Post Author: Erica Schemper
This is my idealized childhood Christmas memory. It’s about 9:00pm, and our church’s Christmas Eve service is over. Everyone has finally left the building, except for my family. We are always the last to leave: we’re the pastor’s family. But tonight, instead of loading up the car and heading home, we go into the church bathroom where all four kids change into warm pajamas, then load into the station wagon, and off we go, beginning the 14-hour drive from upstate New York to my grandparents’ house in suburban Chicago. We’ll be there in time for Christmas dinner, and presents.
I’m a multigenerational pastor’s kid (often referred to as “PKs” in pastoral families). My dad is a pastor. My maternal grandfather is a pastor and a former missionary. And while growing up in a clergy family means you are often more religiously observant than the average Christmas and Easter family, it usually also means that your family’s traditions around the holidays are somewhat malleable. We were all so busy around Christmas, travel had to be arranged around the Christmas worship schedules; and, for the sake of sanity, my parents had to let go of some things that other families might think of as non-negotiable traditions (I was shocked to learn that some families have a huge dinner on Christmas Eve. Who’s got the time to roast a goose when you’ve got to stick 400 candles into their little paper wax-catchers?).
The truth, in fact, is that my family probably only loaded into the station wagon for that Christmas Eve wild ride two or three times when I was a child. There were years when my mother’s whole family came to us (Grandpa having retired from congregational ministry); and even a few years when we met halfway at a Holiday Inn in Ohio, had Christmas dinner at a Denny’s, and unwrapped presents sitting around the indoor pool. Church obligations were the only sacred cow in our family Christmas routine.
This was never more apparent than one of my first Christmases in congregational ministry. I was serving on the ministry staff of a huge downtown Presbyterian church. (For a sense of scale, there were 14 ministers on staff there at the time.) I had never expected, when I was in seminary, to get to serve such a large church. But, even more astonishing to me was that I was serving a church in the same city as my extended family. It was such a luxury.
Christmas that year fell on a Sunday, and for this particular church staff, that meant that after the utter exhaustion of four back-to-back Christmas Eve services (with our 2000 person sanctuary packed beyond capacity each time), we would have to follow it the next morning with two Sunday morning services (usually we had three, but it was decided that we could make do with two), and our usual Sunday Evening Vespers. Even with a ministry staff of 14, when it came time for someone to volunteer for that Vespers service, the staff meeting got very, very quiet.
And then my no-Christmas-tradition PK-instinct kicked in. “I’ll do it!” I said. Because, of course we had to have church. And of course, it would be amazing to preach on Christmas in this church. But I needed a second pastor, and no one else seemed particularly interested. So, of course, I volunteered my dad (who was enjoying his recent change of pace working at a seminary instead of in a congregation).
And my family rose to the occasion. Of course they could accommodate this. My dad agreed to be my wingman, and even tracked down the extra vestments he would need to assist. My mom would come as my most loyal preaching groupie. My husband (also a two-generation pastor’s kid) didn’t bat an eye. My grandparents were proud. My aunt, who was hosting the big extended family dinner, offered to adjust the time a little. No one grumbled that I was ruining Christmas when a contingent of us left the family festivities a little early: instead they waved us goodbye and blessed what we were about to do. Even when things went a little haywire (there was no communion bread), my mom rushed around and found the one store that was open and procured a loaf just in time.
I’ve had other Christmases in other congregations since then. My family keeps gifting me with understanding in the midst of all the bustle and exhaustion on pastor Christmas. My parents have taken my daughter and made her Christmas Eve more fun than sitting around at church waiting for me to be done. My aunts and uncles have exempted me from bringing a side dish to dinner. My in-laws have never once asked why we can’t make it to them for the holiday. One of my sisters even drove an hour to be the nursery volunteer at my church one year when I was in a bind. My husband lets me collapse in an exhausted heap after the last Christmas Eve service. And each year, I think, “there is no better season to have gone into the family business.”
Erica Schemper is a Presbyterian minister currently taking a break from full time ministry to take care of kids. Her part time work at a small ELCA church in on the San Francisco Peninsula affords her the incredible luxury of traveling home to Chicago this year to spend Christmas with her extended family.
Image by: Erica Schemper
Used with permission