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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

Some People Don’t Want to Come Back. Now What?

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As the Covid era passes, employers and churches face some similar dilemmas. Employers struggle to decide how and whether to transition back to in-person work. Churches wonder whether they should try to bring everybody back into the sanctuary or accept remote worship as part of the new norm. Since going backwards is hardly ever successful, we need to benefit from one another’s thinking about how to move ahead.

As Dan Hotchkiss noted last week on this site, Covid broke a lot of habits—including fundamental habits like going to work and going to church. In the good old days, “going to work” usually meant fossil-fueled transport of some kind, business spaces and schedules designed to foster both intentional and spontaneous collaboration, and a known set of jobs and tools to manage the process. “Going to church” shared many of the same characteristics.

But once the pandemic hit, habits of physical sharing largely disappeared. Some essential workers still had to “go” to work, but just about everybody else began working from home.

What Do We Do Now?

The post-Covid dilemma, especially for employers of knowledge workers, is “What do we do now? In the face of workers who believe they can be equally productive at home, can we, should we, require staff to shift back from a distributed model to a central workspace and shared calendar?”

I understand what managers worry about. As a nonprofit executive and a senior minister, I always had a short list of employees who never seemed to work as hard as I thought they should, and whom I wasn’t sure I could trust to work from home. I also worried about what might be lost if we didn’t physically gather—the chance to read each other’s body language, shared moments of brilliance around a whiteboard, a developing sense of belonging and trust.

But I understand employees, too. I personally work harder from home than I do at the office because I don’t have arbitrary start and stop times and I don’t have to smell other people’s lunches or listen to their chatter or be forced to share their germs. In whatever way productivity is measured, if I’m truly as productive working from home as I am in the office, then why shouldn’t I be able to work from home?

Thinking About Coming Back

With thanks to Mark Bolino and Corey Phelps, authors of the case study “Should Some Employees Be Allowed to Work Remotely Even if Others Can’t,” here are some helpful ways to think about returning to the workplace:

  1. Focus on “creating an environment so attractive that people will want to come in.” For businesses, such an environment includes rooms that are functional and comfortable, that are designed for small-group conversation with relaxed seating, good lighting, and easy-access whiteboards, and that can host meetings in person or by technology that ensures people not in the room can feel involved and engaged. Churches often overlook the importance of attractive and functional physical space—perhaps thinking any space will do because our mission is so important. In the current job market, especially for younger and high-skilled staff, we can’t afford to forget that our employees have other options.
  2. Listen to what staff say they value—flexibility, autonomy, transparency, appreciation, respect. Flexible work arrangements can make us more attractive to the younger, more diverse pool of employees we hope to attract and retain.
  3. Emphasize performance outcomes more than whether someone is at work down the hall. If we’ve been clear about the outcomes we expect and how they will be measured, it should matter whether employees are successful, not whether they are in the office. (This is my own opinion, not from the case study.)

In the same way the pandemic broke our “going to work” habits, it also broke our “going to church” habits.

North American church attendance has been in decline for years, even among people who consider themselves active members. But during the pandemic, all churches, not just the newest ones with the biggest budgets, had to learn to deliver programming via livestream rather than by being physically present together.

Ways to Go to Church

Members learned as well that it was possible to “go” to church in slippers, drinking coffee, and reading the paper. Some people with mobility issues accessed their own church’s services for the first time in years. Some—those who love to hug their friends every week or need the discipline of regular attendance—found livestreaming acceptable in the short term but not ultimately good enough. Countless others felt they finally had permission to do other things on Sunday mornings—and may not come back at all.

The post-Covid dilemma for the church, as for employers, is What do we do now? A few churches are preaching the importance of in-person attendance; most just pray for people to return.

Perhaps it would be more helpful to think about our members the same way Bolino and Phelps suggest we think about our staff. We can:

  1. Focus on “creating an environment so attractive that people will want to come in.” This might look like functional and comfortable work rooms, some designed for small-group conversation and others for large-group participation, with a focus on relaxed seating, good lighting, and easy-access technology that allows people not in the room to feel involved and engaged. Churches often act as if any space will do because our mission is so important. But in our current culture, we can no longer afford to forget that our members, like our staff, have other options.
  2. Listen to what members say they value—flexibility, autonomy, transparency, appreciation, respect. Our ability to develop and honor flexible programming may even make us more attractive to the younger participants and those from diverse backgrounds that we so desperately hope to reach.
  3. Emphasize spiritual outcomes more than attendance. Churches have rarely been good at defining and measuring the changes we hope to see in our members’ lives. But if we can get clear about those changes, and if we’re successful in creating them, it shouldn’t matter when our members are in the building. What will matter is that they are living the lives they’ve been called to live and doing the work they’ve been called to do.

Old habits have been broken and new habits are forming. What do we do now? As ministers, we listen to those around us, we adjust to the new realities with grace and love, and we trust God to be with us as we learn.

Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.

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