Holy Week

Yesterday was Palm Sunday, and the western churches head into Holy Week.  Naturally, that means there will be loads of half-brag/half-complaints from clergy and other church staff about how tough Holy Week is, especially for those in higher liturgical (Anglican and Lutheran especially) churches.  Yes, it’s a lot of work if you have a liturgy every day, and yes, it’s going to be disappointing if attendance is low.  And yes, you’re going to be exhausted at the end of it.  So, self-care is important.

What you don’t have the right to do is to expect your congregants to look after you–and that is why I object so strenuously to this blog post that came across my Facebook feed this morning.  Any job has predictable periods in the annual cycle where the workload is immensely heavy.  Pastoral ministry is no different.

There are three things about Holy Week that make it easier than the busy times of other jobs.  The first is, it appears predictably at around the same time each year.  You even get a five-week run-up period called Lent to get you ready.  Secondly, whether you are preparing services for 20 or 200, it is really about the same amount of work.  You don’t need to plan ten times the hymns for 200 than you do for 20; and (mercifully), you do NOT need to preach ten times as long.   You may need more palms for the Palm Sunday procession or more elements for Communion.  But really, it is the same work to produce a meaningful service sor a small group as for a large group.  Finally, the third thing that makes Holy Week easier than the busy season in other jobs is that it has predictable themes from year to year–and if you use a set liturgy, like the Book of Common Prayer, you’ve got the main outlines and texts of the liturgies ready made.  You need to prepare sermons, yes–but from Monday to Wednesday, they can be quite brief (or even omitted).  After a couple of years’ experience, you know which days will have lower attendance, and you can plan not to have music, or sermons, or where you can do one reading aside from the Gospel.  But why do I find this essay repugnant?  Because only one thing is something the clergy are entitled to–at Holy Week, or any other time.  I’ll go throug it point by point.

1.  Reduction of meetings during Holy Week: Yes, if you plan to do a liturgy or educational program every day during Holy Week, it makes sense to suspend non-essential meetings (and about 90% of church meetings are indeed non-essential).  But that can come from the cleric rather than from the congregants. In fact, it should.  They’re supposed to be grownups who are able to set boundaries and limits, and able to manage their time and energy appropriately.    In fact, seminary training over the last three decades has included exactly these skills. Waiting passively for someone to notice how over-burdened they are, and offering to cancel or postpone meetings, is an underhanded trick that has no place in pastoral ministry.

2.  Bringing coffee, wine, chocolate, food, etc: Why should your congregants bring you coffee, wine, chocolate, dinner?  You knew this time was coming–prepare your own meals and freeze them in advance if you don’t think you’ll have time to cook. Lay in a stock of coffee or chocolate if you need it.  Lay off the wine:  it might feel great for you, but your congregation isn’t going to benefit if you’re relying on alcohol to get you through the busy time.  And in any other job, it would be a serious concern if you expected either the people who pay your salary, or the people you serve, to bring you alcoholic beverages so you could get through a single busy week.  Your congregation (at least in the US) pay your salary, and are the people you serve.  The essay’s hope that people will bring you wine is ridiculous, even dangerous.

4. Pray.  This is the only one of the five to which the clergy are entitled.  I have no problem with it.

5.  Show up.  Yes, it’s lovely to have a large congregation for all the services, and as the author says, it “sucks” to have a tiny group, or none at all.  But the truth is, this is really not about how much the pastor enjoys having a large group to lead, or is disappointed if their splendid liturgical offerings are only seen by a few.  The truth is, for people who have secular jobs, attending every damned liturgy during Holy Week is burdensome.

You are not the only person who works double time.  But for most pastors, Holy Week is the only week of the year where that happens on a regular basis.  Tax preparers and accountants (in the US, at least) work huge numbers of hours during the first third of the calendar year–and the demands of Holy Week almost always coincide with it.  Holy Week almost always falls when farmers have to get fields ready or tend to livestock that are about to give birth–the demands of caring for their pastor could interfere with their livelihood the other 51 weeks of the year.  Most of the teachers I know work the equivalent hours of Holy Week every week that school is in session (and they aren’t paid when school is not in session). Who is bringing the teachers, farmers and accountants food, coffee, wine, chocolate?

Holy Week is busy, there is no question.  But what would a pastor say if they saw a blog post on the website of their child’s school saying “five ways to care for teachers”?  If our clergy can’t cope with one double-time week out of the year, maybe we need better people as clergy.


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