Less is More Everyone Needs a Break

Tea pouring from teapot to handle-less mug

As we write this, it’s two years to the day from when the UUA moved to virtual operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those initial days were scary and exhausting. We still don’t know how close we are to the end of it – or what the end even means. And, even if it “ends” tomorrow, we’ll all be dealing with the impact of the pandemic for years to come.

We’re tired – and by “we,” we mean pretty much everyone. The fear, the uncertainty, the need to learn and relearn, to pivot and pivot again – it has taken its toll on congregational members, volunteer leaders, and staff alike. In addition, some of us have had our own physical health affected, and others have experienced the loss of family, friends, and/or congregants. It’s a lot.

We live in such a “more is better” culture. Working harder, producing more, etc. Perhaps this is a time to be countercultural – to assess what’s most important, and to determine what is in a congregation’s capacity to do well with the resources (including human resources) they have, without being exploitive or burning people out.

We don’t know exactly what “less is more” looks like in every situation, but we believe there is an important spiritual message for the congregation in acknowledging limitations and committing to care and compassion for all, including staff and lay leaders. Against a backdrop of complicated and traumatic days (pandemic and otherwise), people want to have their spirits uplifted. They need to stay grounded in their deepest values and to connect to something larger than themselves. They long to find joy and kindness in their relationships with others.

What a great time for Unitarian Universalism, yes? And herein lies the dilemma. Just when it feels most essential, it seems to be the hardest time to keep our religious communities engaged and thriving. There aren’t magic formulas, but here are some ideas for you to consider…

Name the Must-Do's

Bills need to be paid. Payroll has to happen. Worship has to be planned and carried out. But we encourage you to take an honest look at the congregation’s must-do’s. You’re likely to discover that you’re doing some things out of tradition, habit, or obligation. Those bylaws probably don’t need to be updated right now; creating a brand new holiday play would be nice, but one from three years ago will be loved again. And must you have a printed order of service?

Scale Back

Prioritizing isn’t just a “keep or toss” exercise. You also have the option of doing things:

  • Less often (Can some committees meet every other month?)
  • More simply (How many varieties of soup do you need to make for the dinner?)
  • Online only or in-person only, rather than multi-platform (Moving meetings online only reduces the need for in-person camera work.)
  • Through a shared arrangement with another congregation, to lighten the load on each (Attend each other’s online worship once or twice a month and broadcast it in your sanctuary – trade back and forth.)
  • With fun as a top priority (Have meetings with fun as the only agenda item.)
  • Differently (Try some short-term, low-risk experiments.)

Reset Expectations

It’s appropriate for the board or the staff or a key committee to decide that it’s okay not to meet as often, or to postpone a project for a bit. But how do you communicate your thought process and decisions in a way that holds the congregation in care? Your message should be clear, authentic, and engaging. Ground it in the values you used to make the decision, and talk about why you prioritized X over Y. Maybe it’s about being countercultural in an always-do-more society and doing things that revive the spirit first, the “drudgery” later. It could be about the value of simplifying – or “decluttering” minds and calendars as a spiritual exercise.

Follow the Energy

What do people get excited about in your congregation? How do people most naturally find meaning and connection? Where is the fun and the flow? Name two or three or five things. They may or may not be core “church” things, like worship (or board meetings). But they might be where you can most easily harness the vitality of the congregation. Have an impromptu “birthday party” where people gather by birth month to decorate cakes and talk about why their birth month is the best. Gather to tend the gardens and dig in the dirt. Follow what brings life.

When you make fun a top priority for everyone, including the organizers, you’re likely to feel successful no matter what happens.

Give Everyone a Break

Can you arrange for key volunteers to set down their responsibilities for a few weeks? (If they truly can’t, start thinking about backup plans, cross-training, etc.) Can you provide some extra paid time off for staff? Everyone needs a bit of space without the “usual” expectations, just to be able to breathe a bit more.

In thinking about how to give staff time off or make volunteers’ lives easier, consider who will take up the responsibilities – or, in the true spirit of “Less is More,” can they lay fallow for a bit of time? Avoid simply moving the burden over to someone else.

Show Gratitude

Perhaps this is the first thing to be doing. It’s been such a hard time, and we are all aware of where we haven’t lived up to expectations, our own and others. So showing gratitude can relieve the sense of not being “enough.” Giving staff and volunteers the gift of time is important – but it’s not the only way you can lighten their loads and lift their spirits. Show appreciation regularly. Look for an opportunity to describe a volunteer’s crucial role on a project in the newsletter. Weave a staff member’s behind-the-scenes contributions to the success of an event into a sermon or board meeting. In committee meetings and staff meetings, share words of thanks to each other as a spiritual practice.

Creating a culture of kindness and joy is good for us all, as it moves us away from feeling the need to be “excellent” and into appreciating the now. One minister told their congregation early in the pandemic that collectively they would be doing a lot of “mediocre,” so let’s learn to celebrate the mediocre together. How can you help your congregation value people over perfection?

Whatever you do, please think about being as generous as you can be to all – the members, the volunteers, the staff, the visitors. Generosity of spirit, of heart, provides the radical welcome that we all long for. We’ve done really well during the past two years; let’s do as well these next couple of years.

About the Authors

Jan Gartner

Jan is passionate about helping congregations live out their values within their walls!...

Lisa Presley

Lisa Presley is a life-long Unitarian Universalist who was an active lay leader before entering our ministry in 1991. As a lay leader she was board president, board member, worship associate, stewardship campaign chair, religious education teacher, bookkeeper, secretary, and shoveled the snow as...

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