The national staff of the United Church of Christ, working virtually since March 23 because of the coronavirus pandemic, will continue to be deployed at home until 2021. Senior leadership has decided that the Church House in downtown Cleveland will remain closed to all but permitted personnel until Jan. 1 at the earliest.
UCC General Minister and President the Rev. John Dorhauer, in a recent memo to staff, indicated that he and the leadership team have to make “important decisions in real time. We can't wait for all relevant facts to appear for us to act. And so we act based on what we know.”
The fact is, in Ohio, coronavirus continues to surge, with sharp spikes in case numbers reported daily by the state Department of Health. The largest increases in COVID-19 cases, noted in mid-July, prompted Governor Mike DeWine to mandate masks in public. Monday, Aug. 3, more than 932 new COVID-19 cases were reported, bringing Ohio’s total to almost 94,000 cases. Cuyahoga County, where the UCC offices are located, is under a Level Three Red Alert, with the second-highest number of cases in Ohio’s 88 counties.
The decision to continue to work from home, Dorhauer noted, “is based on what we know about current pandemic rates, on what we are reading and learning about a feared second wave, and on what we have discovered in our own internal surveys about the underlying vulnerabilities of our staff and their loved ones.”
The fact that many parents may soon be overseeing the education of their children from home was also taken into consideration. “We did not want parents faced with hard decisions about how to manage the semester with children at home also wondering about what will happen regarding their workplace,” his message continued.
UCC staffers who need to access the building can do so, with permission of the executive officer overseeing their team. Workers must indicate the date and time they will be going to the Church House and complete a survey for safe entry to the building, provided by Human Resources.
H.R. Director Alisa Lewis has overseen the implementation a number of protocols meant to mitigate exposure to the virus, including temperature checks, a short health assessment, face coverings, and physical distancing.
“National staff members have been working productively from their home offices,” Lewis said. “We continue to be grateful to all staff for the extraordinary work they are doing to move the mission of the denomination forward through these challenging and unprecedented times.”
To support the staff transition to home offices, UCC leadership has made self-care and professional development resources available to all, along with work-from-home reimbursement plans. Each employee was gifted with a mask from UCC Resources. The executive officers also encourage staffers to unwind together, with virtual play dates. The next one is scheduled on August 18.
“We will use the opportunity this fall provides to engage all team leaders and supervisors in conversation about what makes the most sense for us in preparing for a transition back to the office and creating a work situation that keeps an appropriate balance between our employees’ health and a desire to work under the best and most productive circumstances,” Dorhauer said. “This will insure that, if and when a decision is made to return to the office, we are prepared in an informed and transparent way.”
In late May, the general minister and president indicated that senior staff would be looking to see at least a 14-day decline in COVID-19 cases before even considering a return to 700 Prospect. Lewis indicated that once a return to the building is authorized, it will be done in scheduled phases, beginning with employees who are in the most need of returning – and that schedule will be determined by the executive officers.
National staffers are spending a lot of time meeting on Zoom, preparing for a virtual General Synod 33 next July and continuing to resource the wider church. The Rev. Chris Davies, leader of the Faith INFO (Faith Education, Innovation, and Formation) team, noted that the Tuesday/Thursday webinars, which began during Holy Week in April, are being used widely, both in terms of live participants and afterward as a recorded resource that can be viewed and shared. Those webinars will continue indefinitely, Davies said, as long as they are helpful to the local church and other organizations. Finally, Faith INFO is planning a mid-September webinar seeking feedback on useful content going forward.
The complete UCC YouTube playlist of ‘Tuesdays for Nurture’ and ‘Thursdays for the Soul’ webinars can be found here.
“I appreciate all that the staff is doing,” Dorhauer said. “We have an amazing crew and it is an honor to do this work and ministry with each and every one of them.”