I sat there on the couch, surrounded by people that I loved and cared about, but at that moment I would have given anything for an excuse to get up and leave.
It was the 4th church-sponsored Christmas gathering that I had been to that year, and it was only the second week of December.
I took a look around the room and everyone seemed to be so happy. They seemed delighted to share in favorite family recipes, warm drinks, and Christmas carols. I, on the other hand, clothed myself in a fake smile and thought to myself, “If someone sings O Little Town of Bethlehem, one more time, I’m going to smash the nearest Nativity” (Ok, that’s a little dramatic… but I seriously wanted the carols to stop).
As I sat there, and despite being surrounded by friends, I couldn’t help but think about everything else on my calendar, that had been planned out for me. I was expected to participate in our church’s yearly, “Drive-through Christmas Nativity,” which although a blast, it was also a physically taxing two-day event. There was one event that I was looking forward to. The youth-leadership team and I had planned an “Ugly Christmas Sweater” party for the teens of our church. Together, we put forth a ton of effort to ensure that it would be an unforgettable event for all in attendance. There would be food, games, dancing, & fun… It was going to be a blast…… However, the list of events didn’t end there. There was an additional staff potluck, a deacon appreciation dinner at a local restaurant, additional parties hosted by our life groups, and I was expected to rehearse music for our Christmas Eve candlelight communion service….. I wish I could say that it ended there. However, a week later, I was also expected to host a youth “lock-in” for New Year’s Eve.
To say I wanted to run away from Christmas that year was an understatement. In addition, I knew that I was robbing my family of Christmas too. I still had several family parties that I wanted to attend. I also wanted to be present for the Christmas pageants that my daughter was participating in. Somehow, I was expected to fit all of this into my schedule and I didn’t know how to make it happen.
I remember looking into the mirror that Christmas Eve as I was getting ready for church. As much as I loved my church family, and as much as I loved Jesus, I just didn’t feel like celebrating His birthday anymore…… Let me explain myself a bit… Never once have I grown tired of celebrating Jesus. Nevertheless, I was super tired of the Christmas hype surrounding this season. I was tired of the unrealistic expectations placed on me to be a “Holy Spirit filled” Buddy Hobbs (see the movie: ELF), that simply adored the holiday hoopla.
I couldn’t ignore the truth. My life was falling off-balance and I was beginning to resent the senior leadership of my church. In fact, I ended up committing an act of leadership treason that no one else on the pastoral staff had ever done in this church’s history. I informed the senior pastor that I would not be attending first night of the Drive-through Christmas Nativity. Instead, my life-group and I, were electing to attend the graduation party of a fellow-life group member, that just finished her bachelor degree. The end result, I was verbally tarred and feathered for leading what was perceived to be a mutiny. Take it, I still showed up the following day, and sang Christmas carols in the freezing cold for 3 hours, and developed the yearly chest-cold that would spontaneously appear after this event. Nevertheless, it felt so good to say “no” for once.
Anyhow, at the end of this Christmas season I became aware of three things that I’d like to share with you.
1. Celebrating Jesus is something that I naturally want to do
Those that know me personally, know that I absolutely love to worship Jesus. I love to sing to him and sing about him. I also love to hear and share stories about him too. And that’s not all. I also love to follow in his footsteps and show love to those who others deem to be unworthy.
However, I absolutely cringe when I sense that someone is trying to force me to conform to what they believe “celebrating Jesus” should look like. In fact, I’m at a place in my life where I’d choose hanging out with some friends at my home, and having a Christmas worship and jam session in my living room, over participating in an over-the-top holiday production any day.
2. It’s “OK” to say no
Learning how to say no was kind of like opening up Pandora’s box. Oddly enough, I didn’t feel the guilt that many people say that they feel when they say “No.” In fact, I was able to sometimes you have to say “No” to good things, to make room for the best things.
Sadly, I don’t have much communication with the senior pastor of this church (for more about this story see “confessions of a chronic idolator”). To this day, he is a man that I still greatly admire, and I am always happy to reunite with him when the opportunity allows. However, there hasn’t been much effort on his part to remain in contact with me.
On the other hand, I continue to be in communication with the young girl whose graduation party I attended. In fact, I even had the honor of officiating her wedding a few years back.
This leads me to believe that sometimes “making room”, from time to time, is essential to establish the relationships that will be with you for the long-haul of life’s journey.
3. My family should always come before a congregation
In the past, I was constantly reminded that the congregation had gone out of their way to provide a salary for me. Any time I brought up challenges with my pastoral expectations, I was graciously reminded that I needed to perform because it was expected of me. I remember having to tell my daughter that I couldn’t attend certain functions, because ministry called me to be at the church. This never felt right, but nevertheless, I knew that I had to comply if I wanted to remain an employee of the church.
During the time of my “Christmas-time rebellion”, my salary had received a considerable raise. However, working approximately 50-55 hours per week it left me making about $7.69 per hour. When reminded of this, I have to fight guilt and shame knowing that I sacrificed family time for that salary. In fact, I don’t believe that any salary could now entice me from what I deem to be most important.
My wife and now are currently empty-nesters. Unfortunately, I can’t go back in time and correct the choices I made years ago. However, I am consciously choosing to prioritize my wife before any expectations of any church, employer, person, etc.,
At the end of the day, she is the most important ministry that God has given me, and I must love her as Jesus loved the church.
So what now?
I share all of this to encourage you to celebrate Jesus this Christmas season in a manner that brings Him glory and that fills your soul. I encourage you to plan your Christmas calendar in a manner that is free of guilt or shame. Finally, if saying “No” is difficult for you, choose instead to only say “Yes” to the activities that bring life to your soul.
John Eli Garay
John Eli has spent over 15 years mentoring and coaching individuals in life skills, career transitions, and through organizational change. His resume includes pastoral care, behavioral health, and higher-education advising. From an early age, John recognized that God created him to bring hope, healing and encouragement to others. He is currently walking out his purpose by helping others confront, and work through, self-inflicted trauma. His ministry includes blogging, speaking, and personal development coaching. He currently lives in Chandler, Arizona with his wife, mini-schnauzer and an antique piano whom he calls, “Betty.”