By this time in the season, Pastor Lisa Yebuah looks longingly at the humble hay bin that was the Christ child’s first bed.
Starting the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas come at Edenton Street United Methodist Church like an overloaded sleigh on a steep slope. There are ornaments to uncrate and hang on trees that have to be delivered and set up; garlands, wreaths and poinsettias to order and arrange, and candles to be placed; a dozen special services to be planned, staffed and preached; communion meals to be prepared and served; thousands of bulletins to be written, proofed and printed; music to select and musicians to line up; Sunday School class parties, caroling and children’s pageants to wrangle. Planning often begins in August.
“By Christmas Day,” Yebuah says, “I want to crawl into the manger with the Baby Jesus and take a nap.”
For the church, Advent and Christmas are the playoffs and the Super Bowl of the ecclesiastical calendar.
Lisa Yebuah, pastor at Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh
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It takes hundreds of clergy members and thousands of staffers and volunteers to bring the story of Christmas to churches across the Triangle each year. As they pray for peace on Earth, many will be happy Sunday afternoon with just a little peace and quiet.
“For the church,” says Yebuah – pronounced ya-BOA – “Advent and Christmas are the playoffs and the Super Bowl of the ecclesiastical calendar.”
In addition to their regular Sunday services, many churches hold special Advent services to commemorate, and re-create, the Israelites’ anticipation of a promised Messiah. Their Old Testament wait of hundreds of years is condensed into a period of four weeks leading up to modern-day Christmas. Many churches mark the time and the need to prepare by lighting a symbolic candle on each of the four Sundays of Advent, and lighting a fifth candle representing Christ on Christmas Eve.
Larger churches often hold multiple services on Christmas Eve to accommodate higher-than-normal attendance, and with Christmas Day falling on a Sunday this year, most also will hold services Sunday morning.
Edenton Street UMC in downtown Raleigh will have five services between 3 p.m. Saturday and midnight, the first two designed around families with small children, who are invited to dress as their favorite Nativity scene attendant and stand around a “manger” with a real mother, father and infant to help tell the story of Jesus’ birth.
“I call it ‘the running of the bulls,’ ” said Yebuah, who won’t preach at the children’s services but delights in watching them participate.
At one point Saturday night, Yebuah will have to exit one service she is helping lead before it ends so she can run to a different worship space in the church and help with another.
Throughout the holidays, “There are just so many moving pieces involved,” said Kevin Hendricks, a freelance writer and editor in St. Paul, Minn., who last year self-published a book called “God Rest Ye Stressed Communicators: Planning Christmas for Your Church.” It included several of Hendricks’ blog posts and other writers’ tips on how to organize and promote holiday events and get through them without a nervous breakdown.
250-300number of children participating at afternoon services
50number of volunteers at afternoon services
1pregnant Mary (during Advent service)*At Edenton Street United Methodist Church
“Holidays are stressful for everybody, but if you work in a church where that holiday is your big thing, it’s even more stressful,” said Hendricks, who volunteers at the Episcopal church where he is a member. “There is so much that happens behind the scenes, most of us have no idea how much work and planning are involved.”
His church, for example, has a children’s play on Christmas Eve.
“There’s a script that somebody had to write. Somebody had to direct it. Somebody had to get costumes, and coordinate the kids, and remind the parents when to be there. There is a narrator who speaks. That’s a pretty minor production, and look at the work that goes into that.”
For pastors, whom Hendricks characterizes as creative people, there is the pressure – year after year – to present the 2,000-year-old Christmas story in a fresh and engaging way.
“For a lot of creative people, ‘good enough’ is not good enough,” Hendricks said. “There is the temptation to work yourself to death, to just keep pushing because you want it to be the best.
“That can have a devastating personal toll. It’s Christmas. You should be with your family, but you’re up working late on another newsletter.”
The Rev. Phil Kiecker is the only paid pastor at his church, Gethsemane Lutheran in North Raleigh, so he relies heavily on volunteers to help carry out the extra work that comes with Christmas. There are the teachers who help the children learn all the words to “Go, Tell it on the Mountain,” the church member who orders the poinsettias and the one who hand-made all the ornaments for the tree. Volunteers also make sure the church is extra clean, for any visitors who might come during the holidays.
Kiecker hasn’t spent a Christmas at home with his family in Wisconsin since he came to Gethsemane Lutheran five years ago, his first assignment after graduating from seminary.
“We have Skyped with them in the past,” he said, “and opened some presents together online.” Every year, one of his grandmothers sends Kiecker a box of snack mix that, for him, is the taste of home.
Though making Christmas meaningful for his church members means he can’t be with his own relatives, Kiecker doesn’t complain.
“People in the congregation have become my family as well,” he said.
Maintaining perspective is a big part of leading a church during the holidays, said Rick Clayton, pastor of Hayes Barton United Methodist in Raleigh.
“It’s kind of a journey,” he said. “You start off on it, and you realize that it has a culmination, celebrating Christ’s birth. But the merging of all the different activities makes it a little chaotic at moments. There are so many things that you want to be a part of, but you have to pick and choose because they overlap.”
Clayton said that for him, it’s important to try to stay healthy in mind, body and spirit. Clayton said he reads, slips away occasionally to quiet places, including the beach, and he runs and cycles. He also relishes his favorite moments of the holidays, which include the return of members who grew up in the church, moved away for college and careers, and come on Christmas Eve to celebrate with their families.
I think the Christmas train outran the church’s ability to control it long ago ... but at its core is this belief and promise that God’s light is the final word. And there is always somebody out there who needs to hear that.
Christopher Edmonston, pastor of White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh
Like other churches, in addition to the added events of the season, Hayes Barton UMC has the normal activity that goes on year-round: births, deaths, weddings, people in the hospital to visit.
“The season is a combination of so many emotions,” Clayton said. “It’s a joyous time. It’s festive, it’s fun, it’s uplifting. But it’s also a time when people experience grief and death and hardship. You try and experience and appreciate the joy, while also being fully aware of the burdens that people carry.”
The final word
Christopher Edmonston, pastor of White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, loves the way the church fills up at Christmas but feels the pressure that comes with the folderol.
For him, the hardest part of the season by far is preparing the sermon for Christmas Eve.
“I think the Christmas train outran the church’s ability to control it long ago,” Edmonston said. “It’s a runaway train, but at its core is this belief and promise that God’s light is the final word. And there is always somebody out there who needs to hear that.”
For Yebuah, the real magic of Christmas is helping to deliver that message.
Whether it’s in a sermon, or in a quiet meeting with a church member, or at midnight on Christmas Eve when the congregation pours into Edenton Street and sings carols under the night sky, she hopes to be a part of that moment when people realize that the whole season hasn’t been about buying gifts or decorating the house or keeping some family tradition alive.
“It’s about remembering a promise,” she said. “When people look back over the year, and count the darkness – the divorce that is final, the child who is in rehab, this division in the family that I thought was going to get better and hasn’t, or that I’m unemployed or underemployed – just that feeling of, ‘What happened to the year, and do I have something to show for it?’
“Then you have someone stand up and with great confidence say, ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.’ ”
That’s what makes it all worthwhile, Yebuah said: When the Christmas story becomes real, in the way that God became real through the birth of Christ.
“They realize, ‘All is not lost. This is a story that redeems my story.’ ”