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Self-Care and Staff Care: Support for Supervisors During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Jan Gartner

Teapot with peppermint

From exercising regularly, sticking with spiritual disciplines, and eating healthfully, to enjoying hobbies, 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 limitations of physical distancing and changes in work and family rhythms, and self-care becomes even more of a challenge. But it's critical in these 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 from home has become the new normal, we've heard a lot about flexible hours. 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 are now closing at 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 typically respond to email and what are 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

The building is closed so 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 finds new ways of connecting with members."
  • 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 is 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 paper on white supremacy culture offers practical antidotes for perfectionism, sense of urgency, and more. If you haven't read this piece 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 "Be 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 healthy 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 during the pandemic. 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.


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. Right now, 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 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 – and CARES Act provisions offer help with retention – we recognize that some congregations will be considering reductions in staff hours or positions in the months ahead. 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 earned time off or to request paid leave through the federal Families First Act (for which your congregation would receive a tax credit). 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 we're in the middle of 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, especially if you have committed to paying all of your staff through a certain date and 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 are emerging. Members who moved away are joining their former congregations for online worship. Midweek bedtime stories have enabled religious educators to better know the kids in their programs. Some staff are energized by opportunities to experiment with new technologies. Many religious professionals are talking about how their pandemic-era learnings will lead 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

Working Remotely During COVID-19: Your Mental Health & Well-Being, Center for Workplace Mental Health: Tips for maintaining health and wellness, including for managers and those with mental health conditions.

UUA Full Flex Policy: Provides clarity and support for a flexible, sustainable workplace for UUA staff during the pandemic. (Developed for the UUA staff of over 200. We are not asking congregations to adopt this language, but to consider how best to create a compassionate workplace for their own staff.)

Maintaining a Grasp on Solid Ground: UUMA newsletter reflection by Janette Lallier, UUMA Director of Operations, on helping ministers adapt to changes brought about by COVID-19.

Congregations as Employers During the COVID-19 Pandemic, UUA LeaderLab article: Includes guidance on paying staff, finances and stewardship, working from home, supervision and teams, and more.

Federal Policies and Actions Related to COVID-19, UUA LeaderLab article: Resource page about the Families First and CARES Acts.

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.