Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Who Gives a …?

"Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much… And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." – Luke 16:10, 12-13

All that we have is from God – even our money. This is what Jesus is telling us – we have to be faithful with what God gives us.

Is it really that painful? Do we need to warn the offering stewards to beware? [smile]

Who gives in our church? Here’s how it looks through the month of August:

Total Giving, 34 weeks = $249,256.62 - Average Weekly Giving: $7,331.07
Total Needed, 34 weeks = $241,468.00 - Needed Weekly Giving: $7,102.00

There are 156 regularly attending individuals or families (units).

10 units – 6% did not contribute to the budget
47 units – 30% contributed $20 - $500. This represents 5% of the total giving.
84 units – 54% contributed $500 - $3000. This represents 52% of the total giving.
15 units – 10% contributed over $3000. This total represents 41% of the total giving.

And here’s an interesting statistic: 66 units – 42% of our church – are composed of widows/widowers, singles, and retirees. They gave 34% of our total giving.

Over 40% of our budget comes from 10% of our church. And 34% of our total giving comes from retirees, singles, and widows/widowers. Wow!

It is important not to lose sight that God just doesn’t need our money: when we take church membership vows, we vow to give the church “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service.” But how we spend our money, and how we use it for Kingdom work, is also something we should not lose sight of. Where our treasure is found is where our hearts will be found.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Communications 101: Developing Community

You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoys its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor. – James 3:18

I am not a huge Rick Warren fan (author of The Purpose Driven Life ), he is too much of a Calvinist for me - especially when it comes to predestination. But he once said something about cultivating community in a Christian context that caught my eye: “It takes both God’s power and our effort to produce a loving Christian community.” What are those efforts? Warren gives some good advice:

Cultivating community takes honesty. In other words, speak the truth in love. Don’t gloss over tough issues or pray that they go away. In the end, people like honesty better than flattery.
Cultivating community takes humility. Being stubborn, being self-important, and being prideful destroy fellowship and community at lightning speed. Humility builds community. In the words of Paul, paraphrased: “Live in harmony with each other. Don’t try to act im-portant, but enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all.” Being humble, Warren says, is not to think less of yourself; it is to think of yourself less.
Cultivating community takes courtesy. We have to respect our differences, be consider-ate of others and their feelings, and be patient with others – even those who irritate us.
Cultivating community takes confidentiality. Only in safe places will people share their hurts, needs and mistakes. God hates gossip… and yes, sometimes a “prayer request” for someone else is gossip. What is shared in your prayer group or Sunday School class should stay there. “Gossip is spread by wicked people; they stir up trouble and break up friendships.” (Proverbs 16:18)
Cultivating community takes frequency. In other words, fellowship needs to take place often, because relationships take time; deep relationships take a lot of time. Shallowness in churches is often due to a lack of spending time cultivating relationships. We need community for spiritual health.

Most of all, community requires commitment, just like families require commitment. And in the Christian context, the family of God is the Church. We have to ask ourselves continually: are we committed to cultivating community?


Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Future of Episcopacy in the UMC – Part 5

In an earlier blog, I mentioned that the lack of leadership and direction in the UMC is showing in alarming ways. And I mentioned that while our bishops should lead, we don’t give them much power to do so. And one solution I mentioned (which I wasn’t for) was this one:

Get rid of the episcopacy? Not my vote, and it would be a feat of legislation and lobbying to enact it. However, the fact is that the Episcopal Fund is in dire straits. Only twenty-one conferences remitted 100% of their Episcopal Fund apportionments in 2005. That’s only one-third of the whole Connection.

The good news is that twenty-two conferences remitted 100% of their Episcopal Fund apportionment in 2006. The bad news? According to the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCF&A), the Episcopal Fund may experience an increase of at least 30% for 2009-2012. Reasons for this include:

• economics of health insurance for active and retired bishops
• impact of early retirements
• salaries and benefits of the bishops
• the fact that no jurisdiction reduced the number of episcopal areas

What this means is other funds will necessarily have to be reduced, even our World Service funding. And if the Côte d’Ivoire and other global members of our Connection join us in 2012 - increasing our role as a truly global church - we will face even greater budgetary challenges. Complicating this is the fact that we have decreasing membership and attendance.

As they say, this is not good.

Where I think we are challenged is to show faithful United Methodists that our bishops are worth the funds. I think what that means is that the Study on the Episcopacy is going to have to make a very strong case for bishops AND define their role, both theologically and practically.

In summary, the Episcopal Fund:

• Pays bishops' salaries
• Pays episcopal office expenses, subject to approval by the General Council on Finance and Administration
• Reimburses 67 percent of the costs for episcopal residences
• Provides pension and health benefit coverage for bishops and their families and disability coverage for bishops
• Covers the cost of episcopal travel
• Defrays moving expenses
• Provides pensions for retired bishops and surviving spouses, and minor children of deceased bishops

It’s an old fable: the donkey in the well. A donkey falls down into a well. Everyone tries to figure out what to do. It’s decided that the donkey is old, the well needs to be covered up anyway, it just isn't worth it to retrieve the donkey. Everyone grabs a shovel and shovels dirt into the well.

The donkey figures out what’s happening, shakes off the dirt with each shovel load, and take a step up. Pretty soon, there is enough dirt for the donkey to step up over the edge of the well, and the donkey trots off.

When I heard the fable the first time, I heard the pithy moral afterwards: “Life is going to shovel dirt on you, all kinds of dirt. The trick to getting out of the well is to shake it off and take a step up. Each of our troubles is a stepping stone. We can get out of the deepest wells just by not stopping, never giving up. Shake it off, and take a step up.”

But I heard a different take on the moral of the story the other day. It’s this one: When you try to cover your ass, it always comes back to get you.

I heard Sandra Lackore, GCF&A treasurer, say at the last General Conference: “We have a structure that we can no longer afford.” She warned us. Where the Episcopal Fund was concerned, we were advised to cut one Episcopal Area. No one did. And the Church continued to add off-line expenses and increase budgets. We covered ourselves by saying “We don’t want to cut ministry.” But in essence, we are cutting ministry if we are spending less on evangelism and mission and more on ourselves.

We need to give our leadership the ability to lead. We need to elect our very best to be our episcopal leaders. Not the ones who have paid their dues and bided their time. Not the ones who will satisfy whatever caucus needs to be represented. And not the ones who are elected from a sense of entitlement. We need our best and brightest. And we need them soon.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Communications 101: Clothing Does NOT Make the Man (or Woman)

"Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” – Matthew 25:44-45

Our society places an inordinate emphasis upon attractiveness, attire, and economic prosperity. Studies have shown that men who wear business suits are perceived as more attractive than men in casual attire. Nice for the secular world, but I wonder if Jesus would approve?

Some people bemoan that people dress more casually for church. My response is: since fewer and fewer people are even bothering to come to church, we should welcome folks with open arms, no matter how they are dressed.

I think we have to be very careful with the first impressions we give our visitors: we only get one chance at a first impression. If we betray our thoughts with a glance at manner of dress, an earring on a man, or a body piercing – we may give ourselves away. We are to welcome everyone, regardless of manner of dress.

This story from “One Tip on How Not to Welcome a Church Visitor” makes a good point:
One of our first time visitors had only been in America for three days. She had never ever been in a church on the globe. Her shorts redefined “mini-shorts.” The curves of her butt cheeks were visible. Her shorts were so tight her thong was visible. Her choice of plunge cut and tight fitting blouse was what we see outside of the nightclubs across the street from our residence in Panama. Instead of being welcomed, she was practically shunned. People didn't approach her, or talk with her (I did, which is how I found out about her story). They stared, stealing secret glances, and trying not to get caught. Let's just say it was a socially awkward morning. Five years later, that visitor is still remembered by the men – only because they remember how much skin they saw. They didn’t see the immigrant searching for God. – from the blog Evangelism Coach, June 12, 2007

The author leaves us with some very good questions. Be honest when you answer:

• How does your church react to visitors who dress or look differently than you?
• Can you still engage visitors in conversation when you can’t stop looking at their nose piercing?
• Do you secretly stare at their interesting haircut or choice of hair color?
• How do you react to twenty something in ripped blue jeans?
• Do you secretly wonder if the foreign visitor is legal?

Remember: communications is more than just talking. Our body language and facial expressions tell as much about ourselves as our words. How do we welcome the stranger - or even those known to us who dress or look differently? Do we welcome them as we would Jesus?

Jesus had long hair and didn't wear underwear, by the way.


Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Communications 101: Failure to Communicate

One of the biggest myths in the church: Lack of money prevents a lack of excellence in church communications and hospitality. To be honest, that’s not a reason – it’s an excuse. Budgets do not, and never have, prevented progress in communications nor in how we welcome church visitors.

Why is this important? The stakes are high! A church is a living organism. If one leg is not communicating with the other, walking will be difficult and running impossible. Hospitality is important too, to friends and strangers alike. People who come through our doors aren’t made to be here – they come on their own. If we don’t welcome them into the faith and into our fellowship, there may be nothing else to keep them here initially. We don’t meet folks halfway… we meet them all the way. Guests are expected to do nothing; we invite them into fellowship.

Fact: How often have we heard or said, “I didn’t know about that.” Did we read our newsletter? Bulletin announcements? Our emails? And if we chair or serve as secretary of a committee, did we send our minutes to other church entities? The church office? We are considering printing the minutes of all committee meetings so that we can all be in the know. No church meeting (other than personnel matters) is a “secret” meeting – and if we don’t communicate, as a body we will not function well.

Fact: The church calls us to, as well as depends upon, hospitality. Thom Rainer of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary predicts, based on data, that 50,000 American churches will close by the end of 2010. Worse, further analysis shows that most churches are on “life support” – living off previous generations’ work, money, and energy. 80% of the money presently given to congregations comes from people aged 55 years and older. Some of the best givers are widowed men and women! Anyone that is knowledgeable in finance or actuaries knows that we cannot be sustained on inherited faithfulness or inherited money. We must always be creating a new generation of disciples who are faithful in much.

We have to talk and listen. We have to be knowledgeable about our church. And we have to welcome each person who comes through our doors as a fellow sinner in need of grace, redemption, and forgiveness. We are the disciples of Jesus Christ.