you did at the beginning?
Take no more than 20 minutes now to pull out a notebook or journal and let yourself imagine that future scenario, write it down, and read it out loud to yourself.
More than likely, your brain will start loudly telling you all the reasons this cannot happen. Write that down too. Then, have a bit of a debate with the part of you that has already decided that it is impossible, and most importantly ask for God’s help. It may well be that he has more than enough creativity and resourcing to support you on this journey. Just ask.
You may also find it helpful to visualize your annual rhythms in a circle as I described earlier. This will help you see the patterns and natural ebb and flow of various themes, energies, and priorities that occur each year. Both the challenges and opportunities of the next few months are wildly predictable. Commit to being both ready and prepared.
My final words to you are this: May you accept the challenges as they arise, may you experience the gifts that humor, silence, sleep, deep breathing, and simple noticing can bring to your moments and days, and may you swiftly and frequently recall that God is with you and for you… as near as your breath.
Even now. Just breathe.