Monday, December 17, 2007

Ten Things I Think I Think

1) Yesterday was the first time I watched a NFL game from start to finish in many years.

The Browns-Bills game yesterday is the reason why the Cleveland Browns, despite getting hosed by Art Modell and the NFL, have one of the most loyal fan bases in the world. Snow covered field... rabid fans going crazy on play... snow and wind so bad that at times you couldn't see the play on TV.... guys with leaf blowers trying to keep the sidelines clear... players so elated after the game they were making snow angels to the delight of the crowds... and all for a game that actually has playoff implications. Nothing like football in six inches of snow, a driving wind, and 60,000 screaming fans cheering on a disgraced RB and a waived QB (kind of lost treasure given all the domes out there right now). A new generation of Browns fans were born yesterday in Cleveland... I guarantee it.

2) Messed up yesterday by not calling off the 11am service. Not that the service wasn't a good one... it was. But it was good because all the musicians who were scheduled to be there trudged out into the snow, while knowing better.

Folks who know me know I hate canceling anything. Cancellations break routines, and when you spent so many years as a youth pastor working to establish routines for teenagers, you kind of develop this aversion to giving people any excuse to take you out of their routine. Yesterday was a weird one, though. Given the weather report, I canceled the 9am service on Saturday afternoon, knowing full well that the threat of bad weather would empty that service out. But if you live in the Midwest long enough, you'll know the weather people are right about 50% of the time, so generally I like to wait until Sunday morning to decide what to do about the 11am. I waited, came over to the church at 8 and 9am, and thought we'd be OK. The lot was cleared, plows were out getting the streets clean, and snow was coming down, but not all that hard. Unfortunately, shortly after 9am, the snow really started to pick up, and by 10am we had a full-blown blizzard on our hands. Unfortunately, none of the local radio or TV stations seemed have live people working at them Sunday morning (a pox on computer automation) so even if I wanted to cancel, I had no way to contact people.

So, we worshiped, all had a good time, and Arby's ended up busy after the service (I mean, we were out.... why cook?). Mostly we had people with 4-wheel drive who rarely have a reason to use it out doing a little joy-riding (my Dad was particularly smitten with the traction he got in their new Mercury Mariner Hybrid, and thus spent the rest of the day looking for excuses to go drive), and other folks who just like going to church.. and a few people scheduled to be there who didn't want to let down their friends, but would have been happy to strangle their pastor. Thanks to all who made it. I promise to not be so "lumberjack tough" in the future.

3) It was snowing and blowing all afternoon, by the early evening it actually was pretty nice outside, so the boys and I decided to make a snow cave inside the big pile of snow John Thomas' plow (thank you John!) left at the end of my driveway. It's pretty cool (I'll put a few pictures up later... it was dark last night by the time we stopped for the day). Eli, however, does not share the same fondness for snow that his brothers do (pretty typical of all the boys when they were younger). Aimee bundled him up in a cute snowsuit (complete with a coat so bulky his arms stuck out at 45 degree angles from his body... a la "The Christmas Story) and mittens, but outside of tasting a few flakes, he had no use for snow. 20 minutes he was back inside playing with his grandpa (who ended up at our house while joyriding in the Mariner) in our warm, snow-free basement. The kids are out of school today, so we'll most likely be making a trip to the Neil Armstrong Museum to go sledding later this afternoon. Ah... snow days.

4) Which leads me to this rant... when we moved to Lima back in 1980, my parents made the fateful decision of buying a house in the city, as opposed to one of numerous suburbs. Back in those days, before the state gave the Lima City Schools the funds to replace all but two of their buildings, the nine elementary schools were scattered as such that they were virtually within walking distance of all the students. Of course, if you were in junior high or high school, if you had no ride, you just had to trudge the couple of miles or so through the ice and snow (uphill, both ways) and deal with it. Since the city schools had no buses (except short ones for developmentally challenged students), they rarely, if ever closed. That meant that every morning when it snowed, while all the kids in the burbs and rural areas got delays or cancellations, as a city school kid, you'd hear all those other school districts taking pity on their students and teachers, only to hear Tom Francis at WIMA-AM say, "and, as always, the Lima City Schools are on time, and in session".

I just want to say that for the first five years of my elementary school life, I did ride a school bus to Shoals Elementary School in suburban Charleston, West Virginia, and we didn't get enough snow to amount to too many school days (excluding the blizzard of '78) being canceled. And we never got fog delays... despite living in an extended valley where you had fog just about every day and you drove on roads with endless blind curves.

Fog delays.... give me a break.

Now, the City Schools have buses, and the "report card" they get from the state measures attendance (among other things), so those kids get out like everyone else. They no longer wear the same badge of both honor (cause we were tougher than those pansies out in the burbs) and shame (cause we have gladly traded our toughness for days off spent sledding at Faurot Park) like we did. They won't have to carry this bitterness I, and so many of my classmates, carry every time we hear of another school delaying or canceling school.

"...and of course, the Lima City Schools are on time, and in session." Poppycock.

5) Bad news out of the United Methodist Information Service... apparently the cost of next year's General Conference - the once-every-four-year all church meeting that sets the general rules for the church - is going to run more than a million dollars above the amount budgeted for it. Why, you ask? Well, back in 1968 when we first merged the ME and EUB denominations to create United Methodism, fewer than 12% of the delegates, attending that conference came from outside of the U.S.A. You see, there are many Methodist denominations, but we aren't all unified under one banner. Membership in these denominations, while largely geographical, for historic reasons often looks like a patchwork quilt across the globe. Thus, we have UM churches located in Africa, Asia, and Central America.

Now, as the American wing of the UMC hurdles toward obscurity and decline, these overseas branches of the tree are growing. Thus, in 2008, 40% of all delegates at General Conference are coming from overseas. Since the travel and lodging cost of every delegate is subsidized by the denomination, this has created a fiscal crisis for the event scheduled to take place in Fort Worth later this spring. There is talk about about eliminating an overall percentage of all the delegates to cut down on the cost, and a wider range of discussion on how in the future this event will have to change as the financial backbone of the church, the UMC in the USA, continues to struggle with all kinds of costs as we face the loss of a generation of people, the WWI generation, that have foundation of the church for a good many years.

6) But the bigger issue is the dawning realization that the decline of the UMC, from more than 12 million members in 1968, to about 7.9 million in 2007, is much more rapid in the US than what we have realized. If 40% of all the 1000 delegates, which are apportioned by membership across all the conferences are now coming from outside the US, then the decline of the UMC in the US has been much more rapid and dramatic than we have been led to believe. The great myth in the UMC for as long as I've been involved in it has been that the membership in 1968 was inflated, filled with millions of inactive members on church rolls for a variety of reasons (larger rolls meant greater prestige for the church and pastor, familial connects, etc...). As our membership continued to decline over the next forty years, we were assured by conference officials that at some point, there would be a "bottoming out" as churches pared their rolls to more accurately reflect reality. Since we've been holding steady at around 8 million for awhile now, many experts have been hailing that number as our "bottoming out" point.

But what the 2008 General Conference fiscal crisis highlights is that the rapid decline of the past forty years here in the US hasn't bottomed out. It continues, unabated. For if a million of our members lived outside the US in 1968, now 2.8 million do. That means that about 10.7 million members lived in the US in 1968, and now in 2008 only about 4.2 million live in the US with no bottom number in sight. Considering that the population of the US has grown by about 100 million people since 1970, whatever panic bells weren't ringing among UM leaders ought to be ringing now. If your nation grew by a third, while your membership declined by more than half and aged markedly, you've got a serious problem.

A very serious problem, indeed.

7) The first and foremost of the plethora of issues we'll need to face is how in the world we take advantage of the growth happening overseas as the resources in the US continue to be, at best, growing at a flat rate (and probably, adjusted for inflation, this would be an optimistic deduction). When I met with Sam Dixon, Director of UMCOR, last July, one of the things he said, that shocked me, is that we are currently starting and building new churches at a record pace... it's just we're doing it in places like Thailand.

Now, who knew we were building hundreds of churches in Thailand?

Stories like this need to be shared with rank and file UM's, and mission opportunities arranged to these place, post haste! If the international wing of the church is taking off, UM's need to hear and know about it. Considering our general agencies and annual conferences are better financed and (theoretically) organized than other major denominations, we should be flush with stories happening "over there". There should be ample testimonies about the fruit from connections that churches here in the US have made with international partners. The energy from this would be vital for churches who are struggling to grapple with the benefits of remaining a UM, when the costs to the local church are higher than just about any other denomination.

Churches like ours would be a whole lot more excited about this if we were connected with churches overseas growing by leaps and bounds. I mean, it's conceivable that the UMC could begin growing for the first time within the next decade, it's just that all the growth would be coming outside of our nation's borders. Why not use that as fuel to ignite local congregations again about the Methodist connection? Who is telling this story, and where are the plethora of opportunities for American UM's to be connected all of this great stuff?

8) Brother Esq and I can't decide on a new nickname for new Michigan coach, Rich Rodriguez. Since he's reportedly signing for (ahem) $4 million per year, the media has dubbed him "Rich Rod" or "Dollar Rod".

As an aside, I remember during all the Maurice Clarett hoopla, how a friend of mine, who is the chaplain of the Wesley Foundation at UofM, got on his high horse a couple of years ago to talk about how "principled" Lloyd Carr was, while OSU ran its program like every money-crazed university in the country. Of course, he conveniently forgot that virtually every game the Fab Five won had to be forfeited because it was the highest paid NCAA basketball team in history... but I digress.

Welcome to the new world, Eric Stone! Hope you like your new multi-million dollar coach with a history of driving up his salary and recruiting player of questionable academic ability.

Anyhow, after much discussion, we've decided that either "Lloyd Rodriguez" or "Rrich Carr" would be a better choice. Either way, you can bet the Mountaineers will be sending a ton of film to Columbus by the New Year, and the Bucks defense is about to get a whole lot better defending against the spread offense.

"Beware the Sweater Vest!"

9) By the way, what's my prediction for the BCS Championship Game? 43-41 OSU, in triple OT just to add a little salt into Les Miles' wound.

10) Finally, in a strange, wonderful turn of events, I was invited to become a "Facebook Friend" of Dr. Paul Chilcote, who is currently a professor of biblical studies at Duke Theological Seminary. Dr. Chilcote, many years ago, taught Wesleyan Studies at Methodist Theological School. I took every class from him I could before he vamoosed to become the first Dean at Asbury Theological Seminary's Orlando campus (or as we called it at the time, "Asbury Disney". He relayed the good news that he will be returning to Ohio this summer to teach at Ashland Theological School (I'd love to bring him to Shawnee to speak... stay tuned).

In any event, this might be the only time a world-renowned biblical scholar invites me to be a friend of any kind... so I'll just soak it in. Ahhhhh...... that's some good stuff.


Courtney said...

While shopping at the mall today I heard a few new names for ol' rod:
"He who shall not be named" (HP reference, my favorite)
And those are the ones I'll say...there were many more not meant to be written!

Anonymous said...

well Brother... let's go a bit further with the media names there... they call him "rich Rod" let's assume that is in reference to his large contract... so he could be "rich Rich" and rich is short for Richard (I know, it's my middle name), and we all know what another abbreviation for Richard is...

yes kids, rich Di(internet connection terminated)

Lois E. Lane said...

Nothing says Christmastime like snow-covered gridiron...