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Valuing Your Staff During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Jan Gartner

White ceremic chalice with blue rim

There are compelling reasons to do all you can to retain your staff and support them well through the pandemic. While it may not be possible – or ideal – to maintain your historical staffing, we urge you not to let staff reductions become your immediate response to financial uncertainty.

We continue to update our Congregations as Employers During the COVID-19 Pandemic page and will soon be publishing a memo with updated guidance on congregational staffing and finances for the months ahead. We are also working on a page to address specific personnel-related concerns arising during the pandemic.

Expanding Capacity for Ministry

The work of your congregation is made possible through shared ministry among consistent, accountable, paid staff and dedicated volunteers. This extraordinary time deserves all of the ministry we can bring to it and the mission of your congregation is as critical as ever. Your members are yearning to be ministered to amidst their grief and loss, their hardships and their hope. Suffering in your larger community and the injustices of the world have been laid bare in new ways. What "church" looks like will continue to change in the months ahead, but the need for strong ministry will be a constant. You want to be able to meet the moment.

Self-Care and Relief for Staff

Preventing Exhaustion

Many of our religious professionals are reporting exhaustion as they adapt to new ways of working, strive to meet evolving member expectations, cope with increasing family stressors, and manage anxiety (their own and that of others). Yes, we expect that most staff will rise to the occasion in a short-term crisis. But counting on anyone to function at 120% on an ongoing basis is unfair and unsustainable. In fact, in these challenging times, when brain fog has kicked in (a natural stress response), and everything feels harder and takes longer than usual, we should actually expect less than 100% of "usual productivity" from staff. This is our new normal. Maintaining current staffing levels helps ensure that the valuable work of your staff team can continue well despite some reduced bandwidth. Further, maintaining staffing helps compensate for any diminished capacity among the lay leadership.

Enabling Time Off

Pressing responsibilities have made it difficult for ministers and other staff to pull away – for emotional and technical reasons. Someone on your staff team may be the only person who knows how to run Sunday morning digitally. Or perhaps there isn't the lay caring capacity in the congregation to assure the staff team that pastoral care needs will be met when they are away. In some cases, boards are asking ministers and other staff to forgo vacation.

Regular days off, vacation/study time and, for some, family leave under the Families First Act are essential for your staff's well-being. Providing the relief your staff need and deserve is easiest when a full complement of team members is available to provide backup for one another – and when you've built up volunteer infrastructure to support the congregation's essential activities.

Coverage for Illness

We're living through a pandemic. The chances of a staff member (or someone in their family) falling ill is higher than usual. Once again, staff may be called upon to cover for each other.

Living Our Values

Continued employment of your staff is a way of demonstrating Unitarian Universalist values and theology. Our faith is grounded in relationship and interdependence. We commit to justice and compassion within the world around us as well as within our own walls. Other work will be hard to come by throughout the pandemic, so retaining staff is a matter of conscience as well as practicality.

Consider the potential for disparate impacts in your staffing decisions:

  • Staff whose regular responsibilities have been reduced or eliminated could be the ones who have the fewest safety nets.

  • A furlough or layoff will likely be hardest on those with lower pay.

  • Are any staff facing cutbacks or layoffs from vulnerable or marginalized communities?  Bear in mind that they are already experiencing greater systemic impacts from the pandemic.

Stay Tuned

Soon-to-be-published resources will address engaging your staff creatively in these unique times; how to manage staff reductions, when necessary; and an assortment of compensation and personnel concerns specific to the COVID-19 era.

About the Author

Jan Gartner

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

For more information contact conglife@uua.org.