Archive - March, 2011

Answering the Why

The recent tragedy in Japan lifts up again a perennial question as to why.  This is especially a pointed question to Christians with our belief in an all-knowing and all-loving God.  Years ago Rabbi Kushner wrote a bestselling work entitled Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Abingdon Press has just published a new book entitled Why? written by Rev. Adam Hamilton, Senior Pastor of Church of the Resurrection UMC in Kansas City.  It wrestles deeply and faithfully with this tough issue.  A variety of secular publications have picked up on Rev. Hamilton’s book.  Recently, Adam wrote an article entitled Japan’s Earthquake and the Will of God.

Allow me to share a sampling:  “As a pastor, I’ve spent 25 years working through the problem of suffering with my congregation. While it is natural, in the midst of intense grief and loss, to blame both God and ourselves for terrible tragedies (God is punishing me for something I’ve done/God is punishing our nation for something we’ve done), these answers miss the mark.

From a Christian theological perspective there are two challenges to this view: The first is that the Bible consistently teaches that God is loving, merciful and just. There is nothing loving, merciful and just about thousands of people being buried alive in mudslides or rubble or washed out to sea by a tsunami. There is nothing loving, merciful and just about a child being born with cancer, or a young person being raped and murdered. These acts of violence and widespread destruction are inconsistent with the character of God. Further, when considering whether these acts may be punishment for human sin, the central focus of the Christian gospel, which the present season of Lent is pointing us towards, is that Jesus Christ bore the punishment for human sin on the cross, there offering a prayer that would echo throughout history, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” 

The answer to the question why is not to be found in a vengeful God who wreaks havoc on the human race. It is to be found in understanding that we live in a world of cause and effect. Our actions can have negative consequences for us or others. Others actions can have negative consequences for us. We also know that our bodies are not indestructible, and that there are genetic and external factors that affect our health. These can be exacerbated by our lifestyle and actions. And we know that there are forces of nature at work in our planet — atmospheric, environmental and geological — that are destructive. These very forces, which can be so destructive when human beings are in their path, are also essential to our planet being able to sustain life. Our actions as human beings can exacerbate these forces, but the forces themselves are a part of our planet’s essential operating system.”

For the full article you can follow this link http://www.huffingtonpost.com/adam-hamilton/was-japans-earthquake-the_b_837324.html .  Even better, I invite you to read the book and lead a study group in your church through this thoughtful and helpful piece of writing.

Christian Unity

In the last two weeks, I have attended to different Episcopal (judicatory) ecumenical events. Texas Conference of Churches held a retreat at Concordia University in Austin. This past Monday and Tuesday, I was in Atlanta for a quadrennial meeting of Pan Methodist bishops (African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, African Union Methodist Protestant Church, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Union American Methodist Episcopal Church and United Methodist Church).

I see value in meeting with leaders across the denominational spectrum. Relationship building leads to shared ministry. We have much in common – beginning with a shared post-Christendom culture.

What has left me puzzled is our reluctance to talk about Christian unity. Even seemingly tame references to unity evoke hasty qualifications that people want to speak of unity in ministry not in ecclesiastical union. I wonder why. Jesus said in John 17:20-21, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” I believe God intends us to be as a larger Christian movement. Methodists came into being to reform the church. When that is accomplished, we should go out of existence (Mission accomplished!). When we worshipped and visited together, I learned again what I already knew. In the Pan Methodist context, the other Pan Methodists denominations came into being because of the white Methodist racism. We still have much to repent of. I was blessed by the graciousness of my new found friends and colleagues.

Reinhold Neibuhr once said that “nothing worth doing is accomplished in our life time.” I do not expect true unity in my life time. But we should engage in the effort. With Jesus, our prayer should continue to be “…As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).

Hope in the Midst of Tragedy

Wednesday evening (thanks to the miracle of TiVo) Jolynn and I watched ABC news together.  The tragic footage from Japan riveted our attention.  Snow fell as rescue workers comb the wreckage.  Our hearts ached as we viewed the scenes.

Part way through the story hope was birthed — literally.  The newscast reported the miraculous discovery of a small child (only months old) in the wreckage.  She had survived for three days on her own.  Yoked to that scene of rescue was birth of a baby.  One of the doctors working around the clock giving treatment and care to those hurt in the tsunami took time off to be with his wife as she gave birth to their son.  Watching, we too encountered hope in the midst of tragedy.

Some wonder about the supposed absence of God in tragedy but here is proof of God’s grace-filled presence.  There is new life in the midst of human wreckage.  I couldn’t help but go back to a treasured piece of writing from Dr. Albert Outler.  “Faith is not a falling back on God when all else has failed or is failing.  It is, rather, accepting our lives from God’s hands, it is having and enjoying and taking leave of the whole round of human life in community as beloved children of God – ‘in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is our perfect freedom.’”  (Albert Outler, Who Trusts in God, p. 132)

I urge both our continued prayers for the people of Japan – especially for those who are homeless or have lost loved, and for those engaged rescue efforts and combating nuclear melt-down – and our concrete deeds of love in sacrificially reaching out to offer assistance.  One specific way we can share Christ’s love in response is listed on the Central Texas Conference web site www.ctcumc.org .

 

Prayer and Relief

With so many of you, I have watched and received the news of the devastating earthquake and tsunami hitting Japan.  I am asking that we all join in offering our prayers and relief efforts for the people of Japan and others who are suffering because of this disaster.  Contributions may be made through UMCOR Advance #3021317, Pacific Emergency in your giving through your local church and the CTC office, and more information can be found at http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umcor/.

Bishop Larry Goodpaster, President of the Council of Bishops, released the following statement on behalf of the Council. 

 Dear sisters and brothers,

 As you know, a series of tragic events has unfolded over the past few days in Japan. The massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Japan on March 11 and the accompanying tsunami resulted in the death of at least 2,800 people and possibly more than 10,000.  Damage to the country’s nuclear power plants jeopardizes the safety of hundreds of thousands more.  Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan called the disaster the worst crisis Japan has faced in 65 years.

 In times of immense loss and grief, we are reminded once again that God’s grace is sufficient. While it does not offer us immunity from tragedy, it sustains us with healing and hope.

 At such times, the church is called to be a healing presence among those facing heartbreaking circumstances. I am confident that the people of The United Methodist Church will respond to the call with prayers and generous support for the victims of this catastrophe.

 I ask that you join with me in prayer for the deceased and their families; the injured; the search and rescue workers; the survivors who are without water, food or heat; those who have been evacuated from their homes as the nuclear threat worsens; and all who have been affected.  

 When disaster strikes, we are especially grateful for the valuable ministry that the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) provides with the help and support of United Methodists and others.  I hope that all United Methodist churches will consider taking a special offering designated for Pacific Emergency, UMCOR Advance #3021317, to provide financial resources to respond to the needs resulting from the disaster.

 Working with its partners, the United Church of Christ in Japan, the Korean Christian Church, Church World Service, Global Medic, the National Christian Council, and the Asian Rural Institute, UMCOR is currently focused on working to assess the damage to determine how best to provide assistance and will then respond accordingly.

 May we join together in opening our hearts to those suffering in the midst of devastation.

 Yours in Christ,

 Larry M. Goodpaster, President
The Council of Bishops
The United Methodist Church

The Great Commandment

            In recent blogs I’ve written about the Conference’s apportionment payouts and the implications on Conference finances. More recently, I wrote about the Financial Leadership Forum and the fiscal crisis facing the larger church. Today, I head for Austin for the Judicatory Leaders’ Retreat sponsored by the Texas Conference of Churches (an ecumenical gathering including leaders of various Christian communities across the state – Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.). At that gathering we will work on three areas: 1. The Nuts and Bolts of Living Ecumenically: How to Put Forward a Consistently Ecumenical Message Without Compromising Denominational Integrity;  2. Working Cooperatively as Christian Leaders in Texas; and 3. Changing Demographics of Christianity in Texas.

            As I head south, I cannot help but think of the economic struggles facing our state in balancing the budget and more particularly in its impact on education and health care. I am conscious that good Christians can differ on how they think complex problems should be challenged. Just as Conference and United Methodist economics are challenged, we are challenged now as a state and as a nation. The issues are complex and deep, and with the best of intentions on all sides, we can vary greatly on how to address those complex fiscal issues facing us.

            As I look at the future before us, I am also conscious of the Great Commandment of Christ: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39). Facing complex economic issues, I believe Christians need to be focused on how we best love our neighbors. To that end, I as an individual have signed an ecumenical statement urging that monies in the “Rainy Day Fund” for the State of Texas be available for use in the current fiscal crisis. In doing so, I am conscious that next year may be even worse than this year. Hard judgments about how to use the “Rainy Day Fund” money will need to be made. Furthermore, with Christ’s words ringing in my ear to love my neighbor, I remember in particular his teaching that when we help the “hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison” (Matthew 25:44). This admonition of Christ is also reflected economically. To that end, I urge us to prayerfully be engaged in ways that we do not balance the budget by hurting those least able to take care of themselves: children, the poor, and the elderly. In particular, healthcare must not be accomplished with a short-sighted expense of simply letting others suffer. Complex issues demand deep and prayerful wrestling with how best to solve the problems. We must not balance the budget on the backs of the poorest in our midst.

Financial Leadership Forum

This week along with a team of folks from the Central Texas Conference, I attended the Financial Leadership Forum.  This was a nation-wide gathering of leaders with conference finances (Chairs of Pension, The Council on Finance and Administration, Treasurers, Lay Leaders, Board of Ministry Chairs etc. – from CTC Harvey Ozmer, Randy Wild, Frank Briggs, Steve McIver, Georgia Adamson, Mike McKee & I).  The purpose of the Forum was to “better understand the current financial realities and challenges facing The United Methodist Church.”

Lead by an interagency team from the General Board of Pensions and the General Council on Finance and Administration, there was much talk about “right sizing” the churches fiscal obligations and aspirations.  “Since the formation of the UMC in 1868: 1) giving and spending (per capita and total) and net assets have increased dramatically; and 2) membership, attendance, professions of faith, and number of children and youth have decreased.”  You don’t need to be a genius to see that those two trends cannot simultaneously continue.  Accordingly we must change.  We can either engage in directed change now while we have the strength or later have the change direct us because we failed to face realities and act when the opportunity was still available.  “Time is short,” the Forum reported.  “There is urgency in moving forward.”

We examined the increasing fixed operational cost in things like pension and health benefits, growing congregational debt, and ministerial obligations (think guaranteed appointment).  Without deep change, the way we are doing business is unsustainable.  By way of analogy, the UMC is in the same position as General Motors and/or Ford.  We are doing great ministry!  We can’t continue to operate the same way we have been.

  • Consider:  In the Central Texas Conference raising cost of health insurance, and especially health insurance for retired pastors is growing far faster than inflation.  CTC pays up to 50% of retires health insurance premium based on a graduated formula tied to years of service.
  • Consider: It takes about an average worship attendance of 125 to support the health and pension side of clergy compensation (for an elder).  “In 2007, fewer than 8,700 churches (of approximately 33,000) reported an average attendance of 100 or more.
  • Consider: “The UMC incurs costs of $2.1 million if the person has a full career (entering ministry at age 25) and $1.6 million if the person has a partial career (entering ministry at age 45).

In business terms, we need to right size our work force.

We spent considerable time looking at the strategic change “levers” which need to be employed.  Some of those levers we in the Central Texas Conference are already engaged in – restricting, moving into mission field appointments, etc.  Others will become a part of our ongoing conversation.

It is important to remember that even while we have been declining, we have been and are doing great ministry!  God is moving in our midst.  “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

This link http://www.gbophb.org/flf2011 will take you to the majority of program materials used during the forum.

Apportionment Payout as a Missional Priority

In a recent Cabinet meeting we looked at extensive data on our apportionment payout over the last two years.  Apportionment Payout is a vital way we live out our collective, connectional, missional priority.   Here is some of the data:

“In the past 2 years the Central Texas Conference has had 46 churches that have not paid 100% of apportionments either one of those years or both those years.
            21 churches did not pay out either year
            11 churches paid out in 2010 but not in 2009
            14 churches paid out in 2009 but not in 2010

In performing an in depth statistical study of these 46 churches, several interesting trends/facts were revealed.  A few are obvious while others are a bit more revealing.

Membership gain is a meaningless indicator when considered by itself.  Yet when it is placed alongside average worship attendance and grand total paid, we see the story.
            19 churches had a membership gain but only 5 gained in worship attendance
            27 churches lost membership – all lost in worship attendance
            1 remained neutral in membership and lost in worship attendance
            Of these 46 churches, 29 had a decline in giving from 2005 through 2010.

The obvious fact is that Average Worship Attendance greatly impacts total giving.  (Emphasis added)  When we relate this to apportionments we learned that taken as a whole the apportioned amounts for these 46 churches generally ranged from 10%-12% of their grand total paid.  The conclusion then is that the apportionments themselves are not what is hindering these congregations.

We then looked at the total staff salaries of these churches.  The findings revealed that total staff salaries in 24 of the churches have declined while they increased in 21.  Of the 21 churches with increased total staff salaries only 4 paid out in 2010.  It is worth noting that because of their member/customer service nature, churches, non-profits, and service organizations can have personnel costs of up to 50% or more.  Almost all these 46 churches show reasonable personnel cost percentages less than 50%.

A third area considered in the study focused on the ratio of Principle and Interest Paid to the grand total paid.  We found that the majority of these churches have no debt service while many larger churches on the list do.  There were only a few of these churches that had what might be considered “a crippling” debt service of 30%-35%.

We expected to see an increase in the category of Other Benevolences Paid since there was a lack of apportionment giving paid.  That correlation did not occur.  Only 5 churches showed decreased apportionment payments with increased benevolence giving.

The conclusion is that with the exception of only a handful of churches on this list, these churches are on the downward cycle of church life.  (Through the transforming power and presence of the Holy Spirit this can be changed!)  It appears that up to 15 of these churches are in or near the final stage.

Although salaries, principle and interest and benevolent giving as a percent of GTP can be important factors in preventing a church from paying 100% of apportionments, the most important indicator is attendance.  The factors that are causing this downward trend have to be addressed and could be different for each church.”

My special thanks to Rev. Harvey Ozmer and his team for conducting this insightful research.

Tuesday I will be attending the Financial Leadership Forum sponsored by the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits and the General Council on Finance and Administration along with a delegation from the Central Texas Conference.  Churches are tied to the economy and like many other elements of our economy (including both federal and state governments) we are experiencing a fiscal crisis.  I’ll try to share some insights gained in Friday’s blog.