Staying centered – Clergy find ways to cope with stress of Holy Week

On a typical week, the Rev. Penny Stacy stops a few times at a Catholic seminary near her home to quietly walk the outdoor Stations of the Cross at the beginning or end of her day.

This year during Holy Week, however, she’s determined to be there every single morning, and possibly in the evenings as well.

To help manage stress during the hectic time of Holy Week, the Rev. Penny Stacy will stop every morning at the outdoor Stations of the Cross at Pontifical College Josephinum, a Catholic seminary near her home in Columbus, Ohio. PHOTO BY JEFF STACY

For Ms. Stacy, who is pastor of Lee Avenue United Methodist Church in Columbus, Ohio, it’s her way of coping with the busy, stressful demands of Holy Week.

“There have been years when I’ve come all the way into Good Friday and realized I missed the whole week,” she said. “I wasn’t present. I just did the tasks.”

Tasks abound during Holy Week, keeping many pastors too preoccupied to savor its spiritual meaning. There are extra worship services, not only for Easter but also on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and sometimes on Saturday night. Visitors turn out for Easter, ratcheting up the pressure to make sure the sermon is top-notch. And the usual pastoral care responsibilities—attending to a death in the congregation or visiting the sick in the hospital—don’t pause for the liturgical calendar.

All of which can add up to a nightmare—literally. The Rev. Mary Fraser, director of the office of pastoral care and counseling in the UMC’s Iowa Conference, says it’s not uncommon for pastors to report “anxiety dreams” around the time of Holy Week—about showing up on Easter morning without robes or shoes, or leaving sermon notes at home.

“There is lots to do, lots to achieve, lots to think about and organize,” she said. “Sometimes the anxiety goes inward, and [clergy] dream about it.”

For the Rev. Sara Tate, pastor of a three-point charge in the Memphis Conference, Holy Week is like running a marathon.

“It’s physically and mentally exhausting, no matter how much you’ve prepared,” she said.

From Palm Sunday to Easter, St. Paul’s UMC in Houston will hold 16 services. PHOTOS BY DONNA ADAIR

That’s especially true for Ms. Tate and her husband, Craig—together, they pastor a total of six churches in the Memphis Conference’s Brownsville District. They’re also raising a toddler-aged son and Craig is finishing seminary. This year’s Holy Week lineup for the couple will involve three Palm Sunday worship services, two Maundy Thursday services, two Good Friday services, three Easter services and one Easter sunrise service. Even their son, Cooper, 15 months, has duties—he’ll be expected to make an appearance at Easter egg hunts hosted by two of the churches.

“Then we’ll likely collapse until sometime Tuesday,” she said.

Questions about whether seminary prepared them for the rigors of Holy Week elicited chuckles from many of the pastors interviewed for this story.

“They don’t teach you multi-church-charge-101-in-a-clergy-family-with-baby in seminary,” said Ms. Tate. “Theologically, we’re prepared. Logistically, we’re completely lost.”

Even pastors with less hectic schedules can be stressed by Holy Week, according to the Rev. Jeanne Hoeft, associate professor of pastoral theology and pastoral care at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo.

“The pastor wants to do his or her best during Holy Week,” she said. “There’s a lot of high expectations.”

How laity can help

The Rev. Mary Fraser and Jeanne Hoeft say that laypeople can help ease the stress of clergy during Holy Week with gestures of encouragement. Their suggestions:

Send a note. Express encouragement and appreciation for the pastor’s efforts during this busy time.

Offer to help. If there’s a task you can handle, volunteer. This is especially helpful to new pastors who don’t know the church’s particular traditions.

Be there. Plan to attend Good Friday and Maundy Thursday services, as well as Easter services, if they’re offered. “The best way to support your pastor is to show up,” said Dr. Fraser. “And bring your family.”

Make Easter baskets. Assemble a basket of goodies—snacks, encouraging notes and stress-busting toys like bubbles and Slinkys. Dr. Hoeft recalled a time when laypeople did this for her one Christmas Eve. (The day fell on a Sunday, so the church’s pastors had to lead seven services that day.)

—Mary Jacobs

Those expectations clash with the spirit of Holy Week, Dr. Fraser adds.

“Spiritually, Holy Week is a time for surrender,” she said. “But for clergy, it’s a time to perform.”

Holy Week special

Alycia Parsons, a massage therapist, is insisting that her husband, the Rev. Jim Parsons, schedule a massage during Holy Week this year.

Seeing how stressed he can get, she’s toyed with the idea of offering a “Holy Week special” for other clergy, too.

“March Madness” is the best analogy that Mr. Parsons can come up with for the hectic schedule of Holy Week. As the only staff person at Indian Trail (N.C.) United Methodist, he’s gearing up to lead five services: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter sunrise and Easter morning. He’s looking forward to a massage as a way to carve out “an hour to relax, to regroup and shut off all the noise that fills up Holy Week.”

Holy Week stress is real for the Rev. Shane Moore, pastor of Clarkston (Wash.) United Methodist. He recalled messing up the words of the Lord’s Prayer at a Maundy Thursday service a few years ago.

“I was thinking about how many people were there, and my mind had gone on to the next thing,” he said. To cope, he slips off to attend Holy Week prayer services at a local Episcopal church on nights when he’s not leading worship at his own church.

“That allows me to worship and experience Holy Week for myself,” he said.

Attending worship elsewhere is a strategy that Dr. Hoeft followed, too, when she served as pastor of a local church. She would attend an Easter vigil service at another church on Saturday night.

“I found it really life-giving, even when I had a sunrise service the next morning,” she said. “It was a way of attending to myself.” That took planning, too. Attending Saturday night worship elsewhere “means I can’t be writing my Easter Sunday sermon that night,” she adds.

Planning is key, according to the Rev. Christy Thomas, pastor of First United Methodist in Krum, Texas. She started early to plan for Holy Week, assisted by her worship team. By March 1, it was all done. The plans extended through the week after Holy Week, to allow for the post-Easter exhaustion.

“Having this planned out well in advance takes a huge amount of pressure off,” she said. “This frees us to be fully present in the moment, to experience the worship as well as lead it, and to breathe deeply of the grace and mystery of the week.”

Despite the busyness and stress, Dr. Fraser is quick to point out that Holy Week can also be energizing and uplifting.

“It’s a time when pastors can feel needed and useful, and that can bring a lot of positive energy,” she said.

She also thinks pastors would do well to follow Ms. Stacy’s example—setting aside time on their calendars for prayer and quiet. Exercise and healthy eating can help, too.

With self-care and scheduled quiet time, Dr. Fraser believes Holy Week can nourish pastors. “Lean into your call,” she advised. “Allow that energy to fill you up and bring the message of hope and resurrection to the people.”


Mary Jacobs

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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scott endress
scott endress

Sorry, but it's not the planned that's stressful, because the planned can be very positive stress if you just get ahead calendar wise. What's difficult is the unplanned crises, such as deaths- or any family or personal crises that just happen in congregations- smack dab in the middle of Christmas week or Holy Week. You make it sound like Easter in itself is too stressful. Not true at all. It's having multiple funerals right before and after that's stressful. Your article overlooks what is obvious for clergy.

scott endress
scott endress


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