Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Stan the Man

Last night, Stan Weller passed away after what had been a quick illness, and a long, productive, and fulfilling life.

When I was a young youth pastor (v1.0) at Shawnee in the early/mid nineties I was so dumb I didn't know what I didn't know. It seemed like every other week I said or did something that got me into some kind of trouble. Whether it was people offended by my calling my senior pastor "The Great Bald One" (fortunately, over time the congregation developed a greater sense of humor) or ticked off trustees angry because another table ended up broken at Youth Fellowship, it seemed like the opportunities for me to get beat with sticks were abundant here. I realize most of this I brought down on myself, but I was truly ignorant, and I can tell you it wasn't bliss.

I don't know what it was that convinced Stan to step in and help a clueless guy out. He had been a teacher, coach, and administrator, so maybe he thought he could mold me just like his other students or a young teachers. He liked taking on hopeless causes and arguing with others (he liked to say God put him on the earth to give other people a hard time), so maybe as a member of SPRC, the incessant complaining he heard mainly from older members about the youth pastor kinda got his dander up. Maybe he felt compelled to step in because the lack of a youth ministry at the church prior to my being hired made him sick to his stomach. I don't know.

I suspect that real reason Stan took to me was due to all the mission work the teens were doing in those days. Some of the work - like the annual mission trips to rural South Carolina (which started as Hurricane Hugo repair work but over time became an effort to not only alleviate poverty among mostly rural poor elderly South Carolingians but an effort to bridge racial and cultural barriers in a divided Williamsburg County, SC) was initiated by me.

Some work they were doing wasn't. Ellen Dukeman, a high school student, initiated with a couple of other teens from the church an after-school art program at the Bradfield Center in Lima, which evolved into a once-a-week tutoring program totally run and operated by teens. Stan, I think, saw teens working and giving of themselves, and felt it was too important for the church, and the Kingdom, to idly stand by as the youth pastor in charge repeatedly shot himself in the foot. That's probably when the first invitation to come eat chili at his house happened.

Soon, on about a monthly basis, I found myself at Stan's house where we'd sit, eat, talk, and mostly laugh. In time he started giving me a hard time each and every Sunday morning before and after the 8:30am service. Not long thereafter, he'd regularly stop in at the office, grab Helen Price from her desk, and she and he would come heckle me mercilessly about how I (dis)organized my desk.

I loved every minute of it.

He owned an old orange suburban in those days which he made available to the youth group whenever they needed it. Later, because we were using it more than he was, he asked me if I wanted to buy it. I didn't really have the money so he set it up so the payments could be made whenever I could afford to do so. It took two years to finally pay off the $1100 I owed him, but he didn't seem to care. He burned the ledger in the fire of the grill he used to make us the hamburgers we ate to celebrate the end of my debt.

You just don't forget stuff like that.

After about a year of those lunches at his house, he had asked me so many questions about our mission work in South Carolina that I guess his curiosity got the best of him. He asked whether or not that following summer if he could go with us. I told him that was fine by me. Personally, though, I was a little worried. Stan retired early (at 55, I think). By the time he went down with us he was I believe about 70 years old. I wondered how he would get along with the teens, and they him.

I got my answer as we made our way down the highway on the very first day. I was leading a caravan of four or five vehicles, when out of nowhere an orange suburban went flying past my van. In it was one 70 year old driver and five teens dancing to music coming out of the radio. The suburban was swerving all over the road because the driver, while dancing, wasn't keeping his hands on the wheel as the hunk of metal loaded with kids and gear hurled down the highway at 75mph.

From that day on, Stan was, by far, the most popular adult counselor we took on our mission trips.

I remember something else about Stan's first year with us in SC. We had this kid go with us who even at the age of 12 or 13 was a hellion. Everywhere I had taken the kid he would be a real pain in the everlovin'. He was always mouthing off, sneaking off to grab a quick smoke (which I'd have to quash whenever I could), and causing some sort of trouble. He would openly tell me each week at YF that only reason he was there was because his mother made him go. Repeatedly I gave him permission to stay home, but his mother never relented. I remember shivering when she gave me the sign up form and registration fee so that her son, Todd, could go on the mission trip.

Anyhow, the first day Stan worked in South Carolina, it was hot. Real hot. Like 112 degrees in the shade hot. I had put in charge of building a wheelchair ramp at a home where a mother taking care of an adult daughter with MS lived, and it was clear by lunch that Stan was not well. He wasn't afraid of work, but unaccustomed to the heat he had already over-exerted himself. Because it wasn't that big of a job (I think that year we were also renovating a couple of houses) and because he insisted as a retired principle he could handle them, I had assigned to Stan a crew of my young troublemakers, including Todd.

At first, Stan worked while the kids stood around looking for trouble, but as he tired, he began assigning jobs and showing kids how to do things. By the time I arrived later that morning the kids were digging post holes, mixing concrete, cutting wood, and nailing nails while Stan sat under a shade tree drinking lemonade.

That night at devotions youth and adults were (in jest) giving Stan a hard time about sitting around all day. The ribbing was only growing and getting more pointed, when out of nowhere, Todd stood up, and began passionately defending Stan. Stan, he told us, was only doing what he was supposed to be doing... showing the teens who had signed up to work how to do the work. He went on to tell us to leave Stan alone because he was older and we needed to treat him with more respect. He concluded his speech by letting all know that Stan's crew, under his leadership, would outwork any other crew there that week and the rest of us could just kiss their ass.

Might be the only time I was ever proud of a kid for using blue language at devotions.

It was not only a turning point for Todd. The kid who hated coming to church and YF ended practically living there whenever he had the chance. But is was also a turning point for me, and all the adults and kids involved in the SC mission. From that day on adults made greater efforts to show the kids how to get things done and do the work, and kids expected to work hard. To this day, I don't think any youth pastor expected more work out of a group of teens than I did on those mission trips. One year, for example, in one week those kids built a house from the pad up, renovated another one (down the floor joyces and studs), renovated a church, and did a host of side projects. I think back now and wonder what I was thinking. I worked them so hard under that hot sun you'd have thought they were being punished, but every year their numbers grew.

By 1997 a group of almost 100 people, more than 80 of them teens, traveled to South Carolina to build and repair houses. It was Stan, out of personal necessity, who really taught us how to train and trust teens with actual work.

In any event, Stan became a perennial participant in our South Carolina mission . He was, by far, the most beloved volunteer I ever took anywhere in 20 years of ministry. He received the ultimate honor when one year during devotions the kids decided he was too cool to be an adult, and they made him a lifetime member of the youth ministry. Stan beamed from ear to ear.

I don't know when it happened, but sometime during my first six years at SUMC our relationship, which had started more as a mentoring thing, became a true friendship. I'd tell him about stuff at work or home and he'd talk about his own family. Out of that conversation, I ended up meeting his son, Mark.

Mark had since long quit going to church, which I have to say bothered Stan. Mark, after I'm sure hearing Stan talk about SC incessantly, liked what he heard about the mission work we were doing, and one summer asked if he could come with us. I remember all week he kept telling us we were doing everything wrong (the nut doesn't fall far from the tree). By the time the day came for us go home, he was hooked. Not only did Mark go with us every year until I left in 1997, but he also started playing b-ball with a bunch of us over-the-hill guys from the church at the local armory. He'd even show up occasionally and sit with his folks in the 8:30am service, which delighted his Dad to no end. I loved having him become part of the congregation, and he too became a good friend.

Those were very good days.

After we moved, Stan never failed to keep in touch. He was one of the most loyal friends I've ever had. When we lived in Toledo, he'd drive up occasionally and take us out to lunch. When we moved to Bloomington, Illinois, he and Betty planned a trip that included stopping off so they could meet our newborn son. When we lived in Goshen, they'd stop over a couple of times a year to see us to see how the kids were doing. In turn, whenever I was back in Lima visiting my folks, I usually found myself at least one afternoon or evening visiting with Stan and Betty at their home, checking out whatever car or camper he had just bought at the auction in Fort Wayne (he owned a gazillion cars in his lifetime... my hero) and getting caught up on what his family was doing.

After we moved back in 2004, the dementia that Betty had started to experience very slowly in the late 90's had totally eroded her memory. Stan was taking care of her round the clock and it was wearing him down. He was losing weight at an alarming pace, and I noticed that his own memory was starting to fade. We still had a bowl of chili occasionally and my two oldest sons and I went with him a few times to fish, but after he made the hard choice to put Betty in the nursing home (the day he did so it was the only time, I think, I saw him break down) I saw him less and less. He spent most every hour of each day by her side.

By the time she died this past winter, Stan was in pretty bad shape. Fortunately his sons, and the rest of his family, were there for him. It couldn't have been easy for them to ease him out of driving and eventually out of the home he had built, but they didn't have much choice. He was fading quickly.

We had no idea here at the church over the last month how rapidly Stan was deteriorating. He apparently was in the hospital for three weeks in late May/early June, but despite our calling that hospital every day to ask if they had admitted any of our parishioners, they failed to notify us that he was in their care (which still makes me very upset). That's why I was so shocked when Mark showed up at church Sunday to tell me that Stan was dying.

I just didn't know.

By the time I visited him Sunday afternoon he was unconscious, heavy morphine masking the pain which comes from a failing liver. I wish I could have told him how much he meant to me and how his support and friendship had shaped my life. I wish I had the chance to groan and laugh at one of his terrible jokes, and tell the same tired stories about the South Carolina mission trips. I wish I knew whether or not when I read to him the 121 Psalm and told him I loved him that he heard me. I wish I knew that when I kissed him goodbye on his forehead he knew it was me. I hope as around his bed I told his sons that there was no way I could take a dime to do his funeral, he heard Mark crack back, "Well that makes it easier cause we weren't gonna pay you anyway." I hope on the inside it made him laugh.

But I won't fret too much about those things. He'd just scowl if he heard me saying this stuff, and tell me to worry about something important. That's just the way he was, and maybe it's the thing about him I'll miss the most. I'll just take comfort in knowing that now he is safely with his Savior, embracing again his lovely wife, and telling all kinds of fish stories with buddies long since past.

Rest in peace, old friend. I look forward to seeing you again someday, laughing as we once did, over lunch in the kitchen of our Father's house. Just keep a pot of chili on the stove, and an empty bowl on the table.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

What Makes A Leader Great?

Great article this morning on Kobe Bryant by The Sports Guy, Bill Simmons. Simmons, a lifelong Celtics fan, has a hate-love (cause it's mostly hate) for any or all Lakers, and Bryant seems to be at the top of that list. I think he does a great job of dissecting the player-as-teammate versus the player-as-performer (if that makes sense). Simmons decides that Kobe is a great individual performer - maybe as good as any other we'll ever see in the NBA - but way, way down on the list of great teammates. The upshot, though, is that in order to make the leap into the pantheon of the greatest whoever played, Simmons conjectures that Bryant must becoming both a great performer and teammate.

Is he right? Who knows. If the Lakers repeat, or win multiple championships with a nucleus of Bryant, Gasol, Odum, and Ariza it would be hard to deny Kobe his rightful place in NBA history. He'll need to perform at a high level to make this a possibility, but he'll have to modify his behavior if he wants these guys to stick around. How the rest of his teammates continue to respond to him, and he them, that will define whether or not Kobe is a great basketball player or the greatest.

That's what possessed me to take this work break (no writing today... got church stuff to get done). Simmons' article led me to ask the question, "What makes a leader great?".

The answer: talent, drive and trust.

We just returned late last week from conference where we spent a lot of time listening to Mike Slaughter and his associate pastor, Sue Nilson Kibbey, who are at the forefront of Ginghamsburg (we keep the "United Methodist" part in 6-point font at the bottom of the sign) Church.

When Mike arrived at what was GUMC, it was a typical tiny burg kind of church. Old building. 50-80 people. Hidden location. Biggest thing that happened each year was an annual chicken noodle dinner. Without Mike's arrival, the future of the church is probably like so many other UMC's across our conference, which is to say eventual closure.

Mike, though, didn't do this alone. While he's a dynamic preacher, and a leader without fear, he knew needed other people to make the enterprise go. Tom Tumblin was imported to give the staff shape and the church the structure necessary as the first Executive Pastor. Mike Nygren, a shop teacher/volunteer youth director, took the youth ministry to new heights on the premise that kids would rather make a difference than be entertained. Mike's wife, Carolyn, helped give the adult discipleship department shape and form. Mike, very early, jettisoned the hymnal, and while other UMC pastors were railing against contemporary worship, Mike embraced it, hiring guitarists and drummers instead of an organist.

It was the team Mike assembled around him coupled with his talent and drive that really helped propel 90 person GUMC to 1200 person G

But the tales that one heard about working at G
UMC in those days were legendary. The average tenure for an employee was rumored to be 18 months. It was a pressure cooker.

The turning point, as I understand it, when Ginghamsburg went from hitting the ceiling at about 1000 to really taking off happened about 16-17 years into Slaughter's tenure. Tumblin left, replaced with somebody who ended up not being quite so able to keep things functioning under the remarkable pressure. Nygren left, throwing the youth ministry into chaos. Another leader who had been hired at some point mutinied against Slaughter's leadership, and left taking hundreds of people with him. The whole endeavor, if not in trouble, was at a crossroads. It was in crisis.

Enter Sue Kibbey.

I have strange perspective of G
UMC. I actually interviewed there in 2003 for a Young Adult ministry position. This was after spending most of a week with Slaughter as a part of a thing they used to do where pastors paid an insane amount of money to just follow Mike around to see how he did things (my boss at the time opted to this, and somehow I ended up getting dragged along after immediately coming home from 10 days in Haiti). Coming off that experience it was my impression that Kibbey made, and makes, the place go. She oversees all the stuff Slaughter can't, and is focused on what she believes is going to make the place work.

I guess it goes without saying that I didn't fit into that vision. Probably about the tenth time Kibbey made it point to say that they weren't really looking for an ordained minister for that particular position I should have realized what was up. I would have reported to her, and she knew what she wanted. She's disciplined and smart enough to know that if the person doesn't fit into that vision, keep looking. Call it the blessing of a prayer request being answered with a "no". If we had ended up at Ginghamsburg in 2003, no way Joseph would have talked to me about coming to Shawnee in 2004.

(Strange how things work out. I can live with having never worked at GUMC. I would be sick if the chance to come back to Shawnee, and in effect, home to Lima would have been missed. I truly love serving this church.)

Mike's trust of Sue Kibbey, and in effect her way of conducting business, is part of the reason why G
UMC keeps growing. The other part is Mike himself. He's a charasmatic communicator with a bulldog personality. Mike has vision for what he wants to create (a progressive evangelical church), has the talent to make it happen, and won't let the vision go. Kibbey is able to stack the blocks just right to make it happen.

Greatness comes only from talent, drive and trust.

Jordan ain't Jordan without , Jerry Krause, Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen. Krause drafted and signed players that would compliment Jordan's skills. Jackson coaxed the hyper-selfish Jordan into becoming a teammate and trusting them in the "triangle" offense. Jackson too, dealt with other egos like Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman, doing just enough to harness their talent while allowing them to be themselves. Pippen did all the things Jordan needed him to do, setting an example for the rest of the team, and creating matchup nightmares for other coaches.

Without Jordan, there are no six championships in Chicago, but if Jordan doesn't trust everyone else his career is more like Allen Iverson's or Adrian Dantley's - lots of points scored but at the expense of the rest of the team. Maybe there's a championship or two, but given how good some of those Portland, Pheonix, and Jazz teams were in those days, it's not likely.

Will Bryant's teammates put up with his selfishness another year now that they have rings on their own fingers? If Bryant wants two or three championships, sans Shaq, he'll have to hope so... or start doing even more trusting than he does now.

Talent, drive and trust. That's what will separate the good from the great.

Monday, June 15, 2009

(A Rare) Ten Things I Think I Think

1) Progress on the book continues, slowly but slowly. I've got about half the writing done, but am struggling with keeping focused. It's summer. It's sunny. The kids want to play and go swimming. Not to mention I'm trying to work through three or four major projects here at church (good stuff.... but time consuming). Would have made more progress last night, but a group in using the SRC pulled a fire alarm (or I should say a two-year old with the group) and the alarm system kept doing screwy things all afternoon and into the evening. That meant every 30 minutes the alarm company called to let me know that there was a fire at the church when there were no fires. Good gravy... the building is made mainly out of non-burnable substances. In any event, we'll just need to keep the old nose to the grindstone and gut this book out.

2) Part of the problem of book writing is that I'm not much of a writer. In high school, college, and seminary I wrote solely to provide ordered, maximum information. That's what essay writing for exams require. You'd think my writing would improve after years of doing sermons, but I haven't really written a sermon (outside of the six I had to do for our Beeson preaching classes) in over a decade. I found that when I wrote out sermons that I tended to look down a lot, which created issues as far as making contacts with the congregation. Going with a loose outline enables me to stay engaged with the people listening while at the same time forcing me to really learn the scriptural exegesis (fancy word for "in depth study").

Long story short - I don't write much.

To go from not writing much to writing a book is like jumping in the deep end of the pool in full motorcycle regalia - leathers, boots, and the works - and trying to swim. It's not easy. Nothing good is.... but to call what I'm writing "good" might be a tad over hyped. I think the research is pretty decent, but the package the research is in ain't Moby Dick. I'm glad we have a good editor.

3) Bad news for my Alma Mater, Lima Senior High School. The athletic conference they were in collapsed as members joined conferences closer to their home. Now, LSH, facing being an independent (which is a scheduling nightmare) has applied to become part of the Western Buckeye League, a local athletic conference it was once a member of before the school grew so large that it sought greener pastures (namely the Greater Miami Conference, which was made up mainly of Cincinnati area schools). The WBL denied the petition, leaving LSH in a lurch.

Personally I think the WBL has made a huge mistake. Quite frankly they would be a lot better off jettisoning a smaller school (WBL schools can be as small as Div III) or a school further away (like Van Wert or Kenton which are both hour long drives and hence more expensive to maintain as members). Even though LSH is the biggest school in the area, the only sport the rest of the league would have to worry about the Spartans dominating is basketball. The football program fell into shambles a decade ago. The school isn't much more than "competitive" (as opposed to "dominant") in any other sport.

And LSH is kind of our area's Oakland Raiders. It's the team the area schools love to hate. Every time they play a WBL school in the revenue generating sports (b-ball and football) they sell out because the WBL fans show up droves to see if they can beat the "inner-city school". Inclusion of LSH into the WBL makes sense. They should revisit this, pronto.

5) Great article in the USA Today on how a person's view of God shapes their neuro-pathways, and in effect how they view others. The gist of the article is that if you view God as loving and forgiving, you tend to be better adjusted and healthier than if you view God as angry and vengeful. Can't say this is all that big a surprise, but it is interesting that this is becoming an area of study for researchers trying to connect religious belief with brain function. I'll be interested to see the work on this subject as time passes. Should be fascinating.

6) As one of the last fourteen or fifteen NBA fans left in the country you might be wondering why I haven't yet written anything on the Laker's latest championship last night. The answer: still depressed at the collapse of the Cavs to the Magic. No way they should have lost that series. Who hits 48% from the three-point line for a series? Apparently a team that got hot and then promptly went cold in the Finals.


In any event, at least we got to see the Kobe and LeBron puppet commercials...

Too bad puppet Kobe is way cooler and less creepy than real Kobe.

7) We went to Annual Conference last week. To be honest, not much happened. There was preaching, bickering, voting, praying, and lots of ice cream eating. Here are some of my most memorable moments, in no particular order...

- Sue Nilson Kibbey, Executive Pastor at Ginghamsburg, doing a sermon that was about 50% produced by the video production department at her mega-church. Gotta love somebody preaching a sermon encouraging people to think out of the box using technology nobody else in the conference can replicate. I will now light myself on fire.

- Me getting into it with a member of the Good News Movement (conservative wing of the UMC) during registration (that was a heck of a way to kick things off) because he made the outrageous claim that the liberal wing of the church would be able to speak freely while the conservative wing would be muffled by the powers that be. Twenty years I've been going to conference and I can safely say that this has never been a problem. Both sides seem to say their fair share, while those of us in the middle just sit and listen. He fired back that I had no idea what I was talking about, and I replied, "So's your old lady, sissy boy."

Ok, so I made that last one up, but I did tell em to relax. He just went away grumpily.

- Barry DeShetler, former senior pastor to yours truly and current senior pastor at Kettering Christ UMC telling the story of how, as a young Elder, at Annual Conference each year they would present a "conference cane" to the oldest living pastor, and how someday he wanted to get that cane and still be preaching. He plans on going strong into his 70's, and is convinced he could still preach and lead someone 20 years younger "under the table". I believe him.

- Over conversation Bill Lyle of Greenville Evangelical UMC letting it slip that they congregation will, as a service project, will be painting the football stadium at the local high school. Some guys get all the luck.

Church + Ohio + Football = The greatest community service project, ever. They have enlisted over 280 volunteers from the congregations.

- Sue Kibbey explaining why they call them "servants" and not "volunteers" at Ginghamsburg. I was convinced. We'll now be calling for "servants". Makes sense.

- Mike Slaughter (once again, from Ginghamsburg, only he's the Lead Pastor) telling us that in the last election more than 300 people left their church, and how this happens every election year because he won't equate "Republican" with "Christian" in rural NW Ohio. Gutsy.

- Me driving around in our house golf cart (came with the rental), telling anybody who asked where I got the cart that "walking is for suckers".

- Me driving the golf cart constantly getting flagged down by people who thought I was driving one of the free shuttles for AC, and then taking them wherever it was they wanted to go without telling them they were mistaken.

- Bishop Ough asking AC "Are We General Motors?" in his Episcopal Address (one of the most daring I've ever heard). As he related time and time again how we UMC's are too much like GM and what would need to happen to fix it, you could have heard a pin drop. Change is coming my friends. Change is coming.

- All the ice cream cones eaten with various friends and collegues. Gotta love ice cream, friends, and collegues.

8) The boys are swimming for Westside Swim and Raquet Club this summer. It's the first year a Bucher hasn't been a member at Sherwood CC since 1981. Aimee likes the place cause it has a playground and more people she knows. The boys initially resisted the change, but after realizing how many of their friends swim at Westside soon came around. I thought Sherwood was fine, but if my family is cool with it, then so am I. A pool is a pool. Gotta leave here in a few minutes cause we have to make the trek down to Kenton tonight for the meet. Next Monday we go to Van Wert and their indoor nautatorium that's about a million degrees. Whatever. I like to watch the boys swim.

9) Sad news out of Celina... a ,mother of two teenager died of an overdose after chewing on a fentanyl patch provided to her by her husband. Now he's in jail facing a myriad of charges, and the top things off, it was the two children who found their parents passed out in the family room. The family had no apparent history of drug abuse and had ever been in trouble with the law. The community is still in shock.

If you don't know what fentanyl is, it's a drug that's inserted in a patch that applied to chronically ill patients. The drug is absorbed through the skin and can dull pain for up to three days. Nobody really knows why in the world this couple decided doing fentanyl would be a good idea. Did they have a secret drug problem? Was it really a suicide attempt? Did they do it on a lark?

Who knows.

This much we can say, though, sin - and you can't really call illegally buying a fentanyl patch to use recreationally anything else - is a killer. You can shield it from the world, sometimes even for a lifetime but in the end it will destroy you inside out. Unfortunately sometimes when the bottom drops out it can have catastrophic consequences.

Can't think of too many things more catastrophic than a dead mother, an incarcerated father, two reeling teenagers now living with family, and a community groping for answers. Very, very sad. I'm sure every prayer, particularly for the kids, would be appreciated.

10) Been listening to a lot of O.A.R. and Pink Floyd as I write my part of the book. Wonder what that means? I'm guessing it won't appeal to hippies or psychedelic drug users. Must mean the bands write music that's easy to ignore while a guy writes. That's how I wore out my "Genesis: Three Sides Live" cassette back in college. Apparently you can only write so many papers and study for x number of exams before the cassette says "no mas". MP3's have no "no mas" limit. So if you hear me quietly, mindlessly singing, "There's a road outside of Columbus, Ohio...." you'll know what's going on.