How to Design a Congregational Staff Retreat

By David Pyle

One of the keys to a healthy congregational staff team is that they understand themselves as a team. Congregational staff members often relate more with lay-leaders in their particular program or operational areas more often than they do other staff members, and this can easily lead to disconnected relationships amongst the congregational staff. This kind of disconnection is often the root cause of congregational staff conflict, with lay-leaders often a party in unhealthy triangulation between congregational staff.

A congregational staff must be intentional about building a team relationship between the members of the staff, not only for the health of the staff but also for the health of the congregation. This often seems counter-intuitive for members of a congregational staff, because the basic responsibilities of their job descriptions draw them into different “congregations” within the congregation.

One of the ways that working in a congregation is different than other working environments is that so many of the “workers” of a congregation are members, volunteering their time. Many congregational staff members spend the majority of their professional time working with the members of the congregation, rather than with other professional staff members. And yet, the work of a congregation is interdependent that professional staff members must rely upon one another closely for the success of their own work. A congregational administrator may never attend the choir practice, but must depend upon the music director to send in the hymns in time for the Order of Service to be printed. The sexton may never be in the Religious Education wing on a Sunday morning, and yet the Religious Educator depends on the sexton to have the classrooms set up correctly after the week’s rentals. A bookkeeper may never hear the minister preach on Sunday, and yet needs the receipts to be well kept for the minister’s discretionary fund.

The disconnected, yet interdependent nature of working on a congregational staff means that there must be intentional effort put into building and maintaining the relationships between a congregational staff. There are many forms this intentional relationship building amongst a congregational staff can take. Some congregations have a practice of regular staff meetings that allow staff to find the interconnections between their work, and be able to present a unified message about priorities and mission to the congregation. Staff meetings can be very effective, but only so long as staff feel they are invited into real engagement with one another on how to implement the vision and mission of the congregation.

Another wonderful strategy for building staff cohesion and relationship is a culture of “water-cooler time”. This strategy is most effective for congregations that have an expectation that congregational staff members work similar hours in a similar location, and that the working environment is such that staff feel comfortable having informal relationship-building conversation during working hours. While the religious educator and the music director hanging around in the kitchen chatting may not seem “efficient”, such time is invaluable in building relationship and allowing for creativity across normal congregational lines to blossom.

One of the most effective techniques for building a relational and cohesive congregational staff team is to develop a culture of congregational staff retreats. These are scheduled, focused times for the whole congregational staff team to be together, sharing experiences and learning together. Congregational Staff Retreats are one of the most cost-effective forms of staff professional development.

The goal of a congregational staff retreat is for the staff to step out of their “congregations within the congregation” and focus on the relationships and development of the staff as a team. Congregational staff retreats are work time (and should be compensated as such), and are focused not on solving problems, but learning and growing together.

Many regional staffs have Adjunct Consultants who can help a congregation design and implement a congregational staff retreat, but this is also something a congregational staff can do itself. Usually they are one working day in length (approximately 9am – 4pm), and can be held either at the congregation, or at an alternate site not too far from the congregation. It is good to “close” the congregation on the day of the congregational staff retreat if possible, and if not to take steps to minimize the interaction with congregational membership on that day. It is also a good idea to budget for additional hours to attend the staff retreat for part-time congregational staff, rather than expect them to attend in their normally budgeted hours.

In designing a congregational staff retreat, it is important to remember that often the professional staff of a Unitarian Universalist congregation may not be Unitarian Universalist themselves. Congregational staff retreats are often not inherently (unless that is agreeable to all staff members) but more professional and team-building in nature.

When I design a congregational staff retreat, I usually follow the following format:

1. Opening with Appreciations by the Staff Supervisor / Chief of Staff

I will often begin by inviting the congregational chief of staff (often but not always the minister) to offer an intentional appreciation of each staff member, based upon their work in the congregation since the last retreat. This takes intentional thought and preparation prior to the retreat. It may be highlighting a difference that the staff member made that might not have been noticed, or a skill a staff member brings. It should be specific and personal to the individual, rather than for the members that the staff member works with. So, about the choir director, rather than about the choir. 

2. Optional personal check-in

This is a section for staff members who wish to share something about their life outside of work with the whole staff to do so. It should be stressed that this is optional, and staff members have the right to pass. This helps build relationship and reinforce that the whole of the person is a part of the relationships amongst the staff.

3. Deep Professional check-in

In this section of the retreat staff members are asked to share what is happening for them within their responsibilities in the congregational staff. The first few times a staff member does this may feel a bit awkward, because it is not something they are asked to do often. It is that staff member’s assessment about how their work in the congregation feels to them, where the challenges are, and where they feel they are doing well. This is often the most important part of the congregational staff retreat, as it allows staff members to express their hopes and challenges, and more importantly allows other staff members to engage in the broader functioning of the staff. The staff should be encouraged to listen and refrain from entering into cross talk or “correcting” one another. Encourage each to speak from their own experience, and to listen with an open mind and heart.

4. Discernment of Powerful Questions for the afternoon session

After listening to the deep professional check in, the staff supervisor or the meeting facilitator will help the group choose two Powerful Questions that arise from the deep professional check-ins. Powerful Questions are questions that do not have clear or easy answers, and about which no decisions will be made at this retreat. And example might be, after hearing about several staff members’ struggle with a congregant, a Powerful Question of “What is our relationship to congregants?” Or perhaps after hearing that staff members are all feeling tired and burned out, a Powerful Question could be “What do we need to be refreshed and sustained in this work?” These questions are not discussed yet, only chosen during the morning session. The staff members may propose more than two powerful questions and choose two by consensus to engage in the afternoon. The Staff Supervisor should seek to not over-influence the choice of the Powerful Questions. 

5. Learning Together segment led by a Staff Member or Consultant

This segment of the retreat, usually 45-60 minutes in length, is to engage together as a learning community. While sometimes an outside consultant may be brought in to teach a program, it is often most effective to have members of the staff lead this section themselves. This affirms the professionalism and skills of the staff members themselves. It may or may not be a learning segment related directly to the work responsibilities of the staff member who is presenting, but should have some applicability for all of the staff members in general. Sometimes it is skill building (such as a class in active-listening or a basic introduction to Our Whole Lives), but at other times it might be an exploration of the Enneagram or taking the Intercultural Conflict Styles Inventory together. The goal is to have a time where the staff is learning together.

6. Lunch together with no set agenda

Whether it is catered, or whether staff members bring a lunch, the goal is to have a time for the staff to have lunch together, in conversation with one another. Timing for the retreat could even be managed for the staff to go out to lunch together at a local restaurant (paid for by the congregation). There is something deep in humanity about sharing a meal together that is bonding amongst human beings. This should be relaxed and informal time together.

7. Engagement of a Powerful Question discerned in the morning

Once the congregational staff has returned from lunch, the first Powerful Question discerned from the morning is proposed. The staff should be reminded that the purpose of the Powerful Question is not to make any decisions, but rather to listen to one another and grow together. If the first Question was “What is our relationship to congregants”, then the staff in encouraged to listen to staff members as they share their perspectives with one another. Cross-talk is not only allowed but encouraged, with the proviso that we try not to challenge each other’s meanings but share deeply of our own. Care should be taken to make sure that all of the staff are given an opportunity to share, and are encouraged to do so. There is no wrong answer in engaging a Powerful Question, so long as the sharing is personal and authentic. Each powerful question should be engaged for 30-45 minutes.

8. Engagement of a second Powerful Question discerned in the morning

Same as detailed above, but on the second Powerful Question, which could be “What do we need to be Refreshed and Sustained in this Work?” or whatever question was discerned in the morning. This should be engaged for a similar 30-45 minutes.

9. Staff Team Goal Setting / Goal Check-in

One of the techniques for building a cohesive staff team is for the Staff Team to have shared goals that they have developed as a team. These goals should come from the congregation’s vision/mission/ends/goals processes, and that may require the Staff Supervisor or other staff member to present the congregation’s vision/mission/ends/goals to the staff to begin the process. These are not individual goals for staff members, but goals for the entire staff during that year. A goal might be an increased effectiveness in communicating events information to congregation members. Another might be to seek partnerships with the staff of another congregation nearby. Staff teams should develop 3-5 goals for the whole staff each year at a retreat in the summer or fall and check in about the progress towards those goals at any other congregational staff retreats throughout the year.

10. Closing with Appreciations from the whole staff

As the retreat opened with appreciations from the Staff Supervisor, at the close of the retreat the staff members are invited to share appreciations of one another. This can be done in a formal or informal way. Sometimes I have invited staff to write appreciations on thank you cards, and other times to share them aloud amongst the group. It is a time to appreciate things the individual staff members have done for each other since the last retreat, not what their program or operational areas have done. The retreat may then close with the Staff Supervisor appreciating the staff members for their engagement in the retreat.

Whether it is through congregational staff retreats, regular and productive staff meetings, a culture of “water cooler” collaboration, or other techniques, the important thing to remember is that congregations need a cohesive and interdependent staff team, and such teams only come about when they are intentionally built. Congregational life tends to draw staff members away from each other. It is important to take the time to build the bonds that make a congregational staff team resilient and healthy.

About the Author

David Pyle

The Rev. David Pyle is the Regional Lead and a Congregational Life Consultant with the MidAmerica Regional Staff. Rev. Pyle holds a Masters of Divinity from the Meadville Lombard Theological School and a Bachelors of Arts in History and Political Science from East Tennessee State University. He...

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Congregational Staff Teams

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Congregational Staff Teams