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 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.

A Time of Loss

An old professor of mine once said that most of us are in grief and loss most of the time.  This is especially so for us this day.  Saturday evening, First United Methodist Church of Grapevine, the Central Texas Conference and the greater ministry of the church universal lost a great leader.  Dr. Ken Diehm joined the church triumphant.  Sunday morning Rev. Randy Wild, Mid-Cities District Superintendent and I shared with First UMC Grapevine in all 5 worship services.  The following is our statement:

Episcopal/DS Statement to First UMC Grapevine
February 20, 2011
Bishop Mike Lowry and Rev. Randy Wild

 Dear Friends in Christ,

            As your bishop along with your District Superintendent Rev. Randy Wild, we are here with you today in worship to share in the deep sense of pain and anguish at the sudden tragic illness and loss (having been taken off life support) of your beloved Senior Pastor Rev. Ken Diehm.  He was and is and always will be a great man of God.  Simple words cannot adequately convey our loss or yours.  When the Scripture speaks of “sighs too deep for words,” it only hints at the shock and grief we are together experiencing. 
     It is here, at the juncture of loss and faith, that the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ speaks to all of us.  Let there be no denial of the hurt present this day, but in our pain let us live as the people in a manner in which your Sr. Pastor, Rev. Ken Diehm so ably lived and taught.  Especially in times like this, the gospel word of faith, hope and love must be lifted up in the face of life’s cruel storms. 
     I invite us now to come into a special time of prayer before the Lord; prayer for Ken, for Kenda and the whole Diehm family, for you as a church and for all who with us this day are in pain and loss.  You may be in prayer at your seat or if you prefer the altar rail is open for a season of prayer. If you wish me or one of your pastors to pray with you at the altar rail, we will stand available.  You simply need to give us a small sign. 
     I recall the counsel of the Apostle Paul to the Philippians in a situation also wrought with pain and struggle. “The Lord is near. 6 … In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:5b, 6b-7).
     May we be in prayer either at your seats or at the altar rail.

 The service to celebrate the life of Dr. Ken Diehm will be held this Saturday, February 26, at 2:00 p.m. at First United Methodist Church of Grapevine (

Imagine No Malaria

Currently the Central Texas Conference is engaged in a major emphasis called Imagine No Malaria.  It is a passion for me and (I believe) for us as Christ followers.  Such a great ministry springs from the larger connectional church of which we are a part.  [The United Methodist Church through the leadership of the Council of Bishops has adopted four focus areas for ministry emphasis.  They are: 1) Leadership Development, 2) New Places for New People (New church development and transformation of existing congregations), 3) Ministry with the Poor and 4) Eradication of Killer Diseases (in particular Malaria and HIV/AIDS).]

Jolynn and I have made a personal commitment to give to Imagine No Malaria (in fact our Christmas gift to the CTC Cabinet was given to Imagine No Malaria in honor of the Extended Cabinet).  All across the Conference, gatherings are being held to brainstorm on how we might engage in the fight against this killer disease.  Recently one of our pastors shared his commitment.  Through his District Superintendent I learned about his sharing.  I contacted him and asked if I in turn could share it with the reader.  He indicated I could if I thought it would help in the fight against malaria. 

Mary and I have been praying about the Imagine No Malaria campaign and the challenge. I know the goal is $28 a month for three years to be able to raise a total of $1,000. We would like to let you know that we have three grandsons whom we love very much who will probably never face the possibility of contracting malaria. My son and his wife, their parents, will never have to worry about losing these boys because they don’t have access to the proper drugs. So, in honor of Zach, Nate and Evan Strayhorn we will be pledging the equivalent of 3 nets a month ($30) for the next three years in support of Imagine No Malaria.

 I’m both proud of and excited by what the United Methodist Church and our partners in Nothing But Nets have already accomplished toward eradicating this killer disease. Deaths due to malaria have gone down by 10%. We have a long way to go, but I truly believe that this is a time when we can make a huge impact on lives and families while making a great witness to the world in the name of Jesus. Please use me in any way you see fit.

 Grace and Peace,
 Billy D Strayhorn

 Join the battle!  I too truly believe we can make a “huge impact on lives and families while making a great witness to the world in the name of Jesus.”


As I packed to leave for the Cabinet Inventory retreat I found myself musing about the church.  One of the most enlightening and stimulating things I have done in ministry was to visit every church in the Central Texas Conference when I became Bishop.  In those visits I engaged the laity in a quick SWOT analysis.  What are your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats?  I got many inspiring answers; some troubling; others puzzling.  One of the things that both surprised and puzzled me is that so few churches mention Bible study as one of their strengths.  In recently reading the REVEAL: Follow Me study, it reported that “Everywhere we turned the data revealed the same truth: spending time in the Bible is hands down the highest impact personal spiritual practice. More specifically, ‘I reflect on the meaning of Scripture in my life’ is the spiritual practice that is most predictive of growth for all three spiritual movements. There’s great significance in the word reflection. Reflecting on Scripture implies a contemplative process, one of thoughtful and careful deliberation”  (p. 114).

Wesley would call this searching the scriptures.  It was a hallmark of the early Methodists and a basic part of their spiritual practices.  I find myself wondering why more churches didn’t talk about their Bible studies.  Did they take it for granted?  As a pastor I was always trying to teach.  Do we see teaching and searching the scriptures as a priority?

A friend working with me on the denomination’s Transformation Table recently commented that every church has essentially three choices:  1)  Be transforming, 2) Multiply, or 3) Pass the mantle.  I connectthat statement with a comment Rev. Danny Niedecken passed on from his reading of The Cause within You by Matthew Barnett with George Barna.  The statement (on page 11) is this: “I didn’t see Bethel Temple as a dying church; I saw it as a church in the early stages of being restored to greatness.” 

I know a lot of pastors that want to go to a growth situation.  We need pastors and lay leaders who see their church as being in an early stage of “restored to greatness.”

Inventory Retreat

 Next week the Cabinet goes on its annual Inventory Retreat.  It is a yearly trek for virtually all bishops and cabinets.  We gather away from our various offices (in our case at Stillwater).  We always begin with a time of worship and prayer, a time of centering and quieting ourselves so that we might be open to the Spirit’s speaking. 

 One by one we review churches where the pastor is retiring.  This gives us a sense of the “clean openings” (i.e., places that will be open and need an appointment for next June where there will be no pastor needing to move to another appointment).  We examine those graduating from seminary or course of study school who are seeking an appointment.  We look at the various places and situations where either the church or pastor has indicated that a move might be best.  Constantly we will be asking ourselves “what is the mission field appointment here?”  We have a banner we hang in the room to remind us that our “clients” are (1) God, (2) the mission field, (3) the church, and (4) the clergy — in that order.

 I find the whole process exhausting.  No matter how hard we try (and we try very, very hard!) we encounter deep dilemmas and hard choices.  What appears simple from the outside is incredibly complex in the Cabinet room with the detailed information and data that are not usually available to others.  Painfully, I can recall as a pastor criticizing an appointment made to my District Superintendent.  I asked him how in the world they could make appointment “x” to a certain church.  He listened to me with patience, raised an eyebrow and commented, “We had 8 people turn  us down before we asked ‘x’ to go there.  We know it is not the best appointment.  It is the best we can do at this time given all the variables.”

 As I prepare to go, I find my prayer life dominated by a request for the Spirit’s presence and guidance.  The prayer of Aelred of Reivaulx has been guiding my devotional life — “To know Him [Christ] more clearly; to love Him more dearly; to follow Him more nearly.”  In fact, I have made it my prayer for the year (by that I mean I am determined to pray this simple prayer every day of the year).

 We will not be making all appointments for the year.  While we may make a few, the emphasis for the retreat is gain a big picture of the appointment task before us.  In addition to the above assumptions, we are driven by convictions that long-term pastorates are best.  Frequent moves that merely “promote a pastor” or “reward a church” fail to truly advance the kingdom of God.  The churches’ mission is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Our mission as a Cabinet is to “energize and equip local churches” for the larger mission of making disciples.  We hope to be Spirit-guided and prayer-empowered.  I ask the reader to keep us in prayer for the days of the Inventory Retreat (February 15 – 17).

Project 44

    Recently Jolynn and I had reason to interact with Project 44. Project 44 is named for the 44th book of the Bible – the book of the Acts of the Apostles. It is an incredibly wonderful ministry that receives cars in donation, fixes them up, and through the church gives them to families critically in need of transportation.

            I sat down for coffee with Ben Fields (who along with his wife Margaret) is the leader of this ministry. Ben started his own spiritual pilgrimage in the United Methodist Church. As he steadily moved to a deeper level of discipleship in risk-taking mission and service, Ben related (as he put it) discovering the Holy Spirit.

            Raised in the UMC, a committed lay leader in the church, he said, “I hadn’t heard about the Holy Spirit in the United Methodist Church.” Visiting with him, I was struck that this was not a shallow theological statement representing an off-beat point of view but a mature reflection of deeper discipleship. It made me stop and think about how often I had preached or taught on the movement of the Spirit in our midst. I am challenged by Ben’s insight. God as Holy Spirit is at work in our lives. It is past time to lift up the third person of the Holy Trinity. Jesus said, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).

            After writing this blog, I asked Ben for his thoughts before it was posted.  He commented: “The Methodist Church has NEVER lost sight of the Cross, what we have lost is our flame. Shall we endeavor to reclaim our heritage?”  Wise reflection; it is time to lift high the flame along with the cross.

Learning from the Megachurch

I just finished reading Scott Thumma and Dave Travis’ book Beyond the MegaChurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches.  It makes for fascinating reading.  Perhaps the most significant insight is this:  “We argue that the greatest contribution of meagachurches is not about growth or being large so much as it is about learning how to address the contemporary needs of people in the Community.  In many cases, megachurches have figured out how to do this in ways that resonate with their neighbors – an insight that has great value to congregations of all sizes.”  (p. 191)

1. MYTH: “All Megachurches are alike!”
    REALITY: They are not all alike but in fact very diverse.  They do share some common organizational characteristics.

2. MYTH: “That church is just too big!”
     REALITY: “The reason that megachurches are so large is ultimately because many people are getting their needs met in them.” (p. 46) Younger generations are comfortable with and in larger institutions and often find in them small intimate groups for nurture and discipleship formation.

3. MYTH: “Megachurches are cults of personality.”
     REALITY:  Leadership is a critical factor in any size of church.  Megachurch pastors lead teams of people with a clear sense of vision and mission.

4. MYTH: “These churches are only concerned about themselves and the needs of their attendees.”
     REALITY:  Great initial growth tends to focus a church on building facilities and internal structure but as churches mature, they diversify and strengthen their outreach in ministry often far beyond other churches.  Many (if not most) megachurches have great missional outreach to those in need.

5. MYTH: “Megachurches water down the faith.”
     REALITY:  The evidence is just the opposite.  Clarity of mission means that these churches “actually call many believers to higher levels of commitment.” (p. 92)

6.  MYTH: “These churches are bad for other churches.”
      REALITY:  They have resulted in the loss of power and influence from smaller churches but the “benefits these congregations bring to other churches can outweigh the challenging situations they create.” (p. 119)

7. MYTH: “These churches are full of people of the same race, class and political preferences.”
     REALITY:  While this can appear true at a distance, closer examination often reveals greater diversity than in traditional congregations!  Every study done on megachurches shows a considerable mix of economic groups, education, & occupation.

8. MYTH: “Megachurches grow because of the show.”
     REALITY:  Preaching and excellence in worship are a hallmark of megachurches.  As a group, these churches are widely diverse in worship styles and much better at connecting with the “heart language” of new generations.  They speak both to and with the culture.  Quality is a crucial explanation for growth but not the only factor!

9. MYTH: “The megachurch movement is dying – young people hate these churches.”
     REALITY:  Just the opposite is true!  “There are large numbers of young adults in these churches – perhaps in greater percentages than in any other congregational size or form.” (p. 169)

There is much to learn here for all kinds and sizes of churches.  Thumma & Travis’ core insight bears repeating.  “We argue that the greatest contribution of megachurches is not about growth or being large so much as it is about learning how to address the contemporary needs of people in the Community.  In many cases, megachurches have figured out how to do this in ways that resonate with their neighbors – an insight that has great value to congregations of all sizes.”

Missional Faithfulness

Today at Cabinet meeting we went over Conference financial reports for 2010.  There is a part of us that makes a nod and moves on to such reports.  Numbers can be numbing (pun intended).  Yet … often our numbers represent missional faithfulness.

Some data is illuminating.  Gulp, we did not pay our general church apportionments in full for only the second time in the last 12 years. (The last time was 2005.)  Our payout rate was 93.13% to the general church.  I want to express my appreciation for the faithfulness of so many churches and add encouragement to those reaching towards a higher missional faithfulness.

Other missional giving continues at a high degree of faithfulness.  The number one response of missional faithfulness was the giving of $289,295.79 to emergency relief in Haiti.  This is a tremendous response!  So too is the $110,150.41 given to Imagine No Malaria.  In the weeks and months ahead we will move forward as a Conference to engage Imagine No Malaria to an even greater degree.  $26, 965.20 was designated for the Methodist Children’s Home in Waco. $18,550 was given to support the greatly needed Central Conference Pension Initiative. 

Overall, the Central Texas Conference gave a total of $834,018.86 to support Advanced Specials and various other special mission projects.  This is tremendous continuing evidence of Missional Faithfulness.  Well done, thou good and faithful servants!

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