Since COVID-19 and measures to contain it began to impact on Victorians, I have often started conversations and meetings with church leaders by asking how they and their churches are coping in this challenging time. This has become an increasingly pertinent question as lockdown restrictions have continued, particularly within Metropolitan Melbourne.
Some people respond with stories about opportunities for creative innovation and the encouragement of expanded missional impact. They are engaging more with their neighbourhood and connecting globally online. Others, the majority, report fatigue as a result of prolonged striving to adapt to the changing legal requirements, deteriorating socio-economic conditions and the complexities of life during isolation. Many are anxious about how COVID-19 will affect them, their families, their church and our nation now and into the future.
If you lead a team of people, paid or volunteers, who carry responsibility for a ministry, group or church, it is good to remember that you are leading them through a challenging time and that fatigue and anxiety are likely to be common among them. We are all subject to COVID-related stress through:
- Ongoing exposure to bad news globally and locally;
- People we know suffering losses of livelihood and perhaps life;
- Disruptions to normal activities from sport to school, shopping to socialising, work to worship;
- Concerns about ourselves or loved ones contracting the virus.
When we care for others, we inevitably take on some of their stress and suffering. I am reminded of Rachel Naomi Remen’s comment: `The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.’
As the Apostle Paul put it: `Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?’ (2Cor 11:28-29)
As we serve under the shadow of COVID-19, we are all carrying greater emotional, mental and spiritual burdens. So, we are more tired and have less energy and capacity to serve others. It is a challenging time to live through, let alone lead through.
As team leaders, we are called to serve others (Mk 10:42-45; Jn 13:1-17), which includes helping them to live and lead well. So, how can team leaders support and encourage their teams through this time? Here are some practices I try to apply as I lead a team that serves churches and individuals in some challenging aspects of life and ministry:
- Create a team culture in which personal wellbeing is recognised as relevant and important and it is safe for people to share how they are going. As the one with positional power, the team leader needs to model such sharing so others feel free to share too. The leader usually sets the level of vulnerability within the group.
- Acknowledge that the team is dealing with some tough circumstances and that this creates stress. Feelings of distress and disturbance are a natural and normal response to difficult situations. So let your team know that such responses do not reflect on their competence, spirituality or character, but just show their humanity in such circumstances.
- Encourage your team to practise good self-care. (For some discussion of resilience in leadership, see the BUV Professional Standards Workshop ). Individuals are responsible for their self-care, but team leaders should support their team by promoting self-care practices in training and accountability conversations and by reinforcing healthy disciplines such as work-leisure balance, fostering family relationships and maintaining physical health. Team Leaders should model healthy practice.
- Be sensitive to the extra burdens team members are carrying and the restrictions that may impinge on their work and so be flexible and realistic in expectations of them. This is particularly important when they have children learning from home or are caring for vulnerable relatives. As empowering leaders know, being flexible about how people do things, helps to get things done.
- Provide opportunities for team members to identify and report on even small signs of achievement. This puts things in perspective (not everything is dark) and gives assurance that they can make some difference, even in hard times. Affirm good efforts and celebrate progress and wins.
- Do what you can to reduce frustrations concerning processes and resources. Team members are facing enough challenges, without their church adding to them by imposing unnecessary demands or denying them reasonable support to do the things they are being asked to do. Happy people serve more productively than hassled people.
- When we are under stress, we tend to have less patience with others and to be more protective of our interests. During tough times there may be more criticism of leaders and more conflict. While leaders should be open to feedback as part of healthy accountability, team leaders should help their team to discern what feedback is valid and worthy of reflection. Team leaders usually have more organisational power than their team and they should use this to guard their team against unfair criticism, serving as their advocates.
- If team leaders can allocate tasks across the team, they should try to ensure members are given a mix of tasks including some that are life-giving. These may include some opportunities to pursue special interests, even if these are additional to members’ usual responsibilities. It is also helpful to arrange for members to collaborate when possible – carrying one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2). This helps people to see themselves as part of a team, contributing their strengths and supporting one another.
- Teams function best when there is a good level of camaraderie among the members. Team leaders can facilitate this by providing opportunities for fun and fellowship in addition to focussing on the responsibilities carried by the team. Positive experiences such as eating and laughing together help teams to remember and rejoice in their shared humanity and to relieve stress.
- Tough times can affect our sense of meaning and undermine faith and hope. Whereas reflecting on Christian beliefs and engaging with God through spiritual practices fosters resilience. Team leaders should offer their teams a transcendent and hopeful perspective by including biblical reflection and prayer in team meetings. This encourages the team to embrace the truth that we are co-workers with God.
I hope these practices offer team leaders some help in leading teams during this challenging season. If you want to discuss how I or other members of the BUV’s Church Health & Capacity Building Team might be able to support your church leadership team, please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rev David Devine
Head of Church Health & Capacity Building
Baptist Union of Victoria
 Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom Stories that Heal, (Penguin Putnam, 2006).