When Your Dysfunctional Family Takes All the Fun Out of the Holidays

Johnny Carson, the famous late night television host of the last generation, said the holidays are when we go home to be with our families to remember why we do it only once a year.

As if Christmas itself didn’t have enough pressure, adding the pressure of going home and being with our families in all of their dysfunction is enough to send a lot of us into a deep depression. Now, let’s understand—every family is dysfunctional. The only difference between families is HOW that dysfunction is manifested and the DEGREE to which that dysfunction affects the lives of the family members.

Now, understanding that and also knowing that most of our family members—barring a direct hit from a bolt lightening from God—won’t change, how do we prepare to go home for the holidays?

First, you have to make the decision of whether or not to go home for the holidays at all. Now, I know people are going to be mad if you don’t go home, but chances are the same people are going to be mad about something anyway. Does it really matter what they’re mad about? You can only answer for you. Is it in your best interest to go home? You can always choose to go another time. There’s no law that says you HAVE to go home. If going home is going to make you crazy, don’t go.

But if you do go, adjust your expectations. If your dad has never told he loved you, he probably won’t tell you this time either. If your mom doesn’t like your spouse, then she probably still doesn’t like her. There’s a reason Norman Rockwell painted those beautiful family scenes for Christmas; they don’t exist in real life. So understand your family is going to act just like they’ve always acted. You shouldn’t expect anything different.

  • Protect your boundaries. (Henry Cloud’s book, Boundaries, is a classic on this issue.)
  • Decide to be happy. (Yes, this is always your decision and yours alone.)
  • Keep your focus on the real meaning of Christmas. It’s not about presents. It’s about Jesus.

And Jesus won’t mind if you stay home and have a quiet Christmas without all of the dysfunctional drama.

Any Volunteers?

If you talk to anyone who works on a church staff, they will tell you the most difficult part of their job is recruiting and maintaining enough volunteers to accomplish their ministry. According to some ministers, they spend all of their time trying to run down enough volunteers to run their (fill in the blank) ministry.  No one can seem to find enough volunteers, and once found, volunteers are almost impossible to keep.

What’s the problem? People who love Jesus should be eager to serve His church…right? Well, in theory, but it doesn’t really work that way in real life.

Here’s the usual drill: a minister will realize they need someone to do something this coming Sunday. It could be anything from taking up the offering to teaching a class, but the minister has to find someone, and that person has to be found fast. So, phone calls are made.

The first people called are those people in our churches who always say “yes.” We know who they are. In fact, every minister knows who they are. It’s one of the reasons so many of our members are burned out. We ask the same people to do everything. Why? Because they will. For the minister, it doesn’t matter if the person has any abilities or gifts in the area of need, it only matters that they are willing to fill the empty position for one hour this coming Sunday. When we get through this Sunday, we’ll start the chaotic process of finding volunteers for next Sunday.

Now, church members aren’t dumb. They are catching on to what’s going on. They’ve learned not to return phone calls, not to read emails, and to ignore texts. No amount of “guilting” them will work anymore. They’ve become calloused to our pleas. Every minister complains about not having enough volunteers, and every volunteer complains about ministers who don’t understand the demands of their lives. Our members are angry because too many times, ministers make them feel guilty for saying “no” even when they have a perfectly good reason for declining.

There has to be a better way.

There is.

First, ministers have to make identifying, training, and supporting volunteers a priority of their ministry. Most of us don’t see it that way. Volunteers are last minute thoughts, and we think that once we get SOMEBODY in the position, we’ve accomplished our goal. No, we haven’t. The goal is to find the right person for the right job.

With that in mind, every position should have a written job description with the expectations and requirements clearly written down. When you talk to your potential volunteer, you should be able to walk down a one-page list that lays out what kind of time requirements exist, exactly what the job entails, and what success will look like.

Be sure the job only takes about two or three hours a week. People are maxed out with their time. If the position requires too much time, they won’t do it. Don’t bait and switch. Don’t tell them it won’t take much time when, in reality, it takes a lot of time. There are lot of very talented people sitting in our pews who won’t volunteer for anything else in a church because another ministry misled them in the past about how much time a position in the church actually required. You may have to split one job into several pieces in order for volunteers to be able to handle the responsibilities. That, however, is better than not having your volunteers engaged.

Second, stay in communication with your volunteers. Your volunteers are people. They have real lives outside of what you’re asking them to do in the church. They have ups and downs as everyone does, and they need to know you care about them AS A PERSON, not just as someone who’s filling a spot for you.

Third, listen to your volunteers. Sometimes they have better ideas about how to do something, and often, they are hearing things you don’t. They can be valuable sources of information about pastoral care needs, new families, and other circumstances involving church and community life.

Lastly, appreciate your volunteers. No, you don’t have to bring presents to them every week (although good coffee is always appreciated), but you do have to appropriately recognize their value and efforts. Did they go above and beyond? Then, drop them a note. Did they have good day? Be sure to say thanks or give them a quick call later in the day or week…or text them. Anyway, find a way to make sure they know you appreciate them being there.

The church simply can’t function without volunteers. The impact they have on the lives of others can’t be calculated. That’s why selecting, training, and effectively leading your volunteers is the most important job of any ministry. It’s the way the ministry of the church gets multiplied into the rest of the world.

How I’m Going to Talk About the Vegas Shooting

Jason Aldean was wrapping up his set at the Vegas weekend show when the shots rang out. From the 32nd floor of the hotel across the street, a deranged sniper was raining down automatic fire on the concert goers. When the shooting was over, 58 people and the shooter were dead.

And no one knows why. Investigators can’t find a note, anything on a website, or anything from his past that can be pointed to as the thing that set him off. Even if we did find it, I’m not sure it would help. One of the things that makes senseless acts of violence so hard to understand is they are, well, senseless.

Now, we’re left with the aftermath. What do we say? How do we talk about this? Do we talk about how we always have to be on guard and know our surroundings? Do we talk about how there are bad people in the world, and we have to always be wary of those people around us?

Perhaps. I guess we’ll always have to teach our children not to trust strangers.

But that’s not how I choose to tell this story.

Sonny Melton was, for all we can tell, a good old Tennessee boy. He had grown up in a small town and loved his family and his friends. He had just gotten married last year and was in Vegas with his new bride. Then, he heard the shots. He saw people falling around him, wounded and dead. In that moment, he realized his wife was in danger, and he put his body between her and the bullets as they tried to get out. He was killed. She lived. Sonny died protecting his wife.

Sonny is a hero, and that’s the story I’ll tell. I’ll tell the story that in the moment that all hell broke loose, Sonny made the choice that his wife’s life was more important than his, and he did what every hero does. He stood up and took the lead. I’ll tell the story about Sonny and countless others who stopped and treated wounded strangers and the doctors and nurses who worked around the clock treating the victims as they were brought into the hospital. I’m going to talk about security guards who, even when they realized they were being targeted first, made sure people found their way to safety.

I’m going to tell the stories about people who, when the worst moment of their lives happened, found it within themselves to be brave and compassionate. They found a way to be human in an inhuman moment.

That’s the story I’ll tell. I’ll tell it over and over again to the point that when I’m ever caught in the worst moment ever, I’ll know what to do. I’ll know how to be human.

First Response

A few years ago, I was the chaplain for the Brentwood Police and Fire Departments. After riding with these officers and firefighters and having seen them in action up close, I have nothing but respect for the courage these men and women find to do these jobs every day. Did you know most arrests are made during a routine traffic stop? An officer will pull a driver over for speeding, then find themselves face to face with a wanted felon. (Now you know why police officers are so edgy when they approach your car.) As for firefighters, well, I used to the tell them, “Anyone who gets dressed up to run into a burning house, isn’t right…”

But if I was in trouble, I wouldn’t want anyone else coming.

That’s the thing—these first responders never know what’s next. They train a lot, and they train for every conceivable situation, but they never know, from one minute to the next, what kind of situation they’ll find themselves in. If something’s happening, and they’re the closest unit, they’ll get the call. The police officers and firefighters can be anywhere in the city in a matter of minutes, and sometimes, it’s the minutes that save lives.

This is another reason I love the local church. (Hang with me. This is going to make sense.) You see, it’s the patrol car or the fire station nearest the problem that gets the call to respond first. Other units may be required, but the first unit is the closest unit. Who can get there first and offer assistance?

One of the great things about the local church—and this is one of the geniuses of its design—is that a local church is closest to the pain. We’re the closest ones to the child struggling with identity, closest to a young marriage trying to figure it out, and closest to family dealing with a tough diagnosis; we’re the closest ones to the situation. We can get there fast and offer any aid that might be needed. Christ has placed His people right in the middle of all of the pain in the world so that, if needed, we would get the call and get there first.

That means we need a lot of training in the church (we call this discipleship) to prepare for any and all scenarios. We need to be ready to get there in minutes because, well, as we know, minutes save lives.