Saturday, September 25, 2010

Testimony and Faith

Everyone on the news has made a fuss of Stephen Colbert testifying in front on congress regarding immigration reform. Some pundits loved it, some could only complain about the tax dollars spent. Two congressmen from both sides of the aisle were, in my opinion, fairly rude to him and invited him to leave.

It seems that most of the press left out this part of his testimony, when he left character and testified from the heart:

I like talking about people who don't have any power, and this seemed like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don't have any rights as a result. And yet we still invite them to come here and at the same time ask them to leave. That's an interesting contradiction to me. And, you know, "whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers" - and these seem like the least of our brothers right now. A lot of people are least brothers right now because the economy is so hard. And I don't want to take anyone's hardship away from them or diminish anything like that, but migrant workers suffer and have no rights.
- Stephen Colbert, Congressional Testimony, Sept 24, 2010
Colbert is a practicing Roman Catholic, and teaches catechism/Sunday School classes to young children preparing for First Communion. He quoted from Matthew 25. Of course, none of the pundits would want to talk about what Jesus said. That's not good enough for politics or the media. It probably galled liberals that Colbert would quote scripture. And it probably galled conservatives that the guy they've labeled a "left-wing comedian" quoted scripture, too.

I personally think Colbert was sharp enough to know that he wasn't being asked to testify from his heart, but to testify in character. But I also think he was sharp enough to work in what he REALLY thought - in the manner that Jesus was alluding to in the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, where Jesus hopes his disciples will be shrewd disciples - at LEAST as shrewd as the rest of the world - in being faithful. Colbert's closing remarks were not in character or part of his schtick, but rather, his faithful testimony as a Christian and citizen.

And for that I say: spot on, Mr. Colbert. You can claim to be an entertainer and satirist. But some of us see your faith, too.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Only God Can Fix It

Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you . . . remember that the lives of others are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business . . . even your own life is not your business. It also is God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought . . . unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy . . . What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort . . . than being able from time to time to stop that chatter . . .
- Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets, 1991
I got a call from an acquaintance the other day, and he was complaining about one of our fellow acquaintances that we knew. “I can’t understand how he can afford to buy a new car every three years, and how he has a house on the lake and takes his family to Europe every other year.” It was a rather odd question that I didn’t know the answer to, so I simply said, “Heck, I don’t know.” And, I added, “Why would you care?” His response was classic, if not disappointing: “Because I want to know!!” So I simply suggested that he call him to find out. “I knew you would be no help! I’m gonna find out what’s up with this!” And that was the end of that phone call.

Now I don’t know if he proceeded to call others to ask the same question, or if he was going to hire a private detective. But what I do know is that he was consumed with knowing someone else’s business. I’m fairly sure it also falls under the headings of envy and covet, and perhaps gossip. I am sure I can be equally guilty of any of those things as well.

The book I quoted from is from a series of books Buechner wrote that were autobiographical. Buechner’s father committed suicide when he was young, and he later struggled in helping a daughter who had anorexia. He found that he had his own demons to confront without worrying about others around him. God would have us be concerned about our own business, rather than the business of others. It doesn’t mean we isolate ourselves from the world, but it does mean that any “fixing” that happens is because God fixes, heals, and metes out justice.

Instead of talking and pointing the finger, let us simply listen and receive the grace of Jesus. It is sufficient!


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Doing Your BEST for the Church

I have had many mentors in my ministry; some of them were unaware that they were mentors to me. One of them is Belton Joyner. While I am sure he doesn’t remember it, we were on the same legislative committee at General Conference 2004. I always found his voice to be one of reason and calm.

He wrote several years ago about how you empower your church staff to do good work. I think this extends not just to staff, but to volunteer church positions as well. Micromanaging ANYTHING is always a mistake, and to do so in the church stifles leadership, discipleship, and the Spirit. Permit me to share the acronym B E S T as the Rev. Joyner explains it:
Believe in the staff. This motivates staff members and releases their potential. By believing in them you engage, equip, and empower staff members to succeed at what they do, and, in turn, your own success increases.

Encourage the staff. Let them know their work is important and personally appreciated by you. Publicly compliment them. Empower staff members by delegating responsibility to them whenever possible.

Share with the staff. Create an environment where communication, creativity, and specific expectations are a clear part of the culture.

Trust the staff. Trust is the glue that holds the staff together. Increase staff members’ freedom and responsibility as trust develops. Don’t get involved in every detail of their work. Trust them to try out new ideas and encourage them if they fail.
You have to give credit where credit is due. We choose people to do a job and then we should allow them to do it! I do my best to “butt out” of stuff unless I’m asked for help, because I know I can’t build leadership if I don’t allow it to develop.

I don’t think any of these things apply just to staff – I think they apply to all church leadership. I hope you will think about all of these things in the days to come. If you are asked to serve on a board or committee, I hope you will prayerfully consider it – and know how I feel about volunteer church positions. I certainly want to help and support all of our church staff and officers – but God gave you gifts that are unique to you! We need them, and I don’t want to stifle them!!!


Saturday, September 04, 2010

Clergy Salaries - Taboo Subject?

It is one of those things that no one likes to talk about - (a) how much does the preacher make? (b) Should the preacher get a raise? (c) Do we ask the preacher to leave the room when we talk about his/her salary?

The answer to the above questions are fairly simple:
a. That figure should be common knowledge and part of the budget (which anyone should be able to look at upon request)
b. If the preacher is doing a good job AND the congregation can afford it, of course
c. No. Not only should the preacher NOT leave the room, he or she should take leadership in not only the discussion of his/her salary, but in the salaries of the paid staff at the church.

However, (b) is not always handled well.

Getting a raise. The scriptures are clear on at least one thing: "The laborer is worthy of his hire," which is mentioned in the New Testament at least a couple of times where the matter is concerned. How much that amount should be is a matter of debate. Where UM clergy are concerned, some pastors feel that because of their education they should be paid at least enough to pay off student loans and debt (which is certainly understandable). At the same time, one does not enter the ordained ministry with salary in mind. Does an ordained minister graduate with the comparable credentials as a physician or lawyer? Yes. But is ministry as lucrative as those other two professions? Of course not. So the comparison holds some water, but not a lot.

Where clergy and raises are concerned, opinions range from clergy who don't ask for a raise (or turn one down)and feel like they are already blessed enough, to those who automatically feel entitled to a raise and take it personally when they don't get it. I am sure some clergy come off as greedy to their congregations, and there is some truth to that. When you take salary, pension contributions, and (in some cases) insurance, housing allowances, utility allowances, and professional expenses... ordained clergy may not be rolling in dough, but they don't always fare so badly either. In some cases, we clergy may make more money than many in our congregations.

In today's economic climate, I think we clergy need to be a bit more sensitive to our congregations' ability to pay and give raises. Granted, every church can be challenged where its stewardship is concerned. But some study about economic realities is in order too. One of the Methobloggers (Rev J) wrote a very enlightening blog regarding his congregation and indebtedness, citing a Dave Ramsey quote about American people and their indebtedness: "It isn't that people don't want to give to church, they can't." Rev J goes on to note that when a monthly payment to non-mortgaged debt takes half to two-thirds of a family's income, there isn't much left to give to God and the Church. So while a biblical tithe might be 10%, some families would be quite faithful and sacrificial if they only gave 1%.

Our Staff-Parish Committee looked at the CPI (consumer price index) for the past two years for our area. From July 2008 to July 2009, the CPI actually DECREASED 2.1%. From July 2009-July 2010, it increased 1.2%. Last year, as a staff we agreed to no raises even before staff-parish met; we knew it was a lean year overall and that our senior congregants did not get cost-of-living raises to their social security benefits; in good conscience we could not ask or accept raises. This year we talked about it as a staff-parish committee at length. I was clear that I didn't want or need a raise, but I hoped we could give the staff at least a cost of living increase. After a lot of discussion, we are recommending a 1.4% increase. Now that has yet to be approved by the church as a whole, but this represents a gracious and compassionate response from our church's personnel committee.

The church I serve is a very blessed one. While we are not rolling in dough, neither are we poor. God has blessed us richly: we have bought and paid off a parsonage in five years, we expanded our parking and playground facilities, and our indebtedness for a church our size is manageable and shows good stewardship. We certainly have our challenges: for one, we need to update our sound and video capabilities in our sanctuary. But I think our congregation approaches budgets and money in general in the way we should approach all things: with grace, with good stewardship, and with God as our priority.

My church is not the norm in United Methodism.

More and more churches cannot pay their apportionments, the pastoral remuneration for many churches is the largest expense on the budget, and yet some clergy DEMAND a raise - at the expense of other ministries in the church. We hear a lot of discussion from the clergy side of things - but I wonder how laity feel about this issue? Do we clergy seem greedy? Do we have our priorities misplaced? Are we paid too much?

At a time when our denomination is shrinking, our budgets are growing, and the sustainability of both is in question, I think these are good questions to ponder over. Any opinions?