The holiday season is upon us and many parishioners are curious as to what they should get their pastor or religious leader as a gift. Allow me to assuage your anxiety by providing a list that is both practical and whimsical (I'll leave it up to you to discern which is which).
First let us purge bad holiday gifts.
1. A book of sermons by a famous preacher. Although many pastors do read sermons of famous dead and living preachers it is not the kind of book preachers like parishioners purchasing for them, it can send the wrong message.
2. Something that they must hang in their house (especially if they live in a parsonage). I realize that someone may have put a lot of time and effort into the gift, but what if it is not the kind of thing the pastor or his/her family wants to display? Although it is a heartfelt gift it may put unnecessary pressure on the pastor and his/her family to display the gift or feel guilty if he/she does not and then one day the gifter enters the house and does not see the gift on display. You can see where this is going...
Now let us move onto the gift buying guide. Reader, know that this list was composed with financially struggling congregations and houses of worship in mind.
10. A Title. That's is right a title: like pound for pound the best preacher they have heard in a while, or dean of the sanctuary, or bishop of the boulevard. Trust me I have yet to meet a pastor who does not want or one who does not secretly covet a formal, especially some obscure English, title.
9. An Alternative Title. Something like writer-in-residence. Why? Well imagine you are a person of the cloth on an airplane and you do not want to talk "shop" with the person next to you. If you are feeling disposed to share your vocation then by all means share it, but if you are not and the passenger next to you asks, "and what do you do?" You can faithfully (and truthfully) answer I am a writer-in-residence. 2012 updated alt. title: Life Coach.
8. A Stack of I've Had it Cards. I would say at least five of these. Most congregations grant generous vacation and continuing education time off for their pastors but there are times when pastors give and give and give till they are spent. So rather than have your pastor just check out one day, reward him/her with an "I've Had it Day" card. An unquestioned, last minute, taking the day off to sleep in, go shopping, eat an ice cream sundae for breakfast, play golf, card for that kind of day.
7. A Night Out. Although cash is a great gift for pastors there is a great temptation to spend it on necessary and workaday stuff. Therefore, volunteer to be the person to coordinate a church wide gift for the pastor. After sufficient cash is obtained purchase gift cards to the nicest restaurant in town, then tickets to a show, and arrange for a trusted member(s) to watch the pastor's kids (if they have them) or pets, or the house while they are away.
6. Promise to say thank you over the course of the year. Even over the most minute or mundane acts promise to say thanks to your pastor. Write a note to say how much you enjoyed the sermon. Write a note to say how much his/her prayer meant to you. Do not let the work go unnoticed or unacknowledged.
5. Promise never to criticize a sermon on a Sunday morning while you exit a service. The act of preaching is a dangerous and courageous act; one of the most vulnerable acts a person can do. Pastors reveal their most cherished and deepest thoughts; their hopes, dreams, and relationship with the Holy. After a service they are famished and extremely vulnerable, it is not the time for criticism. If you do not like the sermon then simply say I love you or I hope you have a good afternoon. Criticism can wait till Monday morning.
4. An understanding that pastoral work is artistry. Sure managerial, fundraising, interpersonal, supervisory, strategic planning, and visionary skills are needed for effective and meaningful ministry but transcending all of that is an art form of taking ideas and incarnating them, of healing and mending, of crying with and for, of tearing down and building up. Perhaps you could change the designation pastor's office to pastoral studio.
3. A good stiff drink. No, I am not condoning an unhealthy addiction to alcohol. Nor, am I encouraging that the pastor drink his/her problems away with alcohol. I am advocating for a nice expensive bottle of wine or scotch to be purchased for a celebratory meal or moment in the course of a year. If you suspect a drinking problem then I would suggest a weekly subscription to the NY Times. Make this one a both/and if you do not suspect an unhealthy approach to distilled spirits.
2. A sidekick. Yes, a sidekick. This is not a paid position or a volunteer staff position this is more of a Sunday morning worship sidekick. You will be the (insert day and time of your worshipping community here) version of Andy Richter. You will be the first person to stand to sing, and you will sing the loudest, you will have the most sincere face while the pastor prays, if the pastor pulls at your heart strings during the sermon you will have a handkerchief ready to wipe away your tears, during the sermon you will have the most concentrated face, and if the pastor tells a joke or tells a funny story you will guffaw and hold your sides like it is nobody's business.
1. Finally, you will love your pastor with as much love as you can. Through bad times and good times you will love her/him.
All of these gifts are mutually beneficial gifts. You will deepen your relationship with your pastor and he/she will deepen his/her relation with you. You will be enlightened by deeper sermons while your pastor will push himself/herself through a wider reading program and discover a new artistic expression.
If you must purchase something not listed here let me offer these then:
Subscription to The New Yorker - if for nothing more than the cartoons and to have it in the office (I mean studio) to impress future members.
Gift card to a local bookstore - no pastor or religious leader can have enough books.
Tickets to JazzFest (even if your pastor lives nowhere near New Orleans, he/she will never be the same...)
I hope this helps. Happy Holidays.