Friday, June 13, 2014

Random Suggestions to Pastors and Churches from a District Superintendent

I am often inspired while taking a shower or cleaning the house (read Kathleen Norris' The Quotidian Mysteries for more explanation).  The following is random advice to United Methodist pastors and churches after being a district superintendent for three years (and three months, and thirteen days. And I really DO like my job). These are in no particular order.

  1. Churches: unless you are blessed with a large budget and resources, don't give into the temptation of getting rid of your parsonage in favor of a housing allowance. Contrary to what you were told years ago, it usually causes the average pastor a logistical headache and financial hardship. Fewer and fewer pastors break even financially on such an arrangement, and sometimes get stuck with two house payments when a move occurs and a house doesn't sell quickly. Pastors, don't think that "I really need to live in my house" is a good excuse to tell your DS and bishop when asked to move - no one forced you to buy a house, and in most situations I would advise a pastor moving into a housing allowance situation to rent/lease rather than buy if they truly appreciate the itinerancy. Buying a house is a gamble at best, and a possible financial nightmare at worst. Of course there are exceptions, and consulting a realtor AND a banker in the area is a good idea. Related to that....
  2. Churches: don't even think of buying or building a parsonage next door to the church. Ever. And if your parsonage IS next to the church, consider selling it and buying another one. It is a HUGE stressor for parsonage families, particularly those with young children, to live next to the church. Pastors are bad enough about not taking time off; it's worse when they DO take a day off and people knock on the door wanting a door opened, asking you where everyone is for a meeting, or complaining that you were mowing your yard wearing a swimsuit instead of pants and a shirt. Pastors:  if your church supplies you with a parsonage, take good care of it. Insist on yearly inspections by the Trustees. One of the reasons churches want out of the parsonage business is because some pastors and families have literally trashed them. There's no excuse for that - and these days, expect to get a bill for what it will take to repair the damage you have left. Wear and tear is one thing, but neglect and inattention are another. When you move, leave the parsonage in better shape than when you found it - you're not only making a statement to your church, but to the clergy brother or sister who follows you, and that you are in covenant with.
  3. Pastors: be flexible about your day off. We've gone from the extremes of pastors not taking a day off to pastors being inflexible about time off. While days off should be respected, no one chooses the day or time to have a car accident, family tragedy, or death. Some days, your day off is going to be interrupted by life happenings through no one's fault or choice. Churches:  educate yourselves on what constitutes a pastoral emergency. Your teenager being in a car accident and awaiting surgery is a pastoral emergency; being in a fender-bender and getting a few stitches is not.
  4. Pastors: close your door or leave your office when you need uninterrupted study time for preparing sermons/worship. You'll get more work done, get it done more quickly, and be more present for your church at other times when they need you. I never had much luck working on sermons at the office - too many interruptions and people coming by who want and need your attention (and rightly so). Also, get your sermon work done earlier in the week, or even work a week ahead, for this reason: other worship team members need to know what you're doing so they can plan, too. Churches: know that if your pastor is away working on such, that they are working and not goofing off. If a pastor is doing their job, they are more often than not away from the office doing it rather than inside it.
  5. Pastors and Churches: you will serve your church better if, instead of having pastoral "office hours" you help congregations adapt to making appointment times with your pastor. With cell/smartphones, getting in touch with your pastor  and making an appointment is as easy as an email, text or Facebook message, or phone call (if you can't find someone these days, you aren't trying very hard). Plus, in the more private society we are living in today, many would rather meet the pastor somewhere other than the church office for pastoral counseling and conversations. Given that our missional priorities are becoming focused outwardly rather than inwardly, your pastor and other church staff may need to be out in the community more than in the church building. That doesn't mean they are unavailable - it just means we need to avail ourselves of technology to contact them for a visit. Pastors: this means that you return emails, texts, and phone messages, and as promptly as possible. And if you ARE in the office, and your door IS open, be receptive (and hospitable!) to a drop-in visitor. Make a pot of coffee or keep some drinks/water nearby, or offer to drive to the nearest coffee shop or restaurant. These conversations are great opportunities to foster relationships. 
  6. Pastors: buy a good used car as opposed to a new car, and do your best to pay cash for it - and if you can't, borrow as little as you can and for as short a duration as you can. Resist the urge to say, "get my payment down to _____." Buying a new car is ALWAYS a sucker bet - it loses 15%-25% of its value when you drive it off the lot, and is an ever-depreciating asset.  Drive your car until the wheels are falling off - I have had three cars that I have put over 200k miles on. Constant maintenance is key, and cheap compared to car payments and repairs. When you pay it off, keep banking the money you would have put on payments to save for the next car. And if it's paid for, it's worth the occasional steep repair bill. These days, even dropping a new transmission or engine into a car already paid for may be worth it. And most importantly, get a car that's practical. If you don't have 3 kids, you don't need a minivan or an SUV - get a sedan. They're cheaper, safer, and better for the environment (SUV's and vans give the driver a false sense of security, as insurance and accident rates will show). 
  7. Pastors and Churches: Don't tie your pastoral or church identity with the set pastoral salary. In older days, DS's used to push raises and send letters about the cost of living/CPI increases, try to get their pastors a raise when they moved, etc. We now live in a new reality - and some conferences face church salary/support reductions where pastors either encounter a salary reduction at their present church or face a reduction when they move (see the recent statement from the Kentucky Conference). Fair? No - but it is the current reality. Pastors: don't jump to the conclusion that when someone moves and gets a "cut" that they did something wrong - it's just the reality of this season. Churches: set a salary that is fair and affordable. We all live by faith - but don't put the Lord to a foolish test. Having said that, the attitude of "keeping a pastor humble" is not only a poor reflection of a church's view of their pastor, it's also not in the Bible.
Just a few thoughts. I'm sure there are other pearls of wisdom out there...


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Do You Know Your Family?

I'm a blessed man. I got to host our annual conference (Memphis) last week in Paducah, and this week am attending the Tennessee Annual Conference, since I am a part of an area cabinet. I've been surrounded by UMC brothers and sisters who love Jesus and love their church. And in the past two years I have seen a shift toward more grace, more harmony, and more willingness to work together as an annual conference instead of it being a ground to sew discord and challenges at any suggestion of (needed!) change. Our bishop is a huge part of that. Adopting priorities for mission and discipleship is another part of that. I believe our next challenge will be to deepen existing relationships and to be willing to make new ones - especially with those we would usually find reason not to foster such relationships.

Our recent UMC infightings, statements, and threats can be obstacles to this if we allow it.  It is so easy to dismiss and pigeonhole folks whom we perceive to be different socially and theologically - whether it be by wearing a cross or a rainbow stole around their neck, sporting a tie or a clerical collar, wearing a dress or jeans, shirts tucked in or out, cool glasses or reading glasses, clergy or lay, adult or youth.

In his book Restoring the Bride, Steve Harper reminds us of the Indian cultural tradition of the round table, where faith, hope, and love come together. It is at the heart of where all Christians should be as brothers and sisters - family. Unfortunately, we in the UMC often choose to sit at war tables, where we plan warfare to defeat whatever/whomever we think the "other" is. In other words: planning a civil war. 

We're kidding ourselves if we think the divisions are so neatly defined. And we're practicing avoidance of the worst kind to not engage our other family members whom we have avoided getting to know for so many years - and in the process learning some really bad habits that hurt us in doing the evangelistic work of making disciples of Jesus.

So instead of signing on to the latest statement - what about engaging the "other", who while being different from us, is blood-kin through the blood of Jesus Christ!

You know, we can pick our friends - but we can't pick our family.