In the winter of 2020, the Southern New England Conference of the UCC was just beginning as a new legal and ecclesial entity. It was in this moment that news of a new coronavirus slowly made headlines around the globe.
Like many emerging contagions the hope was for containment. Nevertheless, our Conference developed a Pre-Pandemic Checklist drawn from the research and experience of our Conference’s Disaster Resource and Response Team over the years. On March 9th, with only a week to go, we made the decision to cancel Super Saturday. Shortly thereafter, everything changed. Our governors began to encourage Stay Safe / Stay Home. Our Bridge Conference Ministers (BCMs) recommended suspending in person worship. Conference offices were closed, and our Conference staff went into high gear.
We looked at the stages of disasters and sharpened our focus. Initially it was providing stability, support, and resources to help clergy and churches as they adapted to ministry and worship and life from home. That work included workshops on technical and creative guidance for virtual worship using various platforms. Worship and online technical support for it was one of our first responses and is the one that has continued in new and adaptive ways throughout the pandemic.
Our regional staff and our BCMs began email, telephone, and online check ins with all our clergy from congregational ministry to chaplaincies. Reach out was done as well through other staff including faith formation ministries. Those check ins continue as a fundamental part of both offering support and learning about needs, challenges, and innovations. We worked with the various ministerial aid groups within our borders to expand practical, financial, and emotional support resources for our clergy.
As the pandemic continued our focus expanded and staff began to collaborate and coordinate efforts around 5 key areas:
- Stabilizing and supporting our clergy, ministry leadership and churches and specialized ministries.
- Developing resources for Phasing Forward as the guidelines for Stay Home, Stay Safe are loosened or lifted.
- Building on the lessons, insights, and innovations that the pandemic has invented and revealed.
- Assessing the impact on our Conference and our transition plan.
- Maintaining the best of our ongoing ministries where we can.
- The main page
- Phasing Forward (Re-opening strategies)
- Resources for Children Youth and Families,
- Resources for Faith Formation
- Finances, Family First, Cares Act and Conducting Business online
- Grief Resources
- Pastoral Care, Self Care and Mental Health resources
- online worship resources and guidance
- Online Easter Worship (and other Conference developed online worship)
- Outreach Ideas and Resources
Our Conference staff have also been adapting and adjusting to work at home and all the stresses of this pandemic compounded by the stress of SNEUCC transition with the addition of their concerns around racial justice. Early on we developed a set of clergy who were willing to be available to SNEUCC staff for pastoral care. We also initiated weekly staff meetings for check in and coordination.
A team of staff and clergy went to work to develop an Easter Service that could be available in whole or in part. It was used by many on Easter and by many others in the weeks that followed.
Later our BCMs worked with other Conference Ministers from around the country to offer another full worship service for Eastertide season. And there are more coming.
The BCMs began a weekly conversation webinar bringing in guests and tools and insights that would address the most critical concerns for ministry life in the moment.
The staff conducted a survey that was sent out for clergy, churches, and specialized ministries. Over 40% of our ministries responded and their insights helped to shape and reshape our ongoing adaptations and strategies.
Staff followed the ever changing guidance and guidelines related to the CARES Act and the Families First Act, including the Payroll Protection Plan. We consulted with national and local legal counsel. We sought insight from our UCC Insurance Board. This enabled us to get the word out to our churches regarding applications and implications before deadlines passed. It also enabled us to continue to bring updates and new information as it unfolded.
We continued efforts related to the RIP Medical Debt reduction initiative. And in light of the pandemic and the generosity of our churches we were not only able to eliminate the debt throughout the three states of our Conference, but we were also able to eliminate debt in Brooklyn (one of the hardest hit pandemic areas) and contribute to medical debt relief for health care workers who have been on the front line in the efforts to care for the most ill and vulnerable.
Ongoing communication evolved. We increased the number of all Conference emails focusing on the top things folks needed to know as the pandemic unfolded. This included numerous blogs from various staff providing personal and professional support and guidance to our clergy and laity.
When news emerged about the racial disparities in the impact of COVID-19 Marilyn Kendrix, with support from her BCM colleagues and in consultation with Dr Donique McIntosh and David Cleaver Bartholomew, developed a letter. It was reviewed and affirmed by the Board of Directors. We sent it out to our churches, and sent an abbreviated version to major media outlets. Our focus on racial justice sharpened, even as it expanded, as news of the killings of black men triggered reactions across the country. We have been called to learning, resourcing, prophetic witness, and self-examination as these killings triggered an anti-racism movement that is still unfolding.
One of the central places of anxiety and uncertainty has been related to in-person worship. It was clear that there would continue to be no way to ensure safety until there would be a tested and widely available vaccine. It was also clear that some churches wanted guidance and recommendations for managing and mitigating risk if churches gathered in person before then. We gathered guidance from government, health care professionals, CDC, WHO, and other denominations. We tailored those to the variety of churches and ministry settings within our Conference and offered a Phasing Forward Plan with a lot of supplemental resources.
As our states’ governments began conversations on “re-opening” our staff worked with statewide denominational representatives to provide advice, input, and questions to our governors as they tried to determine protocols for houses of worship.
It was also clear that Phasing Forward was not only about a return to in-person worship. It was not a re-opening of church (since church never closed). It was also more than safety guidelines and protocols. This was a watershed moment. People were discovering new ways of being church. They were discovering new ways of doing ministry. And some of the “essentials” were not as critical as we once thought.
In short this is a paradigm shift moment. And clergy and laity wanted guidance on how to be attentive to and build on lessons learned. They also wanted opportunities to learn from the grassroots creativity that was emerging all over our Conference and country. Using online media and online meetings the Conference began to convene gatherings for groups of people. Some were general gatherings for conversation some were specific to topics of interest.
Grief is a profound part of this pandemic and it is multi-faceted. Conference staff began to gather resources and provide programs where people could learn about grief, process their own, and develop strategies for themselves and their ministries. The staff was able to obtain a generous grant from the Gifford Fund, stewarded and administered by the Trustees of Newman Congregational Church. This enabled us to offer a series of webinars that eventually reached clergy and some laity from over 200 of our churches. It also enabled the development of a recorded webinar that will be used here and across the country. And it is allowing us to train coaches around working with individuals and groups in grief.
Parallel to our observation on grief is the general recognition that the pandemic and the movement around racial justice are taking a toll on the health of our clergy, laity, and communities. We are in the development of a Health and Wellness Task Team that plans to coordinate a series of webinars on health implications (mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical) of these global events.
The health concerns and regulations around the spread of this virus also caused the first time cancellation of beloved summer programs at Silver Lake, Pilgrim Day Camp – Framingham, and Irons Homestead. Even as the heartbreaking decision was made, staff for these programs were looking at alternative programs so the ministry impact would not be lost.
Our Conference began to look at possible ways to fiscally support churches in financial struggles related to this pandemic. That is a work in development. We have also been in conversation with various agencies within our national UCC. The UCC has already offered information for loans and grants available to our churches.
Many of our churches were deeply involved in staff searches. The restrictions on public gatherings and travel presented a whole new challenge to interviewing, negotiating, and Candidating Sundays. Gathering new insights from around the country we developed support and guidance for search teams.
Amid this we had a plan to begin transitioning our staff into a new staffing model. That model had been over a year in development. It had been shared with the Board of Directors. It was shared at our last Annual Meeting. And it had been shared with our staff. The process would have begun in April, but the pandemic brought that to a halt. Our capacity and focus needed to be on the pandemic. And we were watching to see how the pandemic might impact the kind of staffing we might need and could afford for the future. As we are watching we are also adapting the staffing plan and budget projections to begin and hopefully complete staff transitions before the end of the year. While the plan overall was put on hold, the search for a new Executive Conference Minister continues with a devoted search team.
As public schools converted to new forms of home schooling the same dilemma was faced for faith formation. Our talented staff began to develop resources and conversations to support this ministry to parents, Christian educators, and youth ministries.
In the meantime, there are ongoing ministries that have not stopped. Communities of Practice continue to meet and training and support are being provided. Justice Ministries from the statehouse to the climate change environment continue to hold our attention and advocacy. Accounting continues to be processed, bills are paid and paychecks are issued. Supporting our churches in their stewardship and fiscal sustainability is expanding. Boards, committees and task teams of our Conference and Associations continue to meet with staff support. Beyond our Conference, staff have continued in engage with colleagues across the country and across denominations as we glean learnings and strategies from each other. Emails and phone calls for advice on every imaginable aspect of ministry life continue to come in and receive a response. And this just skims the surface.
WHAT LIES AHEAD:All of what we have listed continues to be attended to even as it evolves. In addition, we are focusing our ministries to respond to 5 needs:
- How do we help our churches and ministries thrive – bravely, boldly, and faithfully -- in a post pandemic world? There are many complex and varied focal points in response to that question.
- How do we help our churches and ministries engage and support their communities in adapting into this post pandemic world?
- The racial disparity and injustice in our country has reached a tipping point and boiling point. We want to be part of moving that towards God’s realm of love and justice. That is a fundamental value of our current and our historic Conferences. Again, there are many complex and varied places of focus for this.
- Our transition into a new staffing structure and ministry model based on our Vision and our learnings from this pandemic time and racial justice moment will move forward.
- How do we maintain the most impactful ministries even as we assess and develop them and explore new innovations?
Drafted early May 2020
Don Remick is Bridge Conference Minister.