Friday, February 27, 2009

Ten Things I Think I Think (after 30 days of no posts)

1) What can I say.... I'm either insanely busy or just plain lazy. I can't decide which is true. Seems like every day at work is nuts, and I've been working 7 days a week the past three weeks. But then on Mondays I sit in my office like a zombie, trying to put a coherent sentence together and late at night each day I'm up watching NBA basketball or Law and Order or some other piece of digital crap, so it's not like I don't have free time. I think, in the end its just that I only have so many words each day. I spend them writing or speaking, and that's that. I've got nothing left.

And here's the strange thing, the older I get the fewer words I seem to have. I don't know if this is cause I'm out of shape, slowly breaking down with age, or just slowly disappearing into myself. I've no clue. But in any event, the loser has been the blog, and for that I apologize. I'd tell you that in the future I'll try to do better, but you and I already know that's a toss up at best, so let's just push forward today and call it even.

2) In case you hadn't heard, I turned forty about two weeks ago. The wife bought me a nice flat screen and Blue Ray player with some of her website money. The picture is so good you can see the age spots on Barbara Walters, even with the ample Vaseline they smear on the camera lens to try to hide the fact that she really has aged.

Forty, in all honesty, wasn't all that big a deal. Somewhere in the last five years I lost my fear of getting old, and to some degree even death. Not that I wanna die, or wouldn't be crawling under a desk if a crazed gunman walked in the office, but the prospect of death has just somehow continued melting away. Death and worrying about the future.... I spent so many hours over those things that I either don't have energy to waste on them anymore, or worked out my fears in my head. Not too mention, I've been blessed with a great family, tons of friends, and a great staff so what's not to love about my life? Hence it's not the fate of my own tail that gets that kind of personal attention any longer. Now, I spend that energy on trying to navigate a good life for my family, keeping the church in as good of shape as I can, and caring for the staff. That's what keeps me up at night now.

3) As nice unexpected gifts go, a close second to the new LG Scarlet my wife sacrificed to bring in our home was a phone call from an old friend the day after my birthday. Steve Wheeler, college buddy and best man at my wedding gave me a call out of the blue on February 11th, the day between our birthdays.

Once upon a time when the biggest worries of the day were getting a few friends to go wrangle a b-ball game at Phillips (as if that was a problem... my left knee is screaming at me thanks to the millions of miles I put on those floors with Brett, Wayne, Paul, and John), getting up for class (even an afternoon one), and the occasional exam my gang of Miami University college friends used to celebrate the birthdays of Steve and Bryan on the "day between". There were parties, outings, and even a foray to see Blue Oyster Cult to celebrate our 21st year on earth. Our gang has experienced marriage, divorce, the tragedy of losing a spouse, kids, jobs, losing jobs, getting new jobs, moving, staying, and all the blessings and challenges life doles out. Somehow (mostly thanks to Steph, who publishes "The List" listing what, where, who, when, and why every Christmas) we've stayed in touch, albeit sometimes somewhat loosely.

It had been at least two sons (Elijah and Toby) ago that I talked to Steve. He's still a middle school Social Studies teacher/coach at a private Christian school in Boca Raton. There are some people who, no matter how long it's been, you can just pick up where you left off. That's Wheeler for me. Within minutes of figuring out how many kids the other guy had and what was going on with the spouse, we were debating the three worst presidents in the history of the US. To be honest, throw in a couple of cigars, a round of Frisbee golf, a showing of "A Fistful of Dollars", and a couple pints of Guinness, and it could have 1987-1991 all over again.

Of course we've both long let go with our sheltered Christian kids fascination with tobacco (I don't care what people say.... cigars, no matter how expensive, taste like feet), and while I'll plead the Fifth as to whether or not the Christian school teacher and Methodist pastor would still enjoy pint circa 2009, the basic mutual respect and care we have had for each other ever since we briefly met at freshman orientation on South Campus remains. The guy can still make me laugh like nobody else. I could see his face when on the phone he explained to me what it was like to run poorly organized marathon in a what is essentially a Florida swamp in 100 degree plus heat.... and then promptly after telling me about this debacle inform me he's already planning on doing it again. Typical Steve. Gotta love someone who makes you laugh not just recalling the old days, but talking about the new ones too. Steve is thinking possibly a stop over in Ohio this summer. Here's hoping he can make it happen.

(And if he's reading this, an unexpected opportunity has arisen, and there's an outside chance we might do a quick sojourn as a fam to Florida later this year. Ah what havoc I'm certain our seven kids could create... hopefully we'll find that out sooner than later.)

4) I envisioned facing a lot of things as a senior pastor. Upset parishioners... the occasional bad offering... staff turnover... demands from the denomination... extending myself for reasons ecumenical and cross-cultural that may or may not pan out... a building project or two... a crisis of faith (mine or someone else).... but never in my lifetime did I think I would have to lead a church through the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression. Maybe, given how leveraged our world has become, I should have seen the meltdown of the investment banking system, then the rest of the banking system, Wall Street, the mortgage industry, the insurance industry, and the manufacturing sector coming, but I didn't. Now we get to add something new to the resume - led a church through a global recession.

Can't say they taught us much about that in seminary.

Strangely enough, though, I got some new insight as to what we are all up against after reading this great article by Bill Simmons, one of my favorite writers from about the effect of the economic collapse on the NBA. I won't bore you with recounting the facts of the article (I know the number of NBA fans who actually read this blog number three - Brother Esq, The Clouse, and Father Pauly) you can go read yourself if you are interested. The insight gained, though, is this... when you've structured income and expenses around certain expectations, and those expectations aren't realized spectacularly, you are in for some seriously, seriously painful days.

Churches are generally pretty stable entities. Unless we leverage ourselves for some major undertaking (a new building, ministry, staff addition, etc...) our budgets are largely pretty stable. Shawnee's budget hasn't changed all that much in the last four years. We even budgeted in a decrease for 2009 just on the prospect of what might be coming, and could do so with very little pain thanks to how aggressively we were paying down our mortgage. But if all of a sudden you see a downturn in income, and its not related to a couple of bad weather Sundays, you are faced with some real issues. Smaller churches generally weather these kinds of storms pretty well. They might only need $30-70k a year to keep the doors open, and almost always have some CD's stashed in a locked box somewhere that can be tapped in times of difficulty.

But this ain't the case with medium or large churches. Since such a large portion of the budget is allocated toward staff, and the amount of capital needed to meet expenses tends to not be underwritten by stashed CD's in a lockbox, the initial cuts of things like program tend to be more preventative than anything else (we won't spend what we thought we were going to spend to prevent a squeeze). If this doesn't work, then, generally hampered with a big mortgage and massive fixed expenses, the only thing you can cut is staffing. And while nobody stops going to Arby's or buying a Honda due to the fact Bob got laid off, this would not be the case in a local church. Cut staffing - even substandard staff - and you might as well cut revenue to some degree. So it's a double whammy. Fail in recasting the image or direction of the church, and the slow loss of momentum will slowly sink the large congregation. That's the fear of a sudden, unexpected drop in revenue. It can create consternation in even the most tranquil of congregations. Here's to praying the necessary wisdom abounds in this kidney stone of an economy to avoid stepping into some serious dung.

5) Xavier, our six year old, is a monkey. A little monkey. It's true. He just started rehearsal last week for Encore Theatre's upcoming production of "The Jungle Book". Seems he's got the acting bug after having gone to see a couple of shows with his mother (while Dad stays at home with the two youngest). Max would have auditioned also, but he ended up with the flu on audition days and was too sick to go. Just be forewarned that if you come to our house between now and April 3-5th, you are bound to hear somebody singing "Bare Necessities" or see a little boy practice his dance steps in our driveway. Ah, the stage.

6) Watched the Oscars the other evening. The only thing I really remember about them was Bill Maher looking genuinely bummed that his documentary, "Religulous" didn't get nominated for the "Best Documentary" catagory. Maher's problem was that when he went after religion he simply found the most ridiculous examples of it that he could find, and let those folks make fools out of themselves. Maher doesn't like to interview anyone who disagrees with him who might be smarter than he is, and in the end that's what torpedoed not only his chances, but the movie itself. Maybe if Maher had interviewed Ben Witherington to find out whether or not, for example, the Horus myth of Egypt really was a template for the life of Christ, he would have really done something. Otherwise, finding a guy in Florida who calls himself Jesus isn't all that engaging, or for that matter, difficult. We see that kind of crazy, and the crazy that believes it, every day. Make that the cornerstone of your critique and nobody takes you seriously. Not even Oscar.

7) New target for dissertation completion: end of June/early July 2009. I've got two churches left to research, but can I get those and the writing done by then. YES I CAN! Thank goodness I'm getting a waiver to lower the number of case studies from 12 to 10, otherwise I'd have never made it. Get ready Kingdom of Heaven to make room for one more over-educated pastor. Just what the world needs.

8) After I picked up Max from swim practice tonight, we started looking for a copy of The Jungle Book. As mentioned earlier, Xavier is playing one of the monkey brothers in a local production, and since the music comes from the old animated feature Walt Disney made in the sixties, we thought we'd pick up a copy for our Friday Family Movie Night. Unfortunately, I think the other kids parents had the same idea, after a couple of stops sans movie, we wandered into a local Hollywood Video.

We took a look around, and the only version on the shelves was some lame remake. Fearing we had struck out again, we were about to head out to a Family Video, when on a sale shelf Max found it... a 40th anniversary edition for only $15. We took it up to the counter to buy it, but when we got up there the video store guy was on the phone, unsuccessfully trying to order a pizza. He ignored us for awhile, finally turned to look at us, and said, "Just hang, I'll be there in a minute."

Like we had any choice. It was the last copy of The Jungle Book in Northwest Ohio.

So we wait a little longer, and finally the guy hangs up the phone, complains about the poor service at the pizza place, looks at our DVD and promptly exclaims, "That's the wrong price."
Now, you couldn't print "14.99" any bigger on the package without covering up the title, so I instantly am skeptical. The guy scans it, and sure enough, it came up to $20. "It came to us from one of the other stores they closed, and I just missed re-pricing it. I'd take $5 off, but it will get me fired. That's the crazy crap their pulling around here right now. I just can't do it. I need my job."

At this point I'm fairly flabbergasted, so I tell him I'll pay the $20 but I want the name of a district manager or somebody who I can call to voice my displeasure. And immediately, the guy says, "If you're going to corporate, I'll just give you the five dollars myself, because they'll let me go. $5 isn't worth losing my job, and it's my fault the DVD wasn't re-priced because I'm the store manager." As he's saying this, he takes out his wallet and pulls out a five-spot.

Max's eyes are huge. He's ten, so he gets what's going on. Later he admitted to me that he was scared to death that because we wanted to buy a video that a person was going to be fired. I'm trying to give the five dollars back, and the guy is getting increasingly pushy about the whole thing when I finally just had to throw it back on the counter and tell him that he was making me angry. I paid full price, and got the heck out of there, but not before we realized that he had given us the wrong game that Max had selected as a rental for the weekend.

Which leads me to this... if the economy is so bad that a video chain is one iota away from closing a) scaring the poo out of the employees is probably the wrong way to turn it around and b) maybe your customer service ought to go up a couple of notches. Needless to say, the future doesn't look bright for Hollywood Video. Better get your Netflix on.

9) Ten songs playing in my office today:
- One (Aimee Mann)
- Save Me (Aimee Mann, featured in "Magnolia")
- Maybe We Could Get Clean By Christmas (Aimee Mann... writes lots of songs about heroin addiction, which isn't a great topic, but she makes catchy depressing little tunes)
- What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding (Elvis Costello)
- Everyday I Write The Book (Elvis Costello)
- Ubi Caritas (From the "Brother Sun, Sister Moon" soundtrack, arranged by John Rutter)
- The Man in Me (Bob Dylan.... it's featured in "The Big Lebowski")
- Between the Bars (Elliott Smith... what can I say, I saw "Good Will Hunting" the other night)
- The Wind (Cat Stevens.. another song from another movie, "Rushmore")
- Go Your Own Way (Fleetwood Mac... I'm fascinated with the opening acoustic guitar riffs)

we're definitely feeling a little mellow in the senior pastor office at sumc this week.

10) Finally (and I do mean finally cause these things take forever to write) the other night we conducted a joint service with The Future Church of Tomorrow in their sanctuary on the corner of Kibby and Elizabeth. There was a nice crowd there, particularly given the fact it was an Ash Wednesday service and none of us are Catholic, high church, and Ash Wednesday had never been celebrated by their church before. Ever.

The thing that struck me about the service (besides the fact that we decided to do it together only days before, and still somehow we pulled it off) were the large number of teens and pre-teens that were there, all but one or two of whom were from TFCoT. I know that even when we do an Ash Wednesday service in our own building, there aren't more than a couple of teens there. Usually they avoid that sort of the thing like the plague, and when we do it takes about 45 minutes. With The Future Church we went 80 minutes, and they were kinda lost at the end because the service was so short.

The presence of all those kids has stuck with me, and I've been trying to figure out why. I think mainly what keeps coming back to me was the feeling that at Daniel Hughes' church kids make up such a large portion of the congregation, that they are needed to step up and take leadership roles. One of our parishioners who arrived late, talked about being fearful stepping out of her car and having to walk down a south end street after dark, only to be relieved to see four or five teen boys from TFCoT standing out on the street, waving at her. Seems they realized that suburban people aren't all that comfortable in the city at night, and took it upon themselves to keep an eye out for their guests to make them feel welcome.

They are challenged to own their faith, and be a fully functioning member of the Body of Christ.

Leading me to wonder if we make the same kind of challenge and offer the same kind of call to adults, let alone teens, at SUMC? Or at least to the degree that I saw come out in the commitment I could see in those kids eyes? I makes me wonder, and I'm sure I'll be preaching about it soon.

It's good to be back.


ElleBee said...

Hollywood Video seems to be in pretty serious trouble overall. They've closed most of them in our area. "Ubi Caritas" arr. by Rutter? Love it! Of course I'm pretty much a sucker for anything Rutter. We did "Gloria" when I was at Miami and it was incredible. Happy belated birthday! I was strangely OK with turning 39 last year and hoping that 40 this year is just as uneventful!

Vince Turner said...

Wow! I'm glad the list wasn't 20 things. I would have to read in shifts.

My favorite Jimmy Buffett song proclaims "I'm growing older, but not up." I hope it is true for you my friend. The child in your heart needs to have a voice. It was always my favorite part of you in the very limited time we spent together.

Jacob wasn't the only one who wrestled with an angel, my friend. We all have at one point. Some of us more than once. Sounds to me like you have a real "Cage Match" going on right now.

There are things in my life I didn't realize I enjoyed until I lost 'em. You're on that list.

I've said this before ... and I'll say it again ... you left 1st UMC better than you found it.

Keep the faith!!!

Brett said...

Bryan I was the Store Manager at Hollywood for 5 years and trust me that is the way they feel about their employees...they dont care and never have. When I was in charge it was the cleanest store in the District and you got the top of the line customer service because we ALL enjoyed working there, because we all loved movies. I loved that job but the further I got in my career the more I found out how little that company cared...and that was 10 years ago. They will go under, and you never should get service like that(trust me Ive been in the game for almost 20 years and customer service is my name)but that is what they have always done to their employees...Managment by FEAR.

Andy Rogers said...

Well after 30 days of no post, you really did a good job here. You still have a lot of words to share to everybody. Keep it up.

Wounded and Healing said...

Hi Bryan,
I found your blog via some "blog-surfing" through various links and have enjoyed reading it. I'm not sure I agree with you about #4 in this post-that small churches can weather these times easier. As a former pastor of a very small church (annual budget $75K), I know that we had almost no wiggle room in our budget...and precious little in savings (definitely less than 20% of the budget). Half of our budget consisted of the pastor's salary and pension, apportionments took up another quarter of the budget, which left only one-quarter for other expenses such as utilities, repairs to the parsonage and church, and programming. They were literally operating on the minimum. The only way for them to reduce expenses further was to become part of a charge (which they did this past May, when I left), so at least the pastor's salary and pension was reduced.
Meanwhile, the medium-large church that I'm attending now (500+ people in worship each Sunday) has many of the trimmings that my small church had forsaken/never had...fancy bulletin covers, flowers every Sunday, a newsletter, colored paper for announcements, donuts and coffee each Sunday, etc. If they really needed to trim some fat, I see lots of areas where they could do it and still not affect staffing or even the quality of worship.

I'm not trying to say "you're WRONG", because you probably have more experience with large and small churches than I do. I just wanted to offer my perspective. BTW, I'm an Asbury grad, too. MDiv class of 2005.