A few weeks back, Mary Loncar and Pat Riddell gave an interview to the new communications director at the Rocky Mountain Conference. The article highlights the family leave policy that was put in place as a response to the challenges faced by Pastor Karen while taking care of her mother in California.

Pastors are at the core of most congregations. Even in the Christian faith, where we proclaim that all believers belong to a sacred priesthood, it can be difficult to imagine the life of a congregation without a central leader. How does a church operate without the pastor who offers counsel, who leads worship every Sunday, and provides comfort and support during our most difficult moments?

When confronted with these very questions this past January, the closeknit congregation of Community Spirit Church in Montrose, Colorado decided to approach this dilemma from a different angle. Rather than wondering how the congregation would take care of itself in the absence of a pastor, they instead asked how the congregation could care for its pastor.

It all began when their pastor, Karen Winkel, took a week off to visit her mother in California. During her visit, Karen quickly realized that her mother needed extensive care. Although she’d planned to be away from Montrose for only a matter of days, it became clear to Karen that she’d need to spend about three months in California to care for her mother.

When Community Spirit realized that their pastor’s relatively brief period of PTO was turning into an extended leave, they had a lot of big decisions to make. Would they attempt the financial gymnastics of paying Karen in the midst of her absence and also trying  to bring in a replacement? Would Karen lead worship virtually, and if so, how often? And, how would congregational life continue without Karen’s presence, even if the financial variables could perfectly align?

Although these questions weighed heavily on Community Spirit, the structure of their church already positioned them for greater flexibility. Since 2020, Community Spirit has embraced a partially remote structure in which Sunday worship alternates between a virtual format and in-person services at the Ute Indian Museum. Without the logistical and financial burdens of a church building, Community Spirit could be flexible with their finances.  And since Karen serves the church half time,  it was easier to lean into a new approach.

I had the chance to speak with Mary Loncar, the co-moderator of Community Spirit, and Pat Riddell, who is part of the church’s leadership team and also the church’s treasurer, about this process. “We’re pretty small,” Mary explains. “We’ve been trying new styles of worship, new ways of being church. We flow pretty easily when things like this happen.”

Since January, Community Spirit has been able to pivot to a new model of worship. They ultimately decided to continue paying Karen her full salary and benefits during her leave.

“When Karen first told us what was going on, it didn’t take us but a few minutes to figure out that she’s our pastor and we love her,” Mary explains.

“To me, that’s the moving of the Spirit,” Pat adds. “In so many cases in this church, when big decisions have had to be made, it’s very clear how the Spirit brings us together and provides a level of peace.”

During Karen’s leave, Community Spirit continues to search for creative solutions to keep the church thriving. Members of the leadership team take turns leading the in-person worship services. They also reach out to other voices in the Montrose community to come speak. For their virtual sessions, they bring in guest preachers via Zoom and also utilize online resources like A Sermon for Every Sunday.

Even though Community Spirit has been doing church a little differently for years, this approach is still challenging them to stretch their spiritual gifts and stay open to new ideas. Since it’s difficult to find a substitute preacher for Easter Sunday, they’re considering a simple backyard brunch at one of their parishioner’s homes instead of the usual liturgy. And, although not everyone on the leadership team feels the most comfortable being in charge of an in-person worship service, all who have been asked to take a turn have been willing to give it a try.

The experience also challenged Community Spirit to design a more comprehensive leave of absence policy. Like so many churches, Community Spirit’s previous policy only described what would happen in cases of parental leave.

“In most policies, it’s leave for children. We didn’t have much written about anything other than that,” Mary explains. “Karen doesn’t have kids but she has her mother, and we told Karen we’d come up with a policy.”

Now, in addition to its policy on parental leave, Community Spirit has additional measures in place for family leave and bereavement leave.

I asked Mary and Pat if they had any advice for other churches that might be experiencing similar challenges. How can a congregation pivot its approach in times of need, and find ways to be flexible so that they can take care of their pastors?

Both of them recommended a proactive approach. Rather than waiting until a time of crisis, make it a priority to revisit your congregation’s current leave policies. Make sure that they address different types of leave rather than simply speaking to parental leave. These types of transitions can be much smoother if the right policies are already in place. For those who might feel a bit daunted by the prospect of putting together a new policy, Community Spirit invites you to check out their updated policy. The yellow highlighted text represents the most recent additions to the policy.

For pastors who, like Karen, find themselves in sudden need of some type of leave, it can be extremely helpful to offer your leadership team multiple options that they can consider. “Karen helped us a great deal by laying out several scenarios for how things could look while she’s gone,” Pat explains. “And that gave us a jumping off point for our conversation.”

It also helps to be mindful about who needs to be part of the conversation about your leave. “When we had this call with Karen, she clearly thought it was helpful to have the treasurer and the financial secretary be part of the conversation,” Pat adds. “It helps to have those people present and able to give feedback.”

Of course, making these types of quick pivots is much easier for a smaller congregation. “One of the big lessons of not having a building is the flexibility that provides for us in a lot of other ways,” Pat explains.

“We don’t have a lot of rituals that have to be done,” Mary adds. “We really are a lightweight church.”

Even if your congregation finds itself in Community Spirit’s position without helpful preexisting policies in place, perhaps the best path forward is taking the time to listen to each other and to the Spirit.

“When we started Community Spirit, we were more intentional about slowing down and listening,” Mary explains. “And here, I think we did it again.”

Rocky Mountain Conference, United Church of Christ

Written by Allison Radomski, Director of Communications for the Rocky Mountain Conference

RMC Together Newsletter | March 1, 2024
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