Strategies

Strategy 1: Continue to Offer Meaningful Engagement Online

We are hearing from many congregations that online access to worship and Zoom-based committee meetings are here to stay. The UUA Multiplatform resources offer tips and emerging practices for online and in-person integration. Not only is this important for safety, it also makes our congregations/communities more accessible.

Remember, “multiplatform” doesn’t mean that every event needs to be both online and in-person. It just means that we continue to provide meaningful engagement for people who participate online or in-person. Some events can be online only, and some can be in-person only, and some will be both online and in-person. We will continue to update our Leader Library with resources on live-streaming, online meetings, and more.

In all of our decisions, it matters that we continue to ask how we support those who are most vulnerable within and beyond our congregations, including those at higher risk for severe disease. Congregational leaders should also be attentive to the impacts of multiplatform plans on ministers, staff, and volunteers, and to make space to meet the needs of individuals and families at higher risk. Our web resources offer multiple scenarios that allow religious professionals to participate from off site if they or people they live with are at higher risk.

Strategy 2: Promote Vaccination

As the pandemic plays out, it’s become clear in most UU congregations that Unitarian Universalists tend to be a highly-vaccinated population compared with their neighbors. Some congregations have created a degree of safety by requiring proof of vaccination for attendance at in-person events. Other congregations have conducted surveys, discovering that 98% to 100% of those eligible in their congregation have been fully vaccinated. Vaccination has been proven to dramatically reduce the risk of hospitalization and severe COVID cases. Public health officials emphasize that booster shots, which keep vaccinations current, are effective in fighting all known COVID-19 variants. Vaccines are the first, best line of defense against COVID-19. However, children under 5 are still not eligible for vaccines, and vaccines are not available or less effective for people who are immunocompromised. Promoting vaccination is aligned with our principles as an act of care for ourselves, and to protect those who are most vulnerable in our community.

Note that vaccination reduces but does not fully prevent the risk of transmitting of COVID-19, especially the omicron variant, as the number of "breakthrough" cases rises. Because vaccinated individuals can become infected and spread COVID-19, it continues to be important to require well-fitted masks for in-person attendance at worship and programs of the congregation. (See Strategy #3, below.)

Strategy 3: Require Masking for Attendance

Congregations that maintain a culture of indoor masking, with well-fitted quality masks, reduce the risk of transmission significantly. Masking in crowds outdoors is also advisable. The outdoor ventilation decreases but does not eliminate the risk of transmission. UUA resources on masking offer tools and strategies for ensuring masking as well as consent to unmask in certain settings.

Strategy 4: Employ Rapid-Testing for Worship Leaders and Singers

Because wearing a mask can get in the way of clear sound and facial expression while leading elements of worship, congregations have found some safer ways to allow for unmasked preaching, singing and public speaking indoors. Distance between speakers and congregation helps, as does offering an antigen rapid test for worship and program leaders who need to speak or sing with their masks off.

Singing transmits approximately ten times more volume of aerosols than speaking does—therefore congregations and music professionals are approaching singing with great care. Our LeaderLab page on congregational singing during COVID offers emerging practices and precautions from experts on aerosol transmission of viruses along with a link to guidance from the Association for UU Music Ministries.

Strategy 5: Invest in Ventilation

Many of our congregations took the time during in-person closure to evaluate their HVAC systems and the airflow in the building. Because COVID-19 is mainly transmitted through the air, it is essential to improve air quality and circulation to make indoor gatherings safer. Poorly-ventilated spaces can only safely be occupied by small numbers of people for short times, even with mask wearing.

Some congregations’ homemade fan and filter boxes or open windows have increased airflow and filtration without high cost. Of course, meeting outdoors when possible continues to be the best strategy for ensuring high-quality ventilation. Note that ventilation improvements help make our spaces more hospitable to people with allergies and prevent the transmission of other airborne infections besides COVID. Ventilation can help us all stay healthier in the long-term.

Strategy 6: Allow Space Between People

Many congregations have reduced the number of people they can safely fit into their space for particular events given their own vaccination policies, ventilation, and event duration. Because COVID-19 is spread via airborne particles which can linger in the air, there is not a set distance between people that is completely safe. However, creating distance between well-masked people provides another layer of safety.

Strategy 7: Carefully Consider Food and Drinks

Congregations that hold indoor events with food or drinks, including post-worship social hour, need to take special care to allow for ventilation and additional distancing while masks are removed to drink or eat. Putting a mask back on between bites and sips can help. It is prudent to consider the infection rate in your community, among unvaccinated people and among vaccinated people, before offering food or drinks indoors. Serving and consuming food outdoors reduces the risk of transmission. Time matters too: The longer the duration of mutually-unmasked eating during an indoor event, the higher the risk of transmission. The CDC has shared that as little as 15 minutes total exposure to COVID-infected respiratory droplets over the course of 24 hours can infect a person… and their study took place before the highly infectious Delta and Omicron variants emerged.


As the pandemic continues, we will continue to face uncertainty. The best we can do at any given time is to lean in to our values as well as draw on the gifts and wisdom of our own people.

We encourage congregational leaders to move with care and humility, and a willingness to reverse course if things aren’t working, or as the situation with the virus changes. In this difficult and extraordinary time, we invite you to engage with us in ongoing creativity as we all minister to one another and the world.

Know that, whatever comes, we as your UUA staff are your partners. We will be here to help you think through tough situations and find a way forward. We will help connect you with others so we can all learn together. We will be there working alongside you for love, care, spiritual connection, and justice in your communities and beyond. Find your congregation's regional staff for direct support.

Additional Resources

Below you will find our curated library of additional resources for congregational pandemic-related resources.

Gathering Principles

4 Principles to Guide Decisions on Gathering During the Pademic

In her April 15, 2021 letter to UU congregations, our president Rev. Dr. Susan Frederick-Gray articulated these principles:

  • As a faith community, we root our decisions in the values of inclusion and consent. It’s important that everyone who gathers in-person has the ability to consent to do so, so that no one is forced to choose between their congregation and the safety of themselves or their loved ones. This includes congregational staff and volunteers. When making decisions, the people responsible for congregational programs need to have a central role and those impacted by decisions must have input. As religious leaders, our role is to help facilitate conversation and decision-making in an atmosphere of mutual respect, acknowledging that members and staff have a variety of needs and perspectives.
  • Follow the science. Congregations should follow the latest CDC guidelines and local public health regulations to determine the best ways to move forward as the pandemic recedes. Our public health advisors have all stressed the dangers of this time and the need to remain vigilant. Vaccine distribution remains uneven and inequitable (nationally and globally), new and more contagious variants are spreading, and children are not yet eligible for vaccination. Many unanswered questions remain, such as how effective the vaccines are in response to emerging variants, whether vaccinated people can spread the virus, and how long vaccine protection lasts. I can’t stress strongly enough the need to proceed with caution in our planning.
  • Go slow and be flexible. Now is the time to plan and consult with the people responsible and engaged in your programs. Take time to create a shared understanding of the risks. Given the ongoing risks, worship and other large gatherings should not be the first thing we return to in-person. Our public health officials have also said that as we begin to have some in-person offerings, we have to be prepared to shift back to all virtual if conditions change. Create this expectation, flexibility, and resiliency from the beginning.
  • Finally, be humane and realistic with expectations of ourselves and others. Remember, the goal is not perfection. The most important values in this time are care and compassion. We’ve experienced a year of traumatic disruption and loss. Be realistic as leaders and convey realistic expectations to your congregations. There are well-founded concerns that multi-platform ministry will require additional work without additional staff and volunteer capacity. It’s important to have honest conversations about our capabilities and expectations. And keep in mind that significant changes might be overwhelming even if dearly wanted.

COVID-19 Data Sources

With the politicizing of some health departments under the influence of business interests that want to minimize the threat of COVID-19, our congregations have been requesting sources for accurate data on COVID-19’s transmission, spread, and prevention.

The UUA offers the following sources of information, with humility: even expert medical professionals do not fully understand this new virus yet. Our human knowledge is evolving, and as it evolves, expert guidance is open to change.

COVID-19 Prevention

In August, 2020 the British Medical Journal published Two Metres or One? What Is the Evidence for Physical Distancing in Covid-19?. It includes a grid that rates risk of transmission by type of environment, type of mask, and duration.

Staying away from risky activities is key. Georgia Tech has created a COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool that helps you determine what your chances are of COVID exposure at events of different sizes, given your county’s current numbers.

Aerosol spread has been identified as way COVID-19 can spread. (CDC overview). The following resources can help congregations assess the ventilation and filtering of building space.

  • This visualization from The NY Times is focused on aerosol spread in a classroom with an infected masked student is helpful in assessing room ventilation safety for those unfamiliar with this professionally. The principles of fan and air purifier placement for classrooms can be applied in other similar spaces.
  • Overview of CDC guidance on ventilation and filtration.
  • CDC linked resource from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers on mechanical filtration and airflow. The same page contains guidance on bathroom ventilation.

COVID-19 Data

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's COVID Data Tracker offers detailed data in several areas, including testing positivity rates, hospitalization numbers, vaccination data, and community vulnerability.

Covid Act Now is a non-profit “built by a multidisciplinary team of technologists, epidemiologists, public health experts, and public policy leaders.” Their goal is “to provide the best-available local-level disease intelligence and data analysis on COVID in the U.S.” Covid Act Now includes frequently-updated data on five different indicators including positivity rates, rate of transmission, and expectations of spread for over 3000 counties in the US.

The New York Times continually updates its Coronavirus Tracker, with data on cases and deaths in counties throughout the country.

Trauma Responses to COVID

It's important to understand that our faith communities have gone through a traumatic experience, and that is having an impact on our physical and mental functioning.

Things to Consider

  • Some of our people may have past trauma that is being triggered
  • It takes a lot more energy to do "normal" tasks
  • People's sense of time can be distorted
  • People have a harder time taking in information, so we need to communicate more often (think 4 times as often) and in as many different ways as possible
  • People are going to want to go back to the "old normal"
  • When we are back meeting in person and it isn't the "same," people will experience a kind of unraveling
  •  People will be feeling tired, depressed and exhausted, including the leaders
  • It will take five to ten years for congregations to heal
  • Avoid a sense of urgency and take your time

Guiding Questions

As congregational leaders plan a return to in-person programming, congregations may wish to consider the following questions.

Note: these questions assume that in every gathering there are likely unvaccinated individuals present including children who are not eligible for vaccination.

Authority and Identity

Questions about Authority

  • Who will be involved in the decision-making process about resuming limited or total in-person operations? And who will make that final decision?
  • If in-person programs resume, but then guidance or circumstances change, who will be involved in the decision to cease, or put new limitations on, in-person gatherings?

Questions Related to Identity

  • Who are we as a congregation called to be right now?
  • How has our calling as a congregation changed since March 2020?
  • Acknowledging that every person in our congregation might have contact with many people outside of our congregation, who is part of the “we” we are considering in our decision-making?
  • If we gather while there is still risk to some members of our community what would be the social/emotional/spiritual costs of gathering? Who would we exclude? How would this fit with our mission and identity? How could those at risk be included?
  • How will it impact our identity and sense of community if we gathered in small groups in different ways, some online, some outdoors, some indoors?

Risk, Health, Vulnerability

Questions Related to Health

  • The local population—what are the trends in infection, treatment, vaccination, variants of concern, recovery and death in our immediate community?
  • Will we require vaccination of anyone? What about staff? RE volunteers? How will we, encourage vaccination while being mindful of those who cannot be vaccinated?

Questions Related to Vulnerability

  • The members and friends of the congregation—who is still at risk of contracting COVID-19 in our congregation? Who is still at risk of severe disease?
  • The staff and minister(s), their household members—what are their vulnerabilities, and what risks are we asking them to take?
  • Renters, unhoused guests being housed in the congregation’s building, guests in immigration sanctuary, and others who share the building—would they be put at risk by the congregation’s in-person operations?
  • How might our resumption of in-person services contribute to, or detract from, a safer world for everyone?

Programming and Events

Questions Related to Sunday Morning Programs

  • Will it feel strange to gather in person while communal singing (even with masks) is still not considered a safe thing to do? What could take the place of hymns and choir in our in-person services?
  • Are the children in our congregation willing and able to wear masks while indoors and outdoors? Do parents feel safe with their children playing masked on our playground equipment?
  • How will we communicate expectations around distance, masking, social distancing, food and such to participants ahead of time? At events who will enforce protocols around cleaning, face masks, social distancing, food, and such? What kinds of consequences will there be for failure to engage in safe practices? How will this be different with children?
  • How do we take the collection/offering in a way that minimizes physical contact? Can we continue to collect our offering the way we have online?
  • What means do we have in place for hard-of-hearing people to hear others’ speaking, especially when they can’t see lips moving (because of face masks and/or distance)? Is our sound system adequate?
  • If our building does not have space for its usual number of people to attend worship and maintain physical distance, how will we decide who comes when? Alphabetically? Neighborhoods? Other methods? Do we have the means to collect an RSVP ahead of time?
  • Without preparing food or drink, what kind of after worship socializing can we host? Do we have appropriate outdoor or extremely well-ventilated and well-distanced space for people to drink or eat food they have brought?

Questions Related to Small Group Gatherings

  • Are we ready to allow small groups of any age to gather outdoors? If not, what local metrics, new policies, or covenantal agreements would need to be in place first?
  • Have there been any state/local changes around masking policies? What tensions and disagreements might be present around these? Do we have agreement that in all congregational events a culture of masking will continue to protect those most vulnerable?
  • What age groups have had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated? Do we trust that the vast majority of our community members have been vaccinated? Are there people who are now safe to gather both indoors and outdoors and want to do so?
  • Do we have small groups such as a retirees’ group or small group ministries whose gatherings would be enriched by gathering in person? What policies would make these gatherings appropriately safe, following science, for our congregation? What covenantal conversation process would be appropriate to help each small group decide if this shift is appropriate for them and is inclusive for all their participants?
  • Do we have technology such that a group could meet in person and still include some people online?
  • If some already formed small groups begin meeting indoors and in person, how can we prevent new exclusive invites for events only for those vaccinated?
  • What ways can we ask small groups gathering in person to have covenantal conversations centering consent if they find their participants are fully vaccinated and want to be unmasked inside, or participants want to be unmasked outside?

Questions Related to the Staff/Volunteer and Technological Capacity of the Congregation

  • What kind of special training will staff need for safe in-person gatherings? Are staff responsible for ensuring that participants are following health and safety protocol? If not staff, who holds this responsibility?
  • If we start to phase in in-person worship and programs, do we have the staff and volunteer capacity to offer two tracks of robust participation (in-person and digital) for a year or more? What might our staff and volunteers need to continue both?
  • If we judge that we have the capacity for two robust tracks of programming: when community health criteria are met, how will we ensure maximum safety for those who gather in person? And how will we carry forward the inclusiveness we fostered while we were virtual-only? How will we ensure that virtual-only participants don’t unintentionally become marginalized?

Building and Grounds Use

Questions Related to the Building and Grounds

  • Is it possible to navigate the building and participate in worship/events/meetings while practicing six feet (or more) of physical distancing? Does this change if someone is navigating the building with a walker, a wheelchair, or a stroller?
  • What kind of space do we have for religious education programs, and how will we maintain appropriate distance and ventilation? How might we need to change how we do these programs? Should the resumption of in-person Sunday mornings wait until children over age one can be vaccinated?
  • What kind of ventilation does the building have in the hotter season and in the colder season, as well as in between? How often is the air exchanged in each of the frequently-used spaces?
  • Do we have hand-sanitizing stations or could we install them?
  • Have we made our bathrooms safer? Do we have excellent ventilation? Or do our toilets have lids that can be closed during flushing to minimize the spread of germs? If they aren’t safer, do we have a plan to space out their usage?
  • How are we cleaning our building, both before we return, and while we are back in the building? To what extent and level? How will we clean adequately while avoiding unnecessary cleaning, including chemicals that impact people’s health? What anxieties does our congregation have about cleaning?
  • Would we consider screening people for symptoms before they are admitted to the building, or might we ask people to check their own symptoms prior to attending any event at the congregation?
  • How might we check-in participants at our events, so we would be able to do contact tracing if necessary?

Questions About Renters and Other Users of the Building Space

  • Could rental groups’ operations put the congregation or its guests at risk?
  • Is it possible to ensure a safe environment for groups that use our space?
  • Are some of the groups that use our space true lifesavers for people in distress (such as groups for people in recovery or people who are survivors of violence)? Do we have the capacity to make additional efforts to ensure that they can use the space safely as soon as local regulations allow?
  • Might any of the operations of the groups that use our building pose additional risk to the congregation and other users? How might those risks be minimized?
  • What restrictions ought we put in place on short- and long-term renters’ use of the building and their operations?
  • How will we ensure that users of the space are following appropriate guidelines, and cleaning/disinfecting the spaces for which they are responsible?

Encouraging Vaccination

Most Unitarian Universalists are strong believers in science, medicine, and epidemiology. Even if we fear needles, most of us have overcome our fears to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as possible. However, some Unitarian Universalists, and staff of UU congregations, have personal values or fears that lead away from choosing vaccination. How can we as congregations who want to minimize the spread of this potentially deadly disease encourage, or even require, vaccination against COVID-19?

Focus on Positive Encouragement

A UU woman in a Black Lives Matter T-shirt gets a COVID vaccine.

Unitarian Universalists have a strong theology of interdependence and commitment to the common good. In our communications and in our worship services, we can draw connections between our core religious values and the imperative of vaccination against COVID-19.

Some other ways to encourage vaccination:

  • Helping people navigate the complexities of vaccine sign-up systems and find open appointments—many of our congregations helped older members do this when vaccinations became available for ages 60+.
  • Celebrating vaccinations for particular people or age groups in Joys and Sorrows.
  • Hosting vaccination events and publicizing local vaccination events.
  • Show this amazing video modeling how the mRNA vaccines work
  • Celebrate Dr. Katalin Karikó’s idea of using mRNA for vaccination and her persistence in pursuing this possibility leading to the Pfizer vaccine.
  • Celebrate Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett’s six years of work on a coronavirus vaccine and her role in creating the Moderna vaccine. She’s 34 and a Black American scientist.
  • Share news about boosters, the complexity of immunity and the reasons for boosters. Many people don't know, for instance, that the booster shot not only increases antibodies, but also increases the "breadth" of antibodies as b-cells differentiate in the germinal centers to target more versions of the virus.

Offer to Support People

Some people have had difficulty getting vaccinations because of access: they can’t take time off work if they get side effects, they don’t have a ride, or they don’t have someone to watch their kids. Pair encouragement to get vaccinated with the offer of concrete support for anyone, member or friend, who needs help.

Call Out Misinformation Without Denigrating Believers

The misinformation that surrounds us about vaccines is not only designed to erode confidence in medicine. It is big business for those spreading misinformation and for the social media platforms they use.

Approaching Vaccination Concerns

Remember that being hesitant about the vaccine is not the same as being against vaccination. Listening closely for the reasons someone is hesitant is crucial. Epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina provides this overview of typical vaccine concerns and presents more effective ways to respond to those concerns. She also maintains this fact sheet correcting common misconceptions (PNG).

All congregations can encourage vaccination both with individuals and in communications to the whole congregation. Whether encouraging vaccination or requiring vaccines, our approach needs to be sensitive and compassionate to the concerns some people have with getting vaccinated.

Medical Concerns

Some people who have medical conditions may have concerns that are difficult for people with the privilege of being relatively healthy to understand. Even people who are at more risk of severe disease from COVID-19 may make their vaccine decisions hesitantly and carefully. When one opens the CDC website to research whether or not to get vaccinated, reading “limited safety data” under their condition on the CDC website raises anxiety and doesn’t help. The concerns people bring to these decisions arise often from complex overlapping medical conditions where finding answers to concerns is hard.

Compassion, respect, and listening are key. Making this decision in the middle of a life-threatening pandemic isn’t easy and pressure from one’s religious community doesn’t help.

Do ask if they’re getting the medical advice they need from people they trust and if they need help finding a doctor to help them. If they’re not getting the information they need, and want your help, reach out to medical professionals in your congregation who can help find reliable sources for their condition.

The CDC currently recommends that only those who are allergic to components of the vaccine not get vaccinated, but other people with particularly complex medical conditions and medication have been advised by their doctors not to get vaccinated yet.

If your congregation requires vaccines for anyone, do create a private, sensitive, and compassionate process for people to request a medical exemption.

Distrust Rooted in Systemic Oppression

Our country has a horrifying history of medical mistreatment, experimentation, and abuse of Indigenous people, Black people, other People of Color, and people with disabilities.

Racism continues to play a significant role in the medical care that BIPOC people receive (and don’t receive) and the ways health professionals do, or do not, respond to their concerns. Regarding COVID, people of the many different cultures that fall under the umbrella “BIPOC” have a variety of cultural orientations to vaccines, with some cultural/ethnic groups having some of the highest vaccination rates in the US and some having some of the lowest. (Noting that vaccination rates are not just cultural—they are also affected by structural racism.) White people and BIPOC who hold privilege may not be best-suited to help a marginalized vaccine-hesitant person decide to vaccinate. Community groups like the Black Nurses Association are doing excellent outreach that we can support.

Compassion and willingness to listen is vital.

Requiring Vaccination

We know vaccination is how we end this pandemic and care for each other. Each congregation will handle this in a different way. Unless prohibited by state law or local ordinance specific to COVID-19, congregations can require vaccinations for staff, volunteers, or for attendance at events.

Many congregations are requiring vaccinations for some or all staff and others are requiring vaccines for lay leaders or attendance at in person events.

Congregations holding in-person events should clearly communicate their vaccination policies to friends, members, and visitors, along with information on how to seek a medical exemption from the policies.

Vaccination does not mean removing masks. Vaccinated people are less likely to become infected and less likely to spread COVID. But as vaccinated people can spread COVID, masks are still an important layer of safety regardless of vaccination status.

Accommodations and Inclusion

If vaccinations are required for staff there must be a medical exemption process in place. A similar process should be in place if members or attendees for events are required to be vaccinated.

Accommodations can be part of a medical exemption process. This could include accommodations such as volunteering in a different capacity.

Since all people cannot be vaccinated yet (or will not be able to be vaccinated), we urge congregations to plan ways to include everyone in the life of the congregation.

Resources

Require Staff Vaccinations

General Information about Requiring Vaccinations for Staff

Graphic with several syringes of different sizes pointing at a question mark

First published April 5, 2021. Last updated December 1, 2021.

In some states, employers can require staff to get a COVID-19 vaccination. Other states prohibit employers from being able to require a vaccination. Congregations should check with their labor attorneys about specific requirements for their states and/or municipalities. Note that rules are changing rapidly.

In your deliberations regarding vaccinations, keep in mind the Key Principles in Planning outlined on our Guidance on Gathering page – rooting decisions in the values of inclusion and consent, following the science, staying flexible, and being human and realistic in our expectations.

Here are a few articles to help you make sound decisions and ensure that you are treating your employees fairly and legally.

Sample Policies

The UU Congregation in East Brunswick, NJ has written a policy requiring staff and volunteers with children (PDF) to be vaccinated and includes policy on handling medical exemptions.

All Souls Unitarian in Washington DC has a written policy requiring all employees to provide proof of vaccination (PDF), including policy on disability, religious, and medical exemptions and a weekly testing protocol for non-vaccinated employees.

First Church in Jamaica Plain, MA is requiring all employees to be vaccinated and to provide proof unless a reasonable accommodation is approved such as a medical reason or sincerely held religious belief.

Considerations When Requiring Vaccination

We've determined that it's legal for us to require vaccination and proof of vaccination. What should we consider?

  • Are we doing this in an inclusive way? Have we considered how to support a staff member who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons? What reasonable accommodations could be made (such as masking, working from home, or different tasks)?
  • Are we able to do this in a way that is humane and allows staff time to consider their options?
  • Do all staff roles need vaccination? Which staff members will be sharing indoor space with our congregation? Which staff members will be sharing indoor space with younger not-yet-vaccinated children?
  • What conflicts and tensions will requiring vaccinations for staff bring up in our congregation?
  • If we require vaccination of staff, how do we understand the ethical, covenantal, and relational ways this impacts how approaching vaccination with our congregation?
  • As of December 2021, the CDC definition of fully vaccinated is two doses of Pfizer or Moderna or one dose of Johnson and Johnson. However, the CDC recommends all adults get boosters. If, at some point the CDC changes the definition of "fully vaccinated" to include boosters, will we require our employees to get booster shots?

Is it okay to require vaccination for some staff but not others, depending on their job responsibilities or working conditions?

This is something to check on at the local/state level.

What about volunteers, members, and visitors?

Please see the separate LeaderLab post on this topic.

What about masks?

Vaccination does not mean removing masks. Vaccinated people are less likely to become infected and less likely to spread COVID. But as vaccinated people can spread COVID, masks are still an important layer of safety regardless of vaccination status.

Additional Resources

Vaccinations for Volunteers, Members, Visitors

Picture of a document that says "Medical Record"

First published May 26, 2021

We know vaccination is how we end this pandemic and care for each other. Many congregations are wondering how they should approach tracking COVID vaccination with members, volunteers and visitors. The UUA encourages congregations to consider how to sensitively encourage vaccination even if vaccination isn't required.

Please remember every congregation is different. Some congregations know they have a high rate of vaccination because people have been volunteering this information. Some congregations have a significant number of vaccine-hesitant members. Some congregations include many children under 5, some have none. Some congregations have many immunocompromised adults who are not as well protected by vaccination. Following the guidance of science while centering inclusion, consent, and flexibility will look different in different congregations.

Some congregations are considering asking staff to be vaccinated. Please see our LeaderLab article on staff vaccination if you are considering this.


Vaccination does not mean removing masks. Vaccinated people are less likely to become infected and less likely to spread COVID. But as vaccinated people can spread COVID, masks are still an important layer of safety regardless of vaccination status.

Can We Legally Require Vaccination for Participation?

One legal concern that comes up about this relates to HIPAA, a US law that protects patients from having their health-related information shared without their permission. HIPAA does not prevent your congregation from asking about vaccination status. However, some states may have laws restricting your ability to ask specifically about COVID vaccination status. Make sure you are familiar with any relevant laws in your state or locality.

Why Would We Ask Participants about Vaccination?

  • Your congregation’s locality’s government may require vaccination for public indoor spaces. If this is the case, your visitors and members may expect to be attending events where all are vaccinated.
  • Having a high level of vaccination at in-person events reduces the chance of someone attending with an infectious case of COVID-19.
  • Combined with universal masking, vaccination substantially increases the safety of an event.
  • Widespread vaccination is the most important way to protect our world from COVID-19 in the long term.

Why Wouldn’t We Ask Participants about Vaccination?

There are a few concerns about asking for vaccination:

  • Asking for or requiring vaccination can put pressure on people who cannot be vaccinated or are vaccine hesitant that make it difficult to build trust
  • Not all people can be vaccinated, including those under 5. Requiring vaccination can reinforce ableism for those who have medical reasons they cannot get vaccinated. Guidance on supporting those with medical concerns.
  • Some people are still at risk, even with vaccination, as their immune systems do not mount a strong protective response and they are at risk of severe illness if infected
  • Some vaccine-hesitant people and parents need more encouragement and support, including concrete help accessing vaccination, and a vaccine requirement that doesn’t include support may be challenged.
  • Some people may be hesitant to choose vaccination for their children when the approval is still an "Emergency Use Authorization" and want to wait possibly until full FDA approval.

What Should We Tell People?

Members, friends, and visitors are likely to want to know, even if they don’t ask, what the level of vaccination is in your congregation and your approach to vaccination. Being transparent allows people to make more informed safety decisions for themselves. Examples:

“We do not ask the vaccination status of those attending our services; however we require vaccination of those supervising children under 5.”

“We know from personal sharing that more than 90% of our congregation is vaccinated. We hope visitors are also vaccinated, unless medical conditions prevent this. We are continuing to require masks for all people in order to slow the virus’s spread and to protect our children and more vulnerable members of our congregation.”

“Because our city is asking for vaccination for adults attending restaurants and gyms, we are asking the same of those attending in person events. Please contact the senior minister to discuss a medical exemption.”

“We do not ask the vaccination status for those attending our in-person services. Because we have some differences among our membership on vaccination we are planning our safety standards as if all are unvaccinated and at high risk.”

Sample Vaccination Policies

The UU Church of Nashua, NH has a policy (PDF) that requires COVID vaccinations and proof of vaccination for all staff, anyone working with children and youth, anyone leading worship or running tech from the sanctuary, anyone singing in the building, pastoral associates doing in person visits, and anyone engaging with vulnerable populations due to their role in church.

The UU Congregation in East Brunswick, NJ has written a policy requiring staff and volunteers with children (PDF) to be vaccinated and includes policy on handling medical exemptions.

Considerations for Asking Participants about Vaccination Status

If you are considering asking volunteers, members, friends, or visitors about their vaccination status, here are some questions to consider:

For All

  • What exemptions or additional protections should we have in place knowing that some people cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons or even with a vaccine may not be well protected?
  • While HIPAA doesn’t apply to congregations, everyone deserves to have their medical information kept confidential. How can our congregation honor people’s privacy, especially the privacy of those with medical exemptions?
  • Would we ask for proof of vaccination and/or compile documentation? Who would do that?
  • If we are going to trust people’s word, do we trust that our participants will be honest?
  • What will we do to encourage those eligible for booster shots to receive them to decrease the chance of infection after vaccination and because the CDC is encouraging boosters for all adults over 18?

For Volunteers

  • Are there volunteer roles where volunteers should be vaccinated for the near term? (For instance, volunteer choir directors or people who spend time with elders or younger children.) Should we require booster shots of these volunteers?
  • Will our safety standards still take into account that even though the number of transmissible cases in vaccinated individuals is substantially lower, it is still possible for vaccinated individuals to infect others?

For Members and Friends

  • What is the local expectation for vaccination in public spaces?
  • If vaccination is controversial in our community, can we find a covenantal approach to helping members and friends consider the impacts of their vaccination choices on the safety of their fellow congregants?
  • Do we worry that any in our congregation might lie in order to participate? How could we handle this?
  • Understanding a small number of people cannot vaccinated or will mount a strongly protective antibody response, how can we work against ableism and have an inclusive community? In what ways will we include people who cannot attend safely in person?
  • Can we create a medical exemption process just as we would for staff?

For Visitors

  • What are our local city and state standards around vaccination? If asking about vaccination is common or required in our city, will visitors be expected to be asked about their vaccination status and expect to be attending only with others who are vaccinated?
  • If we asked about vaccination for members and friends, how would we be inclusive of visitors? Would we ask them at the door?
  • If we choose to require vaccinations of visitors, how will we help visitors be aware of this?

Covenantal and Creative Ways Forward

  • Consider having covenantal conversations about how we protect each other.
  • Celebrate vaccination within the congregation and encourage people to share their vaccination pictures and emotions.
  • Keep track of what percentage of the congregation has voluntarily shared their vaccination story and point out to the congregation how this is creating a safer congregation for all.
  • Recognize there is a difference between policies for the whole congregation’s public Sunday morning gathering and choices of smaller groups who have built trust and know each other’s vaccination status.
  • Remind people that vaccination is not available to all yet and does not protect all.
  • Consider following the UUA recommendation to continue indoor masking regardless of vaccination status as vaccinated individuals can spread COVID-19 and can spread its Delta variant even more readily.

Additional Resources

Singing In The Pandemic

A solo singer, physically distanced from others in a well-ventilated space

Originally Published May 11, 2021

Revised March 11, 2022

Communal singing is one of the great joys of congregational life and an experience that’s nearly impossible to replicate online. We know that congregants are eager to be able to sing together and to enjoy the singing of their choir and soloists, but continued caution is needed.

It is very difficult for us to offer specific guidance for all congregational situations. In general, we recommend the following:

  • Singing creates a higher risk than speaking due to greater aerosol spread. That means rules and policies about masks, distancing, and ventilation need to be stricter for singing than for other activities.
  • One of the UUA's pandemic strategies is employing rapid-testing for worship leaders and singers. With easy access to rapid tests, consider implementing a rapid testing protocol (e.g. testing within the hour before gathering) for activities involving singers and speakers.
  • Members and friends, as well as staff and key volunteers, have different risk profiles and comfort levels. Whenever possible, offer options to accommodate this range of needs and circumstances, e.g., multi-platform worship, the ability to work from home, etc.
  • Keep in mind our Key Planning Principles:
    • Root decisions in the values of inclusion and consent. In particular, your staff and others significantly impacted should be involved in your decision-making processes. Get consent from staff and volunteers regarding their responsibilities, especially if something new or different is being asked of them.
    • Follow the science. Pay attention to the latest CDC information and your local public health regulations. (We recognize that information may be in flux for some time.)
    • Go slow and be flexible. Do the best you can to plan while being prepared to pivot. Strive to provide options that accommodate different levels of risk and comfort.
    • Be humane and realistic in your expectations of yourself and others. Remember self-care and compassion for others. Perfection is not the goal and you don't need to do it all.

The Association for UU Music Ministries offers this Guidance for Music Programs During the Ongoing Pandemic.

We are grateful for your commitment to safety as well as to joyful, meaningful human connection.

Masking Guidelines

As new, more transmissible, variants of COVID-19 emerge (e.g. Delta and Omicron), the need to limit the spread of the virus continues.

Whether the CDC says vaccinated people do or don’t need masks, the CDC’s guidance is about individuals. As congregations, our decisions about masking or un-masking need to be about community. We are in covenant with one another to act not just as a collection of individuals, but as a body that works for the good of all.

Because our Unitarian Universalist faith is grounded in values that call us to care about one another, we must continue to make our decisions by centering the needs of the most vulnerable among us.

When making decisions, always practice covenantal consent—taking time to listen deeply to one another’s concerns and fears before making any decisions that might put members of the community at risk, either physically or mentally.

The UUA encourages congregations to maintain a culture of indoor masking when they gather in person. This is because of who we are, as congregations, at our best:

  • We are all-ages communities, and not all ages have been able to get vaccinated yet.
  • We are all-abilities communities, and some of us have immune systems that do not mount a strong protective response after the COVID vaccination and can suffer severe consequences upon infection.
  • We care for the health of all. Even though “breakthrough” infections are rarely severe, we know that they can cause long term symptoms and contribute to the spread of COVID.

Guidance for Outdoor Gatherings During COVID-19

Originally published June 2020. Latest revision December 1, 2021.

Although we are seeing promising signs in many locations, the UUA continues to urge congregations to use caution, even in outdoor settings.

Our recommendations were developed by our Safer Congregations Team in response to questions from congregations. Please use them in conjunction with our full UUA guidance for gathering during COVID-19.

Data show that the risks of transmission of COVID-19 are lower in outdoor settings. However, experts advise that facial coverings, physical distancing, and limits on singing still be in place. If you are considering holding an outdoor gathering of two or more people, we urge you to establish plans and guidelines to keep our most vulnerable participants safer from the possibility of COVID transmission. We recommend that congregations:

  • Follow the UUA’s guidance on singing.
  • Encourage people to bring their own food rather than share or distribute food.
  • Offer bathrooms that are well-ventilated, with marks on the hallway floor for socially-distanced waiting, and a plan for reduced occupancy.
  • Continue a culture of masking for large events. For small events, masking asks should be navigated with covenantal consent.
  • Provide inclusive and accessible spaces for sitting (lawns are often not accessible to wheelchair- and walker-users.)
  • Find creative methods for including people who are hard of hearing and/or visually-impaired, especially given the obstacles of distance and masks. Can your sound system work outdoors? If you are live streaming your event, you could offer the ability for in-person participants to use tablets and smartphones to access sound and visuals.
  • Be attentive to the safety of the building (if entrances are open yet no one is inside.)
  • Provide clear guidelines for participants, sent ahead of time: what will "the rules" be for safer participation?
  • Consider the needs of families with children so that they are able to participate.
  • Be considerate of neighbors with efforts to minimize noise pollution.
  • Update your existing safety and security plans for the different risks involved in an outdoor gathering.

Family Ministry Considerations

a parent and child both with long hair wear masks and stand outside near wide steps while two dogs play nearby

May 2021 update: While the Pfizer vaccination is now available to those 12-15, the rest of this post continues to apply to these younger youth until fully vaccinated and to the families of younger children.


I am writing this in early April 2021, over a year into a pandemic, where I, like so many of us, are longing to return to normal. We miss coffee hour, hugs, and singing. We miss seeing each others' smiles and watching the children playing.

As more and more adults are vaccinated, some of our members are asking when we can return to in-person congregational life. Congregational leaders are asking the UUA for guidance, including guidance on when and how to have programming for children and youth.

As a parent, I understand this longing to be in person all too well! Our family is lucky in so many ways, but working while parenting and Zoom-schooling our kindergartener and first-grader is exhausting. Many families are not just exhausted, they are struggling. They don’t have the support of their employers, they have been directly impacted by COVID, family members have died, or their children and youth are struggling with anxiety or depression because of social isolation.

We are social mammals and we need to be together. Our teens need each other. Our children need each other. And we are still in a pandemic where vaccinations are not available for the youngest among us.

As a parent, I have been following the science around schools, COVID, and children closely. I wish we were able to give you clear, science-based practices and a timeline so you could get to planning. But because of the complexities of the unknowns of the new variants, the wait for vaccines for children and youth, and the wide ranging needs of different families, we can’t give you the information so many congregations are asking for.

Below you’ll find detailed explanations so you can understand the “whys” and communicate them to your members. At the end you’ll find planning tips that you can be doing now.

Science, Schools, and Variants

The CDC has recently released detailed science based guidance for schools. Congregations want to be able to use this guidance to plan in person programming and parents want to know why, if school is safe, church can’t be safe and why we aren’t already “re-opening” our buildings and programs for children and youth.

New COVID Variants

We are seeing the emergence of new, more transmissible variants. We need more data from studies conducted while these variants are circulating. Because some emerging data are casting doubts about current guidelines, we will need to be cautious, even in typical school settings.

Worryingly, some variants are more transmissible and cause more severe disease. In several states we are seeing more outbreaks among children and teenagers, more cases of long-haul COVID in children and teens, and more severe illness in younger adults. We don’t know the long term impacts of COVID for children or adults. What we do know is that as long as the virus is circulating, we’ll continue to see new variants.

Extracurricular Activities Increase Risk

Schools are under tremendous pressure to be open. They deliver essential services requiring communities to balance the risk of open schools with the need for the services schools provide. Each family is making their own decision about how to weigh the risks to their family of their children being in school physically.

We’ve learned from contact tracing that extra-curricular activities (e.g. sports teams) are contributing to clusters of new cases among children and youth. Physically reopening our own programs could create similar risks of transmission. By keeping our church programs online, we won’t be contributing to additional transmission that could shut down local schools.

In the weeks and months to come, we’ll get new data on COVID variants among children and youth so you will be better able to plan programs for your congregation that are as safe as possible. And yet, we think it’s wise to plan to be flexible. We do not know what new variants may emerge and how those will impact people including those already vaccinated. Our congregations should be planning to be flexible and be able to return to a remote-only congregational life if needed.

Adequate Staffing

Current CDC guidelines (e.g. ventilation, cleaning, hand-washing, distancing) require staffing on par with those in a school. Congregations do not have that level of paid staffing and our volunteers (especially parents) are already tired.

Vaccination and Inclusion

Right now many parents of children and youth are not yet vaccinated. Individuals with higher risk conditions may have been vaccinated, but COVID is a risk to all. Focusing only on comparatively lower death rates for younger adults ignores the risks of long haul COVID: long term heart and lung damage, and other long term health impacts. With the new variants circulating, we are already seeing an increase in hospitalization rates for those in their 30s and 40s.

We also need to remember that not all adults will be able to be vaccinated. Some parents have allergies, immune conditions and blood diseases that mean they cannot be vaccinated. So until their children can be vaccinated, these parents continue to be at risk.

Children with High Risk Conditions

While children overall have a much lower risk of severe disease from COVID, some children (e.g. those with cancer, bone marrow transplants, type 1 diabetes, immune deficiencies, etc.) are at much higher risk. Imagine being the parent of a child with severe asthma, a chronic lung condition or multiple health issues that land the child in the hospital. Many children have multiple conditions that multiply the risk. Also consider our children who can’t wear masks due to sensory issues, who can’t refrain from touching or mouthing surfaces, and or who have high anxiety to get a fuller picture of the families who may be excluded from in-person gatherings now.

Families with children or parents at high risk for complications from COVID have been especially isolated. One of my children has a good friend who we haven’t seen in person for more than a year. They can’t even have a playdate at the park in masks, even when cases are low. These families who have been more isolated throughout the pandemic may include the families of some of your staff. We risk excluding them even more if we rush to return to in person without considering what inclusivity looks like for all of us.

Make Sunday Morning Radically Inclusive

Many congregations are focusing on a return to in-person Sunday morning with an online component as a way to be inclusive. For some areas of the country case numbers and rates of adult vaccination make this look like a near-term prospect.

What feels inclusive for many of your adults may not be fully inclusive of parents, children, and youth. Most congregations are finding it hard to include and involve children and youth in online worship. So, if online worship is the only opportunity to include those who cannot attend in person, it may serve to further exclude.

Take Your Time, Talk It Through

This is an important time to evaluate the deepest needs in your congregation. Remember we are social mammals. We need connection. We are all going to be a little socially awkward. Being together in person is going to bring up anxiety in many of us. Masks, social distancing, and hand-washing remind us that the threat of the virus remains, even once we are all vaccinated.

We need to plan intentionally to create the spaces that help us all slowly re-engage in ways that don’t ignore what we have experienced during the pandemic: the trauma, the disconnection, the deaths, the grief, the distancing, the fears, the conflicts in our relationships over safety, the lingering COVID symptoms, etc.

Focusing on Sunday morning may not be the place to focus our in person energy first. Doing a more usual Sunday morning worship and religious education both in person and online is going to take tremendous effort, time, and learning by your staff and volunteers. In many ways religious education online and in person will be twice the work. Asking this of staff will make it harder for them to focus on other important aspects of ministry such as rebuilding our church family connections.

There’s No One Simple Solution

We don’t have choices that are going to include everyone in one single program or event. And no one single event or program will mark our ‘return’ - we know that returning to in-person gatherings will be a transition, not an event. It is likely to be a series of small changes, ways of meeting a variety of needs in person, online, and outside. One small group may meet the needs of isolated elders, another teens whose mental health is increasingly fragile. Eventually, some families may connect on a playground while others continue to be served by activity drop offs or online children’s chapel.

Intentionally Engage Tensions

All of our congregations exhibited great creativity and resilience in pivoting last year, and we have learned so much collectively since then. This creativity and resilience is a skill that will serve our congregations in every situation we encounter going forward, including this one.

And, this is a time of growing tensions as many are more comfortable being in person and yet others are still not safe. Many communities have increasing conflicts around reopening schools between different groups of parents. Congregations are not immune from this kind of conflict.

We leaders are also impacted, also exhausted, also prone to have disproportionate emotional reactions. Counteract this by moving deliberately, recognizing the complexity, and finding ways to tend the well-being of all.

What We Can Do to Get Ready

Spring is the time of year congregations traditionally begin planning for Fall. Planning this year won’t look like it usually does, but there is planning you can do. Here are some places to start:

Reach Out to Vulnerable Families

Reach out to parents and guardians to learn who will be the most hesitant to return to in-person community. Find out what their needs are and how to include their families. This in and of itself is a form of outreach, care and inclusion.

Reach out to all your families and find out what their deepest needs are, today. We have children and youth whose mental health has been severely impacted. We have families who lack childcare, have lost jobs, and have not had enough to eat. Understanding these traumas and needs is critical. Some families need some basic attended to before they would benefit from a return to in person church . Find out what they need most.

Build Your Team

The planning for the next year is complex and will need to involve multiple layers of leadership in your congregation. Your team needs to be more than your Minister and Board. It needs to include your Religious Educator, other staff, and key lay leaders of programs across the congregation. Lay led congregations need to include worship leaders and RE volunteers. Include input from members who might have medical risks, who have young children, and others whose experiences might not be represented. Being able to work together to understand the impacts of any decision across the communities within your congregation will help you avoid unintentional exclusion. Resist the pressure to rush back to “normal” and model patience, persistence, and inclusion.

Map the Considerations

Work with your leadership to create a map of all the considerations, including volunteers, building needs, staffing, technology, etc. One way to do this is through “Picture Forming” using a circle process to fully explore considerations before planning. Be sure to include leaders from all areas of your congregation so you’re fully aware of what you need to consider as you plan.

Here is an example: Planning for pre-COVID Sunday morning programming for children and youth took several months of work by your Religious Educator and RE leadership. Planning includes not just programming, but recruiting and vetting RE teachers, training the RE teachers, running registration for families, and more. If the leaders making decisions don’t understand this, they might be inclined to return to in-person worship at a speed that will make planning for the children and youth impossible.

Prioritize with Intention

Not only have our congregations created temporary innovations, we have discovered powerful new ways of doing ministry that we’ll want to continue. No congregation can do everything and so taking time to prioritize will help you put your energy where it will best serve your congregation’s mission. This may include not re-starting everything your congregation was doing before the pandemic.

Intentionally plan content. We need our experiences affirmed. We need to reconnect. We need space for creativity, grounding, movement. We need to reassure each other that our emotions are ok. We need to accompany each other through the rocky ground of reconnecting in a time of so much uncertainty. This will take intention and planning. This is particularly important with children and youth as many of their schools have jumped back into “normal” while ignoring the traumatic impact of the pandemic.

Ask your staff what the trade offs are. As you prioritize, ask your staff what they’ll need to stop doing to start anything new.

Tend to Your Building, Outdoor Space, and Safety Procedures

If you haven’t worked on your building’s physical and procedural safety from a COVID safety standpoint including your bathrooms and ventilation, use this list of questions to start this work. Even with widespread vaccination many of these things will be needed for some time to come.

If you have outdoor space, this may be a good time to think about how to create ways to use that space better. Many schools have created outdoor classrooms and you may be able to create similar spaces for programs for your community. Even if these aren’t used soon, having this as an option not only creates COVID safer options but can also just be wonderful ways to be together in the future.

Congregations as Employers During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Minister stands with his family at Service of Living Tradition, General Assembly

First published March 19, 2020

How can your congregation be a good employer during the COVID-19 outbreak? Caring for staff is an opportunity to model your values and spirit for the congregation, to demonstrate the kindness, creativity, and interdependence that these days ask of us.

This page includes general information to help you support your staff during the pandemic. See also Human Resources Questions about Virtual Operations.

Featured Reads

Values

You are encouraged to read Valuing Your Staff During the COVID-19 Pandemic.

  • Kindness and compassion: Leaders and supervisors, be gentle and generous with each other and with your staff.
  • Interdependence: We're all in this together. Leaders and staff need each other now more than ever. Encouraging each person's own self-care will help keep people at their best to serve others. Are there opportunities to partner and share the load with neighboring congregations?
  • Equity: Keep in mind your staff most in need and those in marginalized and/or vulnerable communities, including those who are at higher risk for contracting the coronavirus - or live with someone high-risk. Check your assumptions.
  • Creativity: What can be done differently? Or not at all? Innovation can be time-consuming: giving things up and accepting less than perfect outcomes is part of the discipline of being creative.
  • Resilience: May our individual and collective commitment to our faith and its values enable us to adapt to new realities with grit and grace.

Unemployment Insurance

Unemployment benefits are administered by states, and each state makes its own rules about eligibility and benefit amounts. In most states, churches and religious organizations are exempt from having to pay into the unemployment system. (To our knowledge, Oregon and New York are exceptions.) If your congregation isn't paying for unemployment insurance (through the state or a private carrier), your employees will not be eligible for unemployment benefits if they lose their job. This lack of safety net is one more reason to keep people on payroll as long as possible.

Governmental Policies and Actions

Note: This page remains posted but has not been recently updated. See our Federal Polices and Actions Related to COVID-19 page for summaries of federal initiatives relevant to employees and their employers.

Many states have their own laws and programs. We are unable to track and communicate state-level information.

Finances and Stewardship

Your congregation's personnel costs (salaries, benefits, professional expenses, and payroll costs) likely represent about 70% of the total operating budget. We know that these are uncertain times, financially and otherwise. Some resources and considerations:

Personnel Policies and Employment Agreements

  • You must do at least as well for your employees as your personnel policies dictate - but you are always free to do better. For instance, you might suspend the regular policy limits on sick time.
  • This is the UUA's Sample Personnel Manual for congregations. Review your current policies for sick time, working from home, medical leave, etc. Again, this is the minimum you need to provide to your staff.
  • The same applies to any kind of employment agreement for your minister or other staff. You must do at least what you commit to in your employment agreements. You are welcome to do better.

Working From Home (WFH)

Working from home is difficult - even impossible - for some staff because of the nature of their work. For others, it's possible, but complicated by family responsibilities or lack of technology.

Supervision and Teams

  • We have many resources for supervising and leading teams on our Congregational Staff Teams page. Specific to the pandemic, see Self-Care and Staff Care: Support for Supervisors During the COVID-19 Pandemic.
  • Resources from The Management Center
  • Ministers and boards, make a strong statement to staff that shows your commitment to their well-being and that of the community as a whole. The UUA Guidance on Gathering includes advice for staff.
  • In this highly disruptive time, it is critical for supervisors to stay in touch with their staff. What do staff need? What's emerging? Are they taking care of themselves? Supervisors, check-in with your whole team, perhaps weekly, and frequently touch base with individual staff.
  • You need the voices of your team at the table. Congregational work, especially right now, is systemic, interconnected. Involve lead staff in programmatic and other decision-making - or at least give them the option. Each staff member will offer unique perspectives, concerns, and ideas. Consider:
    • Staff need to think – together: What is truly necessary? What do your members most need from you?
    • Nearly every action you take (and don't take) has implications for children, youth, and families.
    • Technology and communications needs are changing quickly.
    • As congregations move to online worship, are you seeing virtual visitors?
    • Are there new opportunities for using music and musicians? How is the choir doing?
    • How are partnerships emerging - with other congregations and/or community organizations - to meet this moment?
  • Your staff are leaders, modelers, and tone-setters for the congregation. How are you openly modeling your best values - kindness, flexibility, trust, teamwork, good humor, and so on? Even in these times of physical distancing, congregants are observing how staff work together.
  • If you are hiring for an open position: Job Interviews Go Virtual in response to COVID-19, Society for Human Resources Management.

Benefits

  • UUA Health Plan: Be sure participants know about these Benefit Expansions in Response to COVID-19, including waived fees on telemedicine visits and early prescription refills.
  • UUA Group Insurance Plans (Dental, Life, Long-Term Disability): Remind participants that Guardian includes an Employee Assistance Plan (PDF), offering legal, financial, and debt counseling, among other services.
  • UUA Retirement Plan

For staff eligible for Employer Contributions:

  • Base the contribution calculation on each pay period's total remuneration, before any deductions for employee benefit plans' elective contributions, as reported on Form W-2. This includes the Housing Allowance for ministers.
  • Refer to your congregation's current Employer Participation Agreement (PDF) to confirm your congregation's contribution percentage, and to determine if your Board elected any allowable exclusions of parts of compensation. (See item 4.)
  • The UUA Retirement Plan Committee has approved plan amendments consistent with the CARES Act. See our Federal Policies and Actions page, CARES section, about federal relief offered through the easing of retirement plan distribution and loan rules.

Other Resources

Check out the main Congregations as Employers page of LeaderLab for our standing resources on compensation, hiring and supporting staff, and much more.

Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Facility (CDC)

The UUA Office of Church Staff Finances publishes a monthly newsletter with timely personnel-related information and resources. Sign up for Compensation and Staffing News if you are a supervisor, a staff member, or a lay leader whose role supports staff (e.g., board, finance, personnel). Back issues are available on our Publications page.

The Coronavirus Resource Center from the McLane Middleton law firm includes pages for assorted employment topics ranging from compensation to leave to information security.

Support for Supervisors

Teapot with peppermint

First published April 13, 2020 

From exercising regularly, sticking with spiritual disciplines, and enjoying hobbies, to reading for pleasure, getting enough sleep, and spending time with those we love, caring for ourselves is hardest precisely when we most need to do it. Throw in the ongoing disruption of natural work and family rhythms and COVID-19 fatigue, and self-care becomes even more of a challenge. But it's critical in these continuing pandemic days to attend to your own physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. When you are a supervisor, it's important to be attentive to the needs of those who report to you, as well.

Supervisors, this page is for you. It is offered without any expectation that You Shall Now Do All The Things, but with the hope that you will find suggestions and resources to help you manage your well-being - and that of your staff - in this challenging time.

Modeling Good Boundaries

As working largely from home potentially becomes more of a long-term norm, we're continuing to grapple with the pros and cons of flexibility. Being able to adjust one's work time is important. For some staff, it is nothing short of liberating. However, with the ability to work anytime comes the risk of working, well, all the time. Let staff and congregants know when you are available and when you are not. Counsel your staff to do the same. (Yes, of course there are emergencies.) Other ideas:

  • Many of our typically 24/7 supermarkets began closing night to clean and replenish. Do you have your own daily "replenishing" rituals – not for your shelves but for your spirit?
  • Use an Out of Office message on your email to tell people when you respond to email, your typical turnaround time, and your days off. You can also include these in your signature line.
  • If you do check email late at night or on a posted day off, you could write a reply in the moment – but consider delaying delivery or waiting until regular hours to push send. When someone gets an email from you at midnight, they are likely to assume that you've been toiling away all day and into the night, whether that's the case or not. (And when it is the case – as it may be on occasion, do your best not to publicize it to the congregation.) Avoid giving the impression that you are available at all hours.
  • Is it hard for you not to pick up your phone? It really is alright to let it go to voicemail. Consider an outgoing message that names blocks of time when you typically reply to non-urgent calls - and/or encourage people to email you, if that is your preference.
  • Leverage your time and that of your staff. If you find yourself spending a lot of time on a program or project that doesn't feel fulfilling, might there be a lower-prep alternative?
  • Ask each of your staff about the general schedule that works best for them. Allow for flexibility while being clear about expected deliverables and availability. Continue to check in with your staff about their workloads and work/life balance.

Lifting up Your Team

If your building is fully or largely closed, that means nobody's working, right? You know better, but your congregants might not truly appreciate everything happening behind the scenes.

  • Look for opportunities to share what you and your staff are doing – in your e-communications, from your home pulpit, and at board meetings. Go beyond the observable output. "We're so grateful to Casey, who has put a lot of time and care into protecting our online gatherings from Zoom bombing."
  • Just as important: be clear about what staff are not doing. "We've suspended the XYZ program for now as our team seeks improved ways of connecting with newcomers."
  • Communicate to members your care for the staff team. "We're all taking good care of ourselves to ensure that we can be at our best for you."

Being Countercultural

Independent of COVID-19, our dominant cultural norms include consumerism, time famine, over-functioning, individualism, perfectionism, and a sense of urgency. This pandemic has been a time out of time, providing an opportunity to push back against some of these norms.

  • It's been ingrained in us that we don't have enough, that we are not enough. It's true that what you do will not be perfect, will not meet everyone's needs, and will not fix every problem…and yet it is enough. You are enough. Tape it on your mirror. And let your staff know that they and their work are enough.
  • Tema Okun's White Supremacy Culture website offers practical antidotes for perfectionism, sense of urgency, and more. (See bottom of page on

    The guidance below is from May 2021. We are now seeking input from public health officials regarding how the delta variant impacts safe practices for singing. In the meantime, consistent with CDC guidelines, we recommend that, at a minimum, choirs and singers wear high-quality masks indoors – regardless of vaccination status.”

    Characteristics tab.) If you haven't read Okun's work in a while (or ever), this is a great time to refamiliarize yourself with it. Consider introducing it to your staff. What about choosing one characteristic to discuss at each of your upcoming staff team meetings?

Responding Faithfully to Anxiety

Even in ordinary times, there's some level of anxiety present in our congregations. That's only natural when you are in the business of creating a community grounded in relationship, meaning-making, and welcoming people's full selves. When we are anxious, we tend toward busyness, complexity, exhaustion, and feelings of inadequacy. (See "Being Countercultural," above.)

Here are some messages that remind people what your faith community is about and help offset anxiety by promoting deepening, engagement, gratitude, and trust:

  • We're here to take care of each other.
  • We have what we need.
  • We weather difficulties together.
  • We are living our values.
  • We are grateful.

What does responding faithfully to anxiety look like for a staff team? Key themes are nurturing relationships, constructive conflict, and work-life balance. In addition to encouraging self-care, providing flexibility, and setting reasonable expectations (covered above), supervising in a time of anxiety involves:

  • Showing appreciation and giving positive feedback
  • Being transparent with your team about uncertainties
  • Involving staff in conversations about things that impact them, including potential changes to their work or pay
  • Cheering on risk-taking and experimentation, and helping staff navigate missteps
    • It's easy to get behind a new effort once it has proven successful. Be intentional about honoring work and creativity that don't pan out, including coaching staff through disappointments.
    • Encourage staff to speak candidly about their mistakes and resulting learnings. (One staff team has a tradition of making time for each staff member to share their "mistake of the month" at staff meetings!)
  • Using team meetings and individual supervision sessions to address changes and challenges. In team meetings, ask, "What are you finding harder right now? What's easier?" In supervision, you might say, "You really seem to be enjoying this new part of your work." Or, "I've noticed that you are having trouble meeting this deadline since we've started working from home."

Understanding Staff Concerns

Like you, your staff team likely exhibits a strong work ethic and a deep desire to help meet the needs of the congregation's members. Even if you are not explicitly asking them to do more, your staff may nevertheless feel pressure from their supervisors or other leaders. Here are two reasons this could be happening. You may think of more.

Load-Sharing

One of the great things about being part of a team is that you have partners in the work; everyone doing their part makes wonderful things happen and, when times are tough, teammates help each other out. As the pandemic drags on, many of you in supervisory roles have especially heavy loads to bear – workloads and/or emotional loads. Is it possible that you are projecting onto your staff some of the burdens you are carrying – or that the fantastic colleagues on your staff are just inherently inclined to do all they can to help you and the team?

Leading regular conversations with your staff about workloads and expectations can help. If you sense a staff member is feeling overwhelmed, make a point of checking in. Make sure nonexempt staff (PDF) are accurately reporting their hours. Exempt staff (this includes ministers and many, but not all, supervisors) may want to track their time to monitor workloads, but hours do not need to be submitted. Reinforce to all the importance of self-care and taking time off – and model these yourself.

Job Security

Let's acknowledge those who might be worried about job security in this era of uncertain finances. While we are encouraging congregations to make staff reductions a last resort, we recognize that some congregations may need to consider reductions in staff hours or positions. Perhaps unconsciously, a staff member is filling (or over-filling) their time to avoid the possibility of appearing expendable. Of course, there's always more to do! Some staff are reluctant to take their earned time off. Again, regular self-care reminders are key, as well as keeping staff informed about budgeting and staffing possibilities – including them directly in these conversations as much as possible.

But What About Performance Problems?

Just because there's a pandemic doesn't mean that ongoing personnel issues will go away. Truth be told, they are likely to be exacerbated. A staff member who was already struggling with their responsibilities might be struggling more. An employee who routinely missed key deadlines could be having an even harder time meeting them. If you weren't sure that a member of your staff was putting in all of their hours or using their time to full advantage, your doubts about them may have increased. Maybe a personality conflict among your staff has intensified.

Supervising staff might feel like one more "thing to do." But especially if things aren’t going smoothly with a staff member, it is worth putting some energy into good supervisory practices such as:

  • Team meetings that keep staff in the loop about each other's work
  • Regular conversations with individual staff about their goals, priorities, and needs
  • Timely documentation of performance or behavioral problems
  • Clear performance improvement plans and/or disciplinary actions as warranted

Conversations about performance issues can and should be caring and supportive. Describe the problem as objectively as you can. Do you already have a narrative in your mind about this staff member? Particularly in these complicated days, it's important to check your biases and assumptions.

You may be wondering if terminating a staff member for performance reasons is appropriate during the pandemic, considering the difficulties of finding new employment. Depending on the circumstances, you could choose to relieve someone of their responsibilities and provide them with paid leave or a separation package that goes beyond your stated personnel policies. Check in with your regional staff for guidance on personnel issues.

Joy and Gratitude

These are extraordinary times. Despite the challenges, wonderful silver linings have emerged. Members who moved away are joining their former congregations for online worship. Midweek bedtime stories enabled religious educators to better know the kids in their programs. Some staff have become energized by opportunities to experiment with new technologies. Many religious professionals have been talking about how their pandemic-era learnings are leading to long-term improvements. Take note of these moments! In your team meetings, might staff take turns sharing discoveries, instances of unexpected joy, and occasions for gratitude?

Resource List

Parenting

An assortment of teddy bears of different colors and sizes in a doll bed

What do you and your family need during a time of pandemic? What challenges do you face to hold your family in spiritual, physical, social, and material health? Unitarian Universalist values, practices, and virtual connections can support families in new ways at this time. Explore ideas here.
Resources for congregational leaders to support faith development at home.

When You Can’t Supervise Your Children Online

child riding a bike with training wheels looking backwards

In the last few months, children and teens across the country have been getting more freedom than they’re used to right now. (Companion post focusing on teens)

Like the day a child is allowed to bike to the end of the street, walk around the block, or ride the local bus, this can be exciting, but also anxiety inducing. As parents and caregivers, we know there are going to be times they won't call when they're supposed to, they go further than they’re allowed, or don’t come home on time. Then we’ll need to have another conversation about trust and set some new temporary boundaries while we rebuild trust.

From the time babies start crawling, children and parents are navigating the balance between freedom to explore and the safety of adult presence, knowledge, and experience. Trust and open communication are key to gradually allowing children more freedom.

Trust needs to be scaffolded. One layer at a time with the boundaries we judge as best for our children now. Just as we give our children permission to travel further from home on their own as they prove themselves ready, we can build trust in their electronic and online use.

Open communication helps us have the conversations we need to have to help our children grow emotionally, understand our values, understand how to keep themselves and their friends safer, and develop their own values. When we show we care, that we’re here to listen to their feelings—including what they wish they were allowed to do—we’re showing we’ll be here when they have something they really need to share with us.

So, all those conversations about the YouTuber they’re watching or the video game they’re playing is building the trust and skills everyone needs for when something uncomfortable happens. One thing I know, from conversations with UU teens, is they’ve all seen and experienced hard things online. Remember just as an adult’s Facebook feed looks different from someone else’s, the online world our children and teens see can be very different from what we see when we log in.

It can help to have a technology agreement: what technology can be used, when it can be used and for what, and what conversations need to happen before a child adds a new app or game to a device. This agreement will be different for each child; it’s not about what their friends are doing, but what they’re ready for:One child’s self-esteem isn’t bothered at all by Instagram, another wants to be on it for the wrong reasons. One teen is able to put the phone down and go right to sleep, another needs the phone in a communal basket before bed time or they’re up all night.

Trust, Tech Use, and Faith Formation

This is all faith formation. It doesn’t happen all at once. It happens one small conversation at a time as our children grow to adults with the responsibility to navigate the world. And it’s not just their faith formation, it’s ours. Clarifying our own values, listening to their insights, wrestling with why we’re uncomfortable with something--this is how we grow, too! We say our children are our teachers, which is so often true. And also true, that because of our love and care for them, we grow in ways we might not even have chosen.

Conversations to Have and Things to Consider

Be explicit about trust. Ask them what trust means to them, then share what trust means to you. Be clear about what helps your trust in them grow. Consider what kinds of trust you’re talking about: Trust that they’re sticking to the agreement? Trust in their judgement? Trust that they’re safe? Trust that they’ll bring anything concerning to you? And think about what kinds of trust they need from you.

Have a process for picking new apps, video games, even movies. Particularly as you build trust, download the app yourself. Read some articles about it. Play the video game with them. Talk about the content of the movie. Knowing enough about what they’re doing gives you enough information to start conversations and ask questions.

Remember to think about video games as well--many video games include in-game chat that connects players around the world.

Another reason to not allow children to install their own apps and games is to screen them for malware and viruses.

What if they see something that makes them uncomfortable?

Make sure your kids know you’re always there to talk about anything uncomfortable. Tell them there are things on the internet that make you uncomfortable and you know it’s easier to be uncomfortable together than alone.

Pornography is usually the first thing that comes to mind for parents. Remember most children see sexually explicit images and video well before adults think they do. Assume your child will see sexually explicit media—accidentally or on purpose—once they’re surfing the internet on their own. They may or may not find that uncomfortable—they may be curious, interested, or trying to answer their own questions. It’s better to talk about it sooner than wait until they find it.

“Pornography can confuse and misinform young teens, in part because the performers are adults paid to have sex for entertainment’s sake.” Parents as Sexuality Educators (a UUA small group ministry program for parents and caregivers)

Before you talk with your children about sexually explicit media, it can be good to work through some of your own feelings about it. The resource Parents as Sexuality Educators has some questions to consider and talk about with a co-parent, friend, or group from your congregation.


Remember sexually explicit content isn’t the only uncomfortable thing on the internet—there's also racism, violence, sexism, and more. As parents we can’t protect them from all this forever; what we can do is prepare them before they experience it and keep them company as they learn all the ways the world isn’t the world we wish it were. We know that talking about race with all our children starting from when they’re young is critical. It’s the same with all of these conversations. It’s not about one big conversation, but many small conversations over the years. And the very presence of these things on the internet gives us both reasons to talk and many examples to explore.

The more you and your kids talk together about what you both notice in movies, apps, and books and ask them what they notice, the more practiced they’ll be at noticing what’s uncomfortable and why. When you notice something, ask them what they noticed and then point out what you noticed. And if you’ve been having these conversations already, it will be easier for them to come to you. Everything from pointing out implicit racism to noticing violence is both important faith development and for building this kind of trust.

Make an informed decision about blocking software. There are a variety of blocking software for different apps, browsers, and devices. Research thoroughly before using one: none will block all content you may wish your child not to see; all will block content you do want them to have access to; none will work on all apps and platforms; children can look up how to disable them; if your child can install apps, they can install those that access the unfiltered internet; and they may also be able to get on someone else’s device, use the neighbor’s wifi, etc.

However, such software may be a good part of your partnership with your child if your child understands why it’s there, especially if the software helps them feel safer from content they also don’t want to see. Know that these kinds of software have a history of blocking content older children and teens should have access to—especially about being queer. It’s very hard, from a technology perspective, to block porn and allow age appropriate information around topics like sexuality or even breast cancer. In addition, these companies have always been under pressure from right wing family groups to view all issues of sexuality, queerness, and any related body function as inappropriate for children.

But using software isn’t the only option. You might consider giving younger children access only to apps you can control and to save internet searches and YouTube for family time. Gaining access to new apps for slightly older children may come with the agreement that as the parent, you get to check their use of that app from time to time.

Talk to them about who they’re communicating with. With younger children on Facebook Messenger for Kids, you can see everything about their communication. As they grow, this can be a delicate balance as teens want some degree of privacy. But just as you’d ask who they’re hanging out at the park with, ask who they’re connecting with online. Make room to care about their online relationships—these relationships are just as important to them as their in person ones and have as much power both to harm or heal.

Talk to them about how they and their peers are behaving. What does compassion look like online for your kids? Speaking up when someone is being harmed? Consent? Are they paying attention to “where” they are online and who is listening? It might not all be behavior that’s your favorite and that’s okay. Still, it’s one thing to make body function jokes in a group of peers where everyone agrees, it’s another to do that in a space visible to a larger audience.

We know that with so much online time, internet bullying is way up. Your child may be observing behavior that makes them uncomfortable. They may even be participating in it. Or they may be being bullied. Being bullied has a tremendous negative impact, and it has led to deaths by suicide. Children and youth need to know what to watch for and how to get help from adults.

Bullying: participating in it or being bullied is a reason to cut back on how much internet access a child or teen has. While it can feel like it’s punishing the victim to remove access, it may be needed to protect your child and help rebuild their self-esteem. It can help them be able to tell their friends “I can’t be on that because my parents won’t let me.”

What to do if they’re uncomfortable? With an adult? With a peer?

Talk about what behavior you expect from adults in their lives. Be explicit. The UUA recommends that UU adult leaders never be in one-on-one chats online with youth because we have seen how those chats can be a place for gradual grooming by sexual predators, even in the UU religious settings in which we expect safety. We want our UU children and teens to see what safe behavior looks like by adults.

Talk together about how they might know an adult’s behavior isn’t right: Feeling uncomfortable is a big clue. Other clues are if the adult asks them to keep a secret, or if the adult is bothering them by sending them messages. Sometimes adults will do something slightly uncomfortable and they might wonder if they're being overly sensitive, but coming to talk about being uncomfortable is still important!

This is one of those times to be sure they know you won’t punish them if they come to you having made a mistake or gotten themselves into a situation that’s uncomfortable or wrong. You want them to come get help.

To get ready for this conversation you can read up on how online grooming works so you understand the way an adult will work to establish an online relationship with a child or teen that they don't want to reveal to adults in their life.)

Remind them that saying something to you, about peer bullying or adults making them uncomfortable is important both because you care about them and want them to be safe and because sometimes taking action can protect other children or teens from going through what they’ve gone through. Ask them if there’s anything you can do to make coming to you easier. And listen. Sometimes we’re doing something, often out of our own anxiety and worries, that makes us harder to talk to.

And help them list some adults they can go to if for some reason they don’t feel comfortable going to you first. Showing your children you trust them to talk to another adult and that you trust other adults will help build the layers of trust.

What if a peer isn’t safe?

Peers are often the first to notice when a friend is at risk from self-harm, drugs, bullying, emotional or physical abuse, or grooming by a sexual predator. Remind your children and teens to tell a trusted adult if another child or teen is hurting. Tell them it's not tattling or ratting out a friend; rather, it's acting responsibly to keep their friend safe.

Nudity

Yes, it’s time for another conversation around consent and body parts. Be clear and tell your children and teens that sometimes adults or peers, ask children and teens to take pictures of themselves naked. You can compare this to someone touching them without their consent and tell them this is important not to keep a secret. (The FBI reports an uptick in this kind of activity right now.)

Kids need to know something about sexting before a peer suggests the activity. Tell them sometimes sharing naked pictures is sometimes a part of adult sexuality and there’s nothing wrong with nudity or taking naked pictures. Except that there are laws against taking pictures of naked kids to protect kids from exploitative adults and so taking pictures of oneself or receiving pictures of other people naked is a form of sexual activity that’s for grownups.

Just like every other aspect of sexuality education, age appropriate information is key. Kids who have thought about this before it happens will be able to better respond than those who haven’t.

Final thoughts

None of this is easy. But in my experience of parenting and mentoring young people I’ve found few things are easy. My first job out of college was as the Director of Technology for a small girls’ boarding school, so I got the task of talking about the risks online with several hundred girls. While the technology has gotten more complex in the two decades since then, the issues are very much the same. And while there are very scary stories out there, the vast majority of kids and parents manage to get through this part of contemporary coming of age with smaller bumps and scratches instead of anything traumatic. And along the way most parents find their children, teens, and young adults teach them a lot too.

Resources

Is My Teen Safe Online?

a grey cat looks at a picture on a phone

Internet safety with children is complicated enough, but parenting middle and high school teens brings even more complex challenges. (Companion post for all ages of children and teens)

The question of whether your teen is safe online comes down to trust and open communication. Open communication includes exploring values together and listening to teens’ emotions and experiences. Our teens are more likely to listen to our fears, concerns, and expectations if we listen deeply to theirs first.

So, all those conversations about the Youtuber they’re watching or the video game they’re playing is building the trust and skills everyone needs for when something uncomfortable happens. And even more than with younger children, it’s likely that some of the conversations with your teen will be pretty uncomfortable for you too.

Do I Want to Know What My Teen Is Doing Online?

No, you probably don’t—but maybe you should. We know from conversations with UU teens they’ve all seen and experienced hard things online. We've heard teens tell us they’ve accidentally seen bullying, fights, self harm, drug use, and even watched someone die violently online. This can happen from what shows up in a social media feed or a link a friend shares or even an innocent Google search. Remember just as an adult’s Facebook feed looks different from someone else’s, the online world our teens see can be very different than what we see when we log in.

Many of them don’t share what they see online with adults in their lives because they know that knowing will be hard for us. They know that we may be angry, sad, even grieve when they’re hurting. But if we don’t know, we can’t keep them company. Further, some teens do end up in harmful situations—with someone older pressuring them sexually or an adult using the online world to abuse them.

What Can I Do?

Talk to your teenagers. Listen more than you talk.

Let them know you are truly there for them. Ask them what would help them feel more comfortable coming to you. Acknowledge your discomfort—they can tell anyway. And reaffirm that you won’t punish them if they come to you having made a mistake or gotten themselves into a situation that’s uncomfortable or wrong.

I have read the text strings where an adult gradually steps across the line of what’s acceptable, where at first a teen might not realize anything is wrong, until the teen feels embarrassed for their parents to see. And that is exactly what a sexual predator is trying to do.

Things to Consider and Conversations to Have

Here are some areas to talk about—a small amount at a time, repeatedly over the years. The way you talk about them with your middle schooler will be different than with your high schooler. The repetition is important for many reasons: to build relationship and trust, to make sure they remember what you said, and so you can add things you forgot to say earlier.

Safe Adult Behavior

Talk with them how to recognize when an adult is safe. Ask them what makes them feel safe, what’s uncomfortable, and then share with them what you know. Talk about teachers, coaches, youth advisors, folks from church. Instead of asking them directly what they’ve experienced, you can start by asking what their friends and peers have experienced. As you build their trust in you, you can ask if they’ve had similar experiences. Be prepared to feel angry and sad: Teens, particularly girls, have probably already experienced sexual harassment, cat calling, and other creepy things not only from peers but from adults.

Remind them that there are adults online who are predators and that this makes you anxious and afraid. Conversations like this go better with a little adult vulnerability. They’ll listen better if they’re doing so to help you feel better than if they think you’re lecturing. And it’s okay to admit you’re afraid for them or anxious because you don’t know what it’s like to be a teen now. Remind them to be careful about what information they give to people they haven’t met in person and to never to meet a stranger before telling you about it.

Help them identify the safe adults in their lives whom they trust and whom they could go to if for some reason they feel like they can’t go to you. Reassure them it’s more important for them to seek a safe adult than to come to you first and you’ll understand. (I know you’ll probably have some feelings about this, but your teen doesn’t need to be burdened by them).

Privacy

In some ways teens understand online privacy better than adults—it’s adults who take the seemingly innocent online Facebook quizzes that give companies like Cambridge Analytica data about them and repost Facebook posts giving answers that could give away passwords.

Teens value their privacy so much they gravitate to platforms with disappearing and secret messages. This is why Instagram has added disappearing messages! They sometimes keep two accounts—one more public and one more private where they can be their real selves without the pressure of looking like they have it together.

But it’s always a good idea to have a conversation about what personal information to share or not share online and that anything one posts can hang around forever—even disappearing messages. But especially if your teen is older, it’s probably worth having a conversation where you ask your teen’s advice too. They may surprise you about how much they can help you.

Can I Look?

With younger kids, I think parents should be watching young children’s internet explorations and looking at older children’s online activities at least occasionally. This is part of supervising them and part of building trust—that they are behaving well online and they’re sticking to the family agreement; and seeing what conversations to have about what they’re watching, playing, and talking about.

As they grow, this can be a delicate balance as teens want more privacy. The ongoing family conversation is: Where’s the current balance between ensuring your trust and avoiding things that feel invasive of their need for privacy?

This works best as an ongoing evolution with conversation rather than a fast change. If you’ve been having conversations about which app they install, who they’re talking to, and what they’re doing, you’ll be gaining a good sense of their discernment and building trust that they’ll come to you if they need you.

But, if they’ve had trouble telling you about something that’s happened online, whether something they did or something someone did to them, you may need to do more looking for a little while.

Teens do need and deserve privacy to talk with their friends—the challenge is to help them create safer spaces in which to do that. Having a parent read some of what they’re doing online would feel invasive, like letting you read their diary.

But, if your teen is working overtime to find ways to have secret conversations that are hidden from you that’s a sign to stop and do some talking. Maybe with a therapist. Are they not getting enough privacy? Have you been invasive in ways that eroded their trust in you? Or are they involved in unsafe activities they know will worry you?

I Have No Idea What That App Does…

It is a good idea to know what apps they’re using and to research them, especially together. Read the reviews, know what’s possible, and talk together about what your teen might do in response. And know there are lots of apps that look like one thing but are not, like photo organizers that hide private messaging functions.

Remember to think about video games as well--many video games include in-game chat that connects players around the world.

Sexting and Screenshots

Talking about sexting with your teen is a good idea. Exchanging nude pictures can be a healthy sexual expression—many adults engage in this.

However, in the United States the legal landscape often treats teen sexting as child pornography rather than respecting the consent of the young people involved. Check out the laws together to talk about what the risks are where you live.

And it can be risky in other ways. Remind your teens that even if they feel it’s safe to sext with someone they know and trust, like a significant other, that there’s a chance their conversation or photos could be recorded, stored or shared long after they would have considered it consensual. This can be especially likely after a break up when a formerly loving and caring partner is really angry and might do something they later regret. Even photos shared as a “disappearing” message can be saved as a screenshot and live on in internet servers. It’s also a sign of an unhealthy relationship if someone requests a sexy photo as “proof” of your love.

As your teen gets close to adulthood, it may be helpful to have a harm reduction conversation with them about how to reduce the dangers should they choose to sext once they turn 18. This resource is from Canada (which doesn’t have the same punitive laws as the United States) can be a helpful start to a conversation.

Sexually Explicit Material

If you haven’t talked about sexually explicit images and videos on the internet, especially with younger teens who haven’t yet taken Our Whole Lives for grades 7-9, it’s a good idea to do so now. We know kids see sexually explicit media well before parents expect them to. It could happen accidentally, or they may be curious.

“Pornography can confuse and misinform young teens, in part because the performers are adults paid to have sex for entertainment’s sake.” Parents as Sexuality Educators (a UUA small group ministry program for parents and caregivers)

Before having this conversation it can be good to clarify your own thoughts and feelings about sexually explicit media by having a conversation with other parents from your congregation or your co-parent or friends.

Are Their Friends Safe?

Talk to your teens now about what they’d do if a friend is in an unsafe situation. Almost every single time I have learned of a youth harming themselves or being harmed by someone else, it’s their friend who either comes forward first or helps them come forward. This includes abuse at home, abuse from other adults, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm.

Ask your teen who they’d go to for help if they felt like they couldn’t tell you. Ask them what would help them tell you. Tell them you know they care for their friends and you would want to help.

Talk to your teen about cutting and self-harm. This is not the same as suicide—it’s a cry for help. Talk to them about suicidal ideation. Sometimes people feel so terrible that they want to kill themselves. If they wonder if a friend is feeling that badly—they shouldn’t feel afraid to ask. “Do you want to kill yourself?” and if the answer is maybe or yes they should get adult help fast.

Talk to them about how they and their peers are behaving.  We know that with so much online time internet bullying is way up. Your child may be observing behavior that makes them uncomfortable. They may even be participating in it. Or they may be being bullied. Being bullied has tremendous negative impact, even leading to suicide. Children and youth need to know what to watch for and how to get help from adults.

Bullying: participating in it or being bullied, is a reason to cut back on how much internet access a teen has. While it can feel like it’s punishing the victim to remove access, it may be needed to protect your child and help rebuild their self-esteem. It can help them be able to tell their friends “I can’t be on that because my parents won’t let me.”

Talk about Values

Our teens are being targeted online by those who want to influence how they think and what they believe. In particular our white teenagers are being targeted by those who would like to pull them into the alt-right and then into white supremacy movements. Yes, this is happening to our UU teens too.

Our world is profoundly unsafe in many ways and our teenagers are growing into adults who will need to navigate and act. As much as we want to protect them from all that’s there, developing enough trust to talk about it together will help them more. Even if it’s hard for us.

The Internet Does a Lot of Good Too!

Especially right now while we’re all home physically distanced, we’re grateful for the ways the internet connects us to friends and loved ones. This is particularly important for teenagers who are busy becoming their own people, and connecting with their friends is vital for that.

The internet also allows youth to connect to other teens like them. Like how our queer and trans youth find each other and connect, even if they’re isolated. It allows them to connect with queer and trans elders and mentors like Kate Bornstein.

Final Thoughts

I started my adult career as a 21 year old Director of Technology at a small girls boarding school—in charge of the computer labs, the servers, the internet filter, and the annual internet safety presentation. And now I’ve been in UU youth ministry one way or another for more than a decade.

I want to offer both the hope and sober reality of what I’ve seen. I’ve seen UU teens targeted by older people online. I’ve seen the online sexual grooming from an adult they know in real life. And I’ve seen how they’ve bullied and hurt even each other.

But mostly, I’ve seen how much they love and care about each other and use the internet to amplify that love. And now more than ever they need that love and connection. I am so grateful this pandemic is happening when we have an internet to use. And even though there are dangers, the world has dangers too and this is a time our teens can keep learning, growing, and getting better at navigating the world we’re handing down to them.

Resources

Platforms and Apps

As UUA staff we have been assessing which platforms are ones which are safe(r) for youth ministry and which ones are less ideal.

Commonsense Media’s App Reviews

Sex Ed during a Pandemic

Your OWL program is on hold, yes, but your child’s sex education doesn’t have to be on hold.

Resource list

Parents and Caregivers as Sexuality Educators is a small group ministry program to help parents and caregivers talk together so that we can be better sexuality educators with our kids. Because we are our kids’ primary sexuality educators. You could ask your congregation to help you set up a group or you can use the questions to talk with your friends and co-workers. The sessions on pornography and social media may be especially helpful now!

Wondering How the Alt-Right Targets Young People?

Great observations and advice on how to have conversations with white teenagers

Andrew Mckay breaks in down in his blog A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Alt-Right

NY Times blog The Daily features one young man’s experience in “The Rabbit Hole”

A parent shares her experience in “What Happened After My 13-Year-Old Son Joined the Alt-Right"

Parenting with Heartbreak

three houses in silhouette on a hill at night, windows lit and stars above

In a pandemic, amid outcry over police murders of black people, how can a mother address the gravity of these traumas without sending children into despair?

I often go to bed during this pandemic wondering if my heart can hurt anymore. Then I wake up and see the news and my heartache continues. I wonder what to say to my children.

What do I say to my little one, versus what I say to my teens about the state of our country? How can I keep some sense of normalcy in their everyday lives when I just want to scream and shout and cry in pain, sadness, and anger? And how can I explain to them the gravity of our current state without also sending them into despair and hopelessness?

My five-year old is autistic and has more love and life and laughter than anyone else I know. How do I share things with her without snuffing out her light? I’ve chosen to call this time of COVID-19 as “the sickness” with her. We also refer to it as “the time of sickness.” When she asks about going to the beach or wonders why she can’t go inside grandma’s house, I remind her that it’s “the time of the sickness” and we will go when it is safe to go. We talk about keeping our loved ones safe and healthy and how we all make sacrifices so that everyone can be safe. We honor her frustration and we do fun activities and that is as much as I chose to share with her at this point because I feel that is enough.

The other two in my house are thirteen and sixteen. I want them to understand the full gravity of the pandemic and the race tensions. I want them to understand the police violence and the injustices. I want them to know how the pandemic affects communities in different ways. I share with them my hurt and my pain and my anger. I let them see my tears. I ask them to think and reflect and share their own feelings. We talk about what they might share with their grandchildren when they reflect back on 2020 years and years from now. We talk about where they see us going as a country, as a family and as part of the Unitarian Universalist faith.

Some nights I sit in my yard at my fire pit and stare at them through the window. Not in a creepy way but in admiration. We can have these difficult conversations and, moments later, they’re engrossed in a video game or laughing on the phone with friends. We also sit around the dining room table playing games and laughing so hard our stomachs hurt. And yet, inevitably, one or the other will crawl in my bed late at night, the tears streaming down their face. Sometimes words come with the tears and other times we sit in silence with the weight of it all pinning us to the bed.

These times are tough. I want to live fully and presently in the moment. I want to understand and embrace. I want to challenge and love. I want to be present for the full complexities we are facing right now and I want to press on. I want to have hope. I so desperately want to have hope. And I feel spending all day, every day in the house with my three kids, allows me to go to bed each night with a glimmer of hope as I kiss them all goodnight. With all that is pressing down on us, they have hope. They share their dreams for our country and our world. They believe in humanity and in our ability to come together and I hold on to their hopes and dreams in my own desire to one day have hope again myself. But for now, I kiss them, I hold them tight and I am grateful for the gifts they give me.

Find more UU wisdom for parents and caregivers in this time of pandemic and racial trauma, in the UUA's LeaderLab Library.

Covid and Racism

A Black daughter sits on her mother's knee in a grassy park under a tree

In April of this year, in Washington DC, my Aunt Mae learns that she has to fight an aggressive cancer that is overtaking her blood system. She is shipped to a low-standard hospital, rather than to the better hospital closer to her home. Her three daughters, all essential health care workers reliant on public transportation, now have an extra stress as they must get their Mom safely and as comfortably as possible to each of her appointments on time.

The specter of the COVID-19 virus hangs continuously in the air and challenges my ability to have my worth and dignity honored. In this pandemic season, we can ill afford to lower our defenses. We must remain crystal clear about the disparities affecting the lives of black and brown communities of which we UUs of color are a part. While I live in a mostly economically secure New York City neighborhood, in the ethnic richness between my Asian and Hasidic neighbors, I share community with the people of color who make a majority in the city’s less comfortable and less well-served neighborhoods.

Folks believe that this pandemic is impartial to race. Really…? Not true. Not at all true… People of color are amongst those who work tirelessly. Recently, I heard that a custodian of color at my UU congregation spoke of having lost 5 of his “homies.” By now, I suspect that the number has at least doubled.

As a parent of color, it’s always been especially important to me to give positive messages to my child, messages strong enough to counter the narratives received outside of my sphere of influence, concern, and care.

I ensure that my home reflects me: My love of my familial arc across the generations. My unapologetic Afrocentricity. My unshakeable commitment to building the Beloved Community. My Unitarian Universalist faith.

I ensure that I continue to model these values for my five-year old granddaughter. We are not able to sit side by side. She’s in Baltimore; I’m in New York. We Zoom as best we can, enjoying our Mima and Simone time. She dances for me, we read to each other, we share memories, and we share stories. She’s looking forward to our visit to the Motherland within the next five years.

It’s important to me that we share rituals, too. We light our UU chalices near the start of our time together and extinguish them as we bid each other goodnight. We share images of our current altars and recognize that although life seems hardly to move, our altars remind us that little changes happen daily. Simone finds a beautiful leaf on her walk in the park; it rests on her altar reminding her of her love for nature. My sister Hope and I receive wonderful homemade gifts from two dear young friends, and now a candle and scroll reside on my altar, reminding me of love across distance.

A generation ago, I swam against the tide helping my daughter Lehna and niece Jova unlearn lies, sometimes gently named as “untrue facts,” in order to strengthen their sense of worth and dignity. With Simone’s generation, I am again swimming against the tide. This time, I do so with a growing sense of urgency. I do not have the luxury of time to ensure that Simone belongs in her communities—whether at home, school, or at church.

Across all manner of difference, the question of belonging comes to the fore. Who is ready for a gifted student who is trans, an electrician who is a lesbian, a man who is a nurse? A non-threatening black boy? Societal stereotypes die hard. My Unitarian Universalist faith demands that I continue to counter unhealthy, unsafe, and untrue narratives that hurt us all.

The COVID-19 virus has given us the opportunity to make real our commitment to justice across all barriers. May we take the baton and carry on.

Special Needs

Sarah Lammert

The Rev. Sarah Lammert

I’m a parent of a 21-year-old living with autism. We are getting along OK in this pandemic with online college for her, and more opportunities than usual to practice life skills like cooking together. I’ve been talking with some of you who are parenting children and teens with special needs at home, and I’m hearing that the standard parenting advice out there (Do More! Do Less! Allow screen time! Limit screen time! Do crafts! Have dance parties!) doesn’t feel relevant and even feels shaming and harmful.

I want to say this to you: 

  • First, I say all this with so much love for you!

  • You know your child best, and you know your own limits.

  • Do what you think is right.

  • Do what you are able to sustain.

You are parents who know this pandemic is not hitting all of us in the same way – there are all sorts of in/justice factors here and we aren’t all resourced in the same ways. Some of us have medically fragile kids who also have cognitive or other challenges, and just managing their basic needs and providing some movement, care, and calming techniques comprises excellent parenting right now.

Some of us have kids who are emotionally or otherwise unable to connect to online learning, kids who need some space and understanding from us more than enforced routines.

Some of our kids need routine more than air almost. A wipe-board schedule with snack time, and craft time, and get-outside time and learning time (and blessedly, bedtime) is really the only choice even though it means you have little down time for yourself.

Keep breathing. You are enough even when you don’t feel like you are.

  • It is enough if you don’t do any cleaning because you are juggling a paying job and time with your kids.

  • It is enough to manage getting by with half or less of your previous household income right now rather than attending to the full educational needs of your child this week.

  • It is enough if you have to resort to having cereal for dinner some nights because you don’t have the time or energy to cook.

  • It is enough to sit outside your front door for a time out, and it is enough if you need to cry.

  • It is enough if burn-out overtakes you; it is enough to recognize burn-out coming and take the break you need.

  • It is enough to take joy in the simplest things, and to mourn all that is lost.

Finally, it is more than OK to ask for help. 

What is helping you manage right now? Where else can you turn?

Some school districts and social service providers are going above and beyond right now, while others are really not. I’ve always found other parents of special needs children to be the best sources of information about where to turn for advocacy, fulfillment of IEPs, assessment for services, and now online support.

We’ve posted a few helpful links below. Feel free to send us suggestions you’d like us to share.

More importantly, what is feeding your spirit? 

  • Do you have time to take a deep breath?

  • Look out a window?

  • Listen to some music?

  • Take a brief pause?

You are a good gift. You are enough. 

The Rev. Sarah Lammert is the Co-Director for Ministries and Faith Development at the UUA. She is a divorced (and recently remarried amidst COVID!) parent of two young adults, the younger of whom lives with autism and social anxiety disorder, and lives at home. She hails from Northern Vermont, and is amazed at the resilience and creativity of special needs parents and caregivers.

Further Resources

Creating Family Covenants

Stuck at home together, every family member’s behavior affects others some exponential degree more than usual. Families may wish to try making a covenant together.

Rev. Jason Seymour serves our congregation in Springfield, MA. During the pandemic, he and his wife are working from home and parenting two elementary school children. He wrote this note to his congregation: 

Hi, all

I know that we Seymours are in a similar boat as some of you. Jen and I are trying to each telecommute full-time, while also parenting - and now home-schooling - our grade-school-aged kids. We're grateful for the flexibility, but that flexibility has meant that we're all on top of each other all the time. It's a bit nuts, but we're getting there.

We needed some more structure in our house so as to minimize the endless tug-of-war and so that the adults could get our work done. So... on Tuesday, I put on my small group ministry hat and we created a family covenant and a schedule. The covenant has given us a great framework for reminding one another about how we'd like to live together... especially since we are together a lot more now!! Really, we should've done this a while ago... but 'social distancing' - and the resultant 'family squishing'! - has made this need all the more apparent.

Anyway, I thought I'd share with you the covenant that we came up with collaboratively. We all talked; I took notes; Jen wrote it up; and then we all signed it. Has it solved all of our issues? No, but at least now we have an agreed upon framework by which to call one another 'in'... instead of mom & dad calling the kids 'out' all the time.

With love, and with a prayer of peace & health, from our home to yours...

Rev. Jason

More About Covenants

A covenant is a promise between members of a group on specific ways they will behave to show mutual respect, kindness, and acceptance and to express their shared goal of right relationship. Covenanting is a grounding practice in Unitarian Universalist faith tradition and it is central to who we are and have been as a people of faith: Our UU congregations form our Association by covenant. Most Unitarian Universalist small group ministry programs and many children’s and youth programs create covenants as part of the group process so that everyone has a say in guidelines for a safe, supportive space.

A family covenant is NOT a way to get your kids to behave as you wish. However, it provides a respectful, open forum for all ages to reflect and express what they need from one another. Creating a family covenant together, leaning into it, and revisiting it when a change is needed can be a meaningful religious education activity all generations can explore.

Tapestry of Faith children’s religious education programs often engage the group in making a covenant for their time together. To create a family covenant you can turn to online activities such as one from Love Connects Us, a program for grades 4-5.

a list of agreements made by a family
  • The Seymour family covenant:
    • respect one another’s time
    • choice to participate or not; be on time
  • Respect one another’s space (bedroom & belongings)
    • ask to borrow; don’t just take
    • give space, respect requests for privacy
  • Respect shared space (everywhere else)
    • finish tasks, clean up after yourself
    • leave spaces ready for others; ask if you want to leave a project out
    • do chores joyfully
  • Respect one another’s voice & choices - listen
  • Solve problems collaboratively
    • no bullying, no tantrums
  • See possibilities, no harassing on mellows, no riding
  • Practice self-awareness
    • honesty
    • take breaks
  • Golden Rule
  • Resist the rush
  • The time is always right to do what’s right
  • Have Fun!

Parenting During a Time of Physical Distancing

Two children in the woods playing with bug boxes

Children spending time in nature.

As a parent of two young children, our looming school closure is on my heart and mind. It may be on yours too. Here’s some advice I've compiled from religious professionals for all of us!

Set up a Routine

Routines Help Children Feel Safe

They help us fit in what we need to for a balanced day. And it will be much harder to impose a routine a few days in. What to include?

  • Keep bedtime and wake up. A steady sleep schedule helps everyone.

  • Exercise and fresh air! Get outside every day if you can for fresh air and to move your bodies--away from playgrounds (virus can live on the surface) and large groups (stay 6' away from others). If you can, garden. Dirt is good for everyone’s mental health and tending to a garden is a good way to cultivate hope in hard times.

  • Include education. The more life is “normal”, the less traumatic this disruption will be for your kids. Focus both on your children’s interests and places they may need a little help. Do some social justice education the school hasn’t done. Have your kids keep a journal--they’re living history right now! Do some science. Research viruses. Take an online class. Practice second and third languages. Don’t forget the arts, music, and recess--all the things our schools have cut back on!

  • Connect. Our children need to connect and need to have this part of their routine. Plan to connect online with your family, people from church, and your children’s friends. Have play dates on video chat. Show each other art. Read to each other. Teach your family members how to connect with your kid via video: toddlers love silly songs and finger plays, preschoolers love to be read to, elementary students can tell jokes, read, play their instrument, sing, listen to a chapter a day.

  • Sibling Rivalry. Some of the sibling stuff is going to be no joke. Plan for it by making one on one time with your kids part of the day.

  • Include your kids in the chores. Teach them to cook (practice fractions!). Have them do laundry and cleaning. Feeling accomplished and competent helps them feel less powerless.

  • Include rituals. Now is a good time to do your meal blessings, light a chalice, and create other family rituals. Rituals ground and center us and we'll be missing the embodied rituals that are part of church in person. Here's a video of Annie Scott singing a song for your families as a possibility as a home chalice lighting ritual.

  • Adult routines. All of this goes for adults too especially if you're working from home. Structure will help you know when you're paying attention to work, to home, to children.

Resources for Education at Home

Find Things to Look Forward To

Even if this isn’t the family time we’d choose, we are getting to be together as a family. Find some things to look forward to about this.

  • Brainstorm together all the things you could do. Your kids probably have a lot of ideas.

  • Encourage each kid to pick a “passion project” -- something they really want to learn about to research and teach the whole family about.

  • Take on some projects that need doing--spring cleaning, garden start up, etc. Accomplishing big things makes everyone feel good.

Take Care of Yourself and Other Adults in Your Household

The more grounded and resilient you are, the more grounded and resilient your children will be.

  • Make plans to regularly connect with adult friends

  • Make plans to connect online with parents from church.

  • Set aside at least a little time each day to be alone.

  • Set aside a little time each day for the adults to be adults together.

  • Know the signs when you need help--and reach out to friends and to your congregation.

  • If you're sick and having to care for your kids too, be patient with yourself. The routine and whatever the usual limits on screen time might go out the window. That's ok.

Structure Your Space and Limit Your Electronics

  • Help each member of your family create a space in the house that is theirs that they can go be alone in. Use noise canceling headphones or music on headphones to get away from everyone else.

  • Staying on top of the clutter and chaos is probably well worth it even if like me you struggle.

  • Have a conversation about screens. Screens are good for entertainment, education, and connection. But they can also take us away from the present moment, feed us stories of despair, and over-stimulate our brains. Be honest with your kids about your own challenges with screens. Talk together about what good boundaries are and help each other use your screens in ways that enhance well-being.

Care for Bodies, Minds, and Spirits

  • Let it be okay if your children (or yourself!) are feeling loss, frustrated, sad, or worried.

  • Recognize those moments when kids are struggling are natural and will pass. Don’t pressure them to “snap out of it” or “stick to the schedule.” Instead, slow down, get quiet, and be a non-intrusive, non-anxious, loving presence as they ride it out.

  • Music can shift moods especially when we get cranky--play music, dance, sing!

  • Remember laughter is good for all of us. Silly books, jokes, and funny movies are good medicine.

  • Help yourself and your children name their feelings. Naming feelings helps tame them.

  • Be clear with yourself and your kids about when you need to pay attention to work. Make some time each day when you are really present to them.

  • Move bodies! Have a dance party before some school work. Include proprioceptor stimulation as breaks between activities: balance on one leg, walk like a crab or bear, stretch! Let your kids have a turn to lead you in exercises.

  • Resources for talking about COVID-19 with kids

A Few More Thoughts

It’s likely that you’ll be talking about death with your children sometime in the near future. If this feels hard, set up a time to talk with your religious professionals and other parents from church. Here is a resource that may help and “Breaking News” and “A Terrible Thing Happened” to listen to with your kids. 
I know it's hard to be so isolated. Our role in slowing this virus down is to stay away from public places, resist dropping our kids off at other people's houses, and severely limit who we come in physical contact with. Most of us are only seeing older family members over the internet. It's hard. There will be another side to this.

Look for something to be grateful for every day. Even if it’s just that you don’t have to rush the kids out the door. Breathe. Notice the world’s beauty. Remember you love your children and they love each other even when it doesn’t look like it.

Additional Resources

Tips for Talking with Children

Silhouette of a adult and child in front of a sunrise/sunset
Michelle Richards

Take care of yourself. Take care of yourself so you can take care of your children. Be a model for your children on how we experience fear, stress, and anxiety over issues we have no control over. Just like we are always reminded to put on our oxygen mask before helping others, we need to engage in self-care and spiritual practices to sustain ourselves so we can be present for our children.

Talk with your child. Talking to your children about their fears and anxiety is the first step to help them feel safe and begin to cope with the events occurring around them. What you talk about and how you say it depends on their age, but all children need to be able to know you are available to listen to them and that it is okay to raise their issues of fear and anxiety.

Help them understand that it is okay to be frightened. Communicate that being courageous does not mean being without fear. Acting in spite of that fear is what makes someone courageous. Remind them of a favorite superhero or someone they admire and share how they acted courageously, despite their fears. Read storybooks about being brave and courageous and overcoming fear.

Find out what they want to know and need to know and keep the rest out. If they are not asking about elderly family members who may be affected, don’t bring this topic up to them (or within their hearing). When working on these issues with a child, try to find out as much as you can about what they know and understand or are struggling to understand. Base your responses on what you find out.

If they don’t bring it up, start the conversation. Everyone’s lives are being disrupted by the pandemic and social distancing, so they are well aware of the circumstances of the world right now. Bring it up to let them know you are interested in them and find how they are coping with the information they are getting.

Reassure your children. When children hear about something scary or disturbing, they often relate it to themselves and start to worry about their own safety. Given that their lives have been disrupted along with everyone else’s, they will definitely be concerned about their safety. For example, you might say, "That shouldn’t happen to you because we are doing everything we can to keep each other safe.” This kind of reassurance is what children most need to hear.

Answer questions and clear up misconceptions. Don’t try to give children all the information available. The best guide is to follow the child’s lead, giving small pieces of information at a time and seeing how your child responds before deciding what to say next. This is especially true if your family is being hit economically during the social distancing. It is easy to add to their fears if these issues are not addressed, so answer honestly and compassionately while clearing up any misconceptions the child has.

Look for times when they are most likely to talk. Children often bring up serious issues while you are riding in the car because you are a captive audience. You can use this technique, too. Other opportunities might be before dinner, but avoid unpleasant conversations at bedtime unless your child brings it up. Ideally, send them off to sleep with reassurance and comfort (even if you are not feeling this yourself).

Listen to their thoughts and point of view. Don't interrupt—allow them to express their ideas and understanding before you respond or correct them. Express your own opinions and ideas without putting down theirs; acknowledge that it is okay to disagree. Remind them you are there for them to provide safety, comfort and support. Ask them if there is something they can do to help them feel safer and, if possible, do it.

Give them extra hugs if they are comfortable with it. Other reassuring touches might be squeezing a shoulder, rubbing their back, or cuddling together.

Do your best to keep home a safe place. Children, regardless of their age, often find home to be a safe haven when the world around them becomes overwhelming. During this time of crisis, your children are probably at home because of school cancellations. Help make home a place where your children find the solitude or comfort they need. Plan times for participating in a favorite family activity or use this opportunity to create family activities to help you have fun while you are together. Play board games, watch a family movie, or listen to music together.

Watch for signs of stress, serious fears or anxiety. It is typical for children (and adults) to experience a wide range of emotions, including fearfulness, shock, anger, grief and anxiety. Your child's behaviors may change because of their response to the events happening around them. They may experience trouble sleeping, difficulty with concentrating on school work, or experience changes in appetite. This is normal for everyone and should begin to disappear with the passage of time. Encourage your children to put their feelings into words by talking about them, writing about them, or play-acting them. Some children may find it helpful to express their feelings through art or dancing to music.

Take breaks from news and social media. Teens especially may want to keep informed by gathering information about new events from the internet, television, or social media. However, it is important to limit the amount of time spent watching the news and engaging in social media because constant exposure may actually heighten anxiety and fears rather than alleviate them. There is also a lot of incorrect information floating around the internet about the coronavirus, so if your older child or teen is looking for practical information, help them find reliable sources such as the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Further Resources

Resources for Talking with Children about COVID-19

Handing a sick person a thermometer

Talking with kids about the coronavirus can be hard. Here are some places to start.

Staff Risk Accommodations

Still Life with hand sanitizer, mask and latex gloves

Updated March 11, 2022

As congregations have moved into multiplatform ministry, especially Sunday worship, we need to consider ways of supporting staff with a range of risk tolerances and health considerations.

No one can make another person's risk assessment for them. With a virus known to cause potentially disabling and/or long-term symptoms even with a minor infection, it is understandable that there is a wide range of risk tolerance in our communities, even among those who have neither an underlying health condition nor a higher-risk family member. Employees of our congregations deserve understanding and flexibility from their congregations.

Sunday Morning Worship Ideas

As your congregation creates multiplatform worship, you may have musicians, speakers, and worship associates who need to continue participating online longer than others. To be inclusive, work with your streaming technology to integrate online and in person participation.

Worship Watch Party: If it is safest for the congregation’s religious professionals to remain online, congregants can gather in the sanctuary to watch the online worship together.

Big Screen Music: Congregations with at-risk musicians are continuing with recorded music. This music can be played during the multiplatform worship for in-person and online participants.

Separate Rooms: Congregations are also using multiple rooms for worship: having musicians stream from the sanctuary, ministers preach from their office, and allowing a small group to watch from the fellowship hall.

Outdoor Worship: In areas of the country with mild winters, some congregations are continuing to have one or more worship services per month outdoors.

Religious Education and Community Building

Congregation members may be eager to return to what they remember about congregational life before the pandemic. Often this includes the expectation that religious professionals, including religious educators and ministers, be in person for programming and social events. We encourage you to find ways to prioritize your religious professionals’ health while moving forward in ways that support your congregation’s needs.

Family ministry: This is a time when it’s hard to recruit volunteers and it may be difficult for a religious educator to recruit enough volunteers to run an in-person program in their absence. Planning events for families instead of separate activities for children may be easier to support.

Outdoor activities: For many families, especially with younger children, outdoor activities are safer.

Volunteer-run small groups: Your religious professionals can help support and guide small group facilitators. Small group ministry can be a great way to support your community by have both online and in-person group options.

Keep It Simple

Planning for in person and online engagement can quickly become complex and difficult. Wherever possible we recommend you simplify. Meeting people’s needs for connection does not necessitate a complex program or complicated planning process. Now is a time for simple gatherings that meet people’s need to connect, be heard, laugh, and play.

More Resources

  • Where to start for congregations who have not re-started in person ministry and are deciding on first steps.
  • Scenarios and more scenarios of creative ways to engage multiplatform ministry, serving people in person and online. These are ideas that came from congregations!