Sunday, June 29, 2008

Are we serving others?

This website has a pretty good definition of what ministry is, at least in my opinion. It defines it as serving people's spiritual needs but also their "physical, emotional, mental, vocational, and financial needs."

Whoa. That's a lot of needs to serve.

Now, our pastor serves the church's spiritual needs (and some think that should be the extent of his or her job), but how and when are we going to minister to the other needs? I think for most people the question may be, "where do we start?" We could stand outside handing out $20 bills and chances are good that most people will use the money to fulfill a legitimate need. We give to the food bank and other organizations and that takes care of the physical and maybe even the financial needs of some.

Now we're supposed to serve people's emotional, mental, and vocational needs as well?


When we give to Foodnet or OCWM, the money goes to help those who are distant from us. We send the funds off in the mail and others do the dirty work. We stay in our sanctuary, sing the hymns, and listen to the message. It appears from the definition of ministry that we're to be out and about doing the dirty work as well. And when we look out the front door, we can see there's whole lot of dirty work to be done.

We even know there are people in the congregation that are willing to do this dirty work. They're those who go out of their way to connect with the youth and take them on mission trips. Those that sacrifice their Wednesday nights to lead the youth night. They champion causes and volunteer their time at hospitals and soup kitchens. These are the people who can lead these other ministries, and we know this. However, our church structure sometimes doesn't allow it.

We try to find the right position in the church for them, but our structure is geared towards meetings, reports, and budgets. I went to a staff and board retreat a couple of months ago where we determined our spiritual gifts. Around 70% of those that attended identified their strongest spiritual gift as Administration. Yikes. Administration is necessary, but the church leadership needs leaders and managers. We need people who can show us where those needs in the community are located and how they can be met.

They are the people who will brainstorm and use their creativity for exciting new ideas. We need more individuals who are creative, more individuals with wisdom, and more individuals who see the way we should go. I was reading The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Stephen Covey says that managers will lead the team through the jungle very effectively, but it takes a leader to climb a tree and tell the others they're hacking through the wrong jungle. We need both of these aspects in order to grow.

For our church or any church to thrive, we can't hunker down in some pretend "survival mode" while we ignore our community at large. We must act with great boldness and we must act with great love.

It is the ministry we are called to do.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Happy birthday!

Today is the 51st anniversary of the founding of the UCC. This sucks because I totally forgot to send flowers or get a card or buy the church a beer or anything. I'm going to be really busy later on today so I probably won't even have time to call the UCC.

Unrelated: Isn't calling it the "UCC church" kind of obvious and redundant? As far as I know there are no people out there referring to the Church of Christ as the Church of Christ church. Since "church" is a part of the acronym, it's sort of like calling an ATM an ATM machine.

Anyway, Coffeepastor over at Philosophy Over Coffee offers an interesting re-enactment of that historic day 51 years ago. That's a good site to be bookmarkin' and reading in the future. He's a pretty dang good blogger.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Cherokee Prayer Blessing

Last night, the contemporary band (it's time to name this band, any ideas?) watched a movie called Whale Rider as it will serve as the theme for our next service (third Sunday in July). It's a wonderful film about the Māori tribe in New Zealand and their struggle for leadership as they try to survive. The movie focuses on the chief and his granddaughter and the notions that each of them have about the future leadership of the tribe. I won't say anything more than that as I don't want to give any of the movie away.

Our choir director, Mary Piercey, is working on her doctoral thesis and has spent several years learning and transcribing indigenous music. We'll be featuring music and prayer from several different peoples from around the world during this service. As this is the only Sunday that we've done this, it may seem like we're lumping everything together for "tribal Sunday," and we admit that we are. However, while it is important to honor each people individually, the inclusion of prayer and art from several different tribes helps to widen our church's exposure to different groups and provides a look at different aspects of the body of Christ that we would not normally see. I'm hopeful that this is only the beginning to including these wonderful songs and prayers in our worship service. The Body is wonderfully diverse.

I'd like to share a prayer blessing that Mary forwarded to me this afternoon, courtesy of this website. Enjoy!

Cherokee Prayer Blessing

May the Warm Winds of Heaven
Blow softly upon your house.
May the Great Spirit
Bless all who enter there.
May your Mocassins
Make happy tracks
in many snows,
and may the Rainbow
Always touch your shoulder.
Give Us Hearts to Understand

Give us hearts to understand;
Never to take from creation's beauty more than we give;
never to destroy wantonly for the furtherance of greed;
Never to deny to give our hands for the building of earth's beauty;
never to take from her what we cannot use.
Give us hearts to understand
That to destroy earth's music is to create confusion;
that to wreck her appearance is to blind us to beauty;
That to callously pollute her fragrance is to make a house of stench;
that as we care for her she will care for us.
We have forgotten who we are.
We have sought only our own security.
We have exploited simply for our own ends.
We have distorted our knowledge.
We have abused our power.
Great Spirit, whose dry lands thirst,
Help us to find the way to refresh your lands.
Great Spirit, whose waters are choked with debris and pollution,
help us to find the way to cleanse your waters.

Great Spirit, whose beautiful earth grows ugly with misuse,
help us to find the way to restore beauty to your handiwork.
Great Spirit, whose creatures are being destroyed,
help us to find a way to replenish them.
Great Spirit, whose gifts to us are being lost in selfishness and corruption,
help us to find the way to restore our humanity.
Oh, Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the wind,
whose breath gives life to the world, hear me;
I need your strength and wisdom.
May I walk in Beauty.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

What's broken and which committee will fix it?

I should start by saying that any words that I publish here are the result of my own views, and don't represent any other person or organization. Such is the case with each post regardless of the author. This blog is a soapbox or conversation starter for anyone affiliated with Northeast United Church of Christ or its members and is intended to be an open forum.

To date, our church has spent $4,532.97 for natural gas (our main source of heat in the Midwest for you East coast oil-users). I'm sure some of this cost is for our oven in the kitchen and for hot water, but the lion's share of the money went to heating the church. Considering it's not even July yet, there will be another chunk of money spent on natural gas toward the end of the year. I'm betting that the weather will continue its pattern of totally sucking and November and December will be as cold as the months of January, February, March, and April were. An optimist I am not.

Let's just say that at the end of the year we've spent around $7,000 to heat our church. Who will we say that we've warmed at the end of the year for our seven G's? At this point we'll be able to say it was our congregation on Sundays, our board meetings once per month, our staff during the week, some contractors working on our new entrance, children in our midweek (twice per month) and Vacation Bible School (four times per year), and the occasional meeting and fellowship. Only a few of those activities are truly outreach of any kind. According to our budget, we're only budgeting around $3,000-4,000 for the few outreach programs that we have including the salary for the mid-week director.

$7,000 for heating a near-empty building 365 days per year, and less than $4,000 for our own ministry and outreach? Seriously? Either our communities, neighborhoods, and city are in the best shape in their individual histories or something is dead wrong with our priorities.

Our total Christian Education budget includes the salaries of four individuals who interact with parents, children, and young adults in our church. These people share the gospel with our children and care for them while their parents are spiritually nourished. This budget is less than that of our building and maintenance budget which does not include any money for salaries or outreach at all. If we combine the amount budgeted for building and maintenance with that of administration, that amount is almost double that of our Christian Education ministry. Neglecting our ministry or considering putting it under the axe while grasping onto our physical building is wrong. If we inhabit our current building or no building our ministry and purpose remain. For the poor, for the unloved, for the marginalized, our physical building does not offer hope and healing. Our building does not call us to go and find these people and offer our love and compassion. It is our individual recognition of God's purpose that calls us to do these things, and our sense of community and pooling of our resources that makes them a reality. Oftentimes it is a reality that we never thought possible.

I think it is time for us to be a congregation that puts our own ministry and outreach at the top of our priority list. For too long, we've been content to offer our building for small usage fees and part of our finances to OCWM and have that be the extent of our outreach to the community. Yet in doing this we do not commune with the community, we offer no hope to those without hope, and we offer no love to those who are without love. We leave all of this in the hands of a small few, the diaconate and CE, and say that it must be enough because we have "bills to pay."

Yet if we read the gospel we know that we should do more. This will be our challenge in the coming years in the midst of our financial situation.

We are not called by our faith to make do in order for our building to be warm. We are called to do more in the world.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Saving your church some money (my go at public service)

Let's face it, no church members want to sit around during their monthly board meetings and discuss creative and positive ways to grow their ministry. It's hard. And if it works then a whole bunch of people they don't even know may come in and start sitting in the pews next to them. Before you know it they're in the fellowship hour and taking part in potlucks. These are people who are sometimes poor, young, democrats, or of a different race or sexual orientation. Or they may be all of the above. It's much better if these churches can keep their membership pretty constant so as not to have to deal with new people on their boards and committees who don't understand how things were done in the 1980s and why that worked so well.

Provided that a church does the smart thing and puts a lid on their membership, they may face a situation where some of the members move away, pass away, or leave because they're mad at the pain in the ass leaders who want to grow the ministry. Then they're stuck with all of those problems I talked about before and NO ONE wants that! So as the membership rolls begin to decline we may be talking about a decline in giving. These churches would be wise to introduce smart budget options like these:

1) Start cutting the youth programs. Since most of the people making these decisions don't have young children, this will be an easy decision. After all, their children were perfectly happy playing with sticks and participating in fun youth activities like stripping wax when they were younger. A good place to start is with cutbacks of the youth ministry staff as this is usually the largest expense. Then when the youth ministry staff is unable to meet the needs of the church because they're working fewer hours, you can start cutting programs that are neglected. If you're lucky the church will soon reach an ideal balance of no youth programs and no youth.

2) Begin using utilities at Great Depression-era levels. This is simple to achieve but involves at least one maintenance person or staff person who is willing to put in some low-impact time. The way this works is that one person listens for the heat and air conditioning to turn on and adjusts the thermostat accordingly so it no longer runs. This may take a few adjustments in the dead of winter or dog days of summer, but will definitely be noticed on the church's bottom line! As for the water, the maintenance person should locate the master shutoff for the church and the problem will be solved. If people complain about the temperature in the church suggest that they dress in layers and use their bulletin as either a fan to stay cool or kindling to stay warm.

3) Constantly mention to paid staff that the posts they fill used to be filled by volunteers, and that those volunteers felt privileged to fill those positions. In particular this applies to people filling office, Christian education, and financial roles. Please disregard the fact that it now takes two incomes to make ends meet at home where it used to only take one and people take these jobs to meet household expenses. None of that matters. Hopefully these people finally respond to your passive-aggressive behavior by either quitting their position and/or the church. Problem solved! This would also be a good time to once again bring up the story about how when you tithed sometimes you didn't know where money was going to come from to pay medical bills or rent, but the money always came at the last minute.

Think your church can pull this off? Of course it can! If you make your bottom line the focus of all your boards and committee meetings there's no telling what you can accomplish! I hope you feel free to be creative to expand on these or to come up with your own ideas that are unique to your church. Give me your feedback in the comments, y'all, and let me know how they worked! Best of luck!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Are we ever guilty of this? Oh yeah.

Taken from this wonderful little page.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Moving Forward

So many times in the course of church business we look in the direction of where we came. We do this sometimes with great amazement and awe. How did this small thing that was started so many years ago, build into this? When we look at the history of our churches we see a group of people that met in a school or met in someone's home until they had the money to build a sanctuary. Someone or someones with vision saved and built that sanctuary, constantly thinking of the way forward. The goal was to move out of the living room or school room and have a presence in the larger world. Why? We do this so we can share the love and compassion of God with those in the world.

But like any climb, once we get to a safe spot on the hill or mountain we begin to look down. We use our experiences from the first part of the trek up as a guide to the rest of the way. Maybe that guide only works for the first part of the journey, but the terrain changes along with the grade. What do we do in this case? Do we stop moving forward, moving upward? Some people and some churches think so. They stay in the same model for years and years. Yet while they are using the same models of operation again and again, the society and culture that those models applied to has changed. Now they're really screwed as the only way that the model will apply to anything is to move in the other direction. That direction is back down the hill, and back to where erosion and change hasn't left as big of a mark. Yet.

This happens when we flip open our constitution and bylaws during every meeting to decide what to do in a new situation. We do this even when we encounter situations where our bylaws and policies aren't applicable. If our bylaws and constitution aren't flexible and adaptable to change, they're worthless and probably worse than not having any bylaws at all. They could force us to proceed down the wrong path in ways that are much more treacherous.

If you're unsure of the way forward, you can buy maps and books or hire guides to help you along. These are all very useful, but the only way to learn the new terrain for yourself is to climb it yourself. The people that wrote those bylaws aren't climbing the rest of the way. You are and your judgment is ever bit as good as theirs. They didn't possess any spectacular wisdom or intelligence that you don't have. You are just as capable, and maybe even more capable than they were.

You may be at a point where you are the one that has to think about moving out into the world and establishing a larger presence for the church. I'm sorry, but you're about to discover that several of the bylaws no longer apply to this world. It happens, you know. People don't speak Latin anymore, but we're all managing. We're talking about love, compassion, and the Kingdom of God here anyway, that's much better than what's in your binder.