A few months ago I learned that someone I knew had lost someone they loved in a tragic accident. Like many of us do, I went to their Facebook page to leave them a message of condolence. Before I wrote my own message, I began to scroll through those that had already been left, and I noticed a pattern. A huge portion of these messages, so kindly left with good intentions, used a similar expression: “I can’t even imagine!”
“I can’t imagine how awful this is!”
“This is an unimaginable loss!”
“I can’t imagine going through this…”
I can’t be sure how these messages felt to the person reading them, but I remembered how such “I can’t even imagine” statements sounded to me after I lost my sister to cancer. They sounded like: “This is more than I can picture and it overwhelms me.” They sounded like “I can’t fathom having to face something so awful.” Sometimes they sounded a little bit like: “Thank God it’s not me dealing with this.”
As I read those messages, I thought back to when I was 35 and going through a loss that most people my age couldn’t comprehend – I knew hardly anyone who had lost a sister. Of course they couldn’t imagine it! But you know what? I hadn’t imagined it either. I had spent eight years watching my sister fight cancer trying not to imagine life without her. It was also incomprehensible to me.
But one day it was real. My sister died. I lived unimaginable thing after unimaginable thing – watching her take her last breath, walking away from her body in the hospital, seeing her casket closed, standing by her grave. And when people looked at me and said “I can’t even imagine…” sometimes it took all my effort not to respond by saying: “Well lucky you…unfortunately I don’t have to imagine because I’m living it right now.”
Let me emphasize again that I know how good the intentions are – I know people are trying to say that they don’t want to pretend to know what you’re going through. (And this post is not meant to make you feel any guilt for that). I also know that not everyone who is grieving is going to feel the same way about “I can’t even imagine” as I do. I’m sure some find it very comforting.
But I find that “I can’t even imagine,” said in passing or a quick comment on facebook, can come across as being more about your own fears, your sense that it is such a terrible thing that it is beyond even picturing, your need to remind yourself that it is “unimaginable” – so hopefully it won’t happen for you.
If I may speak on behalf of people who are going through “unimaginable” losses (who feel like I do about this phrase), they don’t need you to remind them how unimaginable it is. They didn’t imagine it either. If you are looking for the words to express the depth of your grief for them, here are some other options:
“I am sorry for your loss.”
“I am grieving with you.”
“I will be here for you.”
But you know what actually helps the most? The people who are willing to imagine. The people who will say: “I want to imagine how hard this is so that I can be there for you.” The people who make space to face their own fears to help you get through yours.
Please, keep sending the messages and the cards and reaching out, even if you’re not sure what to say and even at the risk of saying less than the perfect thing. (Especially since what is “perfect” for each person is different). The grieving are grateful, even if the words aren’t always exactly right. We keep trying, and we keep learning, all of us.
But as you write that next message, my invitation is to try to imagine a little. Do all the imagining you wish you didn’t have to do – imagine how you would feel if it did happen to you, and imagine what you would want to hear: and say that. It’s one step to being a little more helpful in those unimaginable times.
I have heard this question more times than I can count in my 14 years as a pastor. I’ve heard this question from people who were part of our church anywhere from 3 weeks to 30 years. I have heard this question from people who show up at our church, as an explanation for why they are looking for a new church home. I have heard this question coming out of my own mouth.
It is a question that often carries a lot of hurt behind it, and the conclusions we come to about the answer can have big consequences. Sometimes our conclusions will lead to us carrying hurt for many years. Sometimes they will lead to us leaving a church community for good.
There may be a number of reasons that nobody called (or texted, or messaged, or sent you a carrier pigeon) when you missed church, some of which might surprise you. Let’s talk about them.
Option One: Nobody Cares About You
This is, of course, a viable possibility. It is possible that the reason no one has contacted you is because nobody actually cares about you. It is possible that you don’t matter much to your church and you aren’t missed at all. It is possible that people DID notice you were gone and didn’t care one twit about it.
My experience is that this is usually the default conclusion people make when they step back from their church and don’t hear from anybody. I can totally see the logic in leaving a church for good if you felt this was the case, and indeed sometimes it is.
But what if that is not actually the reason? What if there are other options, such as…
Option Two: No One REALIZED You Had Been “Away”
Did you know that today “regular” church attendance is considered attending three services out of every eight? This means that even if you break this mode, and attend every single Sunday, most people around you are not. This means that it has become really hard to notice when people are “gone” and not just “not there.”
Let me show you what I mean.
Let’s say there are two people – Nancy and Jared. They both attend somewhat regularly – let’s even say FIVE out of eight weeks – and they usually chat and sit together. Now let’s say that Jared is going through a really hard time and doesn’t go to church for all five of those weeks. And Nancy doesn’t contact him!! Why? Is it because she doesn’t care???
Well, the first two weeks he wasn’t there Nancy was away herself. She was visiting some family. The next two weeks she came and Jared wasn’t there, but she didn’t think anything of it. It wasn’t strange at all for Jared to miss a week or two, and, besides, she figures that he was there the weeks that she wasn’t. Then Nancy is away another week – she is sick. She comes back, but again, she assumes Jared was probably there the week she missed. Then two more weeks pass and still no Jared. It is likely only then that she starts to think to herself: “I wonder if everything is okay with Jared.” At this point she pops him a message on Instagram, to which he replies: “I can’t believe you didn’t contact me!! I haven’t been at church for SEVEN weeks, and you JUST noticed? I guess you don’t care.”
See how it happens?
It may not be that people don’t care – it may be that people simply haven’t put the pieces together that you are GONE and not just “away.”
Option Three: The Church has Gotten Bigger
The above story might logically lead you to then say: “Well, at least the pastor should notice. The pastor is there every week.” Fair enough. However, I can speak from experience, that if your church is getting bigger, it gets harder and harder for pastors to keep track of EVERYONE in the church. Our church, for example, has about 350 people that call us home. That is a lot of people to remember and notice when they have been gone (while noticing if it’s just been more than the usual number of weeks that they are away…). I would LOVE to be able to notice everyone who steps back and reach out, but sometimes I simply can’t keep track. Which brings me to my next point…
Option Four: You are Not Connected or Involved
You may be hurt that no one noticed that you are gone, but it may be that you were, honestly, never very connected. If you have not joined a small group, been part of ministry, or served in any way then it IS harder to build relationships with people that would have a chance to notice you are gone besides the pastor. To be noticed, you need relationships with people who would notice you.
Option Five: People Feel Awkward
A few years ago our church tried to address this issue by putting everyone in a group of three – the idea was that if you noticed someone in your group of three was away that you would reach out to them, or at least let a pastor know that they had been away or needed support.
I am sorry to say that this was a TOTAL BUST.
I was stunned when I would hear people say: “My person hasn’t been there for a long time.” “Did you contact them?” I would ask. “Oh no,” many would answer, “I didn’t want it to be awkward.”
I discovered that some people really find this a difficult thing to do. They feel like it will look like they are “checking up” on people. They are shy. They don’t want to make people feel bad. I have been stunned by how many people DO notice people are away and just don’t act on it.
It may be that you are noticed and missed, but people you know simply aren’t the type to call you up about it.
(Also, there are some generational differences here. I have been told by many of our younger church members that being called when they are away makes them feel guilty. They don’t feel loved – they feel like they have let people down. For them, the idea of calling people to see why they haven’t been at church is 100% rude and weird. If you’re away, they may be trying to RESPECT you by not tracking you down).
Option Six: Different Expectations
A number of years ago a woman came to our church who had moved to the area and left a church she had been in for many years. She went through a difficult time, and I heard from her that she was “very hurt” that more people from church hadn’t visited her. At the time, we had a team that did a lot of visiting for elderly people in our church. When our team met, I learned that someone had visited her EVERY week that month! What did she mean that “nobody” visited her?
Later I talked to someone from her old church. That church was very small and deeply connected. When someone was sick, you know how many times someone visited? EVERY DAY.
No wonder she felt let down! We had totally different expectations of what being “connected” meant!
If you are joining a church, it may be wise to discover how they address people being away, pastoral needs, etc. It could be good to know if you can expect a visit from the pastor if you’ve been sick, or how much people who’ve been way have follow up.
You may also want to consider if you have realistic expectations of your church. Are you expecting someone to visit every day? That is very rare. Are you expecting to hear from everyone at your church? That is also unlikely. Maybe your church has felt they cared for you better than it felt to you…
These are just a few options as to why you might not hear from people when you’ve been away from your church. I haven’t even mentioned that people might not know how to contact you (does your church have your contact info?), that they may be trying to give you space, or that they don’t get your status updates in their Facebook feed when you passively aggressively share that you miss your church.
Why did I write this post? Because I grieve the hurt that people feel when they assume their church doesn’t care about them. It is even more sad when that assumption is not true. That’s why today, if you have felt unloved or forgotten by your church, I invite you to consider what you could do to address options 2-6.
Reach out to a friend or a pastor and TELL them you’ve been away and ask to talk. Get more involved so that you form deeper connections. Show up more than 3 out of 8 worship services a month. Let people know how you would like to receive care, and then talk about if it’s reasonable together. Make sure the church has your contact info!
Most of all, don’t give up too quickly. The hurt of feeling forgotten is real, but it may be a hurt based on things that aren’t true. Before you despair, check out all the options. You may be loved more than you realized.
Tomorrow, my precious first born turns twelve years old, and there is a whole lot of me with a whole lot of feelings about it. Of course I find myself thinking about all the things I miss about having a younger child. I miss kids books and bedtime snuggles and how excited Josiah used to get whenever he saw a digger. I miss new baby smell and the weight of a young child in my arms. I miss his three year old laugh.
But even as I miss these things, I can honestly say I would not turn back the clock if I could. Little kids are so wonderful, but big kids are really great too. For me, having an eleven year old was one of the best things to ever happen to me.
I realize, however, that we don’t always hear much about the great things that come with kids getting older. Our narrative is so often focused on the lament of our children aging that we can forget the joys that come with each new season. I think that’s a shame. That’s why, today, with just a few hours left before my son turns twelve, I want to celebrate those. I celebrate with this – my “Homage to Eleven” (*the age, not the character on Stranger Things).
Eleven, you were so good.
You were growing.
You were getting nearly as tall as me and outgrowing both your grandmothers.
You were a crazy mohawk you didn’t want to cut, sneakers you outgrew before you worn them out, and growing out of all your pants in four months so that we had to go shopping the day before we left on vacation.
You were eating a full medium pizza by yourself and telling everyone about it.
You were ordering from the adult menu in restaurants.
You were big enough for the big water slides and the high ropes courses and not needing to do the swim test every time we went swimming.
You were giving away your toy trucks and loving when another little boy enjoyed them as much as you had.
You were independence.
You were walking to school by yourself.
You were “go pack your bag” for vacation, and knowing you would do it fine on your own.
You were packing your own lunches and putting in more than pudding and fruit snacks.
You were not needing us to tuck you in, or run your showers, or carry your money for you when we went on vacation.
You were being able to be left on your own for a while.
You were being able to watch you from the beach while you went swimming and not having to go in with you.
You were doing your own laundry, mopping the basement every week, and using your backpack to hold your I-Pad so you could listen to podcasts while you did your chores.
You were learning.
You were learning to cook and bake. You were making crepes and scrambled eggs and a full week of breakfasts for us one week. You were cooking a meal of “spaghetti nests” one night when we were out with Lucy.
You were passing three levels of swimming.
You were learning to sail at camp and loving it.
You were school projects on food trucks and a speech about why apples are good for you. You were feeling proud that your writing mark went up a whole letter grade after working so hard.
You were new things.
You were starting middle school.
You were joining school council.
You were making the basketball team.
You were your first youth retreat, your first year in youth group, starting to help in Sunday School.
You were sitting in church for the service and starting to joke: “You’re going to use that as a sermon illustration, aren’t your Mom?” when we heard new stories.
You were deciding to try out for every team at school, even the ones you knew you wouldn’t make.
You were getting baptized, and making your faith your own.
You were helpful.
You were “Can you help me carry this?” – and you could.
You were “Can you figure out how to fix my computer?” – and you could.
You were “Can you watch Lucy?”- and you could.
But what I liked best, eleven, was that you were so much fun.
You were starting to figure out sarcasm.
You were liking the good movies and being able to play the good board games…
You were Cities and Knights of Catan, Indiana Jones, Marvel.
You were long bike rides we could do together, basketball in the driveway, diving contests when we went swimming.
You were getting the jokes.
You were going to a show in New York City, Harry Potter Studios in England, and eight kilometre hikes up mountains in Newfoundland.
Eleven, you were special.
You were brave.
You were discovering who you are.
You were not regretting getting older.
Thanks Eleven. Tell your friend, Twelve, I’m really looking forward to him.
I’m at the “count-down-how-many-sermons-I-preach-until-vacation” time of the year.
It’s also the “give a little cheer when I cross something off the bulletin” time of the year. And the “I can’t do that until I get back from vacation” time of the year. And the “I refuse to buy more groceries when we are leaving soon so I am having crackers and a granola bar for lunch,” time of the year.
It’s the “this will be our last session until fall” time of the year. It’s the “end of year dinner” time of the year. It’s the “we’ll put that on the agenda for September” time of the year. It’s the buying teacher gifts and trying to schedule summer birthday parties before school ends and dragging kids out of bed in the mornings and “how many days left of school?” and booking guest preachers and advertising summer camps and debriefing a year of ministry and final swim tests and remembering to put on sunscreen in the mornings time of year.
And it’s also the time of year when I feel so tired.
Perhaps, Pastor, you are feeling tired too. It has been a hard or wonderful or profoundly normal ministry year. There have been the normal ebbs and flows on the calendar. The series preached. The visits made. The meetings had. The crises averted, confronted, avoided.
And now you are sitting in your office and your eyes are blurring a bit as you try to write a sermon, or you are finding yourself sighing when a certain name appears in your email or you are saying things like: “There better not be anyone die this week.”
I have come to realize these feelings are to be expected this time of year. But what is funny is that every year I seem to forget this, and I find myself thinking the same things: “Is there something wrong with me? Am I totally burnt out on ministry? Do I need to get my iron checked?”
It’s funny that even though every June is the same, it still takes me a few weeks to remember: There is nothing wrong with me. I am not sick. I am not failing at my ministry. My heart is not hard. My iron is not low…I am just tired.
It has taken me fourteen years in this role to learn what I need to remember when the June exhaustion hits.
This is Normal
Growing weary is not a bad sign. It is a very normal sign of living a normal life, and we all go through it. There are seasons where this feeling is natural, and this one is one of those for me.
Listen to It
This very normal feeling is something to heed. It reminds me that I am not invincible, that I need God, that I need to rest. I can’t run at full speed forever. Everyone needs time to fill the gas tank. This feeling is a reminder: “Pull over.”
It’s time to take a breather. I don’t need to figure everything out right now. I can’t even rationally think about the fall; I can’t effectively process the last year; I can’t fix everything that needs to be fixed before I go on vacation next week. I need to push the pause button and things will feel different after some rest.
And, finally, and most importantly:
Calm Right Down
I don’t know about you, but when I get tired, all the big emotions flood over my whole life. I find myself irrationally questioning my call, my job, my purpose. I want to quit everything. I want to say “There is no way I am doing that next year!”
But I need to calm right down, and remember that those feelings are not to be trusted. Tired Leanne’s feelings LIE.
After some rest, I remember, I may feel differently. After some rest, I may have a new perspective. After a pause, I almost always feel ready to hit “play” again.
That’s why I have learned to monitor my responses this time of year. When someone asks me “Are you going to do this next year?” and all of me wants to respond by saying: “No! I cannot possibly do another thing ever!,” I have learned to say instead: “Let me get back to you after my vacation.”
I have learned to remind myself: I’m not crazy. It’s just June. And June doesn’t last forever. As the rhythms of life ebb for a little while, as I gratefully receive God’s gift of rest, as I pause and as I listen, Tired Pastor will fade away, as she does every summer. Renewed, Rested, and Ready Pastor will return.
Even better news? Rest and Pause works great for all the tired versions of you, too.
In the meantime – two lunches and one sermon to go!
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I knew that when I had a baby, it was going to change the way I did my job as a pastor. I didn’t anticipate how much even being pregnant would impact the way I did ministry, mostly because I was very sick my entire pregnancy. I had to preach sitting down. I would attend meetings and have to lie down half way through them, saying: “Don’t mind me! Keep going!” as I continued the discussion while lying on the closest couch. At our monthly ministerial, I would ask for prayer from a group of men who tried hard to be empathetic, but who had no idea what it was like to lead worship with morning sickness.
Then I had the baby – and the first maternity leave for our church to figure out. Then I had to return from maternity leave – and there was the first returning-from-maternity-leave to figure out.
And then there were Sunday mornings with a clingy toddler. Negotiating what to do if my son was upset in the nursery while I was preaching. Managing night meetings around bedtime routines.
Being a Pastor Mom was complicated.
My son got older, and I had another baby. I was still learning to navigate the life of a pastor mom, and now the realities of what that meant were timed by two. There were more board meetings that had to be held at my house to compensate for bedtimes, more sermons written during fleeting nap times, more bodies to get out the door on a Sunday. There was more stress that I was messing everything up.
Like other working parents, the struggle of a pastor mom has lots to do with schedules and work hours and fitting everything in. But it also has to do with what sometimes feels like the clash of one call with another.
Parenting versus pastoring.
Mom versus minister.
It’s been eleven years, and I still wrestle with the tension.
I wonder, often, how my job makes my children feel about church, a place I want them to love, but also a place that often seems to take their mother away from them. Will they love the place that makes them say: “You have to go to church AGAIN?” on a night that they hoped I would read another chapter of Harry Potter? Will they resent the place where they always have to show up early, and where they are always the last to leave? What is it like for them to have their MOM be the one who preaches the sermons they hear, and how do they process how others respond to that? (Once, my son came home saying that his friends hadn’t believed him when he told them what I do: “Women aren’t priests,” his classmates had chided him).
Of course, there is also the unique guilt that comes with having a job that some Christians don’t even think I should do in the first place. There is little empathy from some of my brothers and sisters in Christ about finding work/life balance as a woman pastor when they think I shouldn’t be a pastor anyway.
And even among those who support my calling and role, there is often little understanding of the differences my life has from my male colleagues with wives at home. No, I can’t do an 8 a.m. breakfast meeting – I drop my kids off at school. No, I can’t do a three day ministry retreat. We have no family close by and my husband works in Toronto. I have turned down countless ministry opportunities and speaking events because this is a season where my kids need my “yes” more than another conference does.
I am burdened by the questions every pastor asks: “Am I leading this church well? Have I portrayed God’s love to those who need it? Have I done all I can to present the hope of Christ?”
But the burden multiplies because there are two people in my church that I really want to hear that message: my children. I worry about every program. Every Sunday School lesson. Every aspect of youth group. I worry as a pastor, and as a mom who, I feel, carries double the responsibility.
There are many days I wonder if I am short-changing everybody. My kids. My church. My husband. Myself. God.
There are lots of hard times, times I second guess everything.
Times like: “I’m not allowed to visit you in hospital when you’re dying because of doctor’s orders and I wonder if you regret hiring a woman who is now pregnant.”
Times like: “Why are you out ANOTHER night, Mom?”
Times like: “All of us had such a great time at the conference you could not attend.”
Times like: “Oh shoot I think I just started leaking breast milk while I was preaching.”
Times like: “You finish the movie while I work on my sermon.”
Times like: “Sorry we can’t go away for the weekend because I work Sundays.”
Times like: “You’ll have to miss the baseball tournament unless someone else can drive you.”
And, always, times like: “Is any of this worth it?”
But this week I got to have one of those times when I knew that it was. This week, on a sunny Easter Sunday, I got to baptize the child that I had carried in my womb and in my heart, the child whose gestation had caused me to preach from a stool and whose presence forced me to change everything about my schedule and my life. The child who first made me Pastor Mom.
This week, I got to stand by my son as he shared with his church family why he wanted to follow Jesus and get baptized. I got to follow along with his notes as he read, ready to help him find his place if he got lost. Then I got to hold his hand as we stepped into the warm tank of water, white robes billowing around us.
I also got to do something else special. We have a tradition in our church of letting those being baptized ask someone to stand in the water with them, someone that has been important to them on their faith journey. For several weeks my son kept saying he couldn’t decide who should join him in the water. He finally explained that the reason was that he had SO MANY people he wanted with him. He actually wanted all of his Sunday School teachers to be with him as he was baptized.
Well, being pastor mom gave me a little sway, and I told him that if that’s what he wanted, we could ask all of his teachers to come and stand around the tank with him. The Mom in me loved being able to give him this gift. The pastor in me loved being able to show the Sunday School teachers what a difference they’d made.
So this week, I got to ask eleven years worth of my son’s Sunday School teachers to come and stand around a child they had taught as he was baptized. I got to see a dozen people step forward who taught my son God loved him, people who had held my son in nursery, people who had taught him as a shy preschooler, the particularly patient who had managed him in a class of rambunctious ten year olds. I got to see the tears glistening in their eyes as we stood together.
And in that moment, I got to remember something – it had never just been up to me, Pastor Mom. I am only one part of the family of God, living my role and calling, just as others live theirs. This family of his has been, all together, all he needed. I didn’t need to be anything other than Pastor Mom and what that meant for me. With the help of all those with me, and so many others, it had been enough.
Then I got to lean in and whisper in my son’s ear: “I love you,” right before I got to say: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” I got to lift him down under the water, and lift him back out again into a new life in Christ, got to see him flick his too-long mohawk out of eyes, hear him catch his breath. Got to see his smile. Got to hear the whole church cheer. All of this I got as a pastor mom.
As I write this today, I think of one other struggle I had as a pastor mom – not having other pastor moms to talk to. I think back to what I would have liked to have known in those early days as a pastor mom, how alone I sometimes felt, and how often I wanted to ask some other pastor mom if it would all be worth it.
Today, I would say this, learned from my son’s baptism, to all my sister pastor-moms.
You are not alone. As you live into your calling, trust that others are living into their calls too. Together, as God’s church, you will show your child the fullness of the story of God.
Yes, there will be many hard, tension-filled, uncertain days, but there will also be days like Easter Sunday 2019 was for me, days when you look to God, and know with every certainty: It was worth it.
This year during lent, I decided to preach a series that I called “Woe to Us.” Lent is the season in the Church that leads up to Easter, and it is traditionally a time that Christians use to reflect on their need for Christ. This lent, it felt fitting to preach about the ways that we need to say “woe to us.” In a world that often wants to hurry past sadness or discouragement, we decided to make room for woe. We named together the ways that we are like many of the people in the story of Jesus who made mistakes or didn’t live up to their own good intentions.
But I didn’t want this to just be about sermons and the spiritual woes we experience. I also wanted to make space for real and honest lament of the many ways we feel pain. As a pastor, I look out at my congregation each Sunday, and I see a lot of woes. There are many people who are hurting, and I realize how often churches may not feel like safe places in the times of our greatest anguish. Churches are usually full of happy songs, upbeat music, and stories of redemption. And sometimes – we’re not there.
Sometimes, we have a story where we haven’t seen the redemption yet
Sometimes we are hurting too much to find joy in the happy music on a Sunday morning.
Sometimes, we need room for woe.
I realized making room for woe meant making space for the real stories of woe in people’s lives, and so each Sunday I asked someone from our church to share a story of woe. They had only one rule – they were not allowed to (quote): “Tidy it up with a nice Christian bow at the end.”
(You know the bow I mean, right? The “But-God-is-good-and-all-things-work-for-good-and-praise-God!” bow).
It’s not that I don’t believe God is good and not always working to redeem our lives. It’s that sometimes we need space to let the sadness be, just as it is, before God and before others in our lives. Sometimes we need room for woe.
I lined up two people to share our first two Sundays of lent. The first week someone talked about losses they had experienced during retirement and having to sell their home. The next week a woman shared the raw pain of living in depression. After that, which was no surprise to me, I didn’t have to ask people to share anymore. People started volunteering to tell their story of woe. Someone shared about struggling with being single in a church full of families, another about caring for her mom with Alzheimer’s. Another week we heard from someone who had experienced a sense of failure in their career and the next week someone talked about the grief of having recently losing a loved one.
I admit, it was painful some weeks, to just let the woe sit there. To hear someone you love simply end a story by saying: “It’s really hard” – and sitting back down. Sometimes it took lots of willpower not to jump up and start the “But God is good – all the time” chant. I didn’t. It was time to make space for woe.
And it was so very very beautiful when we did.
Each week, I would hear the gentle sighs and see the nods of people thinking: “Me too.” I would physically feel the love in the room as someone shared and people stayed with them, every minute. I would talk to those who shared after who said: “Thank you for letting me to do that.”
And after six weeks of woe, I have learned something: There is great power in making space for pain. In fact, over the last number of years, I have come to believe this is one of the callings of the church. The Church SHOULD be a place where real, honest, lament can be expressed with no judgement and no need to rush to explain it all away.
Sadly, this isn’t always the case. We have not always made room for woe. We have been good at quick “God has a plan!” explanations – not so good at simply saying: “I share in your pain.”
Making room for woe doesn’t mean that we all need to do a “woe to us” series. It can be as simple as letting someone share their story without jumping in too quickly with Christian platitudes. It can mean carving out time for lament in churches in the same way we do for celebrating. However we do it – we need room for woe.
And remember that we can make this room because we know woe is not the end of the story. We have been in lent, but Easter is coming. After six weeks of woe, I am so excited for this Sunday when we can celebrate the joy of the resurrection, and what that means for all our woes. And I believe our joy this Sunday will be even fuller not because we have denied the woe, but because we have made space for it.
So, this Sunday, we will sing happy songs. We will hug each other and say “He is risen!” We will eat treats and laugh and celebrate. There will be joy because that is the hope of the resurrection. We have spent some time in the tomb – but the tomb is not forever. And the darkness of the tomb only makes the light of resurrection shine brighter.
It’s one of my favourite times of year – Easter planning time! A number of years ago, we decided that we wanted Easter to be the most memorable day of the year at MHBC, one that is remembered as a true day of celebration. (Also, I am sort a “go big or go home” sort of personality, and let’s just say that when it comes to Easter: I never go home).
But every year as I start to brainstorm, the same thing happens as I browse the internet for some new ideas. It seems, to me, that the ideas are either: 1. Not that interesting, or original (Example: “Do an egg hunt!”) or, 2. Completely unattainable for the average small church. The ideas are geared to mega churches with big budgets and we simply couldn’t do them.
This year I got to wondering if there were other small-ish churches like ours who might want some ideas for making Easter a big celebration just like us, and I thought I would share some of the things that we have done and invite you to steal any of these ideas that you like. (Full disclaimer here: I know some of you have churches where these may not work – we are a pretty laid back place – but there are lots of simple things here that I think even the most formal church can incorporate).
As churches, we often decorate for Christmas, so why not Easter? There can be a lot of impact when people walk into a place that has clearly been made special for a special day. Usually our decorating fits with themes that we have been following since lent.
Start with Joy
Start your service with joy and excitement! Here are some simple things that we have done:
Covered windows in black panel cloth on Good Friday, which we tore down at the start of the Easter service (this is a common practice for many churches at Easter). One year, for each panel we had come down, we had someone say “He is Risen!” in a different language.
As the service started, someone at the back yelled: “I have good news!” They then walked down the centre aisle reciting the Easter story, which they had memorized.
We placed a plastic egg under each chair, with a small chocolate egg inside each one and a slip of paper that either said “He is risen” or “He is risen indeed.” At the start of the service, we invited people to open their eggs, enjoy a chocolate, and then find someone with the opposite message to them to share this traditional Easter greeting!
Skits and Children’s Stories
I have written more skits and puppet plays for Easter than I can count, and the goal of all of them is to get people feeling the joy of Easter Sunday. Three examples:
A skit about a candy store that was selling “Easter chocolates” – only thing was the chocolates were actually traditional candy, but the “owners” (we actually used puppets for them) shared what made them Easter chocolates. Example: An aero bar, because Jesus points the way to God, and Rolo bars, because the stone was ROLO-ed away. At the end of the service, we gave out all the chocolate bars
A skit featuring people trying out to be the Easter bunny. Each of them had various skills they were sure would make them the perfect Easter bunny – the final test came when they had to answer WHY we celebrate Easter (turns out they needed the kids from church to help them answer that one!)
A skit with various super heros trying to figure out WHY THE TOMB WAS EMPTY. It began with Batman and the Riddler, and gathered more heroes, each trying to answer the question (“Riddle me this Batman…why was the tomb empty?”). It ended with me coming out as Wonder Woman. We did this for a children’s story, but, as you can imagine, the adults did some laughing too.
We invited a number of our children ahead of time to prepare a clean, appropriate joke. Our youth pastor got up in a clown costume and asked them all to think of why she was dressed that way for Easter. She explained an old tradition of telling jokes on Easter Monday, to remind everyone of the joke that was played on Satan when Jesus rose from the dead. Then each of the kids shared their jokes, and everyone joined in the fun.
We got the kids to play a game of “What’s inside?” We had a series of slides with pictures and asked the kids to guess “what’s inside?” (A bear cave, a nest, etc). The last slide was the tomb and of course the answer was – NOTHING!
(If you want the scripts for any of these, contact me!)
And by the way, for Easter – keep the kids in! Having the whole family together makes the service special and exciting! It also means no teachers need to miss celebrating Easter, either.
Make Music Special
I said that sometimes those big musical numbers you see online seem like too much. But you can make music special at Easter in other ways. A few of our faves were:
White Flag, by Chris Tomlin: As the song progressed, we had more and more people come out carrying white flags to wave. At the end a large white flag came down the centre aisle. Then we gave everyone small pieces of white cloth to wave their own flag (the service ending with white streamers being thrown off the loft) – it was a powerful experience!
You’re Beautiful, by Phil Wickham: We had a small choir come down the centre aisle to sing the “ohs” in the background. At the end, when it sings about arriving on the heavenly shore, we had kids run down the aisles with streamers. I still get teary when I think about it.
Christ Is Risen from the Dead, by Matt Maher: There is a spoken word online, which we got someone to incorporate into the song
Last year I asked people to save me their LOSING roll up the rim coffee cups from Tim Horton’s (so this is one just for Canadians!). Ahead of time I turned them into a large cross. I talked about the ways we experience disappointment in life – like rolling up a Tim Horton’s cup and losing – again. I shared how the disciples must have been so disappointed when the thought that Jesus had basically said: “Play again.” Then I talked about what the cross means and how Jesus takes all those disappointments there. The disciples though they had lost with Jesus – but turns out when the stone was rolled away – they had won!
Another year I talked about the way we leave flowers at graves when people die. I brought in 200 carnations, and laid them across the front of the church. At the end of the sermon, I invited people to come and PICK UP a flower, as a reminder that DEATH HAS NOT WON. Simple, but powerful.
Another year, we made a large sign that said “King of the Jews” (like the sign that was placed on the cross). People then came up and added their name to the sign, symbolizing he was king of THEM.
Throw Stuff. Drop Stuff. Wave Stuff.
Given out “poppers” (available at Party City) to each of the kids to explode at the end of the service (why not everyone? Just because they were expensive. If I had time to order them in bulk, I would have had some for all! Note: Consult custodian before giving out 50 poppers full of confetti. They appreciate that).
Thrown streamers from our loft at the end of the service.
Done balloon drops (if you don’t have a height to throw balloons from, just tossing out balloons as people bounce them around works great too!)
Dropped small Jesuses attached to parachutes that say He is Risen! (Even I admit these were a bit much but they were so HILARIOUS we could not even resist!)
Another year, people had a chance to take hymns from old hymnals that were ready to be tossed, and created flags from them with straws and tape. We talked about God turning old things into new. We waved the flags.
(Let me say, that if you usually don’t do things like this, a simple throwing of balloons at the end of the service can be a huge and special memory!)
Celebrate together as a church family after the service. Things we have done in this time include:
Bringing in a cotton candy machine
Had special treats prepared by our hospitality team
Face painting for the kids
Balloons animals for the kids
We always have a special spot where people can take photos with their family or friends
Listen, I know some of you are going to say. This doesn’t sound very REVERENT. This sounds very SILLY. But I like the saying “the medium is the message.” Jesus is alive! He rose from the DEAD! The world has CHANGED!! Why shouldn’t we celebrate and have fun on Easter? To me, the celebration embodies the joy of the greatest message of all time. And these celebrations can happen in churches of any size.
Here are some ideas of things we have done for Holy Week services.
Created a large painting as a church using the handprints of everyone from the church to make a “crown” (thank you to the pastor that I now forget that told me this idea years ago). We painted a large canvas a simple purple ahead of time, and then had brown paint (and hand wipes) which people dipped their hand in, before adding their print to to a circle on the canvas to create a crown. We added the words “king of kings.” This was for Palm Sunday. We still use this piece of art!
Taking a day and night during Holy Week to “cleanse the Temple.” I had handouts for each person that came in with a reflective reading about Jesus cleansing the temple. Then we had a list of jobs needed around the church. Throughout the night people took time to reflect as they literally “cleansed the temple.” (Bonus: the church was cleaner for Easter! Downside: I was left cleaning the fridge. It was THE MOST DISGUSTING EXPERIENCE EVER. There was milk that was so curdled I needed to use a knife to cut it up to get it down the sink. When I was done, I declared: “It is finished.”)
We had stations set up on Maundy Thursday following a potluck that were family friendly. They included: a station with dolls and bins of water, where people could “wash the feet” of the dolls as they remembered the story of Jesus washing feet, a station with a small plastic stool, on which people could write examples of injustices that made them angry and then “turn the table” as they flipped over the stool, a “garden” station with a cup where people could write on small pieces of paper things they wished they didn’t have to deal with in the cup, as they reflected on Jesus’ prayer in the garden
For Good Friday, we have had various versions of hikes and walks. We have met for church wide hikes, where we each take turns carrying a small wooden cross as we remember what Jesus did for us. We also have met prior to the Good Friday service for a quiet prayer walk around our neighbourhood, ending at the Good Friday service.