I am the field staff for the Unitarian Universalist Association covering the congregations at the West Coast epicenter of COVID-19, and this is my report.
Not one of our congregations is closed. Don’t get me wrong – we’re all about preserving the common health, therefore the buildings were made unavailable to the public and to members early on. But the congregations are hardly closed. They are open in ways they’ve never been before, perhaps couldn’t even imagine.
Boards and staff teams moved to video meetings almost immediately to try to flatten the curve. Worship, pastoral care, religious education, small group ministry all moved on-line and to phones. I watched with humility and awe as leaders stretched to each other, being especially gentle and encouraging as we all tried something new to preserve what is precious to us—community.
In liminal times like this the business of meaning making takes back-burner. Many of our brains are in limbic overdrive. We don’t have access to our cerebral cortex required of meaning-making. What we have access to and need of is our sense of purpose. Our purpose as a religious community has become more clear as it’s simplified. As one of our ministers instructs her staff, board, and key volunteers, “If it’s not about caring or community, let it go”.
Here are some highlights from the West Coast epicenter:
Continuing to pay everyone. I have yet to hear of a congregation who has cut or reduced staff compensation. Adequate and appropriate compensation is a justice issue to UUs, and generosity starts with our own staff. Some job descriptions have morphed to meet a new context.
Zoom for renters. Many congregations reached out to their renters and told them to not only not worry about rent, but “here is access to our zoom accounts so you can stay in contact with the people you serve”.
Nursery care. A couple of congregations moved their part time nursery care staff into positions of checking-in on families and reading to children via FaceTime or zoom. I talked with one of the Nursery Care Providers who said her new role made her feel vital and purposeful in a new way. I call that both ministry and leadership development.
Pastoral Care calling everyone. Directories were divvied up in so many ways and members checked-in on quickly. One thing about that: I’m hearing from congregations whose pastoral care team did that work is that it often exhausted them early on and now they’re challenged with how to quickly build a new/ supplemented network. Thank you to Sarah Millspaugh for creating this resource quickly when that need became apparent.
D&D and other games on-line. I have a middle schooler, so was aware very quickly of on-line games of Dungeons and Dragons being organized. One of the groups my son plays with is middle school “preacher kids”. They didn’t know each other before. Because they use my zoom room, I am privy to some of the conversation. I can tell you that it’s a respite of middle school goofiness, but they also check in with each other and talk about what it’s like to see their minister parents stressed. And I am so grateful that now they have each other. I wish this for the children of other parents with essential and particular jobs.
Bedtime Books read by ministers and DREs. I wonder what the lasting impact will be on our children (and adults) of having their professional staff showing up in their homes at tender times like this.
Combined worships. There are many reasons that going to on-line worship may not work for a congregation. The regional staff gathered leaders early on, and so we knew what each other’s capacity was and could combine forces. Larger congregations reached out to smaller congregations, “come worship with us for a while”. Peer mentoring arose as the wave of “sheltering in place” moved East. Congregations who had figured out versions of a virtual Sunday presence mentored those just figuring it out for the first time.
Combined stewardship drives. There was a geographically connected group of four congregations that combined forces to kick off their stewardship drives together. The “can-do,” connected spirit was palpable.
Caring Circles. My siblings in faith, I can’t stress this enough. It is essential that we move caring circles and small group ministry on-line as quickly as possible so people can practice going deep with each other in virtual space. The reality is sobering and heart breaking. We will be saying goodbye to each other through Facetime, Zoom and phone. We must practice now so that we are ready to hold each other. For now, it is our work to practice singing to one another virtually and looking into one another’s eyes deeply through a screen. I assure that while it is not perfect, it is possible.
Some things we find ourselves reflecting upon: Paying attention to what we are letting go of, and what turned out to not be that important. Paying attention to what is very important, as well as what we pull into a new context. Paying attention to what we are learning and who we are becoming. And storytellers: please start writing down the story so we can tell this to our great grandchildren. Capture how we loved each other as best we could and what we sacrificed to protect the most vulnerable among us.