Pressure Points

With Dr. Bruce Hartung

In recent columns, I asked readers to share ways that congregations and schools have been responding to the economic recession, with special emphasis on staffing and compensation. I also responded to a concern that was raised abouthartung.gif older teachers being laid off and having difficulty finding new positions because of financial concerns.  The response to these columns has been robust. I hope to hear from more readers.

Concerning the value of retaining more mature teachers, a reader pointed to an excellent article available for $3 from the Child Care Exchange.  For that article, titled “Mature Teachers Matter” (by Patricia Scallan Berl), go to www.ccie.com, then click on “Child Exchange Articles,” and follow the directions for ordering.

The column on mature teachers has generated quite a few difficult and often painful stories.  I may not be able to respond personally to all of them, but I have read them and prayed for those who are affected.  I expect to summarize some of the concerns in a future column.

Following is one response from a reader that typifies some of those concerns. In this response, the writer had previously pointed to two different leadership situations that caused hurtful feelings.

Both situations hurt me very deeply. A … lesson … for congregations from my experience: Be honest with your staff — called or contracted workers.  If either [leader] would have come to me and explained what was going on, would things have been different?  Possibly, but I know that I would have prayed and thought long and hard about what the options were. … Keeping the lines of communication open and informing the staff of what is going on will go a long way in these difficult times. 

Clearly, transparency on the part of church leaders is vital.  Even in such painful stories, almost everyone wanted honest information and straightforward conversation about the situation. Like this reader, most did not equate knowing what was going on with necessarily changing the situation. Often, financial realities are the given.  The crucial issue is for leaders to respectfully engage church or school staff.

A reader from a church-related not-for-profit organization suggested another resource, as follows:

We are proactively facing the reality of the current crisis through several means.  We’ve asked 13 people from our staff of 45 to come together as a special team to study Ram Charan’s book, Leadership in the Era of Economic Uncertainty: The New Rules for Getting the Right Things Done in Difficult Times. The team is also discussing ways that individual members and departments can help the organization save money and become more efficient.  It takes courage to discern the right direction to take, to follow through on tough decisions, and to hold out hope. 

Although I am not familiar with this book, I highly respect the person who recommended it.

A final suggestion for this month comes from a church administrator in a large multi-site congregational setting. The writer addresses proactive discussion and decision-making.

We would consider reducing hours across the staff rather than laying off any one individual.  Thus, we can create savings, but yet keep people employed and with an income. … Incumbent with this would be that those folks who were full time would continue to receive their health benefits. … Thus, I believe we would take care of two of the greater factors in a down-turning economy – a consistent income and medical/health benefits. …We have discussed several other options, but all believe this is one of the more caring solutions.

In hard economic times, there is neither a single “silver bullet” solution nor one that is painless. But I believe one reader is on-target, observing that “we pray for God’s guidance as we move forward through these difficult times.”

With prayer and planning, we also can hold up each other and behave with respect and care for each other as members of the Body of Christ.

Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is dean of Ministerial Formation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.  He can be reached at hartungb@csl.edu.

Posted May 1, 2009

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