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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

Front Line Workers in Congregations

Photo by True Agency on Unsplash

During the COVID-19 shutdown, we all learned a new term: the frontline worker. Since the spring of 2020, frontline workers have put their health and lives on the line working in industries critical to keeping our economy running. Healthcare workers, firefighters, and grocery store employees, among others, have to work outside their homes, at continual risk of exposure. While I had the luxury of staying safely at home in front of my computer, my spouse, who is a manager in the transportation industry, went in to work every day. Thankfully so far, none of his co-workers have contracted Covid on the job.

While many employees in congregations have been able to work from home, one frontline-type job can be found in most congregations: the administrative assistant, office manager, or receptionist. While church office workers may or may not face exposure to the coronavirus, there are also personal, organizational, spiritual, and psychological risks. Office workers often are the first to interact with congregational and community members who are stressed by the pandemic, and these frontline experiences can be very challenging.

Painful Stories

Especially when there is conflict in the congregation or organization, these employees often have stories to tell that are painful to hear:

  • An angry member calls or emails to vent about something that happened in the congregation. The office worker gets an earful and ends up feeling personally attacked. Folks who vent to office workers often refuse to deal with their concerns directly or to offer feedback using proper channels.
  • A church member calls the office to grill the office worker for inside or behind-the-scenes information. People who drop by the office to complain or fish for information can take up a great deal of time.
  • A journalist or reporter under deadline calls seeking information for a story they are writing, and pressures an administrative staff person for information.

At times it is very difficult to set boundaries on inappropriate behaviors, to even get away from these folks or get them to leave.

The intense angst produced by this prolonged pandemic has deepened our political and social divisions and led to an increase in inappropriate behaviors on airplanes, at school board meetings, and, yes, even in our congregations.

Words For the Wise

Here are some tips and words of encouragement:

  1. You don’t have to put up with inappropriate behaviors – ever! Don’t sit in silence. Talk to your supervisor or to the pastor who is the head of staff. Let them know what is happening and ask for their help.
  2. Be clear about who directs your work. You do not report to dozens of different bosses in the congregation—even though they may think they can direct you to do tasks for them.
  3. Know how to re-direct people tactfully. You can say, “I’m sorry but I’m not the person you need to speak with. Let me put you in touch with _____.”
  4. When people fish for information, don’t share more than you should. Maintain confidentiality.
  5. Don’t ever share your own opinion with someone who is complaining to you. Be professional and always take the high road.
  6. Don’t discuss other members of the church or community with those who call the office. When you are at work, play the role you are hired to play.
  7. Set boundaries to take care of yourself. For example, you don’t have to take calls at home after hours unless this is a part of your job description that you have discussed with your supervisor.

If you are both a member of the congregation and a professional employee, you will face additional challenges:

  1. Some congregations have a policy that they will not hire members. In many ways this makes good sense. However, many congregations want to hire a person of faith who is familiar with the congregation and on board with the mission, vision and direction of the congregation. Sometimes a church member is the best fit in these ways.
  2. As a member and employee, you are in a “dual role.” A dual role is where the same person wears two or more different hats with another person or within the organization. Dual roles can be very tricky and sometimes quite challenging. There is an old saying that “dual roles work until they don’t work anymore.” At some point multiple roles will clash, and you may need to choose one role or the other.

Here is a hard truth based on my experience: in the end, your employment relationship always will take precedence over your membership in the congregation. Your primary loyalty as an employee is to the mission, your professional role and to those who have hired you.

Staff Member, Congregant, or Friend?

As a staff member, you may no longer be comfortable going to your pastor, who is now your boss, with a personal or family issue. When you get together with your friends or relatives in the congregation, you can no longer listen to their complaints about the direction of the church or the pastor who preached a sermon last week—even if you didn’t like it either.

Members will bother you before and after worship services about tasks you would normally handle in the office during the work week. Even if you redirect them, your worship experience is disrupted.

Finally, if your employment role doesn’t work out and needs to end, you may risk of losing your pastor and your congregation in the process. Members need to think about these possibilities before joining the paid staff.

Frontline workers are invaluable and play a crucial role in congregations’ health and vitality. Taking good care of our frontline workers is not only the right thing to do—it is essential for a congregation’s ability to fulfill its mission.

Susan Nienaber brings a background as a psychotherapist and mediator and combines compassion with independence when working with congregations. She embraces an unwavering dedication to the health, vitality and mission of congregations and of the leaders and institutions that support them. She serves as District Superintendent in the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church and consults with congregations on issues of conflict, crisis, personnel matters, professional misconduct, leadership, and interpersonal dynamics.

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