Stress, What Stress? Pastors handle Christmas sermons differently

Dale Funderburg (left) and Rev. Robert Shamblin-Traylor
Staff Writer

Minister certainly doesn't make the most dangerous jobs list. It's not on the list of most stressful jobs either. But don't tell ministers that, at least not with one of the two biggest church days of the year coming up.

Christmas means bigger congregations, more guests and many of what are called CEOs -- Church and Easter Only attendees.

So when the minister takes to the pulpit, more eyes and ears are watching and listening. It's a chance to make an impression and while they won't always admit it, the Christmas and Easter sermons bring a little more pressure.

"My anxiety really is over whether they are getting my message," said Rev. Robert Shamblin-Traylor, the long-time pastor at Pilgrim Grove Missionary Baptist Church in West Point.

"But I am more nervous when visitors show up. You want to do whatever you can to reach them, to make an impression, so my nerves do get a little frayed. You don't want someone to be in church for the first time in a while and you be the one that drives them away," laughed Shamblin-Traylor, a veteran of 31 years in the ministry.

"I try to keep it more basic because we may have a lot of people who haven't been exposed to the Christmas story. I try to make it so I can speak to anyone. I try not to worry about keeping them, the Holy Spirit will reach them the way it is supposed to," said Rev. Lynn Ronaldi, priest at Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in West Point.

"The stress comes in everyone coming together, the season itself with services and events and pageants and programs has a lot of moving parts," she added.

That's particularly true for Ronaldi this year because of the church calendar. The Fourth Sunday of Advent this year falls on this Sunday, Christmas Eve so Ronaldi is writing one sermon for the morning service and then a new one for the church's Christmas Eve service.

"Talk about stress," she exclaimed.

Bro. Dale Funderburg at First Baptist in West Point has a similar philosophy about the "CEOs."

"I don't change my tune. We try to clearly present the Gospel message at every service. Every message, every page point of God's grace and goodness, and our accountability, we try to get that across no matter what the day," noted Funderburg, who has been in the pulpit 35 years, 14 of those in West Point.

"I don't really sweat over it. God always intervenes and gets me through it."

All three said they stick with their normal routines in preparing their sermons. Funderburg spends about 25 hours a week reading and preparing his message and that hasn't changed. The same for Ronaldi, who admitted she used to "really agonize" over the message and tended to "throw in the kitchen sink" trying to cover too much.

"I've learned to streamline. I read a lot and listen a lot, listening for what moves my heart. I do that for two or three days," she described.

All three ministers also are taking different approaches to their messages, partly because of the routine they've already established. Current events do get a mention. Their different styles also play a role.
"I do expository preaching through the books of the Bible and we're on Mark right now, we have been for several months. We are at the part of the burial. The challenge for me is tying the Christmas story together with the burial and remaining true to the Gospel while tying it in to today," Funderburg explained.

While at first blush the birth and death of Christ might seem quite different, Funderburg says his "Cradle to Calvary" message offers numerous links, from the swaddling clothes to the cloth used to wrap Jesus at the tomb, a Joseph at both the birth and the death, and the courage the people demonstrated at both.

Similarly, Shamblin-Traylor is in the "Apologetics Series," which addresses difficult questions about Christianity in an increasingly diverse world. He'll continue on that path with Sunday's sermon. It'll include a Christmas message but won't revolve around the Christmas story, he said.

Instead of trying to go through the entire story, Ronaldi has learned to pick out a part and focus on how it relates to modern times.

"This year's theme is finding rooms," she said, referring to the subject of her Advent sermon. "What the Christ Child found was not anything fancy and special. That's where God wants us to be. Sometimes what is going on in the world begins with us," she explained, giving a hint of Sunday's sermon."

The current debate over the capital of Israel will be worked in.

"The same place, the same issues. When will we learn? God still meets us where we are," she stated.

The Christmas Eve sermon will focus on the theme of "The Elusive Peace," and the world's obsession with disagreement and argument.

"It's sort of the sign of our times," she said.

In the past, Funderburg also has broken out parts of the story, sometimes taking the view of one participant. For instance, one year he was the donkey ridden by Mary.

It's all part of developing and delivering your own styles, regardless of any pressures or stress.

"For the first 10 years or so you are just nervous, really unsure. It takes 15 to 20 years to find yourself, develop your style," Shamblin-Traylor said. "That's one of the things they teach you. At first, you sound like someone you admire or someone you've heard before.

"This is the time of year to be yourself. I think that's the approach we all try to take," he concluded.