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Updated: Thu, 19 Dec 2013 12:47:48 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

The trials and triumphs of church clergy at Christmas



Bishop Mark MacDonald holds a Navaho cross during a news conference in Toronto, Thursday Jan. 4, 2007. MacDonald will become the Anglican Church of Canada's first National Indigenous Bishop. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Bishop Mark MacDonald holds a Navaho cross during a news conference in Toronto, Thursday Jan. 4, 2007. MacDonald will become the Anglican Church of Canada's first National Indigenous Bishop. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

So you think your family Christmas involving people like cranky Uncle Mort or wild cousin Mary is complicated? Try being a member of the clergy at this time of year.

"Christmas can be a super stressful time for clergy,” says Connie denBok, minister at Alderwood United Church in Toronto.

"Christmas is so laden with tradition and expectation, and so the stakes are high," adds Judy Rois, executive director of the Anglican Foundation of Canada. "Your reputation is on the line.” 

It's a season of paradoxes: High anticipation and crashing disappointment, meticulous planning and all hell breaking loose, family fun and (of course) family fireworks. Christmas can be an emotional obstacle course for anyone, but consider the territory that the ever faithful minister, priest or pastor has to navigate.

For Christian clergy, it’s one of the busiest times of the year. On top of providing support to their stressed-out flocks, overseeing the ceremonies of the season and preparing masses and sermons for the congregations packing the pews, representatives of the church are supposed to inspire, lead - and be nice to everyone.

“Christmas can be exasperating for clergy, when congregants who don't have sermons to prepare and preach tell you how busy they are. When congregants need convincing that Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer aren't actually in the Christmas story," says Rev. Karen Hamilton, general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches.

"As you can imagine, clergy are always hopeful - even anxious - that the Christmas Eve services will go well, that everything will be just right,” says Terry Finlay, retired Anglican Archbishop of Toronto. “It's a big deal.”

“It's a relentless grind of tasks that have to be completed to a very high standard,” denBok adds. “The people who come to church on a regular basis have a broad tolerance. The people who come every few months have a narrower tolerance. But the people who come once a year possibly have the narrowest tolerance of all, and we have had demands made from people who want it to be exactly as they remember it - in 1973!" 

CBC radio’s The Sunday Edition approached a number of Christian clergy for a first-hand look at the trials and triumphs they face at Christmas time. Listen to the audio documentary to hear:

- Finlay’s tale of how he rescued one Christmas Eve from the antics of an inebriated congregant.

- How, as a congregational minister, Hamilton settled a years-long dispute between two sisters about how to decorate the church at Christmas.

- Rev. denBok’s story of her first Christmas as a minister in a small rural church in Saskatchewan - a tale of winter, robbery and wonderful kindness.

- How pastor Greg Paul tries not to lose it with the obnoxious annual gatecrashers at the Sanctuary Community Christmas meal.

- And how, at Rois’ first Christmas Eve in a new parish, a musical faux pas had the congregation up in arms.

[Listen to Frank Faulk's audio documentary While Shepherds Watch Their Flock.]

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