Friday, May 29, 2009

Life in the Parsonage

We are having quite a bit of work done on our home this summer. There was quite a bit that needed to be done. It's just that there was no time, money or manpower (it is mostly men that work on houses here) to get it done. This summer the decision was made to get some things done at the parsonage. Which is what our home is. A parsonage is a curious phenomenon. They used to be quite popular but most churches have sold their parsonages and give their pastors a housing allowance so they can buy their own homes. And keep them up themselves. A parsonage is a big burden for a church. Not only do the church people have to keep up their church facilities, they have to keep up another house, too. That they don't live in. Most people find it challenging enough just to keep up with their own home maintenance. So since they don't live in the parsonage themselves and they have plenty to do already, it is easy for them to forget about the parsonage.

There are not many jobs that come with a home. Barack and Michelle get one and the Palins do, too, although they have caused hard feelings by not living there much since they would rather stay in their own home in Wasilla. I can understand fully. I don't know if Michelle has to work through a committee if she wants to replace the hall carpet or add a front storm door. But pastors usually do. One of the most frustrating things about living in a parsonage is that it is your home, but it isn't. Some committee takes care of it. That means if something gets done, it may not be the way you would like it. It is the way the committee likes it. And you many want something done but the committee doesn't see it that way. After all they are paying the bills, so it makes sense that they get to choose how much to pay for a remodel or whether to give the pastor the hot tub he asked for.

That's another thing about parsonages. I have heard people complain about their pastor's expensive tastes when it comes to redecorating parsonages. "Well the new pastor's wife had to go out and get all new flooring when the old stuff was perfectly fine for the previous pastor's wife!", someone I know said about her pastor. What kind of a home should a pastor live in? He needs a toilet and a shower but what about a hot tub? I go back and forth. Sometimes I feel sorry for myself because I don't have the home I want but then I feel like you ungrateful wretch, at least, you have a roof over your head.

Some church folk feel like the pastor with a parsonage has a pretty sweet deal. All expense paid living. He or she never has to worry about rising fuel bills or failing appliances. On the other hand, he/she is forfeiting the benefits of home ownership. As this pastor gets older I am realizing that we have no house to retire to! No equity built up either. It's a thought that brings some mild anxiety. Had we lived in the same house since we were married, we would own it by now. And it would be ours, the way we want it.

I am glad for the house we get to live in. I thank God every day for the blessing of that house. Too many people in the world live in substandard shelter. And I appreciate the maintenance that is being done on it this summer. I don't own it and had no reason to expect that the work would get done. There are lots of places to spend that money. But I also look forward to the day when we will buy our own home, humble as it may be, and then my wife can tell me whether I can have a hot tub or not.

Church Finances

Although most of my evidence is anecdotal, I think our shrinking economy is having an impact on church finances. Some of my former colleagues in the eastern part of the country report lower church giving. The fallout is forcing cuts in church staffs, less giving to missions, postponed building and program upgrades and pay freezes. Our denomination, the ABC - USA, has downsized considerably, mostly without publicity. I only recently learned that our missionaries are now charged with raising their own support after years of full denominational support. This is a huge change. Many state church staffs are having to sell off buildings and property to try to free up program funds. Massachusetts and New York have had drastic cuts in state staff. Massachusetts put both their camps on the market as well as their state office building. Local pastors in Massachusetts and New York are handling the tasks that full time area ministers used to do.

Bucking that trend is a pastor in the Boston area who is a good friend of mine. A church member who died last year left a very sizable gift to the church. There is a committee meeting now to present a recommendation to the church about how it should be used. My friend thought a new Porsche for the pastor and a trip to Hawaii for the pastor and wife would be good first steps. However, he is not feeling too optimistic that the committee is leaning that way. Still, it is a good problem to have and he confesses to feeling a bit guilty about the good fortune of the church in the midst of so many churches who are struggling financially right now.

I have never been able to figure out a formula for church finances. How to increase church giving is a popular theme of books and conferences aimed at pastors. We are suckers for this kind of thing. We will pay good money to go to them. There is a lot of anxiety among pastors regarding this subject. After all, it directly affects our bottom line. Most small churches work on a very thin financial margin. I have had the experience of going to the bank to cash my paycheck and being told that there were insufficient funds to cash it. It is unnerving and makes for some interesting dreams where the pastor (me) and family are out living on the street because the giving dried up.

So I have tried a variety of stewardship programs. Often they are framed in discipleship or evangelism language and presented as ways to increase church fellowship ("this program is not really to raise money but will strengthen your church in significant ways"). It's a lot of work to raise money and I never found these programs really did what they advertised. They didn't even increase giving. In some cases they had the opposite effect. Some people would say, "you only call me once a year when you want money." They were right. I don't blame them for being upset. I was told by church Trustees when the giving was slow that I needed to preach on tithing more. I did but I wasn't sure what good it did. It didn't seem to work either. Do people give more just because they are told to? I was uncomfortable using God's word as a means to better offerings. I never saw a direct link between preaching on giving and more giving. Maybe it was my preaching. I could never really put my heart into it. So, I have pretty much stopped talking about it and I haven't been involved in a stewardship program for years.

I think giving is a spiritual issue, don't get me wrong. I just think we talk about it for the wrong reasons. The following Christ life is a giving, even sacrificial lifestyle. We have to teach that and learn that. But, financial giving is just one small part of that. By focusing only on giving money to the church we present a skewed perspective. It's more like give so we can keep this enterprise afloat. That's not why we give.

We give because God gives. If we are going to become like him, we are going to become better givers. I think it is a matter of Christian maturity. As people mature spiritually, they give more. That's why I haven't found any formula or program that works to increase giving. It is one part of an overall church growth (spiritual growth) process. Which means God is in charge. If a church needs something, it is probably better to pray than to find a stewardship program.

Over the past ten years or so our church has had its ups and down in this area of giving. Like the times of Joseph we have had lean years and fat years. During the fat years, we can do some things we couldn't do during the lean years. We can take care of some maintenance that is overdue and we can give more money to missions. We can also save some money for the lean years that will surely come. I wish I could say I knew how to have more fat years. I wish I could say it was due to my preaching, or leadership. I wish I could say God is just really blessing what we are doing right now. I hear pastors say that, you know, God is really blessing us right now. But that always sounds to me like the emphasis is on the "us". God is blessing you and not me because why. Does that mean He likes you and what you are doing more? You are doing more things His way than we are? I don't think so.

My friend in Boston could have really laid one on me. He could have said, God is really, really blessing us right now! How are you doing? He didn't. He said we had a person die and she left all this money to the church. Now we have to figure out how to deal with it. That is a task that will lead to greater spiritual maturity in his church, he hopes. It might not, too. No guarantees. Just like life. There are lean years and fat years. Spiritually mature Christians can handle both.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Miserable Good Day

Website still in transition.....

This weekend I took Sunday off from church and rode in the Pasagshak to Kodiak bike race which is held during Crabfest. Crabfest is held during four days of rain each year over Memorial Day weekend. So we drove out to Pasagshak early Sunday morning - in the rain. It was about 40 degrees and the windchill made it seem like around 35. Marcia drove the truck while our son Mark and I rode bikes and grandson Gavin helped out with support duties. At Pasagshak which is about 40 miles from Kodiak probably about two dozen bikers had gathered. Spirits were high as bikes of all kinds and riding gear that ran the gamut of hunting camo to t-shirt and shorts! (this was not just a little bit nuts) and even a couple who looked the part of real bike racers. I wore several layers, the point being to try to keep warm since keeping dry was going to be impossible. Mark had not gotten on a bike since last summer but he is a college athlete and in good shape. I had done some spinning over the winter and had been out on my bike for a few 20 mile rides this spring. I also work out regularly. So, I figured we could do this. It's only 40 miles, right. How hard can that be? Surprising how someone who has done these kinds of things before so easily forgets how hard it can be. Mark and I started out at a quick pace drafting to cut into the headwind. We picked up a few solo stragglers over the first 10 miles. I was quite pleased to see we even formed a paceline between Pasagshak and the first really big hill at Kalsin Bay. When I hit the hill, I realized I had already depleted most of my energy resources. The thick pancakes I had for breakfast were gone. I munched on another energy bar as I got to the top of the hill. Mark was waiting for me but he was pretty wasted, too. Needless to say, our paceline broke up and those stragglers we had carried over the last 10 miles never looked back. The rest of the ride was an endurance race. What started out as a race had become a ride, and not a very pleasant one. The hills are endless out there. The wind was in our face the whole way. Rain fell but we didn't even notice. It was impossible to be any more miserable. I had entertained a thought while we were in the paceline that we could do this all the way to Kodiak. I saw myself coming in with the front group of racers, congratulating myself for being in such good shape for an old guy. I am ashamed to say that at my age I still cannot see through my self-deceptions. It is a temptation I guess I need to keep working on. On the bright side, when we crested Marine Hill neither one of us realized that is what we had been climbing. We thought it was just another hill and the dreaded Marine Hill still loomed in the distance. As we raced down the hill we raised arms triumphantly like they do in the Tour De France. I yelled out something dumb about it being all a piece of cake from that point on. Some cake. Some piece. It was more like trying to choke down the whole thing. The first couple bites are good but then you wonder what got into you to try to eat the whole thing. The 12 miles from Bells Flats are flat enough but the wind is always the worst from there to town. I don't know why that is. On a perfectly calm day if you ride out to Bells Flats when you return home you are going to be fighting a stiff headwind. After 2 1/2 hours of riding you are cursing the wind. Mark's lack of riding is really showing up at this point and he tells me to go ahead, that he is just trying to make it home. I decide to stick it out with him. It's not like I have anything in reserve either and we can help each other out. That is, until Margaret pulls up behind us. This is our friend Margaret who is closer to my age than Mark's and we had to talk her into riding because she said "she had done nothing to prepare for this". So we tell her to join us and we would ride together. Her competitive juices flowing however, she leaves us in the dust. About halfway to Kodiak, I catch sight of her and I lose my fatherly instincts. I leave my son and go into attack mode to catch Margaret. I get on her back wheel just before town. I want to pass her but I tell myself I don't really need to do that. It doesn't matter, I argue with myself. Besides, if I try to pass her, she will just pass me again and how will that feel? So she finishes right before me. I have the luxury of thinking I let her do that. It is a bit after 3 hours since we started. Mark comes in a few minutes later. Comparing notes later over tomato soup and toasted cheese sandwiches, we agreed our legs hurt more than they have in recent memory. We spent the next hour or so napping on the couch.

The Pasagshak to Kodiak Bike Race is a challenging ride. It's 40 miles of hills and since it is during Crabfest, it is always rainy and cold, too. These elements combined make for a miserable day. I told Marcia I didn't think I would ever do it again. It was crazy. Unnecessary. I have nothing to prove. But, the next day Mark and I were saying we didn't feel too bad and that we were glad we had done it together. I am sure when next Crabfest comes around we will have completely forgotten how miserable we were.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tuesday May 12, 09

Ok since our website is down this will have to do. This Sunday I will be finishing up The Great Commission text in Matthew 28. When you think about it, it is less than you might expect. Nothing really revolutionary about it. Jesus does not say Now I have all authority and I give you some of it: so go and heal, and cast out evil spirits and fill great arenas with your preaching! No it is rather more mundane: teach, disciple, baptize. Baptize, how did that get in there? Isn't it optional, anyway? How did it make the big three? And teach? Isn't Sunday School optional, too? Disciple, who talks like that, anymore? So that's what we are up against this Sunday. See you in church.

In Church, we are collecting a box of helpful things for Rachel. Bring your stuff in real soon, so we can send it off. The youth group is having a lock in over Crabfest Saturday night. Ck with the Griffins for more info. And there is a church council meeting on May 21. Let's see if we can make it so we can be on the same page with what we think the Lord is trying to get us to do!

Rachel thanks you for your prayers. One important count is up! So she is able to continue chemo today! She says: Praise God! Jerry Roalsen began chemo and radiation in Portland OR yesterday and reports he is doing good and thanks you all for your prayers. Keep these folks in your prayers this week.

You may want to ck out Wednesday nights at Church. We have a good small group meeting to ck in with each other and pray. It lasts about an hour and starts at 6:45pm. We will be having a potluck soon, too.

The weather has been great. It's scary, some people say, its been so nice. Sign of the apocalypse? Or are we just banking our summer days now? Jerry R. said he heard it's supposed to be a Stellar Summer! I hope so. Let's see if we can get through Crabfest without rain! Wouldn't that be something?

Friday, May 8, 2009

What Do We Do with The Church?

If you believe people like the pollster George Barna, the Church as we have known it is in trouble. Big trouble. He estimates there are almost 20 million Christian believers who have given up on Church. He says people are turned off by the Church. He and others say that many people view the Church not only as irrelevant but an impediment to solving our social problems. The Church is seen as sexist, homophobic, anti - environmentalist, and right wing. Many non - Christian people fear the Church (that's the way Christian ethicist John Stackhouse puts it). If you plug the word "so" into's search engine, "So You Don't Want to Go To Church Anymore" pops up immediately. This is a book by Wayne Jacobsen whose publishing company also published The Shack. While The Shack was mildly anti - institutional Church, Jacobsen's book is a primer on how leave the Church. It's almost like an addiction that he is helping you to recover from. He goes on record at the beginning saying when he left the church as if he was liberated from it. He believes he was.

This is not good news for the Church. My denomination is hemorrhaging people. Most of the churches are small and growing smaller and that's not by choice. Missions programs are cut and missionaries salaries are slashed. Pastors are sought who can add people to the rolls. Most pastors are simply trying to survive. These are tough days to go to church.

Todd Hunter has been a pastor, church planter and missionary for over 30 years. He is also an author and his latest book is: Christianity Beyond Belief. Over the years he has seen the changes in our society and in the Church that have given the Church an identity crisis today. He is very concerned but not despairing.

He finds an outline to guide the Church's mission today in Matthew 28, the so-called Great Commission. In Hunter's paraphrase, Jesus calls his followers to be cooperative friends of Jesus, living in creative goodness, for the sake of others, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

He says there is too much focus on the church itself and not on what the church is for. Jesus, in Matthew 28, spoke about what the church is for in his last words before he ascended into heaven. Go! He said. Into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them everything I have taught you. Disciples, discipling others. Learners who are learning from Jesus helping others learn from Jesus. It is a humble task. Pointing people to Jesus so they can learn to live from him. This is what we are sent out to do. Hunter with over 30 years experience as pastor and church leader says that we have confused church with the place we go on Sundays rather than the community, or group we participate in. He says, church meetings are not "the game". They prepare us for the game. All teams meet to prepare for the game. Christianity, is not fully expressed within the walls of the church building but in the routines of daily life. Further, "our current lives are the place we practice our Christianity ...we don't need to add a bunch of religious stuff to an already full life in order to be the church or to please God."

This is a problem because lots of Christians, it seems to me, see what happens in the church facilities as the focus of their Christian life. Lots of those churches are dying. Maintaining, just surviving, is not the reason the Church exists. It cannot support itself for long. The Church exists for others, for mission. In Hunter's words, "we want things for others, not from others". That small sentence makes a tremendous difference in what the Church becomes.

These voices are telling those of us in the Church that we need to change - we need to focus on our mission and our mission is not maintaining the way we have always done things. It is tempting to ignore those voices. To become defensive. To point to all those churches we know of that are big and growing. But, even one of the first and largest megachurches, Willow Creek, in a self study last year discovered that although they were seeing lots of people at their services, few were becoming disciples of Jesus.

We also need to pay attention to the Church's critics outside the Church. They are telling us how the Church is perceived today. For too many people the Church is defined by what it is against. Stackhouse says, our society is dubious, leery, distracted, and jaded when it comes to the Church. Not a pretty picture. Past time to change the focus. And we can.

Even at a time when many people are turned off by the Church, it is still God's chosen instrument for working out His purposes in our world. Jesus did not leave a blueprint for the Church ( you would think he did when you listen to the choir of protests every time some change is presented!). But He did leave the Great Commission. Jesus sent us out. Our Churches are designed for sticking around. Jesus Commission to us was simple; we tend to make it complicated and get mired down in minutiae ( how many meetings to decide on chairs or pews in the sanctuary, or what hour to hold a worship service, who is going to clean up the mess in bathroom - all pressing issues in God's reclamation project!) As Hunter says we get stuck in the rut of seeing Church in terms of the place we meet and how our meetings run. Jesus calls us to be learners who come alongside Him and others in the learning process. The best apologetic today is for people to see a "God - inspired, consistent life of creative goodness.." (to use Hunter again). People need to see and experience the love of Christ in and through His Church. They need to see that following Christ makes a real difference in the way we live our lives and they need to see that the Following Christ way of life is good - for us and for them! Hunter reminds us that in our 24/7, spin me, sell me, manipulate me, exploitative world, actions speak louder than words for millions of seekers.

Christianity was never meant to be a private matter. It was never meant to be "just so I can be saved". In the Upper Room before Jesus went out to be crucified, he washed his disciples feet and said now you go and do what I have just done. What if we did that? What if we streamlined things at Church so we are not just adding more religious stuff onto already busy lives and formed small groups to wash each other's feet, and the feet of those walking by and around the Church every day? What if we opened up the Church during the week and gave away stuff people really need, like diapers, infant formula, etc? What if we held classes on basic nutrition, basic car repair ( what if we repaired cars for free?), childcare, learning English? What if we encouraged everyone to be in a small group of 6-12 that had to have a mission emphasis? One might focus on the persecuted Church, another on refugees, another on the homeless, and on and on and on, however the Lord of the Church might lead?

Hunter warns: The American Church may be at the make it or break it point for introducing others to Jesus.

Manny Being Manny

One more baseball note. If you follow sports you have heard that one of the games biggest distractions, highest paid players and best hitters (and worst fielders), tested positive for a banned substance. That's what MLB calls it. Looks like he has been taking steroids although he came up with the lame excuse that his doctor gave it to him and neither one of them had a clue it was illegal. So another superstar goes down. It's bad for baseball and another knife thrust into the baseball fans heart. I was surprised to hear Buster Olney, who used to be a sportswriter but now he's a talking head on ESPN, say that he would still vote for Ramirez to be in the hall of fame. What? He rationalized that in this drugged era no one knows who is cheating and who is not. So you have to treat it like it is what it is and still reward the best (cheaters) with the hall of fame. What? Olney did admit that Ramirez is no lock to make the hall of fame since there are a sizable block of voters that refuse to vote for steroid tainted players (Mark McGuire has not received over 25% of the necessary vote for three years now). Then, after Olney commented, ESPN went to their fantasy baseball "expert" for insight into how fantasy owners should handle the Ramirez problem. His take was to hold onto Manny because he is only suspended for 50 games and he will put up big numbers when he gets back. What? Looks like some people just accept it is what is and adjust accordingly. Now there are some good players that are not cheating ( I think). And the consensus among baseball commentators seems to be you can't penalize them and the whole game for a few cheaters. But it looks to me that there are more than a few and MLB doesn't want to work too hard to find out how many. Besides, baseball has more problems than drugs. Like most professional sports, baseball has become more about the sideshows than the game. So maybe it's time for the fan to boycott professional sports completely and give his or her baseball heart to those places and players where baseball is still played for the love of the game.