Leading Through Covid and Learning From It

Billy Phenix has been walking the halls of North Point Ministries for a little over 20 years.


He has worked in student and family ministry, served as a campus pastor, and, for the last year, been NPM’s first Executive Director of Staff Culture—a big job given the more than 600 staffers who work across eight Atlanta-area campuses and the central office.

At the macro level, Billy is responsible for maintaining NPM’s organizational culture. At the micro level, Billy’s got his ear to the ground—listening for common tensions across teams and creating tools to help leaders develop, teams thrive, and staff be healthy.

Under normal circumstances, this is a big job. But in the middle of a global pandemic with staff teams working remotely to overcome challenges we’ve never faced before . . . well, Billy’s busier than ever.

Billy, let’s go back to March for a minute when the world came to a halt. What were you thinking as it relates to the staff and, more specifically, your role in supporting us?

Pretty quickly after our offices and buildings closed, we put together an online staff survey. We waited a little while before sending it so folks could really feel what their new normal would be. The survey was just a few questions, primarily: What's the hardest thing for you right now?

Three common themes emerged in the responses. Many staff told us they were struggling to balance work and home life. This was especially true for people who were homeschooling their kids. Number two: many leaders shared how they were having a hard time leading their teams since everyone’s time and attention was split differently. And three: a lot of staff were struggling to stay motivated and disciplined without the structure of standard work hours and office space.

We heard from staffers who suddenly felt marital tension after being cooped up at home. Some single staffers were feeling lonely and isolated. Parents with little kids were exhausted. Parents with teenagers had a whole different set of concerns.

We found that the tensions even changed by job description. For those with roles attached to Sunday services, work as they knew it had changed in an instant. They weren’t sure what to do anymore. Conversely, our digital team and creative services team were inundated with work as everyone tried to pivot to digital solutions. And our Care ministry was overloaded with requests from people in our communities who were struggling.

After reading all of the survey responses, we quickly realized: As staff, we’re all in the same storm, but not the same boat.

That phrase has become a kind of North Star for us through the pandemic. Everyone is experiencing the effect of the season in their own unique way. I mean, 2020 has thrown a lot at us—the pandemic, the racial tensions, the election. It’s no surprise that our staff cited anxiety, stress, and anger as some of the most common emotions they were feeling.

With all that [stress] as a backdrop, what are you doing these days to help keep the staff as healthy as possible?

Most importantly, we've encouraged leaders to focus on people ahead of projects. Distance and isolation have gotten in the way of team connectedness, so we've built tools to help leaders check in relationally with their teams. We’ve provided sets of questions that leaders or peers can ask each other on a virtual call—a litmus test of how everybody's doing. Not all of our leaders are wired to put people over tasks, so we’re trying to provide easy handles for them.

Keeping the staff healthy has also meant coaching them through this radical transition to work from home. Everyone reading this would probably agree, working remotely has been a big adjustment. Suddenly everyone is trying to figure out a home work space, sharing the internet and devices with family members, and what "office hours" look like when you never leave your house. So as often as possible, we’re passing along advice or articles we think are helpful, like the list we sent recently of best practices for virtual meetings.

For example, one of the suggestions on that list was to have team members turn on their cameras. Over time, we’ve seen fewer people doing that, likely as a way of shielding their teams from a chaotic home life—kids running around, pets barking, or working in pajamas. But the ability to see each other’s faces intrinsically connects teams together a little more. We’ve opened meetings asking folks to show off their pets or the messy pile in the corner, and then we celebrate those real-life glimpses.

Lastly, we’re ministering to our staff. We’re helping them navigate new challenges in their marriages, maintain relationships with their kids, or deal with their own loneliness. We are trying to equip our staff to be healthy in the same way that we equip our church members to be healthy.

What are some of the ways you’re seeing teams at NPM protect team health and cultivate a good culture during this unusual season?

This may sound simple, but some teams are meeting virtually for lunch or coffee and intentionally not talking about work. If you’re a task-oriented leader, you’re likely thinking, "What's the efficiency in that?" Well, in a small way, it’s a return to a bit of the normal behavior they enjoyed when they were physically together in the office, catching up on life with your colleagues.

On the task side, I think our teams are getting better at providing status updates to each other—for example, sending a "Here’s what I’m working on this week" email. This isn’t about micromanaging everyone’s workload; it's compensating for the fact that watercooler conversations, updates over cubical walls, and hallway catch-ups aren’t happening. What may feel like overcommunicating is actually helping teams stay connected.

Some of our campuses have figured out—with masks and spacing—how to safely have an in-person staff meeting. They have stretched to do this (amid masks and social distancing), recognizing that being together in a room changes the dynamic. They’ve felt like their teams needed something to break up the monotony and isolation of this season.

And we’ve made some technology changes in our offices. We’ve hustled to set up a few conference rooms with video capabilities, because some of our teams have people coming in and others working from home. Instead of forcing them to figure out either/or, we wanted to give them an option for "and." That’s come with a literal cost, but it’s important that work can happen here or at home, and no one suffers either way.

NPM will hold only online Sunday services for the remainder of 2020. From your seat, looking at all 600+ staff members, what has been the impact of that decision?

I think it’s helped our staff mentally transition from what we thought would be a sprint to more of a marathon. From March until that decision was made, our staff was focused on the short-term. What does this Sunday look like? How can we baptize people this summer? What about this year’s mission trips?

The benefit of a hard decision like that is that we’re able to settle in and figure out how to excel in the new circumstances. Knowing this season will last until at least January allows the staff to innovate more comfortably instead of living with a week-to-week strategy. We now have enough time to actually implement the ideas we’re coming up with. I think it’s also reduced some stress and weariness for people that comes from constant uncertainty.

For us here in Atlanta, schools are back in session. So, some of our staff parents are back to multitasking work and online schooling with their kids. What advice do you have for leaders who are managing their staff through this tricky season?

Be intentional with the people on your team. This often means going out of your way to look for behaviors or habits that could point to a bigger problem. I’ll give you an example.

For the last few months, one of my team members was routinely sending me emails late at night. After I noticed, I asked her if this work schedule was by design or she was feeling burdened doing work after hours. In this case, it was by design and the way she wanted to do it. She had carved out a block of time late at night to work because that fit her schedule best and freed up time in the day to be with her kids. This also allowed me to adjust my expectations on how and when she could be reached. If working in the evenings is helpful for someone on your team, great. But if it's detrimental, it's your responsibility as a leader to help your teammate find a better plan. If you aren’t paying attention to details like this, your staff could be suffering in silence.

In the middle of a pandemic when so many churches are struggling financially, maybe laying people off, and still figuring out what Sunday services look like, leaders have a lot on their plates. Team health may not be at the top of their list. What advice would you give to ministry leaders as it relates to prioritizing staff health in 2020?

It's easy to look at the work in front of us and forget about those who are working beside us. So, I think the most important thing you can do for staff health is prioritize having 1-on-1 meetings with your team members.

They should be consistent—monthly in my opinion. Pick a time and put it on the calendar. Don't wait until an issue or problem bubbles up or you have something to say. Then, amid your feedback to them, get some back. Use the time for more than just status updates. Ask questions like, What's hardest about your job right now? Where are you discouraged? What's your level of stress these days? What can I do to help? Do you have everything you need to do your job well?

Maybe even ask, How are things outside of work? There is a level of discretion that you should use there, but we know that a lot of what impacts people's work is not work stuff. It’s life stuff.

The goal is to proactively normalize these questions and conversations with your team members. If you aren’t dialed in to how they’re feeling and what they’re experiencing, your expectations might create tension.

Context changes everything, but you won’t have it if you aren’t talking to your people.

A few months ago, Andy preached a series called Better For It in which he said, "Pain without gain would be a shame." How do you think our staff is going to be "better for it" after the pandemic?

One of the things we are trying to elevate—and this was true pre-COVID—is self-awareness and self-understanding. As an organization, we talk a lot about personality profiles, like enneagram and temperament profiles. This season is giving us a chance to really learn some common language about ourselves and others. We’re having conversations like, "This is how my type reacts in these situations. This is how I’m wired to thrive or struggle." This lets other people either say, "I get it. Me too." Or, "I’m not the same, but I understand that because I understand you."

On the other side of COVID, I think our staff will be better for having this shared language and the empathy and understanding it’s creating.  

I also think we’ll be better after this season for having flexed our innovation muscles. Because we're being forced to do ministry differently than we normally do, we’re going to come out of this more creative and agile. And if we can handle it well, our teams will be stronger. Anytime you overcome an obstacle together, you’re stronger as a team.

And the last thing I’ll say is that I think we’ll appreciate some of the stuff we took for granted, like getting in a room and worshiping together, corporate prayer, and communion. I think we’ll look at gathering together in person as a little more valuable.

If you'd like to talk with your team about some of the things Billy mentioned, we have a discussion guide to get you started.

In the coming weeks, we'll be bringing you thoughts from other members of North Point's leadership team. We hope reading about the experiences of other leaders like you will be helpful and encouraging.

What other ministry areas do you want to hear from?

Leadership Interview Footer