How ministry agents are handling their workload during COVID-19
Despite their best efforts to exercise self-care and make the most of time during lockdown, Uniting Church ministry agents have seen their workloads and hours increase. Already busy before COVID-19, ministers and deacons worked perhaps more than ever. From home and their empty church buildings, they ran online worship services, mailed out resources, ran practical support for those who needed it the most, and kept in contact with congregation members to ensure no one was left behind.
Insights spoke to a few of them to get a better idea of their experience of ministry during a pandemic.
A number of these ministry agents outlined how preventing the spread of COVID-19 meant more work for them.
Rev. Rebecca Lindsay is one of the Ministers at Hope Uniting Church in Maroubra.
She recalled that the initial period of COVID-19 saw a large increase in her workload, not only in terms of the tasks she was now required to do but also when it came to the mental and emotional load ministers needed to carry.
“This was when we were discussing as a ministry staff team alongside our church council whether to close our gathered worship and how quickly to do this, and from there how to ensure our members and our local community continued to receive the care and support they required,” Rev. Lindsay said.
“We were also looking at situations overseas and trying to form a plan for some of the what-ifs- what would we do if one of our ministry team became sick? How would we offer appropriate prayer and support if a member of our congregation were hospitalised, isolated or died? What resources could we prepare in advance?”
“The mental and emotional load came from me feeling as though I needed to be on top of the information that was available, in order to make decisions that would impact me but also a wider community of people.”
“I felt I needed to be able to pass on good information as a public person within our congregation and community. This was important as not all congregation members were accessing accurate information. This process was difficult (and continues to be so, but to a lesser extent) as the situation shifts so quickly.”
Rev. Alimoni Taumoepeau is the Minister of the Word at Strathfield Uniting Church.
“COVID-19 created a new normal of how we practice ministry as ministers of the Word or church agent,” he said.
“Like others, I was confined to exercise my ministerial role from my home office. This means everything I routinely did pre-coronavirus was altered and a new form of ministry model was created to meet the need of the congregation and serve the community around us during this pandemic time.”
“It was like, everything was turned upside down. Physical connection was replaced by technological connection. Our physical worship services are only made possible through virtual worship. Setting up a phone pastoral care system for our elderly members who could not access the internet or operate one. Sending information through emails, Facebook, and YouTube in order to reach out to members. Encouraging everyone to make contact with two to three other members each week to make sure we keep in touch with one another. Meetings were made available through Zoom and Facetime.”
“The workload increased for me during COVID-19, as I had to have everything ready in time to be printed, recorded and even put outlive. This demands extra study and research time as well as more coordination and discipline. Because I was readily accessible through Zoom, it was easier to organise meetings and more people you can meet with not only at one time but throughout the day. I realise a huge rise in the number of meetings I was participating in and more variety than ever before.
Sally Yabsley is a Deacon seeking placement and is the current supply minister at Northbridge and Willoughby Uniting Church. She said her experience of working during lockdown was one of constant changes.
“My workload changed overnight, and it’s continued to change and change and change,” she said.
“As soon as we find a rhythm to how we can work in this new space the goalposts change. We went from learning how to Zoom and live stream church. We built home offices and home-styled liturgical themed backgrounds for our worship. As I looked through my sheets and scarfs to find lent and Pentecost colours to drape over my piano to create a makeshift church setting, I think how strange my job had become. But also it refocused and affirmed to me how important these symbols are to our worship.
“Now the focus of our work has changed to huge amounts of administrative work. Creating protocols, attending meetings on how to conform with the new hygiene needs. We are learning from each other in zone meetings and have really learned to lean on each other for support and ideas. I have noticed many ministers expressing how great it is to see what each other is doing, and a willingness to share resources and ideas.”
Extra stress from the additional workload and some added expectations were some of the things that ministry agents have experienced during lockdown.
“I did notice, I was working more hours than I use to be because I am in the office all the time,” Rev. Taumoepeau said.
“As I had a lot more facial interaction with people during the course of the day. I realise by the end of the day I was exhausted: As you think more, talk more and even have to prepare more for more events or meeting requirement.”
“And perhaps just the expectation that you have to work some hours because you are confined to your home office. Sometimes brings extra stress to how I use my time at home.”
Rev. Dr Rob McFarlane is the Presbytery Minister for Parramatta-Nepean Presbytery.
“Everything seems to move at different paces from before,” Rev. Dr McFarlane said.
“Panels and teams take so much longer to recruit and deploy for things such as JNCs and Strengthening Life and Witness Consultations with congregations.”
“That is enormously slow and frustrating. On the other hand, with people not having to factor in travel time, meeting dates and times are constantly changed and rearranged at short notice, frustrating in the opposite way.”
Setting boundaries is often a challenge for ministry agents, who already work long hours and are often available for their congregations.
“I had to be more careful in making sure I was living a balanced practice between work and family and also meeting my personal wellbeing,” Rev. Taumoepeau said.
“Because of technology, you tend to meet more people than ever.”
It’s a point that a few ministry agents expressed.
Rev. Elizabeth Raine is Minister of the Word at Tuggeranong Uniting Church. She indicated that the removal of a distinct physical place for work had created its own stressors.
“I am sure my congregation think I have loads of free time now, but it hasn’t worked out like this at all,” Rev. Raine said.
“My driving time used to be my thinking time and I don’t seem to get that now.”
“I frequently have wall-to-wall Zoom meetings without much break in between. It is hard not to feel bombarded at times…I can feel quite stressed at times.”
Despite the challenges like setting boundaries, the ministry agents Insights spoke to identified a number of advantages that came with working from home.
“I realise that I am able to achieve a lot of things working from home,” Rev. Taumoepeau said.
“You don’t travel to meetings, you just turn it on, and you are in. I was more focused and disciplined to see things done. I had more time to do things like study and preparation. I was more creative and willing to learn new ways of doing things, especially with technology.”
In keeping with this, a number of ministers cited the benefits of not needing to commute to work.
Rev. Raine said that there had been financial benefits.
“I have saved a lot of time in travel, and don’t have to go out at night for meetings because we Zoom them,” she said.
“I have also saved money as I am not buying coffee or lunch.”
For Rev. Lindsay, lockdown brought with it one of the most relaxed Easter mornings she can recall.
“Usually I would be up early and a little stressed about trying to make a beautiful worshipful space for gathered worship,” she said.
“With our Zoom catch up requiring little beautifying, I decided to get up early, let my husband and son sleep in, and make a special Easter breakfast for our family. It was my most relaxed Easter morning for many, many years.”
Rev. Dr McFarlane said that lockdown had brought a number of benefits for his work.
“I feel guilty talking about benefits when I know so many people have suffered from the disease globally, and nearby so many businesses and workers are struggling. However, benefits for me have included being much more in control of my diary, more efficient with less travel, and having more time to exercise instead of driving,” he said.
Has the nature of ministry changed?
How working during the pandemic has changed the nature of ministry remains to be seen. Looking to the future, Rev. Taumoepeau said that he believes that, “COVID-19 will change the way we function in ministry a big way. I see changes that we will make to the way we work and how we may implement our role as ministers in the future.”
“There are some new and creative ways of doing ministry that come out of this experience,” he said.
“Particularly how we use technology to reach out to each other not only during COVID-19 time but post Coronavirus. There are opportunities, and we should take advantage of it.
“But also, there are areas we need to watch out for, not to bring disadvantages to our call to the role of minister in the 21st century. We may spread ourselves thinly and not be able to achieve much.”