Holistic practices guide pastors through Holy Week

April 17, 2019 by Robyn Davis Sekula

The first year that Rev. Stephanie Ryder served as a pastor, the church’s administrative assistant quit, with her last day being the Wednesday of Holy Week. Serving as a solo pastor, it put the church’s administrative tasks on Ryder, on top of writing additional sermons and creating plans for three services. “I was really caught off guard,” she says. “I know now not to schedule anything during Holy Week that isn’t truly necessary.”

Holy Week calls on every ounce of a pastor’s skills, time and energy. Pastors must guide congregations through the emotional and theological roller coaster from Jerusalem on Palm Sunday through death to resurrection. This requires physical, mental and theological energy.

Additionally, many church members have high expectations of Holy Week services, particularly Easter, and pastors feel that pressure.

“There is so much extra output of energy,” says Ryder, who serves Redwoods Presbyterian Church in Larkspur, California. She is a graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary. “If you’re very spiritually connected to it, it’s intense. Even pastors can get in a trap of forgetting to meditate and pray.”

Lenten practice is key

This year, knowing that the critical and hectic time of Holy Week was coming, Ryder dedicated her Lenten practice to daily meditation. She used the Presbyterians Today devotional guide for Lent to lead her efforts. She begins her day with prayer, and then 20 minutes of meditation. “That’s something I’m going to continue because it has been so foundational for me and a really life-changing experience, spending that time in quiet and with God,” Ryder says. “It’s so unlike my nature. I’ve been sleeping all night. I don’t want to sit in silence…But it puts me in connection with the heartbeat of the world.”

Rev. Leslie Mott

Pastors interviewed for this story spoke candidly about the challenges of managing expectations of their congregation during Holy Week, and how they plan to recharge afterwards.

Pastors must find ways to reserve their energy for Holy Week – and to recharge after.

Rev. Leslie Mott, Coordinator of Pastoral Sabbath at Stony Point Center, says Holy Week is one of the most demanding times of the year for pastors, much like the final weeks of Advent followed by Christmas. “I always say the Sunday after Easter is when pastors all get resurrected,” Mott says.

Mott leads retreats at Stony Point Conference Center following Easter. This is a good time for pastors to step away for self-care, which can include meditation, spending time in nature, yoga, reading, and even just taking a long nap.

Samson Tso, pastor of Homecrest Presbyterian Church in New York City planned to attend – until he received a summons to jury duty for the Thursday after Easter. He has already secured a guest preacher for April 28, and says he will make future plans for time away.
His favorite self-care? Baseball games. He’s a Yankees fan. He also plans to visit his alma mater, Princeton Theological Seminary, in May, and has another short road trip planned for June. “I haven’t had a break since October,” he says.

Pastors need to recharge

Self-care looks different for each person, Mott notes, and pastors should encourage each other to step away from the pulpit for refreshment periodically. “We should applaud each other for self-care,” Mott says. “When someone tells me, ‘I got a pedicure,’ I say, “Good for you!” There’s no kudos for that in our job. We have to support each other. We have to ask, ‘Did you take your day off?’”

Mott’s self-care practice is yoga. She became a yoga instructor while serving as a pastor, and found it was one of the keys to a healthy spiritual practice. Her congregation allowed her to leave church at noon, right after the service concluded, one Sunday each month until she earned her certification as an instructor. Her congregation’s support was critical to pursuing yoga certification. “It’s for me as a human being,” Mott says. “I’m not a reverend there. It’s just me on my mat.”

Mott now offers yoga as part of the retreats she leads. While many participate, there’s one person who breaks away for a long nap, which Mott applauds. Every person must find what works for them, she says.

Planning ahead

Intentional planning helps manage the demands of Holy Week, says Rev. Matthew Sauer, co-pastor of Manitowoc Cooperative Ministry, a combined ministry of First Presbyterian Church and St. John’s and First Reformed United Church of Christ in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. “During Holy Week, I do not attend meetings,” Sauer says. “I ensure all the bulletins are done ahead of time, and I focus on pastoral care, self-care, and worship. It works for me. With that said, on Easter Monday the church is closed.”

For self-care during Holy Week, Sauer has scheduled time to volunteer in a community garden. “I am going to work in the Community Garden for one morning of Holy Week,” Sauer says. “It’s just a few hours but I’m getting in touch with nature and with God in a way that I normally do not.”

Mott calls on congregations and their lay leaders to remember the numerous duties of a pastor and staff during the busiest times of year, and encourage them to take care of themselves. “The laborer is worthy of their hire, and that’s often lost,” Mott says. “For congregations to be part and partial to this care is really important.”

Robyn Davis Sekula is Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation, which serves churches through the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). You can reach her at robyn.sekula@presbyterianfoundation.org or (502) 569-5101.