Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

Pandora (our cat) and my dishwasher say Merry Christmas.

Yes, I probably need more sleep.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Who Is In Charge of the Store That Is Not Being Watched?

Last week, I wrote about who’s watching the store. This week, I’m wondering who’s in charge of the store.

News Items:
  • Madoff in house arrest, SEC under fire. “On Tuesday, SEC chairman Christopher Cox offered an embarrassing mea culpa for the agency's lack of oversight of Madoff's investment advisory firm, Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC. Cox said Wednesday there was no evidence that SEC staff did anything wrong amid accusations the regulator failed to act on tips of alleged fraud by Madoff in the past 10 years.” (Reuters)
  • Chrysler to Close All Plants for One Month. “Chrysler and larger rival General Motors Corp. have warned they could run out of cash within weeks without financial aid from Washington. Chrysler has said its cash will drop to $2.5 billion by Dec. 31, the minimum needed to meet payroll, pay suppliers and run the company. It would have trouble paying bills after the first of the year.” (Associated Press)
  • Lambuth University Crisis. "Lambuth leaders laid it on the line at a meeting called to answer questions about the financial crisis that threatens the university's future. To keep the doors open, Lambuth University needs an additional $800,000 to meet year-end obligations including the December 15 payroll. Of that amount, the Board of Trustees has already pledged $260,000 and those alumni contacted have offered another $100,000." (Memphis Conference, United Methodist Church)
  • Lambuth and United Methodist Church Unite for Common Cause. "Regarding the institution’s financial predicament, Koen explained that the current situation is a result of several events over time leading up to this point. Approximately four and a half years ago, an unacceptably high discount rate was reached under the direction of a former VP of enrollment. Due to misinterpretation of enrollment statistics and ineffective monitoring by senior leadership, there became a huge increase in Lambuth’s dependence on annual giving to balance the budget." (Press Release, Lambuth University)

All of these items are in the forefront of the news today, nationally and locally. All of them involve the failure of institutional oversight and leadership. And all of them seem to be willing to blame something instead of taking responsibility. While SEC Chairman Cox offered a mea culpa, he was also quick to say that his staff did nothing wrong.

This is the situation with Lambuth University, our conference’s small college. The school is in financial and institutional straits and is asking for contributions from alumni and churches, yet gives no assurances that safeguards are in place to prevent repeat occurrences. Legitimate questions that were asked were given vague and incomplete answers. Trustees said that they believed in the leadership and were given misleading information. Parents (to this date) have received no correspondence regarding the school’s struggles.

In short, we are being asked to bail out an institution while having vague information about the total indebtedness, how it got there, and who was (or is) ultimately responsible. These are questions that people have asked me that I cannot answer, as I have no information to give them a satisfactory answer:

  1. Why isn’t an independent, financial audit being done?
  2. What is the role of a trustee?
  3. Why should I contribute to the endowment when they’ve already been guilty of spending the principal once already?
  4. Is this a serious financial campaign, or just being done so we can say, “We tried.”?
  5. If the university goes under, is the Annual Conference financially liable?
  6. Who’s in charge, and who is ultimately responsible?

Regarding question 1: I am not an expert when it comes to finance and law. But I do know that the quickest way to engender trust after a financial crisis is to come clean, tell what happened, and print it out for all to see. Make changes and corrections and earn back trust.

Question 2: Being a trustee is more than a nice honor or being a yes man or woman to the president or CEO. It comes with responsibility and trust. It is both leadership and a check and balance of leadership. There is no one to “pass off” to or blame. It is their responsibility to know and ask the right questions.

Question 3: This is a very hard question to answer. I honestly don’t know how Lambuth will ever raise an endowment again. They violated the fundamental trust of a benefactor for an endowment – spending the principal. I don’t know if this is against the law, but I am fairly sure it is an unethical practice.

Question 4: This is an embarrassing question. I’ve gotten two emails about the urgent need for money. There has been a press release. But as far as a personal contact, or a letter to my church, I’ve yet to receive such. With such an imminent financial crisis, I would expect a whole lot more attention to detail and a “saturation” of sorts with publicity, data, reassurances, and personal contact. It seems to the casual observer that it’s not that big a deal.

Question 5: This is fuzzy too. This question was asked at the Lambuth informational meeting on Dec. 6th, and got an emphatic “no” in response. However, the trustees of Lambuth are nominated and appointed by our Annual Conference. And, were any of the buildings at Lambuth mortgaged (I don’t know if they are or not), I suspect the trust clause is in effect. If the school was to financially fail, who would creditors come after? Trustees? The annual conference? The trustees maintain that the conference is not liable. The logical question is, then, who is?

Question 6: This is really the question that needs answering. Who is in charge, and who is ultimately responsible? Are the trustees of Lambuth ultimately responsible, or is the Annual Conference who nominates and appoints the trustees the final authority? This is an important question, as it pertains to who is ultimately responsible for the debt. If the Annual Conference is not responsible, I will breathe a huge sigh of relief. However, if we are responsible, it really is in our best interests to bail out Lambuth – I suspect that would be far cheaper than enduring the endless litigation that could ensue regarding repayment of debt. Is anyone ever going to come clean and answer this question? The sooner, the better.

It all ultimately goes back to leadership – who is in charge of the store that no one is watching? It is fairly certain that in the Christian church, we are to take authority, not abdicate. To say “it’s not my job” or “we can’t do anything” is a cop out and abdication from discipleship.

It may be that in addition to being nearly insolvent financially, we may be spiritually bankrupt. Leadership in the church is not just administrative or financial - it is spiritual. Are we truly about making disciples, or just a social agency? How important is it to us? Do our hearts really burn to do the work of the Gospel?

Stephen Covey is quoted to say these words: "How different our lives are when we really know what is deeply important to us, and keeping that picture in mind, we manage ourselves each day to be and to do what really matters most."

So, who’s in charge of the store? I think Christ made it fairly clear that we are. He is the one who gave us the keys to the Kingdom.


Monday, December 08, 2008

Who's Watching the Store?

A few weeks ago, members of our Annual Conference were made aware of a financial crisis at Lambuth University, our conference's small college. An informational meeting was held last Saturday. I was unable to attend because of conflicts.

The bottom line is this: Lambuth needs $800,000 by December 15th to finish out this semester. They need $3.5 million to complete Spring Semester. We have given our churches nine days notice to raise all that money. To date, I haven't received anything official from the conference regarding fund raising, other than word of mouth. Our district superintendent sent us an informational email which was very helpful. But outside of that... I really don't know that much about fund raising attempts. Just send Lambuth your money. Soon.

From those I have talked to who went to the meeting, there was a lot of frustration. Lambuth has a new interim president; however he was not present at this informational meeting, making a videotaped presentation instead. Answers that should have been anticipated were not given. One person asked what the total debt was. The response was a convoluted "Well, that's actually hard to say... you see, there's short term debt, and there's long term debt. Then there's money we've borrowed from ourselves (endowment capital) that we have to pay back... and we took out a bond to build some buildings..." And that was the answer. We still don't know what will happen if the funding is not raised.

I am not a Lambuth grad, but I have fondness for the school. A lot of my friends went there. I would love for my daughter to attend there. But more than that... it is our conference's school. That means we are responsible for its operation and its continued mission. My questions would be two-fold: how in the world did those who were in leadership allow this to happen, and where was the check-and-balance for our leadership? As best as one can piece together, it sounds like the school is about $14 million in the red, gave more scholarships than it could fund, and was dependent on two very generous individual's contributions to cover things. How in the world could this have happened?

Before I can point the finger and assign too much blame, I have to point the finger at myself. Leadership is shared, and we must always be vigilant and responsible with the stewardship and resources God gives us and gives us dominion over. It would be very easy to blame trustees, administration, and university officers for Lambuth's problems... but in reality, we are all trustees of what God gives us, and in the oversight of God's Kingdom.

Where Lambuth is concerned, instead of saying we don't know what happened, we should all accept and admit some of the blame. The barn door was left open for a long time, and we are now paying the price.

Perhaps the words of John the Baptist are appropriate for both the Advent season and this season for our annual conference:
"From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

"But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake-- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake." -
from Mark 13 [NRSV]

'Nuf said.


ADDENDUM: This press release went out today (12/9/08):

Lambuth University crisis
Memphis Conference/The United Methodist Church

Lambuth leaders laid it on the line at a meeting called to answer questions about the financial crisis that threatens the university's future. To keep the doors open, Lambuth University needs an additional $800,000 to meet year-end obligations including the December 15 payroll. Of that amount, the Board of Trustees has already pledged $260,000 and those alumni contacted have offered another $100,000.

"We need the church, collectively or as individuals, to pledge $500,000," said Dr. Mary Cay Koen, chair of the trustees, as she stood in front of a group of concerned Memphis Conference clergy, Lambuth alumni, key lay leaders, and parents of students in the Lambuth chapel on December 6. "And this money needs to be in hand by year-end at the latest."

To finish out the next semester without cuts in services or personnel, including faculty, the school must have an additional $3.4 million, Koen said.

Questions came thick and fast after Koen and board vice-chair Mike Keeney finished giving the history of the present crisis and issuing the challenge to the church.

"Is the school going to be here for my granddaughter, a freshman on an athletic scholarship?" asked Catherine Russell from McNairy County.

"If Lambuth, God forbid, doesn't continue, will the indebtedness here be the responsibility of the Memphis Conference?" queried the Rev. Tim Carpenter.

"As a parent of a student with college application deadlines, what are we supposed to do?" asked one mother. "My daughter, who's determined to come to Lambuth, says God will take care of it, but I'm trying to be a little more realistic."

Dr. Walter Mischke, retired clergy, said, "My question is about the athletic program, football. Has the tail been wagging the dog?"

Charles Allison, a church lay leader, Lambuth alumni and a CPA, asked pointedly why he hadn't been contacted before now. "Why didn't we have this meeting three years ago?" he wondered. "If I give you money now, can you show me you'll safeguard it?"

And Dr. Bill Evans, pastor of the Enville-Holly Springs Charge, wanted to know how the university reached this point. "It's an issue of accountability," he said. "Why didn't the trustees raise these concerns earlier?"

Dr. Koen and Keeney tried to answer questions as they arose.

During her history of the crisis, Dr. Koen outlined the basic problem: "Net tuition revenue, or real dollars paid for an education, has never kept the doors open here," she explained. "Lambuth has always undervalued its education and depended on significant annual giving."

Additionally, she added, "Lambuth has a tremendous debt service to the tune of $1.3 million per year and the endowment is encumbered to the point that the institution realizes very little income."

While all that made balancing the university's budget difficult, Koen said, it hadn't been an insurmountable problem-until now.

What's different now?

"We've survived 143 years this way," Koen continued. "Why is now so different? The generosity of United Methodists, alumni and others kept the wolf at bay until 4 1/2 years ago. A new VP for enrollment management was brought in by newly inaugurated President, Fred Zuker...In order to reach a large class size, this VP gave away a 4-year Lambuth education at a 97% discount rate to 250 students."

Although he was fired at the end of the year, the president had trusted the VP too much and believed his misrepresentation of facts. He hadn't monitored him effectively, Koen said. The damage was done.

The result? A huge dependence on annual giving to balance the budget. Instead of $1 million in annual giving, the school now needed $5 million annually.

"It's been a catch up game ever since," Koen explained, adding that the problem had nothing to do with spending on capital improvements, renovations on campus, or the athletic program. "Lambuth has never had a spending problem; Lambuth has a historic revenue problem which was literally magnified 500% by the deals made to recruit our senior class," she said.

Koen outlined the revenue raised by then President Zuker to address the financial shortfall. "Fred knew he had to raise a lot of revenue and he did," she said, stating that he brought in donors that gave Lambuth millions, "to the tune of $12,000,000!"

"We knew we needed to address the net tuition revenue and number of students," she said. "We set specific goals that would in five years relieve us of the need to depend on fund-raising. We met all those goals this year...but our budget this year depended on $5.6 million of additional giving."

Koen went on to outline a sudden new crisis when a $1 million discrepancy was discovered in revenue needed to finish the year.

"Our two very generous donors ultimately took care of the $1 million shortfall and gave us the safety net to go ahead without severe budget cuts," she said. "They also promised to continue giving at a reduced rate over the next four years. ..but we now know that markets and circumstances can change." The stock market fell, the school's safety net was gone. The donors withdrew their support.

In addition to the financial crisis, the school now had a leadership crisis. Not one vice president present in June is still with the university. President Zuker first moved to Chancellor then resigned. Dr. Charles Mayo was appointed as Acting President while still serving as VP for Academic Affairs, Dean of the College of Humanities, Head of the English Department, and taught four classes. The university underwent its regularly scheduled SACS accreditation visit. It was the proverbial perfect storm.

As for the questions raised, Dr. Koen said there is plenty of blame to go around. "Business as usual changed 4 1/2 years ago. We went from a reasonable amount of required annual giving to a great amount. But the board had faith in the leadership. The reports we received were good. Fund-raising was so successful. We had balanced budgets over the last four years. And the huge gaps were filled by generous donors who are now gone. Santa Claus has left the room."

But the school will be open through the spring semester, at the least. New leadership, represented by Interim President Jerry Israel, has ideas for moving forward once Lambuth gets past this crisis point.

The Rev. Ted Leach, a trustee, said, "Trustees are asking much harder questions now. This can be one of Lambuth's finest hours if we get through this crisis."

Bishop Dick Wills called on United Methodists to step forward, "not for the sake of the buildings, but for the faculty and students whose lives are shaped for all eternity by what's provided here...We need this turnaround to be permanent," he continued, "not something that occurs every year. We need to pull together as a family. If we can do that, Lambuth will live within its means."

If you wish to help, give an immediate gift to Lambuth through your church or contact the school's Development Office.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Change in Seasons

As inevitable as change is, we do not handle it well. The weather changes, and we complain – even though weather changes are inevitable and indeed necessary for our survival. The recent presidential election means change, with about half our country happy about it and the other half not. Basketball fans either love their coach or are ready for him or her to move on, with a change in coaching always provoking arguments. I have lived in several communities, and witnessed the turmoil of school consolidations, forming metro governments, lotteries, alcohol sales, zoning changes… the list is long. It takes a lot of faith and discernment to know the different between needed change and novelty change. Change is upsetting, regardless of what “side” we are on.

The Church is not immune. In the years to come, I believe our annual conference and denomination will have to make changes to meet the challenges of our day, or decide to live in the past and no longer effectively minister to present and future generations. We live in an age where a computer is now a necessity rather than a luxury – the church is no different. Methodists have always deployed clergy with an itinerant system, and we now find the present system is antiquated and very broken, more suited to serving pastors instead of equipping our churches. Methodists have a wonderful connectional system, yet we use it selectively; churches that are dying could pool their resources, merge facilities, and by doing so offer more to a culture that is increasingly diverse. However, mention merger or closing to a local church and the attitude is usually, “I was born in this church; if this church closes, I just won’t go to church.” A lot of churches lament our district’s recent charge conference; the whole district gathered to do the yearly business of the church, and submitted numerous forms by consent calendar, saving a lot of man and woman hours, and it was one of the largest district gatherings I can ever remember. The complaint from some? “We want our own charge conference.” Great…so all 5-8 people that show up can get together, brag on their church, smile for the D.S., and submit a bunch of forms? No wonder people don’t come. I wouldn’t if I didn’t have to.

In all of this critique about change, it is rarely mentioned that the “way we’re used to” isn’t working. Two of our annual conference’s agencies are struggling to stay open. Our conference’s university, Lambuth, has an unsure future. United Methodism is still losing membership, and we’re operating as if it’s still the 18th century. The mission should still be the same: making disciples for Jesus Christ. The problem is we may be applying 18th century theory to 21st century practice. We are certainly not supposed to be of the world, but we ARE supposed to be in the world.

I think Jesus has a lot to say to the 21st century, and I think we do too. How much are we willing to be changed by God to be a disciple, and a disciple maker?


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Well-Deserved and Usually Forgotten Thank You

This Saturday, there is a dinner honoring and thanking the firefighters and spouses of the Reidland-Farley fire district, and they will be presented a gift. Our church, along with all of the Reidland area churches, is helping to contribute to and support that cause.

I was a firefighter for several years, and worked in paid, paid-on-call, and volunteer capacities. I served as a dispatcher, a nozzleman, a driver/engineer, a chaplain, and as a line officer. It is hard work, it is dirty work, and it is dangerous work. I retired from the fire service in 2001.

We are very blessed to have the fire department that we have. They are well-equipped and very well trained. And I am always very quick to correct folks when they say that someone is “only” a volunteer firefighter or that their local fire department is “only a volunteer department.” In this day in age, volunteer firefighters and departments - by law - have to have the same training and certification as paid firefighters do. And, because volunteers are on call 24/7, they actually work more fires and have more experience than several career firefighters. Why do they do it? They love and care about their communities.

It takes time; time away from families, time away for leisure activities, and when duty calls, time away from things like Christmas and birthday gatherings. Nearly everyday a fire engine or ambulance drives by my office. As I glace up, I see a fire helmet and shadowbox of badges from former departments I served hanging on the wall next to the window, and I always say two prayers: I thank God that I was never seriously hurt or left my family without a husband and father, and I pray that the men and women in that fire engine or ambulance are also spared from harm.

Author Kurt Vonnegut once said, “I can’t imagine a more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine.” And he once told his wife, “[A] fire engine goes by… And I give them the thumbs up.”

Next time you see a firefighter, thank God and them for their service. And whenever you see a fire engine, whether on an emergency run or not, give them the thumbs up. Pray that God keeps them safe. For all you know, they may be on their way to your house.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Remembrance Day - Veteran's Day

A year ago today, I was in Epworth, England. It was a Sunday, and we were gathered in the middle of Epworth for a Remembrance Day observation. In addition to those gathered, members of the British Armed services, veterans, and the Army Cadet Force were present. The colors were presented. Two minutes of silence, per British custom, were observed. A bugler then played.

The British do things very well.

After this, we marched to St. Andrew's Church for a United Remembrance Sunday Service. St. Andrew's was where John Wesley's father, Samuel, was rector. When John was banned from preaching in his home church, he stood on his father's grave next to the church and preached.

One of the things I realized that I was ignorant of was that in World War I, while Americans lost soldiers, many around the world lost soldiers, women, and children. As the worship service progressed, the minister (a British Methodist) noted that when we are in school, a roll is called for the register of attendance. However, on this day, as the roll is called, it was a register of absence: the names called represented costly sacrifice, earthly riches lost, and unrealized hopes.

Even though I was away from the land of my citizenship, the service brought tears to my eyes. I was standing next to my father, who served in the Korean War. His older brother, Howard, was missing in action in World War II, with no body to bury and no clue as to what happened in the last days of his life. I can only imagine how this day would be more difficult for those who have buried loved ones who were civilians in harm's way.

I hope for the day when we beat swords into plowshares and study war no more. Until that day, God bless those who serve in our military, God bless those who have served, and God bless all who have lost their lives in wartime. May they all have peace.


Tuesday, November 04, 2008

How Did I Vote? Sorry... I Ain't Playing That Game

I voted. I always do when given the opportunity (I am a registered Independent and Kentucky has closed primaries, so I can't always vote). But I get more and more depressed each time I do it. I wonder if I am selling out my Christian faith when I vote.

Worse, the way you vote or feel about an issue automatically gets you placed into a camp, at least in America. We Americans like to be for/against, black/white, yes/no. We don't like to think in terms neither/nor, shades of gray, and either/or. Did Jesus believe in the Ten Commandments? Of course. However, when someone needed healing on the Sabbath, he did it. Sometimes, the line moves and black and white becomes shades of gray.

So did I vote? I did. Was I happy about it? No. Was I happy about my choices? Heck no. That meant that I was not happy with the way I voted.
  • For president, I had to decide between a senator who speaks well and is enthusiastic yet politically inexperienced and a senator who I once respected but has changed to be more palatable to "his side." Both candidates have very troubling stances that I find morally and ethically problematic. Both represent political parties that have a lot of moral bankruptcy and a history of abdication of responsibility.
  • For senator, I had to decide which candidate had the least offensive political ads. I can't blame their parties, because both of them as individuals "approved this message." Sen. McConnell started out his campaign with muckraking and flat-out lies. Before it was over, Bruce Lunsford joined the act and did the very same thing. Maybe that's politically the smart thing to do. But no one will ever convince me it's the moral thing to do. I don't want to teach the next generation that the way to obtain leadership is to do so by denigration and speaking dishonestly of another child of God.
I have voted and my American conscience is clear. My Christian conscience, however, is troubled.

My community is in the midst of a school consolidation issue. It wasn't on the ballot, but it is a source of contention among many. I am watching it tear apart a community. People are taking sides, and you're either on their side or you are "bad." 

In theory, we're all supposed to be on the Lord's side. It seems, however, that people's idea of the Lord's side is based on how they voted. While I think God is concerned about our lives, I am not sure He places that much cosmic importance on a local school consolidation, a U.S. Senatorial election, or even a U.S. Presidential election. We are but one very small speck in an infinite universe of God's creation.

So who's side am I on? I'm on the Lord's side. Do you think I'm gonna tell you how I voted or how I feel about school consolidation?

Not on your life. I am a lot more than my vote or opinion. 


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Clothes Make the Man (or Woman)?

I never knew where this phrase came from until the other day; it's a Mark Twain quote. "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society. "

Hardly a quote intended to impress the need for dressing to the nine's. Sounds like it means that this is what separates us from the animals. I'm glad we wear clothes!

On one of the news programs this morning there was a very long segment on what the presidential candidates were wearing. Of course, all the hubbub about Gov. Palin's outfits figured prominently, along with Sen. McCain's $500 shoes, Sen. Obama's 5-6 suits, Sen. Biden's hair (or lack of it), and so on. And the bottom line? "People watch what others are wearing, but it probably has very little to do with how they vote."

So I looked in my closet - and it's pretty sad re: what I wear to work. I have:
  • 4 pairs of Levi 560 blue jeans, relaxed fit ($30 a piece, total $120)
  • Several polo-type shirts, long and short sleeved ($15-$20 a piece, total around $140)
  • A four pairs of Docker pants ($28-$35, total $140). 
  • Two clerical shirts ($35 a piece, total $70)
  • Two suits that probably need replaced: (guessing around $425)
  • One pair of dress shoes on their 4th sole ($125)
  • Two pairs of casual shoes ($140)
If clothes make the man, it takes $1,160 to make me. Maybe I should upgrade. 


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Gunner's Ultimate Healing

At 1:43 PM, G-man got on the train to the Church Triumphant, where God will wipe all the tears from his eyes, where there is no more cancer, no more death or mourning or crying or pain, and all things are made new. He's healed and cured.

Thank you, Father. Bless those of us who grieve, especially Gus and Janna.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Happiness Is Being A Pastor

Today, between worship services, the K-2 Sunday School class presented me with this card - which is 1/2 the size of my office door!

I am a very, very blessed man.


Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Happiness Is Being a Labrador Retriever

I have been staring out of the office window for about an hour - I have a writing deadline next week that I am going to be hard-pressed to make, and as luck would have it, I have "block." Having Block is bad enough; worse, the writing deadline is for a homily resource - sermon illustrations for Lent! Writer's Block and Lent are a very bad combination!!

Since it isn't 5 PM yet, staring out the window is my only inspiration. About 30 minutes ago, a black labrador retriever walked by the window. All of the sudden, he took off like he had been scalded. He was chasing a squirrel, and they did a dos-si-do before the squirrel found a tree and ran up it. The dog was barking, jumping up at the tree, and then backed off and just looked up... and smiled that smile that only labradors have.

Watching them took me back to a memory I had when I was in seminary. It was the spring, and I was umpiring a small college baseball game. I can't remember the school, but what I remember was that the field was open along the left and right field foul lines past the dugout - no fence. Some of the fans sat in lawn chairs along the lines, and saw a grill going cooking burgers and such.

About midway in the game, a player from the visiting team hit a ball into an outfield gap and was trying to turn it into a double. As the runner rounded first base, I saw a black streak out of the corner of my eye come from the lawn chairs on the right field side. It was a black lab, and he was running full-throttle... toward the runner. As the runner was coming to second base, the dog clipped him. Hard. My partner stopped the game. I think the second baseman helped the runner up. Everyone was laughing on both teams except, of course, the runner.

Efforts to corral the dog were largely unsuccessful. The more players tried to chase him down, the more the dog thought it was play time, and that labrador retriever smile was just getting wider and wider. After a couple of minutes, he simply trotted back over to the right field side and laid down by the grill, where I'm sure someone fed him a hot dog or two.

While everyone else was trying to get their composure back, the catcher was having no luck in doing so, laughing harder and harder, tears coming out of his eyes and trying in vain to remain in an upright posture. Finally, he manages to crouch down and the pitcher throws a pitch. I don't remember if it was a ball or strike, because he started laughing uncontrollably again. The runner at 2nd base is not at all amused, so I told him, "Man, you better get a hold of yourself, or that guy is gonna come over here and whoop you."

The catcher simply said, "He'll probably whoop me for sure if he finds out that's my dog."

Now, I don't know who laughed harder, the batter, the catcher, or me. But I do remember that we had to stop the game. Again.


Monday, October 06, 2008

Holy Cow... and %@$# !

I am not a die-hard Cubs fan, though I do have a preference for the National League. But it's hard not to root for the Cubs if they get into post-season. 

All I can figure is that the Cubbies must be cursed. A great regular season... and then in the playoffs, they boot the ball out in the field, and have no bats at the plate.

I just don't know what else to say. I'll just let the psalmist lament for me:
1 How long, O LORD ? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and every day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

3 Look on me and answer, O LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;

4 my enemy will say, "I have overcome him,"
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

5 But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.

6 I will sing to the LORD,
for he has been good to me.
- Psalm 13

Please keep Cubs players and fans in your prayers. Their mourning will not be short.


Wednesday, October 01, 2008

We Look Good – On Paper

The United Methodist Church is a great church… on paper; just check out a Book of Discipline. The 2008 BOD won’t be published until January, but the 2004 BOD has 832 pages in it and is 6 ¾” x 9 ¼”. That compares to my 1984 copy which had 769 pages in it and was 5 3/8” x 8 5/8”. Our annual conference has 25 “Special Days” to take place on Sunday celebrations of worship, raising awareness of different ministries in our conference. We have lots of sub-groups, divisions, and special interests in our denomination that have their own offices, complete with budgets, staff, special study guides, even “lobbyists” that push their causes. United Methodism, by all appearances of structure and budget, must be busting at the seams.

Sadly, we know that’s not true. And my blog title is a misnomer, because while the METHOD of Methodism looks good (on paper), the facts and figures look very bad – we are continuing to lose members.

I’ve said this in blogs before – United Methodism is awfully good at majoring in the minors. Take the items in the first paragraph: 
  • The Book of Discipline. It gets bigger and bigger, yet the UMC gets smaller. Lots of rules and regs, but very little theology or instructions in Christian praxis. More and more about ordination requirements, but still no theology of ordination. 
  • Special Sundays. We place 25 Sundays in the Christian year as “special” in our annual conference – nearly half the Sundays in a calendar year. We have done that at the expense of liturgical days such as Epiphany, Pentecost, and Christ the King. Some of our folks know what Native American Sunday means, but have no clue what Epiphany means. 
  • Special Groups. Do newcomers to the UMC "get" all these groups, factions, caucuses, and causes? Are they really needed anymore? For example: United Methodist Women certainly hold a prominent place in our denomination, but isn’t it telling that rarely does any of its membership include women under 60 years of age? Are we welcoming to younger folks?

Our UMC rank and file leadership seems to go into two directions: (1) Are very wary and resistant of change, even in the midst of dying. (2) Realize change is needed, and often have to leave/ditch Connectional resources and ties to do so.

Resistance to change seems to be inherent to United Methodists – as progressive, inclusive, and “in touch” as we claim to be, I wonder if we really are? Have we become so inbred that we don’t want change and content to die? If this is true, we have really played a bad joke on ourselves. Instead of doing a 180° - as John Wesley intended us to – could it be that we did a 360°, and we are right back where we started? Are we living out Wesley’s greatest fear?

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out. – John Wesley, 1786

I attended our annual conference's Connectional Ministries Team meeting the other night. I have to admit - I usually don't attend (I'm on it by virtue of a conference commission I chair). But the ideas outlined to go to the bare bones, re-prioritize, and to make disciples energized me.

What would happen if we asked ourselves, every time we took action as a conference, committee, or church: "How does this act/action contribute to 
  1. reaching people, 
  2. discipling them, and 
  3. being part of God's work of transformation?"

For one thing: it might put into question the very existence of some of our conference entities. Or at least question how we've operated them for some time (I know I am having to ask myself these questions as the chairperson of a conference committee).

To do these things, we will have to take our conference mission to heart: Making disciples of Jesus Christ who will transform our church and the world, through bold decisions, faithful sacrifices, and courageous actions.

Change is hard. Bold decisions are risky. Sacrifices are uncomfortable. Courageous actions take stoutness of heart. Sounds a lot like the beginnings of Christianity.

This could be exciting!


Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Discipleship: Balance & Faith, Not Fixing People

It is a lesson that doctors and pastors have a hard time learning: we cannot “fix” people. Medicine and God can fix people, but people cannot fix people. I think this even applies to being disciples and making the disciples: We cannot fix people; only God can. The sooner we learn that, the better.

We cannot be all things to all people - even in the church. As much as we want everyone to come to Sunday School, never miss worship, be here whenever the doors are open, etc., the reality is that once we invite people and encourage them, we have to let God do the rest. It doesn’t mean we need to be lazy or “hands off,” but neither can we make nor fix people into being faithful. Only God can do that.

I am keenly aware of this, being that pastors tend to be people pleasers. The problem with this is (a) no one can make everyone happy, and (b) Christians are supposed to please God and God only. I know what the expectations are: pastors are supposed to be CEO’s, administrators, counselors, academicians, teachers, visitors of the sick and lonely, fund raisers, spiritual leaders, marry-ers and bury-ers, and excellent preachers. The fact is that it is impossible to do all of these things to suit everyone – so why try? We must please God first. And in the end, only God can fix things anyway.

Trying to be something we are not, and trying to do what is not in our power leads to burnout. The most sobering statistic I have ever read is this one from Jimmy L. Draper, former head of Lifeways Ministries: today, for every 20 people that go into the pastorate, only one of them will retire from it. They either burn out, get dismissed, have a moral/ethical breakdown, or just quit. I know I can count over 30 people I have known in the past 20 years around my age that are no longer in pastoral ministry.

Before you feel too sorry for me, I think all of these things apply to all of us as disciples: do we see ourselves as fixers, or helpers? Do we see ourselves as lone rangers, or in partnership with Christ? Do we think that we don’t pray hard enough, or is it possible that we’re simply not listening (or liking!) what God might be saying to us?

It’s all about balance and faith – in all things. If we please anyone, it needs to be God. Only God can fix what is broken, and only God can cure us of what ails us.


Saturday, August 23, 2008

Parsonages & Itineracy: Out of Date or Just Ignored?

I cleaned our house today - I usually do this earlier in the week, but schedules never quite worked out for that to happen. Our house is three years old - built new right after I moved to Reidland. It's hard to believe three years has gone by. As you can see in the picture, we live in a very fine house.

Even though the house is still like new, there are a few things that need some attention. I contracted someone today to clean the gutters and pressure-wash the deck, which will need staining before it weathers too much more. I need to remove some mulch and replace it around the perimeter of the house where the landscaping is. Our church was very gracious in building a new parsonage, and I am going to do my best to be sure we keep it looking new. My family has always covenanted to leave the parsonages we lived in in better shape than when we moved in them.

I've been lucky throughout the years that I've never moved into a less-than-standard house. No house is perfect, but there weren't holes in the bathroom floors or leaky roofs or substandard wiring in them like some of the horror stories I have heard from others over the years.

However, I have to confess that some of my colleagues have given all of us pastors a bad name over the years. It is hard to believe, but some pastors simply trash their parsonages. They not only don't clean them, but they don't bother to repair them and alert folks to needed repairs. The word gets out that "You don't want to follow so-and-so, because you won't be able to move in to your house for two weeks - it won't be fit to live in!" It's been my experience that most church trustees are more than happy to address parsonage issues if you and the your family show an interest in maintaining and even improving it.

Some pastors resist such help - they see such as an intrusion of their privacy. While folks can certainly snoop more than they should, churches have a valid right to keep their property and assets in good condition... and if they've had previous (or present) pastors who don't take care of their parsonages, churches get understandably nervous, or even resentful, when yearly inspections or maintenance are not met with open arms by pastors and parsonage families. As a result, when it comes time to make a decision on whether to build a new parsonage, renovate a present one, or offer a housing allowance, the housing allowance is often chosen.

In our conference, parsonages are becoming an endangered species; more and more churches are moving toward a housing allowance. Financially, of course, this is advantageous to pastors - it allows them to build up equity. But from the point-of-view of the United Methodist itineracy, it can be disastrous: it puts another variable in a system that already has a lot of variables. In my Annual Conference, folks in Memphis tend to stay in Memphis - which ties the hands of the cabinet in making appointments. Add to that the "We have a house that we'd have to buy/sell" argument, or "We haven't amortized our house yet" plea, and it puts another kink into the itineracy - maybe a pastor needs to move, maybe a church needs the pastor to move, or both - but the pastor's finances (or lack of them!) end up making the final decision... something that the parsonage system eliminates. Add to that the fact that the spouse may have a job that they can't or don't want to leave, and itineracy becomes nearly impossible.

As a result, a multi-tiered itineracy becomes a reality. Our large membership churches are already in a tier by themselves. The next tier are churches who offer housing allowances, particularly in metropolitan areas: the advantage here is that pastors can be moved around in metro areas without worry about a pastor having to sell a house - they can usually keep the present house they live in. And then there are churches with parsonages. The advantage is that there are no homes to sell or buy, and pastors in this category are much more mobile and able to itinerate from farther distances away.

The snafu is when someone moves from one situation to another: you either have to buy a house, or sell a house. In our conference, that can happen with relatively short notice - and in this present economy, the housing market is very poor. Our parsonage is located in a new housing development of Paducah, and there are three houses for sale on our street... and they have been up for sale for nearly six months. The absolute worst case scenario is moving from an appointment that has a housing allowance to another appointment that has a housing allowance, and buying a house at your new location and being unable to sell the house in your previous location.

I'm not naive enough to think that other professions don't have this problem, but in theory, the itinerancy was designed to be able to deploy clergy to serve every church in an annual conference, sometimes very quickly. Parsonages helped the itineracy in this regard.

Given the increased difficulty of making pastoral appointments, and the present realities of parsonages, housing allowances, and two-income and two-profession families, it seems that United Methodism needs to do some thinking and rethinking.
  1. Is the itineracy really just dead - and should we bury it?
  2. If not, are we still committed to itinerant ministry?
  3. If so, do we need to reconsider the move toward housing allowances as the norm?
  4. Do we need to hold pastors financially accountable for damages, and insist on yearly inspections with D.S.'s present?
  5. Or do we need to ditch the itineracy and go to a modified call system?

Right now, it seems to be that we are in the worst of all worlds where the above is concerned. Any ideas?


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Six Degrees of Separation

I did something last week I said I’d never do – I signed up for Facebook on the Internet. It is a social network that began as a college campus networking tool, but soon expanded to anyone and everyone. And it’s been incredible how many old friendships I’ve renewed in so short a time… and how many new ones have begun.

There is a phrase that comes to mind: Six Degrees of Separation. It is a theory that if a person is one step away from each person they know and two steps away from each person who is known by one of the people they know, then everyone is an average of six "steps" away from each person on Earth. It’s even led to a game called “Six Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon,” a party game in which you can take any actor and link him to actor Kevin Bacon. Let’s see… Kate Winslet was in Titanic with Leonardo DiCaprio, Leonardo DiCaprio was in Catch Me If You Can with Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks was in Apollo 13 with Kevin Bacon [I’ll be darned]. Ronald Reagan was in The Young Doctors with Eddie Albert, Eddie Albert was in The Big Picture with Kevin Bacon… well, you get the idea!

Small world, isn’t it?

Jesus said, “Go and make disciples.” John Wesley said, “The world is our parish.” It seems clear that God uses encounters with believers to draw people to Himself. In that respect, if we allow ourselves to be used as vessels, there is only one degree of separation between people and God.

The world really isn't that big of a place - or parish.


Thursday, August 07, 2008

Pastor as Spiritual Leader - Part III

Take Thou Authority?

In one of the last posts on this matter, I noted that the UMC has no theology of ordination, but we have a host of procedures and policies. We are one of a handful of denominations that will place someone as a pastor of a church without ordaining them, such as local pastors, commissioned pastors, etc. Whether one is ordained or not, one is a pastor of a United Methodist church not because of ordination (a means of grace and sacramental action), but because of authority being granted to them by the Book of Discipline.

Herein lies a problem, I think: we are granting pastors authority from a standpoint of church law and ministerial office, and pastors often assert their authority by persuasion (which can be good and bad). But in a day and age where people are suspect of authority and disillusioned with the Church, none of those standpoints really grant any empowering authority at all. Pastors are going to have to realize that true authority comes from God, and pastoral authority comes from God's grace. This is where ordination SHOULD be couched, but I fear (at least in the UMC) that it is not.

Authority is power - but power misplaced gets us nowhere. Ministry is done by all of the people, not just the pastor. In fact, the word liturgy literally means "the work of the people." It may be that pastoral authority's real power comes from shared leadership and vision. It is clear that pastors do not know best and our education is not helping us - or our denomination would be growing instead of dying. Unlike the paradigms of the world, the parish model is to use the power and authority God gives us WITH others, rather than OVER others.

Author Howard Rice contends that until pastors can be straightforward about their own spiritual journeys, those that they pastor will never be able to recognize similar movements of the Spirit in their own lives:
The deeper we [pastors] go in our own experiences, the more general those experiences turn out to be; the more we dare to lift up the struggles and successes of our own faith pilgrimage and share them with others, the more others are helped to articulate events along the way of their own journeys. All too often laity keep their deepest religious experiences from pastors. Parishioners fear that pastors will not understand or accept their experiences. They may worry that they are not good enough. They don't show themselves for fear of rejection. They hide behind walls and hope that someone will notice them and pay attention. They hope that the pastor will say words that validate their experiences...

People need help to sort out their deepest experiences. They need someone they trust to help them recognize the dangers of some choices. They need help to reorganize their tendency to spiritual pride. They need guidance to distinguish the voice of God from the welter of other voices. At heart, therefore, the pastor must be a guide to the spiritual life, a person others trust to share the struggle. The pastor offers assistance, not as one who has already arrived but as one who is on the same journey, going alongside the people and perhaps a step or two ahead.
- Howard Rice, The Pastor as Spiritual Guide, pp. 185-6.

Those two paragraphs are damning to many pastors - are we as adept and (more to the point) bold as we should be in matters spiritual? Can we share our own spiritual journey and struggles competently and articulately? As well as we (claim to) preach? Can we speak the language? And can we be humble enough to realize that we have not "arrived" yet? We learned - and indeed, were trained - to be the resident theologians to our churches. Can we honestly say that we are also the resident spiritual directors of our churches?

It'll take work - and prayer - to get there if we're not the spiritual directors or guides of our churches. And in the process of shoring ourselves up, we cannot shirk off our other responsibilities. Effective ministry requires priorities. We still have to be managers and administrators. The sick need visited. The youth need instructed. People may need the pastor and not have an appointment. Some pastors have been labeled as lazy, and it is hard to refute the label. Others don't heed the signs of needing sabbath. Still others work hard, but don't prioritize well. Working and taking sabbath require spiritual adeptness and maturity to discern! I know that I am still learning.

For a season, we UM pastors may have to see "being connectional" as being connected to God and discerning the Holy Spirit, instead of being connected to Annual Conference, continuing education seminars, and district gatherings - these are tools, not ends to themselves. And instead of prayers of petition, we may need to be praying in silence and listening to what God has to say to us, instead of telling God what we want to say. God is certainly essential to the task of pastoral ministry - no duty can call us higher (not even duty to the district or conference!!!); secondary and tertiary matters must yield to the primary.

A lot of pastors burn out or get jaded because they either think they are alone, or that they believe that they alone have the wisdom, education, and authority to do ministry. The fact of the matter is that Christ empowers us - and "us" includes laity and clergy alike. In order to empower the masses, we have to be spiritual leaders who derive authority from the witness of their personal integrity and model, rather than deriving it from the pastoral role or office. As Rice says in his book, that kind of authority becomes authentic, powerful, and changes lives.

It may be that we pastors need to lead and follow... or get out of the way.


Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Oops, Crud, and Doh!!!

Since fuel prices have gone up, some folks have been buying motorcycles and scooters to defray costs, and I've gotten an occasional call or two asking for my advice, tips, what to have in the saddlebags, etc. The main thing I tell them is to remember to check the weather each day, and to remember which vehicle you have if shopping. My saddlebag list:
  • flashlight
  • road flares
  • cycle jumper cables
  • tire kit/gauge
  • rain gear
  • crescent wrench
  • towel
  • Leatherman tool
  • sunscreen
  • 1st aid kit
  • lip balm
  • hand purifier
  • bungee straps

Having said that... I goofed yesterday. I have been riding my motorcycle (a Kawasaki Vulcan Classic LT) just about every clear day this summer to work and for errands. The office needed a new computer monitor, so I went to Best Buy and got a good deal. As I walked out into the mall parking lot with a computer monitor and box in my hand, I realized that I had forgotten my own tip I had given new riders... and saw my two wheeler parked.

This is why you carry bungee straps. Glad it wasn't a 60" television.


Monday, August 04, 2008

Pastor as Spiritual Leader - Part II

Congregations are demanding entities. The church I serve has around 450 members, and if I were to poll them on what they expected out of me as their pastor, I would probably get several responses. I think it would be safe to say that being a competent manager and being a spiritual leader would be chief among them. While theologically and scripturally there is a problem with just being a "hireling," the reality is that people do pay some pastors a fair amount of money - and they rightfully have some expectations.

Church Management/Administration - "Being Martha." I hate administration and management. But the reality is, there needs to be a rhyme and reason to what we do in the church. The Apostle Paul may have said it best: "All things be done decently and in order." My reason for trying to do it as well as I can is so I don't have to do any of it over.

But how do you do it? Some looked at Niebuhr (I can't remember which brother) during the 50's and 60's (and into the 70's and 80's, since I studied it also) who suggested running with the business and military models of the day (i.e., Management by Objective) to organize and prioritize ministry and programming. Some folks went to Steven Covey seminars. Some heard Herb Miller lecture. Some, like me, paid major bucks to attend Ken Callahan events at Calloway Gardens (I don't remember much, but I did play one of my best rounds of golf there!). And while these models were designed to prevent reinventing the wheel and to allow more of church ministry to be shared, they had one fatal flaw: very little theological underpinning, and virtually no evangelical underpinning. In short - they managed what was present, but encouraged little innovation or visioning. That ran tangent to the Christian proverb, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." You certainly cannot blame any one thing for the Mainline decline of the 60's and following, but one can be sure that the Management by Objective or 12-Step models certainly weren't the answer to the problem.

Spiritual Leadership - "Being Mary." I think some rebellion occurs somewhere along the way when called men or women begin parish work and encounter realities and conflicts. Somehow, a shift away from being makers of disciples and caretakers of church souls and a shift toward being the Chief Administrative Officer (the Book of Discipline's words, not mine) takes place. Why didn't someone along the way say, "it's not either/or, it's both/and?" Naturally, cynicism creeps in. Pastors feel like they are losing their identity.

I'm old enough now to realize that my own church polity is far from perfect. Has anyone realized that the UMC has virtually no theology of ordination? We have a lot of rules and regulations about it - but no theology. It only makes sense that viewing the pastor as spiritual leader is difficult in a denomination that has no theology of ordination. I will say this: we DO have an excellent PROCEDURES AND POLICY section for ordained ministry in our church law. Just no theological underpinning for it.

We have 10's of classifications for pastors: full-connection elders and deacons (who are ordained); commissioned probationary elders and deacons (who are not ordained); associate members (some ordained formerly, some not); part-time local pastors, full-time local pastors, student local pastors, supply pastors (who are not ordained). However, what do people in the pews called the person behind the table and pulpit in their church, regardless of the permutations listed above? "Pastor."

It is no wonder, then, that pastors have a hard time seeing themselves as spiritual leaders, given our denomination's confused look at matters of ordained (or unordained) ministry! The fact is, layfolks could care less about conference membership and clergy classifications; they want a spiritual leader. It's not only what they're paying for, it's what they desire and yearn for!

What is the tool most needed for pastors to be spiritual leaders? It has nothing to do with workshops, schools of ministry, or even a curriculum geared toward a degree: it is the pastor's very own faith. It requires maturity. It requires an understanding of the needed balance between being a manager and administrator AND incorporating one's own spiritual life into directing others. Henri Nouwen said it much better: "Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one's own search for God with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join the search but do not know how." (from Nouwen's Creative Ministry, p. 111).

In short, sometimes we need to be preparing the house (Martha), and sometimes we need to pay attention and seek the Master's will (Mary).

I'm not through letting this go just yet...


Saturday, August 02, 2008

Pastor as Spiritual Leader - Part I

In the past few days, I have been blessed with casual conversations with two lay persons, neither of whom are members of the church I serve (one a Southern Baptist). In our conversations about church and faith, they both stressed to me the importance of a pastor being a spiritual leader. So I got curious and looked up my job description as it’s outlined in the Book of Discipline. Here’s the gist of it:
All pastors have the same general responsibilities that fall into four main categories, described as Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service. This fourfold ministry includes (but is not limited to) preaching; worship; studying and applying Scripture to daily life; celebrating the Sacraments; developing congregational leaders; attending to the day-to-day business of the church; caring for the spiritual and temporal needs of the congregation and community; modeling for and leading the congregation in acts of compassion, mercy, and justice; and nurturing the congregation for mission and ministry in the world as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. – from The Book of Discipline ¶331, and Guidelines for Leading Your Congregation 2005-2008: Pastor (Abingdon Press, 2005), p. 6

When you look up ¶331, you find that the Discipline lists at least 15 different responsibilities of the pastor (¶331), which can be clustered into seven major areas:
  1. Spiritual leader: The pastor is the primary spiritual leader in the congregation and is responsible for helping members grow closer to God through worship and spiritual disciplines. 
  2. Worship leader, preacher, and teacher
  3. Trainer of laity: The pastor seeks to equip lay persons to discover how they have been called to ministry in the world and to accomplish those ministries. 
  4. Administrative leader and steward of the congregation's vision of how they are called to accomplish the mission of making disciples.
  5. Custodian of institutional integrity: The pastor protects the integrity of the reputation of the church in the community—as a place of honesty, safety, hope and reconciliation—and upholds the traditions, polity, and beliefs of The United Methodist Church. 
  6. Participant in the United Methodist connection: A United Methodist pastor is part of an extensive network of ministry as a member of an annual conference, a district, and the denomination. He or she has responsibilities to participant in and support these connections and to inform the congregation about its participation in this connectional system. 
  7. Minister to the community: Pastors are in ministry beyond the walls of the particular congregation to which they are appointed by being involved in the life of the community in ways that witness to the mission of Christ in the world. 

Being "the primary spiritual leader in the congregation" seems to be a priority - and not just because the Book of Discipline says so - laity certainly think so... and not just Methodist laity, I might add.

The question is: are we as UM pastors presently equipped to be spiritual leaders?

My answer is, it depends on the pastor. But I will risk a sweeping statement - in the UMC, a pastor must prepare him or herself for the role of spiritual leader, in helping people get closer to God and teaching spiritual disciplines to do that for life. For the most part, seminary doesn't do that. Before we start slamming seminaries, we need to be objective and to realize that seminaries - and indeed the UMC and Boards of Ministry - have not seen that as a priority. It's one of those things that you're just supposed to "get" on your own. And, in all honesty, in the truest sense of the word, our seminaries are really schools of theology. I know that I got a very good theological education. But what I learned about spiritual disciplines, direction, and leadership were not required courses. I was prepared to be a worship leader, an in-residence theologian, an educator, and a chief administrative officer for a church. All certainly important things.

But do they trump being a spiritual leader for the congregation you are appointed to serve?

More to come...


Friday, August 01, 2008

Violin Camp at RUMC

Logan and Amy Blewett held Violin Camp at RUMC this week, and we were treated to a concert this afternoon!

Pictured left to right: Ben Gamble, Maiah Lambert, Kylee Meeks, Evelyn Stewart, and Meah Jordan

Psalm 150

1 Praise the LORD.
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens.

2 Praise him for his acts of power;
praise him for his surpassing greatness.

3 Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
praise him with the harp and lyre,

4 praise him with tambourine and dancing,
praise him with the strings and flute,

5 praise him with the clash of cymbals,
praise him with resounding cymbals.

6 Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.
Praise the LORD.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Proud of Our OWLS - Again!

This article ran in the United Methodist Reporter recently. I couldn't be prouder of our church.


Older but wiser: Kentucky church keeps older members active 

By Mary Jacobs
Staff Writer

Pearl Wood and Flo Crooks tell preschool children what it was
 like to live in the 1950s, including the popular clothing styles that were worn. 

Katherine Flowers, 90, had never tried line dancing before in her life. Mary Ann Sturma, 82, had never played a musical instrument. But Ms. Flowers and Ms. Sturma recently tried each for the first time at OWLS.

Older Wiser Laughing Souls (OWLS) is the older adult ministry of Reidland United Methodist Church in Paducah, Ky., and both ladies can’t say enough about it.

“It’s a group where you can find fellowship, things to do and people who care,” says Ms. Sturma. “It’s just great.”

The OWLS meet once a month for a meal along with an activity at the church or an outing to a nearby restaurant or attraction.

“If there’s something of interest in the area that the bus can go to, we go,” said Ms. Flowers.

“We get to do things we might not do ourselves, because many of us do not like to drive at night,” said Ms. Sturma.

“This program has really bloomed,” said Cathy Burkhead, volunteer co-coordinator of OWLS. “The older adults have a voice and they are a big part of our church now.”

The group has about 50 regular participants; Reidland’s weekly worship attendance averages around 200. Like many United Methodist churches, Reidland’s congregation is aging. More than 30 percent of the church’s membership are people 70 and older.

OWLS began in 2005 after organizers attended an older adult workshop at nearby Trinity United Methodist.

“We came away with wonderful ideas and books to guide us in this ministry,” said Ms. Burkhead.

And things took off from there. One church member, a recent retiree, obtained a special driver’s license so that she could drive the church bus. Another started a hand chimes group called the Owleluia Chimers, which plays at worship services. In 2007, the older adults’ group was invited to take charge of the church’s worship service.

“It was so warmly received that we have been asked to do it every year,” said Ms. Burkhead. “The service provides the opportunity for the congregation to celebrate the gifts and contributions of older adults, and it is loved by the entire congregation.”

“It’s not difficult to get seniors involved,” said Ms. Burkhead. “We survey them once a year and ask what types of programs and speakers are of interest.”

Ms. Sturma says she’s volunteered more than 15,000 hours at a local hospital—a project she loves—but it’s easier to make friends and find fellowship at OWLS. She’s dealt with a number of health problems and surgeries in the last 15 years or so, and says fellow OWLS support each other with similar problems.

Ms. Sturma is also quick to praise OWLS for serving older people in the community who are not members of the church.

“I have a Catholic friend who has no relatives in town, no way to drive and no way to pay,” she said. “But they always pick her up and include her in all the outings and meals, free of charge. I think it’s great that they reach out to others outside of the church. It’s food for the body and the soul.”

“We always provide a meal with our programs and activities, and we carry lunches to those who can’t make it,” Ms. Burkhead said. “That’s a big part of our program.”

The Rev. Vida McClure, older adult coordinator for the Paducah District, says Reidland’s program works well because of its dedicated volunteers.

“The first thing that is needed for a strong older adult ministry is a group of volunteers with a love and a desire for working with older adults,” she said.

But Ms. Burkhead, along with co-coordinator Lynda Cochrum and half a dozen other volunteers, say they find the investment of time pays off many times.

“Participating in an OWLS event, I feel like we sat with Jesus and walked with him,” she said. “The participants are so appreciative and thankful.”

Ms. McClure adds that older-adult programs must be tailored to the needs and interests of participants. Programs on crime protection, identity theft, assisted living and planning for the end of life have been effective in the older-adult ministry she coordinates at nearby Clinton United Methodist Church.

Reidland plans to lead a workshop in the fall to reach out to churches that do not have older adult ministries, with an eye toward partnering with those churches to help them start similar programs.

“It’s very important to have this type of ministry, because these folks have much to give to us,” Ms. Burkhead said.
Mary Jacobs, Aug 6, 2008


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Do It Yourself

Lex clavatoris designati rescindenda es is a Latin phrase that has nothing to do with religion, philosophy, or wisdom. Translated, it means, “The designated hitter rule has got to go.”

The designated hitter (D.H.) rule is from baseball; in essence, you can substitute a (better) hitter in place of the pitcher – so the pitcher doesn’t have to bat. In major league baseball, only the American League has the DH rule. I’ve never liked the rule, and most baseball purists don’t like it either. (And yes, this is a picture of Roger Clemens batting. A rare event.)

Why don't I like the DH rule? Well, hitting is certainly a part of baseball. Facing a pitcher can be daunting, but it’s also fun. Some say the DH makes the game better, for we see better hitters in the place of pitchers, who don’t normally hit very well. But I disagree: I think the rule enables some players avoid the harder part of the game.

Sometimes, we do the same thing in the church. If we are not careful, we allow our pastors, worship leaders, and Sunday School teachers do our studying and praying for us. I know that I can fall into the same trap. The truth of the matter is that our discipleship is dependent on our willingness to foster and cultivate relationships with others. That begins with our having a personal and corporate relationship with God through Christ.

Don’t let someone “DH” for you when it comes to study and prayer. Do it yourself, and find the joys and blessings in knowing and being known by our Almighty God.


Sunday, July 20, 2008

Behind the Song

Music has always been an integral part of my life; I am at best a frustrated musician, but I dearly love to listen, admire, and soak it in, and find myself more often than not in conversation with God while I listen.

Anyone who has a child is always moved by hearing Billy Joel's "The Lullaby." You might be even more moved when you know the story behind the song:

Goodnight my angel, time to close your eyes,
And save these questions for another day.
I think I know what you've been asking me,
I think you know what I've been trying to say.
I promised I would never leave you,
Then you should always know
Wherever you may go, no matter where you are
I never will be far away.

Goodnight my angel, now it's time to sleep,
And still so many things I want to say.
Remember all the songs you sang for me,
When we went sailing on an emerald bay.
And like a boat out on the ocean,
I'm rocking you to sleep
The water's dark and deep, inside this ancient heart
You'll always be a part of me.


Goodnight my angel, now it's time to dream,
And dream how wonderful your life will be.
Someday your child may cry, and if you sing this lullaby,
Then in your heart there will always be a part of me.
Someday we'll all be gone
But lullabys go on and on
They never die
That's how you and I will be.

Every song has a story. Here's to praying that we might always be willing to tell our story.


Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Remembering Who You Are – And Where You Came From

My brother and I took off a few days last week to spend time with some of our extended family. We have not gone back there in almost 15 years for any other reason than funerals, so it was past time. Much of our mother's family has never left the area where several generations of Houghtons, Jamesons, and Garretts lived.

At the end of the month, I am preaching a homecoming service at New Salem UMC in Banks County, Georgia. I served New Salem when I was in seminary nearly 20 years ago.

I remember when I was in high school that I said a term that my mother seriously chastised me for: “white trash” – referring to folks from the poorer side of town. Her words burned into me. “Sky, you are not that far removed from that situation yourself.” And she was right. Southeastern Kansas is incredibly impoverished. Related to that, when I lived in Banks County, Georgia, my salary was $13k, which at the time was the median income for Banks County.

Some folks would be ashamed of talking about such a past, or admitting that they have family in such situations. The reality is I cannot deny my roots, nor would I want to. I am blessed with a large extended family that blesses me. And I suspect when I go down to Georgia in a few weeks, I will realize how blessed I was when I was their pastor.

It was once said about Jesus (by one of his disciples, no less), “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was secluded by hills, and had a bad reputation for having no culture and a rude dialect – the “white trash” of lower Galilee.

From poverty and the unlikeliest situations, our Savior and Prophet arose. God’s chosen are everywhere… and come from everywhere.


Friday, June 20, 2008

Gasoline, Work, Stewardship, and Unexpected Surprises

Last night, I was eating a very late supper with two friends that I officiate basketball with (one of them grew up in a Methodist parsonage). We had officiated several ballgames at a summer high school camp, and the three of us had ridden our motorcycles to the games - both for fun, and to save money on gas. We were remarking how hard our parents and grandparents worked, and how much easier by comparison that we have it. Sending kids to college, paying bills, and the like are still not easy, but we were telling these stories while eating a pretty good meal in a nice restaurant.

There are all kinds of political, social, and economic reasons and theories about why the price of oil is going up, that the government should intervene, etc. I am not fluent enough in any of those areas to risk an opinion there. I just know that the reality is that gasoline costs over $4 a gallon. For some, it is going to be an economic hardship. For me, I am having to reassess priorities and travel.

I can't get around the fact that I have to drive a lot to do ministry. It is never a stretch to drive as many - if not more - miles that I am budgeted to be reimbursed for; it doesn't take long at 50.5¢ a mile! And while my old BMW gets 24 mpg, my old motorcycle got 40.

My old bike had a lot of miles and years; it was a 1993 model. So I finally quit being so cheap and bought a new bike about a month ago: a 2008 Kawasaki Vulcan Classic. It averages 45-50 mpg, and has a much bigger tank and engine than my last bike, and is already paying for itself at the pump: I pay half what I used to pay for my car to go the same distance! The weather has been outstanding this past month, and I have ridden to work, on errands, and in making pastoral and hospital calls. Yes, I occasionally run into the occasional storm - that's why they make rainsuits. I also realize from my trip to England that pastors have to be very creative in their transportation because of costs. So instead of just riding for fun, I tend these days to ride out of economics. A strange thing has happened in the process.

I used to loathe driving during work hours - I hate the waste of time that driving takes. You can't run an errand or make a hospital call in less than an hour in Paducah, and if I have someone in the hospital at Vanderbilt, I have just lost a whole day just by driving. It is certainly work that needs to be done, but I often wish I could snap my fingers and be transported directly to my destination instead of wasting the hours driving there.

But I have started enjoying the drive now. Riding a motorcycle is glorious, and the sights are always seen with a 360° view. I get a few stares when wearing a clerical collar, but that's an inconvenience at best. The strange things are the conversations that emerge. Motorcycles are always conversation starters, i.e., "Nice bike." "I'll pay for your gas if you'll pay for mine!" When it gets more interesting is when someone asks, "What do you do for a living?" When I tell them, the reactions range from uncomfortable silence to wide grins. And that sometimes leads to very interesting and blessed conversations and opportunities.

Who would have thought a little evangelism would save me money?