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What Your Religious Professionals Need Right Now

By CB Beal

Heart-shaped dead leaf on pavement

Dear members of religious communities who are getting tired of our professional leadership and services happening virtually,

Leading religious services and religious education over zoom is five or ten times harder than doing so in person. None of us want to continue doing that a minute longer than necessary.

Also true: none of us want to risk having to do funerals over zoom because we gathered in person too soon.

Also true: it seems that 'too soon' is likely to mean a whole year.

But can I be really clear about something?
Your Minister, Imam, Rabbi, Priest, Religious Educator, Cantor and Music Director should not be required to hold services in person, or attend in-person meetings as a condition of their continued employment. Congregations should not be cutting hours or withholding health insurance as a cost-saving measure. Both put lives at real risk.

None of us have ever gone through a pandemic at this level before. Zero. Zip. We have no experience in a global, exponentially devastating virus that spreads on people's breath pandemic.

We have no experience in this.

Your religious leaders are gathering online with one another, sharing what works and what doesn't work. More and more often in those conversations and personally, I hear stories of staff and professionals who are being let go or contracts not renewed. The reasons vary, but typically it is because they have yet to come up with an online experience that everyone appreciates or are not willing/able to begin in-person services/education/choir.

If there's a budget shortfall, or lower attendance at your online services, or the families with young children aren't showing up, it is not the fault of your professional staff. It is the fault of a pandemic.

If there was ever a time that you needed to trust that your religious leaders were making the best choices they could make, that time is now. Our religious professionals have twisted themselves in knots. Many have not had a single day off in 125 days.

They are as lonely as you are. Maybe more, because their job is to support you--it's not a mutual relationship. Each professional family has their own private “risk budget” (Lisa Maria Andreoli Steinberg,) where they can take risks and where they need not to. Don’t plan in-person activities and expect them to spend part of that risk budget on your meeting or gathering instead of a doctor visit.

If your religious professionals are people who live with marginalized identities, they are bearing significantly more weight in dealing with the incredible complexity of navigating their relationship with the work and your congregation. They are also dealing with the inequitable distribution of services and medical care during this time of Coronavirus as well as the onslaught and doubling down of pervasive systems of oppression in the US and Canada.

What your religious professionals need from you right now is:

  1. A vacation. A real vacation, even if they can't go anywhere, when there are two weeks during which they don't have to check their email.
  2. A congregation willing to ensure that there are not pressures on any staff to put their health at risk for the comfort of less vulnerable members, or to have to defend their need to work from home or behind distanced and ventilated barriers.
  3. A level of congregational generosity of spirit that may be previously unexperienced for your congregation. We are all making this up as we go along, holding the multiple priorities of not dying, or killing anyone with our breath, and the spiritual nurturance of our community. Don't take a poll about going back to the way things were. Let the leadership follow health guidance and lean into practices that mean we can be the most sure that everyone lives.
  4. A collective willingness to try new things; to keep showing up for video conversations, classes, and worship. A willingness to choose to be in community regularly as much as possible, even in new ways.

Perhaps to learn how to do some of those online games the young people like to do and join with them to do it. Or a skill share where one person teaches how to use a new computer program, and another teaches how to make a brilliant chicken piccata. All the willingness to try all the ideas.

None of us have ever done this before, and we will likely not do it again in our lifetime. We are all inventing this as we go along by trial and error, following health guidance and our leaderships’ best creativity.

Ask your religious leadership what they need. They are deep in the rushes of figuring this out. Ask how you can be helpful. Maybe your religious educator needs 50 cardboard boxes painted because they are making kits for children to use at home. Perhaps your congregation needs more adults to be an attentive but quiet presence in online youth gatherings to ensure safety.

Our collective tolerance and patience for what is less than optimal is being tested. While it might be tempting to think so, it is not the skill of our leadership that's being tested, but rather our collective tolerance for something that might be "good enough."

Good enough to keep us feeling somewhat connected. Good enough to remind us of our spiritual and religious rituals. Good enough to connect us with a moment of learning. Good enough to share in community and have people bear witness to our lives. We can join in community and recognize that being present together at all is a gift.

Being in community is a decision that the community, not the professional, makes, and that's far more than good enough. During a pandemic, it is extraordinary.

If this had happened 40 years ago, more of us would be dead, more of us would be living with ongoing bodily damage, and none of us would be present with one another in any way except possibly the telephone. And honestly, I don't even want to think about having to share the phone with the people who were on our party line back then. They were nosy and mean. I could not have shared my thoughts or fears with others and felt any sense of safety.

So please, breathe into the discomfort of not having everything how you want it, the way it used to be.

Reach out on the phone or in letters to people, forging connections that are good enough to keep us connected even if they are not always every single time extraordinary. Be part of your community of faith in every way you can; prepare craft activities, answer calls, make calls, write letters – especially connect with those for whom the internet is not accessible. Perhaps you are the one who is able to make grocery runs for elders. Maybe you are a family friend who can spend 30 minutes on a mobile app letting someone's 4-year-old send you ridiculous stickers and emojis so their mom can take a shower in peace. (And of course comply with safety guidelines about copying parents on these otherwise private conversations.)

These are new times requiring us all to be creative about how we choose to be in community.

Keep your religious professionals and staff employed and insured so they can support their families and continue to serve you through this crisis and after. If you have an endowment fund or an emergency fund, this is the emergency for which you've been saving. Let your leaders be creative. Remember that real creativity means many things will not be "successful," that success in a pandemic has very different metrics, and don't punish people for trying. Celebrate every attempt, for it means your leaders are being creative, engaging, and moving forward toward the best leadership they can muster.

Extend yourself the grace to feel your feelings instead of trying to avoid them. You are and will be sad, distressed, angry, and frustrated. Recognize that meeting in person will not actually solve those feelings because we are still in a pandemic and an economic crisis. Extend the grace to your religious leaders to be human, to rest, to fail, to lead, to imagine, to do their job even as we are re-imagining how those jobs work in this time.

Follow their leadership, keep them employed and insured, let them serve you the best way they know how, identify your own role in your religious community and how you can reach out to one another during this difficult time. We can do this.

Thanks.


Thank you to my colleagues who helped me develop this. Without our online relationship, this piece would not have been nearly so strong.