Matthew Manion

Even with the support from the CARES act, many parishes, schools, and businesses are facing extreme financial challenges due to reduced revenues. The gut reaction of pastors and finance councils may be to cut payroll and eliminate staff as the quickest way to reduce expenses. 

It is imperative to consider any decisions you make through the lens of our faith and to realize there may be other options available to you.

Understanding the mission of your church is critical for good decision-making during times of crisis. It should serve as the foundation for all decisions that need to be made as you ascertain your purpose, what the Holy Spirit is calling you to do and how to best serve God’s people.

A lack of clarity in mission makes it nearly impossible to make the right decisions. This pandemic is a great time to prayerfully discern how your parish can best fulfill her mission today.

One of the keys to success is a prudent communication strategy. A common reaction may be for leaders to hide financial challenges they are facing. Many do not want to burden others or are ashamed that they do not have solutions to their financial problems. However, research shows that when leaders are transparent and open, they receive better support. 

For example, parishioners may not realize that their lack of giving could result in layoffs and may be motivated to increase their generosity if this is explained to them. Transparency with staff and key volunteers can lead to creative solutions that leaders might not have thought of on their own. 

Lack of communication and transparency may stifle the very solutions that God wants to put in front of us. In the words of St. Augustine, “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.”

Options to consider

— Repurposing staff

The first option to explore is how to creatively redeploy people to help fulfill the mission of the parish, school or business. Everyone could be commissioned to work on pastoral outreach, calling others to offer prayers, to assess spiritual and temporal needs, and obtain up-to-date contact information for electronic communication databases. Many of these tasks fall by the wayside in the day-to-day operations of running a parish or school. Now is the perfect time to address these needs.

If staff can work from home, it is important to ensure they have the tools they need to do their job. This is not a normal work-from-home situation. Employers might need to find creative ways to help their teams access information and resources that exist in their normal work environment.

— Wage reductions

To avoid layoffs, church leaders may consider pay cuts or a reduction in the number of hours worked. These options should be evaluated with careful attention to maintaining benefits if possible. During a pandemic, employees want to know they have medical insurance in the event they become ill. Church leaders need to carefully consider the moral imperative to provide health benefits when employees may need it the most. 

Leaders should have discussions with their insurance providers about plan provisions regarding the minimum number of hours that need to be worked to maintain coverage and how to account for when the definition of “regularly scheduled” hours changes through no fault of the employee.

If wage reductions are necessary, a prudent option for Christian organizations to consider is a proportional reduction of wages, with the highest earning employees facing a higher percentage of pay cut than those at the lower end of the pay scale.

— Layoffs and furloughs

Furloughs and layoffs should be options of last resort for faith-based organizations. A furlough is a temporary situation with the promise of one’s employment being restored. A layoff is a permanent termination of one’s job. Both choices have already been necessary for many organizations as a result of this pandemic. 

While the economic impact is the same in the short-term, furloughs, if possible, align more closely with Catholic social teaching in their care for the dignity of workers.

Unfortunately, many faith-based organizations do not participate in state unemployment insurance programs. The federal CARES Act provides additional stimulus payments for unemployed Americans, but it can be more complicated for those who work for religious organizations. 

If employers need to furlough or lay people off, they should consider ways to support their team in accessing these resources. In fact, it would be great if parishes offered a network of support and sharing for all parishioners who are unemployed and trying to navigate these systems.

Looking ahead

We don’t know when this current crisis will end, but we do know that we will not be able to return to life as it was before the pandemic. 

On the spiritual and emotional side, special consideration should be given today to understanding the role of grief, anxiety and fear throughout this crisis and how leaders can encourage resilience in their team moving forward.

When we transition to life after the pandemic frequent transparent communication will remain essential. Organizations must stay rooted in faith, treat their people with love and compassion, and unleash the Holy Spirit’s creativity in how they fulfill their mission. Those that do will not only survive, they will thrive.

***

Matthew Manion is a professor of practice in the Department of Management and Operations and faculty director of the Center for Church Management at the Villanova School of Business.