Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Christmas Basics: Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward All

We have a little problem in the Bucher house: Elijah, our five year old, has discovered Santa Clause.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those Santa bashers. People who are down on Santa Clause don't know the story of the fat man's origin. St. Nicholas was a fourth century Greek Orthodox bishop who was considered a great friend of the poor. His willingness to give what he had to those in need contributed to his legend, which continued to be, and still is, celebrated in church history. The fact that St. Nick is now associated with materialism isn't his fault. Chalk that up to Madison Avenue working for businesses whose fiscal years are broken or made in the final six weeks from Thanksgiving to New Years. The basic idea of celebrating generosity, particularly to those in spirit and/or material need, should be a part of the season, and taught to our children. St. Nicholas, or Santa Clause, is a good way to convey that message.

So it's not the idea of Santa that bothers me. It's just that Eli, who never paid a whit of attention to Santa Clause until this year (thanks to "The Polar Express"), thought that the reason we celebrated Christmas was because it was Santa Clause's birthday.

Now, let me say that I am relieved that my children, at least up to now, haven't been held to a higher expectation of behavior because of who their Dad is. I see this happen too often to pastor's kids, and the results haven't been pretty. Heck, my brother, who is twelve years younger, used to hear about how great I was at our home church and was asked on more than one occasion"why he couldn't be more like me", and he's just my brother. Besides, when I was a kid I was no saint. People have short memories. I could tell you some stories. I wasn't always a pastor. You can take that to the bank.

The Shawnee community hasn't laid a guilt trip on my kids because of what I do for a living, and for that I'm grateful. But, that being said, there is a ripple of dread that goes through you as a Christian minister as your own son tells all who will listen that Christmas is Santa's birthday. The curious examinations for the mark of the beast on my son's forehead are exceeded only by the disapproving glares I get from those same people who wonder what in the world the Methodist preacher has really been teaching his children.

In any event, because Eli has been a bit confused, we have taken up the Christmas story and it's true meaning with a new vigor at the Bucher house. Instead of repeatedly at bedtime reading the normal favorite Bible stories (Samson kills a lion, David killing Goliath, and any story about Elijah the prophet which is a favorite for obvious reasons) we have gone back to the story of Gabriel, Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds, a manger in Bethlehem, and scores of angels singing in the skies about God's goodwill toward all and peace on earth above a remote pasture where sheep lay napping. We just want to make sure that not only Elijah, but our two-year old Toby know whose birthday it is this Christmas morning, while reminding our older two that Xbox 360 games aren't the reason for the season.

This Christmas we've gotten back to the basics. Peace on earth. Goodwill toward all.

Now, if you ask Eli, he'll tell you whose birthday Christmas is and get it right. Of course, if I ask he still says Santa cause he know it will get a rise out of me.... which does not bode well for both of us when he becomes a teenager. But I tell you this on Christmas Eve because as we as a family have had to get back to the basics during this season of Advent, and tonight I'd like to invite you to do the same.

Some of you might think I'm too late. Your Christmas spirit was pounded out of you either at the mall, the grocery store, or if you were brave and didn't plan well, Toys R Us. In between terrible remakes of Christmas songs broadcast muzak style at your local department store and the growing frustration at not being able to figure out what gift to buy Aunt Mildred's new husband who you've never met, all that's irritating about this time of year has beat the goodwill out of you, and whatever peace you might have had went with the Christmas cookies whose dough you forgot to put sugar in. And further more, not only are you not interested in celebrating Jesus' birthday in the same spirit of St. Nicholas, but at this point you could very well be tired of getting tapped, no matter how good the cause, by the guy with the bell next to the Salvation Army kettle, the empty "Toys for Tots" boxes, and, yes, even at your church's Christmas Eve service.

That's kind of the irony, I think, of the latest attempt by the greater church to combat the materialism of this season. We've challenged people to take the money they would have spent on gifts, and contribute it to some worthy cause to try to teach people that the season isn't about money and stuff. It's a worthy undertaking, but it still puts at the heart of the season, cash, and now to some degree, guilt... neither of which, as far as I can remember, were at the heart of the original story. Good stewardship is biblical, but it's not at the heart of this message. In fact, both Mary and Joseph are extravagant with their love and resources beyond societal norms. And Jesus is supposed to free us of guilt and sin, hence the singing of the angels and the excitement of the shepherds. You don't have to buy a clear conscious by writing a check to a charity while someone else writes one to Macy's.

Shoot, I can tell you after an evening at the Dollar Store with Max and Xavier, that pagans know that it's better to give than to receive. As I overheard a father talking to some friends about how he was going to celebrate Christmas tonight (there are spirits involved, just not the Holy Spirit), I also heard him lecture his son about the true meaning of Christmas: Giving instead of receiving. Then he turned to his buddies and started talking about how selfish this generation was. No lie. If that's as far as the message of this season goes the meaning of Christmas hasn't been lost.

But that's not it. At the first Christmas, the receiving on our part was much better than anything that could be given. Better than frankincense, myrrh, or even gold.

The message of Christmas is simple: It's a time of where the message of great tidings and joy, that God has sent us a savior as a means of expressing His goodwill toward us, and the peace he desires for everyone on earth, is celebrated, and passed on. It is, in full view, a clear picture of who God is, and what God wants us to know about Him: That he favors and loves us, and desires for us, peace. Often, that gets lost this time of year, and maybe, even as you sit there, it has for you.

But, I want to tell you.... it's not too late. The true spirit of Christmas, embodied by the birth of a man who was, and is, exceedingly generous to us, can still be captured tonight, and tomorrow. And who knows, might even carry over into the new year. You just have to get back to the basics.

A woman. A man. An angel. A stable. Some shepherds. Some more angels. And, most importantly, a baby, whose birth created such great excitement in the cosmos that in all four corners was sung, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, God's peace and goodwill toward all."

Peace and goodwill toward all from a loving God, is a pretty good reason to be joyful. That's not been the predominant message in most every religious tradition throughout history. Most gods and goddesses have been painted as being largely unconcerned or even hostile toward us humans. We celebrate a God who doesn't give us diseases to punish us or because we were bad or because he lost a bet. We celebrate a God who with us, wants to make our hearts, and our world, right.

That's good news you can't wrap in a box, send via facebook in the form of a gift card, or even buy with a contribution to some local charity.

Before you leave this evening, or morning as the case would be, on tables out in the hallway and the Commons, you have available to you small pieces of paper and various pens. Pretty soon, we're going to take the next step to getting back to the basics of Christmas. We'll light candles, remembering that Jesus told us that we shouldn't hide our light under a bushel. We'll sing "Silent Night", remembering that what makes Jesus life so powerful isn't the string of supernatural miracles, but his willingness to endure the fragility of human mortality and all that has to offer, including being a newborn infant sleeping in heavenly peace. Then we'll sing "Happy Birthday to Jesus", cause we're corny midwesterners, and we'll blow out our candles even as the light kindled, or maybe re-kindled within, stays aflame.

But when you leave, ,I want to challenge you to take this "getting back to the basics of Christmas" one step further. As we celebrate God's goodwill toward us, and the peace that can be found in Jesus, I'd like to do one more thing:

Step up to those tables, and pass on that message of goodwill and peace to someone desperate to hear it.

A little over a year ago I received a phone call from a teacher from Cridersville Elementary School regarding a six year old boy who had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. We asked you to help out Jack, his mother Shannon, and his little sister, Grace, by making donations which could be used to fund the numerous trips that would have to be made by a single mother with one child receiving treatment in Columbus, and another child still here at home trying to live as normal a life as a little girl can under difficult circumstances.

Shawnee UMC, your response was overwhelming. Even after numerous gas cards, meals, car repairs, and the like, we still have funds available to help the family. So, as you leave keep your wallet in your pocket and the checkbook in your pocket. We already hit you up during the offering, and for your generosity, we give thanks. It's just that more toys or gift cards aren't going to convey most fully the message a few humble people long to hear.

You see, what was supposed to be nine months of treatment for small polyp tumors in Jack's lungs, and a large tumor in his liver, has now stretched out to thirteen months... and still no clear end in sight. The lungs, which were the subject of much treatment in the hopes they'd be clear and a liver transplant secured, are still not clear. The benefits of drugs used in the past have been exhausted, and now an experimental drug is being employed with physically demanding side effects.

She won't say it, because she's his mom. He's her only son and he's seven years old. She wants to see him play Little League, sing in the school Christmas concert, get his drivers license, take a girl to prom, make an honor roll or two, graduate from high school, and figure out what he wants to do with his life. She won't say it, because she can't, but this little boy is has been fighting a long, long time, and his options are not as numerous as they were a year ago.

I asked her what we could do. She asked us to pray.

Pray for her son. Pray for her daughter. Pray for the doctors as they figure out what do next. Pray for her, a mother, worn down by the suffering of a son. Prayer. That's what she wants.

Tonight, don't worry about money or presents. That's not what it's about. Don't worry about Christmas carols or trees. That's not at the heart of what we're celebrating here.

We're getting back to the basics: Share a message of goodwill and peace to all people, even a family facing down cancer.

Just stop by one of the tables in the hallway or commons, and write a note of encouragement to express some goodwill to Jack and his family. Or construct a simple prayer of peace for a mother who loves her son. And tomorrow, when you are doing whatever it is you are doing, remember that Christmas isn't Santa's birthday. It's the birth of peace on earth and goodwill to all, because that's how the angels told us God rolls.

Peace. Goodwill. To you and me and Jack and his family. All of us. Believe that, and I guarantee, your Christmas, and everyday, will be transformed forever. It's the heart of the message of Christmas. Let's get back to those basics.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Sowing Bountifully

6 Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed ; 9 as it is written, "HE SCATTERED ABROAD, HE GAVE TO THE POOR, HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS ENDURES FOREVER." 10 Now He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness ; 11 you will be enriched in everything for all liberality, which through us is producing thanksgiving to God. 12 For the ministry of this service is not only fully supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing through many thanksgivings to God. 13 Because of the proof given by this ministry, they will glorify God for your obedience to your confession of the gospel of Christ and for the liberality of your contribution to them and to all, 14 while they also, by prayer on your behalf, yearn for you because of the surpassing grace of God in you. 15 Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift !
2 Corinthians 9:6-15

In all my years in the ministry I have been blessed and amazed many, many times, over and over. I've baptized men, women, and children who were excited about their new life in Christ. I've watched lives turn around with new spiritual grounding. I've watched young people who I worked with as a youth pastor grow up to be productive citizens who give to their communities, neighborhoods, and a congregation. I've traveled to some of the poorest communities in the world to do development work and bring encouragement with people who became life-long friends. I've laughed and cried, and along the way I've made tremendous friends while growing abundantly in understanding what the essence of righteous living truly is:

Love justice. Show mercy. Walk humbly with your God

One of the unique ways I’ve been greatly blessed and amazed throughout the years has been by people who took, and take, pride in being abundantly financially generous. On some level I think these people are supernaturally gifted by God in ways most people aren't. That’s the only way I can explain why they are so open to giving their money to ministry or mission, when for so many others the subject of money and the church is pretty touchy, or even upsetting.

Let me tell you: I know about touchy and upsetting when it comes to money and the church. As an associate pastor at another congregation, after a long year of financial struggle (and all the turmoil that came with it) we were so far behind financially we faced the prospect of needing to raise a lot money inn the last month off the year to meet the basic needs of our General Fund. For whatever reason it was decided that I would work with the finance committee, which was normally the senior pastor’s job, to figure out how to do this. We came up with a plan, shared it with the congregation, put our names on the bottom of the letter, and made ourselves available for questions over coffee.

Let's just say that after a tough year, some of the conversation was lot hotter than the coffee.

But in the course of that campaign, carrying at the time what I thought was a tremendous burden, again and again I was blessed by people who simply came in and wrote the check. No begging or pleading or convincing... they just wrote the check. And in the end, we received what we needed, and eventually things got better.

Out of that experience thirteen years ago, as I’ve spent more and more time understanding how church finances work from the inside, I’ve learned that the people who give with energy and excitement, are the ones who truly carry a church body financially. Some of these folks are people of great means, but most aren’t. Some give large sums of money, but most give, by the world’s measure, modest amounts, that are in kingdom terms, highly sacrificial. But they all give for the same reason whispered to them at some point in their life, by the Lord.

They give because they know, giving is the root of all our greatest joy.

Do you know what I want for Christmas this year? Do you know what’s on my list for Santa Clause. An ITunes gift card to buy a couple Beatles songs, and world peace. And if I don’t get that ITunes gift card, it’s no big deal. Because the only thing I’m interested in on Christmas morning, when we celebrate Jesus’ birthday with sugared cereal that normally my wife refuses to buy, is seeing smiles on my sons faces. As I get older that’s been the biggest change in my list for Santa: I just want to be able to make the day one to remember for my kids. That’s better than any copy of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

I know it to be true, and if you have kids or grandkids so do you: joy and fulfillment in life truly comes giving.

That's what this weekend's scripture is all about. It lays out the principles for "bountiful sowing".To sum up, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, I'd say what Paul is getting at is this:

- Give cheerfully (v.7)
- Expect Righteousness To Multiply In Yourself and Others (v.8-10)
- Expect Your Life To Be Enriched (v.11)
- Expect An Overflowing Harvest (v.12)
- Give so God Will Be Glorified (V.13-15)

It's these common qualities, these attributes, in this attitude that I see people who give easily, with much expectation, hope, joy, and passion, give. They know in their heart the true value and impact a gift given to bring God glory

When they give they're not conflicted. They're not angry. They're not suspicious. They're not resentful. They're not fearful. They're life is just organized to, as John Wesley put it, "work all they can, so they can earn all they can, so they can save all they can, so they can give all they can". Giving has become vital to their own well-being, spiritually and mentally. They’ve become positively addicted to experiencing moments of true joy where God's love, though their resources, takes on hands and feet.

When you received your capital investment campaign packet about a month ago (or only a couple of weeks ago for some, no thanks to the bulk mail department of the US Postal service here in the 485- region), I know it caused some mourning and gnashing of teeth. A quarter-million dollars in addition to our ongoing obligations in a has in some corners inspired discussion more heated than the coffee. Don’t think this doesn’t get back to me. It always ultimately does. Either directly, or via the grapeline express.

But I have to be honest, what little grumbling I’ve heard has been far outweighed the stories of joy shared by those excited to give. They're excited about the ways they can bring God glory in this moment. They're impressed that our leadership isn't going to stand for the status quo, and dedicated to making this happen because they believe we aren't just another church in a world already filled with too many churches. They know what I know: that we possess a unique ministry, with a unique take on the gospel message, that people who are far, far away from God right now need to hear. A message we can offer because it has the weight of just not talking the talk, but, on a Sunday when we were giving away our offering, walking the walk.... and now they want to walk further.

First through their prayers, then through their wallet and checkbook, and ultimately through actions, they are making the commitment, sacrificially to send a message. A message about God. A message about Jesus. A message about their church. A message about what's really important in this life to them right now.

A message of joy, because they feel joyful that we have faith over fear. Love over anger. Belief over doubt. Hope over despair. Dancing instead of mourning.
I invite you to join them. To be one of them. To pledge this day standing squarely on the Word of God, by not just giving, but giving cheerfully, with the expectation that with your gift righteousness will multiply in yourself and others, and in the course of giving you will be enriched, the harvest will overflow, and ultimately God will be glorified.

Let me just share one last thought.

I really believe the changes we're making, and calculated risks we're taking, are God's will for this congregation. Not out of some sense of overly-inflated ego where I think everything I want is what God wants. On the contrary... to quote many others, there's two things I've learned as United Methodist pastor over the last twenty years: There is definitely a God, and I ain't Him.

I'm excited about the full vision for a church. Not just building repairs and renovation, but on our new focus and emphasis on discipleship, a new way of looking at where a church should be located, a new zeal to communicate the Gospel to new generations of believers so this place will ultimately not just survive as most church are doing now, but thrive, long after we’re dead and gone. I’m excited because this vision came out of months and months of prayer, listening, deliberation (sometimes more heated than the coffee), and confirmation from a core group of leaders, lay and clergy, who actually stretched this vision to be much bigger than I could imagine.

And I mean that…. I believe in this vision, because I alone couldn’t see it. I thought asking for a great sum of money for a satellite campus concept that people are having a hard time understanding was ambitious enough. Imagine my surprise when after touring our building the Joshua team wanted to add $100,000 for work here.

They could have ditched the satellite concept to just focus on us, but they didn't.
They could have said, "these things can wait" but they felt they couldn't.

They could have listened to a reluctant pastor who wondered what people would say, or mumble, or abandon with such a request.

But they didn’t. And so, the campaign goal grew. And the reason it grew was cause it was a child who lead us.

At the very last meeting of the Joshua Team, where this campaign was the last topic regarding our church’s future we needed to cover, one of the team members, before we made a final decision, gave me an envelope. It was from his 11 year old daughter, who the week previously, sat quietly in the room seemingly reading a book, while we heatedly discussed how big our vision should be. I opened up the envelope… this envelope, and inside of it was seventeen dollars, and this note:

You should have seen the smile on her Dad's face when he handed me this envelope. You should have seen the smile on the faces of all the Joshua Team members as I read this note aloud. And you should have seen the smile on that little girl's face when later that week I thanked her for her gift, and told her how I proud I was of her.

This campaign was sealed with a smile. And let me tell you what my friends with the spiritual gift of giving know. It’s only when you give cheerfully, with an expectation that your gift righteousness will multiply in yourself and others, with an expectation you will be enriched, the knowledge that the harvest will overflow, and that ultimately God will be glorified, it’s only then that you will know true joy.

This is s the message we want to take root in Abby's heart, and the hearts of all our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. It’s a message we want to send to the community. It’s a message we want to send to our Lord and God

Giving to you is the root of our joy. Take this gift, sealed with our smile.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Transition Plan (The Book) - Q. How Did You Get Involved In A Project With Bob Russell

If you've come to this blog via my Amazon author's page (or from wherever else you stumbled in here), welcome. Let me tell you just a little bit more about my role in the new book, "Transition Plan", which I wrote with Bob Russell, retired Senior Pastor at Southeast Christian Church (Louisville)

For those who don't know, I am still a doctoral student at Asbury Seminary, finishing up my dissertation, the topic of which is "Planned Pastoral Succession". What I did was research numerous different "successful" (based on some criteria regarding attendance, giving, and whatnot, pre and post leadership transition) transitions from senior pastor to successor pastor. I found these churches using organizations like Leadership Network, various church consultants like Lyle Schaller, word of mouth between United Methodist bishops, and scouring the internet for articles on the subject. Then I traveled to each one armed with a research method called the "Multiple Comparative Case Study" which demanded that I interview the senior pastor, successor pastor, lay-leaders, staff persons, and (if necessary) any denominational big wigs involved in the process. The idea of the case study was to establish commonalities and discrepancies between the various succession experiences to see if anything learned across the experiences could be passed on.

In the end, I established I had enough data from the churches involved to actually be able to establish a credible narrative and some conclusions. The churches are intentionally diverse in background, theology, geography, and make up of the congregation to find commonalities that cut across various polities, theologies, size of congregation, geography, etc... I have churches from the Northeast, South, three from the Southwest/Southern California, and the Midwest. Denominations included are United Methodist, Episcopalian, Southern Baptist, UCC, Christian Missionary Alliance, the Independent Christian Church movement, Anglican, and Congregationalist/Non-Denominational background.

Theologically the churches run from the very theologically/socially conservative (almost literal fundamentalism) to the very progressive (one being on the forefront of what would be called "liberal" causes out on the west coast). Some were racially diverse, and one historically black. The smallest church worshiped 350 weekly, and the largest worshiped over 14,000. I'm still finishing the dissertation, but the conclusions from the data for the purpose of the book and the rough draft of my final chapter have been established. Anybody crazy enough to want to do so could research more churches and test the conclusions could follow protocol and test my conclusion. God bless the poor sucker who chooses to do so. But the point of doing things this way was that I was trying to examine "best practices" in regards to leadership transitioning. Theology, cultural make-up, socio-economic data, size of church, denominational background, etc.... doesn't make any difference my friends. I went into this suspecting that "best practices" are determined by what you do or don't do.... and four years later I believe this research proved that assumption to be true.

Anyhow, one of the churches selected for the study was Southeast Christian Church in Louisville. Of all the churches surveyed, SCC was by far the most prominent and largest. Because it now worships over 20,000 weekly, Bob Russell, who came to the church when it worshiped 120, has become somewhat of a "rock star" in the mega-church pastor world, particularly amongst pastors in the Independent Christian Church movement. Because Bob's success has propelled him to a kind of "fame" (not "fame" in the sense that most, or even a fraction of Americans know who he is, but "fame" in the sense that a lot of practitioners and scholars in the church world know his story) most pastors don't achieve he's been interviewed repeatedly about the transition in various magazines and other publications.

You see, church senior leadership transitions are a big deal. When Jack Welch left General Electric, for example, nobody the day after it happened walked into a WalMart and wondered about the quality of the GE light bulb or hair dryer they were buying. If poor business practices or judgments come out of a transition from one corporate CEO to another, it'll take awhile for the ramifications of that to shake down to the light bulb aisle. But in most churches, when a pastor leaves and is replaced, the results are felt immediately. Congregants and staff have to adapt to a new preaching, teaching, and leadership style. And typically, the longer the pastorate, the greater potential for fallout. Attendance and giving can drop precipitously as a church deals with a change in the preaching style, leadership, theological emphasis, and personality of the lead pastor. As a result, the stories of transitions gone bad in local churches are numerous and plenty.

With the growth of the megachurch (churches defined as worshiping more than 2k people per on the average per week), the stakes of leadership transitioning have only escalated. While the weight and breadth of these larger organizations can carry a poorly executed transitions longer than in smaller churches, the ramifications long term are much greater. The primary example right now of what can happen right now is probably the Crystal Cathedral in Costa Mesa, California, which rose to prominence under its founder and leader, Robert Schuller, and has been in the news for the all the wrong reasons thanks to a transition to his son that's fallen apart. Now the church, which is being led by Schuller's daughter, is facing the real possibility of bankruptcy. This is just the latest example of many high-profile church-transitions-gone-sour in the news that keep megachurch pastors, their leadership boards, and staff people awake at night.

Bob's transition (and quite frankly most of the ones I ended up studying) which was modeled largely on both biblical and corporate models, to what was then an in-house associate pastor, Dave Stone, has become a model that's becoming popular with churches. As a result of theirs and others (smaller church pastors, CEO's, college trustees staring down a presidential transitions, etc....) Bob has been asked repeatedly to speak and or give interviews on the topic. As I was looking for positive examples to include in my work I stumbled on an interview he gave to a church trade magazine on the topic. Given that the transition took place in one of the highest profile, and earliest example of a mega church, it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out I needed Southeast Christian in my study.

But wanting Southeast Christian Church's cooperation and getting it was two different matters. Let me just say this now that I'm done with the research portion of this work... the bigger the church the more difficult it is to get past the wall created to protect primarily the current senior pastor. I mean, it makes sense. Shawnee UMC only has about 900 members and the demands on my time are pretty heavy. Multiply that by two, or ten, or twenty, or more and if you're a pastor you get a sense of the pressure these folks are under. Their offices are set up to protect their time so that only that they are obligated to only that which is essential.

It was because SCC was so large and the wall to access so high that it took almost two years to finally nail down the necessary people to do my on-site observations and interviews. And even at that I still ended up interviewing Dave Stone two weeks after my visit on the phone because his schedule is packed. It was nuts.

Anyhow, while I was in Louisville, word of what I was doing must have leaked throughout the office, and a young ambitious member of the staff, Nevan Hooker, heard what I was doing. I have no idea how he got my number, but by the end of my first day of work he called asked if we could do dinner or breakfast. Seems that he had a small publishing company, Ministers Label, and he believed that a book by Bob Russell regarding his pastoral transition would be worth publishing. I was only in Louisville three days, and I was booked all evenings doing interviews, so he pitched me over eggs at the hotel's buffet, gave me his number, and asked me to think about it. I gave him my email, and told him not to hold his breath. A week later Nevan emailed me a proposal, and (to be honest) when I realized there was a chance to get some of the data I'd worked hard over three years to amass out into the general public, I decided to take this on.

How Nevan persuaded Bob to do this is a part of the story you'll have to ask him. I'm just glad he said "yes".

Now, more than a year after that initial meeting Nevan, "Transition Plan" is in bookstores and available for order at Amazon. As I read the final version I take pride in helping draw out of Bob's story, as well as provide some of the organizational framework and additional data that complete the work. The initial draft of my data was written over a three week period of pretty much non-stop writing last June and July where I pretty much lived either at the Imler's cottage at Grand Lake or Biggby Coffee with my notes and my laptop. I actually wrote the last word at 4am of the day we left on our family vacation (my wife threatening to delay our leaving until I was finished so I could fully engage myself with the family I had been neglecting for weeks. Bob then had my data and over the last year really put the thing together. Now after much editing we're done.

I'll talk more about my work, and direct you to our website for more of my data later, but since I'm happy to actually see the cover on the Amazon page, I'd like to thank a few people:

My wife Aimee (who put up with being alone with four boys while I traveled all over the place doing interviews, then compiling the info, and finally writing the book... all the while she built her web design business from the ground up of which I am immensely proud of her), my kids (who missed their Dad), my transcribers (Cathy Dempsey and Linda Parish who logged through hundreds of hours of recorded interviews), Shawnee UMC (who put up with my being gone, provide me with a living including expense money I used to do much of the travel... and more specifically Roger Rhodes, Arlene Joyce, and Dave and Michele Imler who as a lay-leaders have been really been supportive above and beyond specifically of this work), the Beeson Center for Biblical Preaching and Leadership at Asbury Seminary (which financed the formal part of my education and even a couple of the site visits, all the while patiently waiting for a final product), and the folks at Ministers Label.

Thank you all for giving me the opportunity to do this. I hope it proves profitable for organizations of all kinds, particularly those geared to leave this world looking more like the Kingdom of Heaven.

NEXT POST: Why businesses are practicing leadership transitions that are more biblically oriented (unknowingly, I suspect, in most cases) than churches.

Friday, June 04, 2010

A Friend Of God

6 When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. 7 Now, no one is likely to die for a good person, though someone might be willing to die for a person who is especially good. 8 But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. 9 And since we have been made right in God's sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God's judgment. 10 For since we were restored to friendship with God by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be delivered from eternal punishment by his life. 11 So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God -- all because of what our Lord Jesus Christ has done for us in making us friends of God. (Romans 5:6-11 NLT)

I believe in the power of free will. God has given us no greater gift or privilege. It's the most powerful thing God could have done as the creator of the universe... to invest us with the power to say "yes" or "no".

We learn and re-learn the frightening excitement that comes with the intoxication of experienced free will. Last night I was watching Game 1 of the NBA Finals with Eric the Buckeye. He's taking some time off in June to do some traveling, catch up on the continuing ed credits you need to keep current in his profession, and just generally relax. Since he's had time off in the middle of the day, his girls are out of town with family, and his much better-half is still putting her nose to the grindstone, he's been enjoying mostly free days where, as he described it, "I can play tennis outside in the afternoon for the first time since high school."

Which got me thinking about my happy, carefree high school days.

Contrary to whatever reputation I might have had back in the day, my high school experience wasn't filled with bad craziness. I was never one for illicit substances or pretending like I was at a party at Led Zeppelin's hotel. My time was filled more with "Ferris Bueller" kinds of experiences.

You remember Ferris. Ditched school a ninth day the last semester of his senior year because it was too nice outside to be trapped in class. For many of us growing up in the eighties, Ferris Bueller was kind of a quasi-hero. And while I never impersonated Abe Fromann, the sausage king of Chicago, I was known to ditch the occasional day of school to catch a ball game and to lip-sync in public places (not too many parades, but I do a mean rendition of "New York, New York".... just ask anyone who was at "Red Pin Night" at Moreo Lanes on various Friday nights in 1986 and 87).

Do you remember going out with your friends on a Saturday night? Do you remember loading up in the car and heading off to find some new adventure? That feeling like as long as there was gas in your tank, and you had your friends with you, just about anything could happen.... do you remember?

Well, I do. That natural high you felt came from the power of free will. A whole world in front of you with unlimited possibilities. Believe me when I tell you, God gave no greater, precious, and fragile gift.

Now, though, with more than 40 years of living under my belt, while I am staunch believer that God does not pre-destine our lives, I can safely say this... the grace of God, while offering us freedom, does seem to look out for us. That's part of the kingdom experience I think, this grace God gives us.

John Wesley, a very smart dude who founded this Christian movement (Methodism) that I'm in, speculated that before we knew how badly we needed God, God knew how badly he wanted us. As a result of this love God has for us, while He gives us freedom to make our own choices , the Lord works in ways only He can fully explain to draw us near Him. That's the idea I think Paul is trying to get at in Romans 5:

Now, no one is likely to die for a good person, though someone might be willing to die for a person who is especially good. 8 But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. 9 And since we have been made right in God's sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God's judgment.

Prevenient Grace is the strange force of love and forgiveness working on us before we know we need to be connected and at peace with God, that God has already put the wheels in motion to help make that happen. Justifying Grace is the moment when we realize the force of love and forgiveness, washing over us and washing away all the pain, uncertainty, shame... the power of that moment may not last, but the memory of it, and our understanding of God does. Sanctifying Grace is God's love and forgiveness reshaping and remaking us. It's as if, in some strange way all of life is trying to pull us toward God on the shoulders of the mighty stream that is grace.

I guess the best way I can put it personally, is that much like Ferris, at least in this one day, lives a charmed existence leading to something much bigger than its sum parts. His buddy, Cameron, finds the strength to confront his parents as their child, and not a possession. His sister, who isn't comfortable or happy with herself, finds a peace with who she is. Even the principle, Mr. Rooney, as kind of the object of scorn as an administrator who doesn't appear as much to enjoy being an educator as he does a disciplinarian (who doesn't like kids very much), gets his come uppance. His perceived life's ambition - move children toward conformity, not education - is defeated, letting creativity and cunning win the day. It's not like everything goes right.... Ferris' sister gets multiple speeding tickets and Cameron destroys his dad's prize Porsche - but this force that somehow delivers all the characters throughout the movie, prevails over all the characters, and they find peace within it.

That force which in the end brings healing and wholeness, would be described by Wesley as "grace"

The grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is FREE IN ALL, and FREE FOR ALL.... It is free in all to whom it is given. It does not depend on any power or merit in man; no, not in any degree, neither in whole, nor in part. It does not in anywise depend either on the good works or righteousness of the receiver; not on anything he has done, or anything he is. It does not depend on his endeavors. It does not depend on his good tempers, or good desires, or good purposes and intentions; for all these flow from the free grace of God; they are the streams only, not the fountain. They are the fruits of free grace, and not the root. They are not the cause, but the effects of it. (John Wesley)

Because I've used a quirky John Hughes movie geared for teens growing up in the 80's as my quasi-illustration I don't want give you the wrong impression of what I'm talking about. Grace isn't about always getting a "happy ending". Every day doesn't always end with the hero winning the day, and the bad guys getting theirs. Rather, Grace is about ultimately being reconciled with - becoming friends - with God. Finding a peace with what's happened and what will happen, and the God who is behind the creation of all things. In grace we learn who we are, what the Lord wants, and in turn at least some of the mystery between us diminishes.

10 For since we were restored to friendship with God by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be delivered from eternal punishment by his life. 11 So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God -- all because of what our Lord Jesus Christ has done for us in making us friends of God.

I told you earlier that without really articulating it at the time that the model I was probably using for my teen years was Ferris Bueller. I pushed a few boundaries and investigated what "having freedom" could lead to in terms of some good times and new experiences. That led to a great amount of self-discovery, and more than a little bit of fun. But I've felt like there was a force that now I would identify as God, somehow involved in His own way throughout that experience, looking to draw me closer to Him, sometimes in the worst of experiences.

One memory, among many, stands out pretty starkly. I was probably a junior or senior in High School away at church camp at Lakeside (just as 40 or so of our Middle and High School students will be later this summer). I remember distinctly stopping back at the cottage where we were staying to change into some basketball shoes, and as I was doing my best to just get out the house and down to the courts, I saw another, younger teen girl from our church sitting quietly writing into a notebook. Probably just to be nice, because at church camps I know now you beat on such themes so the ruffians will treat one another with a modicum of respect, I said hello to the girl and probably asked how she was doing, not really interested per se, but once again, just to be polite.

"I'm writing a suicide note", came the reply.

There aren't too many words put together in the English language that will stop you dead in your tracks much faster than "I'm writing a suicide note". You have to make a decision right there how you are going to respond even at 17 years old with few, if any, tools or life experience to deal with such a situation.

To be honest, I can't remember much what was said. She did most of the talking. Her home life wasn't great. She was lonely. She struggled with how she looked and how she was or wasn't accepted by others. She was crying out for help. All I was able to do at the time was try to keep her calm, convince her that talking to someone with more on the ball might be a good idea, and stay with her until that person appeared.

Fortunately, that person did, and I left pretty shaken for some time to process on a lone bench down by the lake.

All these years later, though, I can see where God was moving and active in that moment, overcoming my fear and youth, entering into that young girl's sense of being overwhelmed with depression and darkness, and using the adult available to help lift her out of the hole she was in. It wasn't a good experience, but it lead to greater peace. In fact, maybe it led to greater peace in me than it did to anyone else as it kind of foreshadowed where my life might be heading. I'm not 100% sure about all of that but it does seem that experiences like this one, and many many others, helped push me toward God, through doubt, into a place where I could embrace some mystery in faith.

I don't know... what do you think? Looking back now, can you see the hand of God working in your own life. Through your doubt, in the midst of your sin and mistakes...... moving you toward, if not a more certain place, a place of greater acceptance and peace?

It's not as if this movement of grace makes God "lesser" or "simpler" or "smaller". Shoot, the longer I do this ministry gig it seems like the less I seem to really know. But as death moves one day closer for each of us, and we confront what's on the other side of the grave, this idea that somehow in this life we start getting a clue as to what really matters and what makes a difference is at least moving more from conceptual, to actual. In the process, God may not become less mysterious in all of His ways, but your love, appreciation, and respect for the One who seems to have not missed even one tiny detail grows.

What a gas to think the love reciprocated is so much greater.

Grace, freeing us from sin, so we can become truly a friend of God. Amen and amen.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

May 18th Message from the Phat Pastor - Make that Donation for the People of Haiti

Donations are running pretty slow, so here's video #1 as we head down the homestretch this year's Hands of Haiti 2 Half-Marathon/5k. Feel free to hit the donation button at your leisure.

Phat Pastor - Let's Get Those Donations Rolling! from Bryan Bucher on Vimeo.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Phat Pastor T-minus 9 Days: Official Phat Pastor Song Announced!!!!

As the day of the race nears to T-minus 9 days, I think it's time the Phat Pastor announces his official song for this year's race.

Eric the Buckeye and I like to joke about how our respective educational experiences are different even though we grew up in the same town, during the same era. EtB, being the son of a good Roman Catholic doctor attended the local catholic High School (Lima Central Catholic) while I, being the son of a good Protestant-public-school-educated civil engineer attended the large inner-city public high school (Lima Senior High School). There were lots of differences in our experience (like EtB wore nerdy uniforms to school, while I happily wore Hawaiian shirts just about every day of my senior year), but one of the biggest was music. Name any half-assed hair band or pop music sensation from the 80's and EtB knows who they are. When we travel in his car somewhere he even plays the "name the artist/band" game where he fires up a tune on his I-Pod, and everyone has to guess who did the recording. EtB can name every one-hit wonder who ever had their song played on 92ZOO. Probably had one of those ZOO bumper stickers on the Buckeyemobile he drove to school each day.

While I was not immune to Poison (which I never liked, not when they were popular and not now) or Tears for Fears (did like these guys.... too bad they only had one decent album in them), growing up in an urban public school did expose me at a young age to funk, R&B, hip hop, and rap. Some of those artists were popular in the mainstream. Others weren't. All I know was that I attached coat hangers to my stereo so I could pick up 107.7 in Dayton to hear Whoodini, LL Cool J, Parliament, Zapp, and other great music that at the time was not readily available on local radio or on MTV. So EtB plays some song by Aldo Nova and I'm clueless, but he fires a Kool and Gang or Earth, Wind and Fire or Slave (a personal favorite) tune at me, and I'm all over it.

So, this year's official tune of the Phat Pastor as he trains and runs this year's H2H4 5k race is "Victory" by Kool and the Gang. Victory not in the sense that I'll actually beat anyone in the race (heck, my associate pastor, Charlotte, has all but made it a personal vendetta to whip me that morning... she's been training like a maniac and looking great... got me a little nervous to be truthful) or even raise the cash I did last year ($3k, or $1000 per mile... that was pretty unbelievable).

I choose "Victory" because in this Christian life, defeat ultimately isn't an option. Defeat not even by death which ultimately has no power of us (not that I want to test that anytime soon, or anything, but yet I still believe). That's why while the odds in Haiti have always been long for any kind of improvement and growth over the long term, we don't give up. Eventually, recovery will come one way or another. We'd just rather be a part of the solution, however small or large that might be, of the provision of basic health care, clean water, and a decent education to Haitians who work hard every day just to survive.

Victory over hopelessness and helplessness by just giving people a chance. Chances make Champions, and Champions taste Victory, so here it is:

You can still sign up to run on May 22nd by clicking on our H4H2 link or click the donate button below to sponsor the Phat Pastor either with a flat donation, by the mile (3 total) or the kilometer (5 total). Every dollar goes to our humanitarian work conducted in an attitude of servanthood for the people of Haiti.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Phat Pastor Rides Again!!!!

I promised last fall that it would be a year before you heard from me again, The Phat Pastor, raising cash for the people of Haiti. But then they changed the date of the race to May...

SO NOW, HERE I AM AGAIN, READY TO RUMBLE IN THE 5K JUNGLE (and I promise not to bother you again until next year as May will now be our race's permanent home).

You know I just returned from a United Methodist Volunteer in Mission medical conference on Haiti and the teams heading to Port Au Prince to do the rebuilding are getting into full swing. More than 91 of them from around the country will begin traveling this summer to clear debris and begin rebuilding churches, schools, and clinics that are providing needed services to those in need in what is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. As a part of this ongoing rebuilding effort we will be working with the new Medical Director of the Methodist Church of Haiti, Dr. Elie Nicolas, to help establish an ongoing medical component to the ministry offered by the Methodist Church of Haiti through their local congregations and existing clinics.

This will be a HUGE challenge. Nothing in Haiti was easy before earthquake. But helping, in conjunction with other non-profits, churches, and NGO's, a framework for basic medical care IS DOABLE!!

So the Phat Pastor, who raised $3k last fall for this most important work, is at it again. May 22nd I'll be up and at 'em, ready to lumber through the 5k portion of our second annual Hands For Haiti Half-Marathon/5k which you can still sign up for (although t-shirts at this juncture are not guaranteed.... hit the link and sign up online ASAP to get the technical T). You can hit the PayPal button on this blog and make a donation (which is a great write-off in terms of your taxes... might as well send it to us as opposed Uncle Sam), all of which (minus the PayPal percentage, which is very small) goes to our humanitarian work in Haiti. Or you can mail a check to...

Shawnee United Methodist Church
c/o The Phat Pastor
2600 Zurmehly Rd.
Lima OH. 45806

Make all checks out to "Shawnee UMC" and put "Phat Pastor" in the memo.

Keep watching this blog and Facebook for additional Phat Pastor info as we near the day of the race.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Once Upon A Time Your Daddy Lived in West Virginia (a triumphant return of the blog)

Not one post in all of April. How terrible is that? Well, after getting an earful from the The Great One and Uncle Fred, we'll see if we can't do a little better here and make a post more than once a month.

In any event, last week was a killer. We went from the Blessing of the Bikes, straight to New Church Start Boot Camp (Fayetteville, Arkansas), back home for less than 24 hours, and then off to Des Moines, Iowa for a jurisdictional conference on the future of work teams in Haiti. Then back very early on Sunday morning. Lots and lots of miles in the old Excursion.

Even two days later I'm still experiencing plenty of "truck lag".

So yesterday I'm killing time, trying to stay focused, when on a whim I put a name into the search engine for Facebook I hadn't thought of in many, many years: Beth Powelson. I've known Beth since I was two. When we moved to Charleston, my mother who stayed home with me started watching Beth, who was a year older, while her mother worked at an office in the city. A couple of years later we ended moving down the street from the Powelsons on Crede Drive. At one time in my life not a day would go by that I wouldn't see Beth or her parents.

That day was more than 30 years ago.

We moved from Charleston when I was 10 years old. Looking back on it now my memory of that time has mellowed, but all those years ago this was the most traumatic event I'd ever experienced. I was so small when we moved to West Virginia that I really didn't know any other home. My entire world was pretty much tied up in those mountains. But as I said, that was a long time ago. You make new friends. You sink new roots. You move on.

But I never forgot, that's why I took a chance and searched Beth's name. Imagine my surprise when I found her, married with children in suburban Columbus.

When you find someone on Facebook, often they'll give you leads to find other people who might remember. As I searched Beth's friends I started turning up other names and places I hadn't thought of in a long, long time. Marty Lewis lives in Nashville. Chris Stone sells Porsches in Virginia. Lori Sargent is married and living in Fort Wayne. Robert Stigall is apparently a huge Marshall fan (prepare to get thumped this fall by the mighty Buckeyes my friend). Sara Estep never left the Elk River Valley. Her mother still lives down the street from where we lived. Kristi Waldeck is Vice-President of her family's clothing store (Kelley's Men Shop, former employer of famous Charlestonian Jennifer Garner) I found a fan page for Shoals Elementary School (where I went through the fourth grade) and Elkland Pool.

Soon, the memories began running pretty thick.

Thinking about my own childhood throws a lot of light on the world my children are growing up in, and how differently they are raised. We worry about our kids riding their bikes down to the woods at the end of our street. I mean, we can see those woods from our front yard. You can walk to them in five minutes, and yet we still worry.

When I was Xavier's age I used to ride my bike a couple of miles down the old abandoned railroad tracks to Olins Market to buy baseball cards (which are still at my parents.... I think) or snow cones. In the summer I'd leave my house in the morning, stop back in for a quick lunch, and then come back when I heard my parents call me for dinner. All day we'd be traipsing through the creek down at Ron Miller's house, picking apples at The Arnold's house (if the dog wasn't outside), or playing hide and seek in any or all the backyards up and down our street.

Good, good days!

I remember pushing our bikes up the hill to 119 and then riding down as fast as we could without using breaks. I remember sledding down the hill behind Powelson's house on a snow day and Lee Anne making us all hot chocolate. I remember Mr. Kelley making peach ice cream for the neighborhood kids and helping Mr. Greenlee pick strawberries (some even made it into the bucket). I remember fishing in the Elk River, looking for snakes down by the riverbank, Joe Burdette letting me take turns riding his little 50cc Honda (which he named "La Baron"), and the day Kirk Waldeck's family got an air hockey table.

I remember playing in the mud. (smiling)

We worshiped at a little church, Trinity UMC, that became part of the social fabric of our family. Pretty much any love I have in ministry can be traced back to that little church. I cared about children's ministry long before I had kids thanks to the prizes we could win memorizing scripture at "Junior Church". My love of youth ministry was ignited on those Sunday nights my parents helped lead the Youth Fellowship at the church (I'd either sneak downstairs to play pool, or go play out on the rocks behind the church). My first time speaking to a congregation occurred at Trinity in a Christmas play ("There's no room here at the inn.") The kind faces I remember - Joe and Weesy, Arthur and Louise, the Hersheys, the Kryzaks (especially Danny, who was a huge Reds fan), Pam and Harry.... the list goes on and on - are the faces that helped me fall in love with the church.

I am 41 now, a husband, a parent of four boys, a son, brother, uncle, friend, pastor, community leader, and denominational mover and shaker. My days are long and life full. It's a life where it's not out of the ordinary to work forty hours in a weekend, travel to the deep south Sunday night, and then a plains state on Thursday. A life where a book is about to be published and a dissertation finally wrapped up. It's a busy, busy pressure filled life.

But if there's one thing I'd like my sons to know when they go back someday and read this blog, it's that when I was a boy I lived an ideal boy's life. A life literally filled with digging in the dirt, climbing trees, crabapple wars, catching frogs, kickball games, and long days swimming at the pool begging mom for money for the snack bar.

Thanks Beth, Sara, Robert, Kristi, Lori and everyone else who's responded with an "add" to my friend request. You helped me remember lots of great memories (playing basketball in front of Governor Rockefeller at First Pres... sneaking around Temple Beth Israel with the rabbi's son during my parent's volleyball game... endless hours playing Gin Rummy with Jason... watching all those Houston Astros who made that team in 1979 so great come up through Charleston back when the Charlies played in Watt Powell Park...) these past couple of days. Thanks for being part of the foundation of what has been a great life.

May I pass on to my sons what was given to me: A childhood to fondly remember where they remember playing in the woods, catching frogs, chucking crabapples at one another, and faces at church that help them fall in love with Jesus too. No better gift could be given.

Blessing of the Bikes 2010

Here are the three Kawasaki commercials we made for this year's service. The running gag for those who don't ride is that my Kawasaki is an inferior ride to other makes (namely Harley and Honda). In any event, they got big laughs. Enjoy.

Kawasaki Commercial #1 from Bryan Bucher on Vimeo.

Kawasaki Commercial #2 from Bryan Bucher on Vimeo.

Kawasaki Commercial #3 from Bryan Bucher on Vimeo.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Glory, Glory Hallelujah.... Welcome to the Future

When I moved back to Lima in 2004, I remember for about a year just trying to wrap my brain around being back "home". For those who don't know, us United Methodist ministers don't often get to end up anywhere near where we want to be, let alone the one place we pined for as we slogged our way up the ranks.

Never, at any time since I left Shawnee UMC v1.0 in 1997, did I really want to work or live anywhere else. Leaving Lima and this church pretty much tore a hole in my heart that never quite ever healed. As far as I'm concerned, while there are some pretty cool churches in this town, this was the only one that really interested me professionally. It's not perfect. We struggle sometimes to figure out where the Lord might be leading us. Sometimes people get upset and sometimes we disagree.... but warts and all somehow this church just keeps being special. It's a church that's occasionally willing to stick out its neck for the good of others and the Lord, and generally on the other side of the chaos, we stand more United and together than we did before.

Anyway, over the seven years I was off in Toledo, Bloomington, and Goshen, the desire to come back to Shawnee UMC and Lima only grew. Actually, in 2003 I started pursuing a return to Ohio and even interviewed at St. Michael of The Slaughter (or as it's known in the rest of the world, Ginghamsburg UMC). To be honest, coming out of that interview I thought I had that job in the bag, which only compounded my disappointment when six weeks later they told me they needed to take a pass but that they would, "keep my resume on file in case something else opened up".

I was crushed.

But you know, the Lord works in strange and mysterious ways. Had St. Mike bit on the hook, chances are six months later Joseph would have never called me about this opportunity and then I would have realized why St. Mike's sounded so great: it was a great church only 45 minutes from home. I guess the only thing better than being 45 minutes from where you want to be, is sitting in the office of the place of your dreams... which is where I am sitting today.

It's true. Sometimes the best answer to a prayer really is "no".

Anyhow, when I returned in 2004, not really guaranteed anything regarding the future (something Joseph reminded me of repeated, for better and for worse), when I came back I found a SUMC that wasn't romanticized like it had been in the seven years since I left. It was still great, but it's like when you were a kid and you remember the slide at the park being the highest slide in the world. Go back to that park and either the slide is gone (cause you're old) or its not what you built it up to be in your mind. It's not a million feet tall... just 8.

There was a little of that when I returned. So while it was nice to be back, I was immediately started making a list in my mind of things I thought would need to eventually change if I ever got the chance. Some things, like work environment for the staff (let's just say the environment when I left, which I loved, wasn't quite the environment I discovered when I returned... I am really proud of the progress we've made as a church in this area) I knew could be changed somewhat easily because mostly it was internal factors that controlled our results. Job descriptions, salary scales, a staff handbook, occasional meetings, outings, and a cool summer retreat have done a lot to make (not perfect, mind you, but improve) this a great place to work. But other goals that began to take shape were much more illusive and difficult to nail down because they couldn't be controlled internally. The work would have to be on the outside.... out there.... with folks who didn't know us, or maybe didn't have all that great a perception of us.

This weekend, after almost three years of work, I felt like the future I started to envision really took giant leaps forward in terms of taking shape.

First, if you haven't heard, Shawnee UMC is about to extend her footprint to the north. By this time next year we'll have a satellite campus functioning in Bath Township. This is an old dream, not a new one. It's a dream that came from a visit to the Montgomery Campus of Community Christian Church of Naperville, Illinois and then was re-ignited at St. Paul Chadwell in London when I saw something I thought could work in a setting like this one. Not to mention, the thought of starting a satellite has really blown the lid off of what we're thinking about doing here at the Mothership. "Impact Groups" (another dream), communicating in new ways (particularly visual ones), utilizing technology for teaching opportunities (how about Joseph Bishman or Julian Davies teaching a bible study from their homes for people in Shawnee).... it's forcing us to re-thing a lot of things, and that's exciting.

Second, if you weren't there last night at Lima Community Church of the Nazarene (or "The Naz" as we call it), you missed a miracle. Three years ago there were few, if any, real connections between suburban and urban churches in this community. Last night was incredible. The whole community felt comfortable enough with one another that a black gospel choir sang in a building used mainly by white suburbanites, listening to priests, preachers, and elders from every corner of this community...

and it felt, normal. Like we could do it every year.

I'm proud of the role this church has played in forging new partnerships, bring pastors to the table together, and creating common ground and the trust necessary to really tackle some terrifically difficult issues in our community. When I heard Doug Adams, long time Senior Pastor talk about how big that service was, that he'd never been part of anything like it in 25 years of living and working in the community.... when I hear Lamont Monfort marvel at the crowd gathered, and where they are gathered... when pastors like Mark Chambers, nestled safely in the suburbs, come to the table ready to reach out.... when Elder Fred Dunlap beseeches God in prayer for his help in the community cause we need it, and 1200 "Amen"....

Can't help it... makes me so happy thinking about the gathering last night I get all teary eyed. Probably why when I was listening to Brad Paisely's song today it made me cry. Got me when I heard the words, "Hey, wake up Martin Luther. Welcome to the future." Felt like after getting the call Bluelick was "in" on the merger in the afternoon, and then seeing the Senior Pastor of "The Naz" look out on the crowd in his church with what can only be described as wonder and amazement, that the future really is now.

And I sing, "Glory, Glory... Hallelujah!" Welcome to the future.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Merger With Bluelick United Methodist Church Meetings - The Day After

For those who haven't heard, we have been investigating a possible merger with Bluelick United Methodist Church. If this merger is approved by both congregations (Shawnee and Bluelick), as of January 1, 2011 our name as a congregation will change to Community United Methodist Church, and we'll be one church with two sites, Shawnee and Bath. We have announced that Charlotte Hefner, our current associate pastor, will be the Site Pastor at the Bath Campus. While this plan has been discussed in various committees, because it involves a merger by the letter of the UMC Book of Discipline, the matter must be voted on and passed by both congregations in specially-called "Charge Conferences" to be held separately.

Yesterday, the merger plan in its totality was unveiled to both congregations. Bluelick got it first at 2:30pm, and then the first of three presentations was made to Shawnee last night at 7pm. The response has been interesting. I've only heard positive responses, but this evening at both SPRC and by happenstance when I ran into a group of women leaving a meeting, I received some feedback that was less than positive not about the presentation itself, but the overall plan.

Some people don't like it because they think I'm too busy as it is and wonder how much more I can take before collapsing. Others don't like it because it involves Charlotte Hefner taking a new role in our ministry as the Site Leader at the Bath Campus and people want her to stay. Others are afraid that in this economy people will balk at any unnecessary expense and still others wonder why we'd make an investment in another property while this one is still mortgaged.

Given the concerns, I think some good questions, which will be addressed at the next informational meeting Wednesday, 7pm at Bluelick UMC (so that Shawnee folks can see the building), have been raised. For those who can't make it, here are some concerns I heard, and my response to them.

Q) Bryan, you lead a growing church of more than 12oo members and friends... don't you already have enough to do?

Fair question. It's no secret that while we continue to grow, in many respects we are operating with the same size (actually slightly smaller) staff than we had just a few years ago. This has created increased stress on the staff, and admittedly, me.

But to be perfectly honest, this has been the trend for just about anybody who has been employed in an enterprise over the course of the last twenty years. Rising utilities, escalating health insurance premiums, fuel costs, administrative expenses (copier leasing and liability insurance being two examples) all continue to rise at rates faster than income. The result is lots of people working in this great nation being asked to do more with less. Churches and non-profits have not been exempt from this (hear all the pastors, directors, and staff people say "Amen").

The Staff-Parish Committee is aware of the load of my responsibilities, but they also understand the great opportunity that the Lord has placed before us. Together we're bringing in a church consultant who will help us understand where our church is at, where it can go, and what changes we'll need to make in order to stay healthy, while keeping us all sane. I trust the committee, the consultant, and my own body/mind/spirit to tell me that we're going beyond too much. None of us feels this way. Instead, we see great opportunity and a chance over the next nine months before the merger would take place (January 1, 2011) to make some needed changes that will help us as a congregation....

and keep me sane. Sanity is good.

Q) We heard Charlotte say last night at the first presentation that if she isn't deployed to the Bath Campus, she'll be leaving Shawnee UMC sometime in the next year for a new church.... what in the world is going on!?! If we voted this down, why wouldn't Charlotte just remain at Shawnee?

I know this news is a shock. Three years ago the congregation had to say goodbye to a Senior Pastor who had served here for seventeen years. Now they are being told that a beloved associate who really grew up as a staff person and then pastor in their midst is looking for a new challenge. This has been very hard for a lot of people here at Shawnee to hear.

Well, if you think its been hard on you, you have no idea how hard it's been on me.

I found out about Charlotte's desire for new kind of appointment last fall. She actually informed me - by email (ugh) - that she was giving me 12-18 months advance notice that she would be leaving Shawnee so we'd have plenty of time to plan for life after she left. She did as an extraordinary courtesy because she loves this church and would never want to hurt it. But in her heart, she believes the Lord wants to send her to a a new church where she might be able to use what she's learned to reach new people with the Gospel.

I know now why she emailed me..... she was relatively sure I'd freak out, and she was right. I pretty much lost it. Like a lot of you I wondered what the "real story" was. Did she not like working with me as her supervising pastor? Was she feeling underpaid? Was she unhappy with her office? Had somebody done or said something to hurt her?

How could she just leave us all?

For those here Sunday night what you heard from Charlotte - her eloquent words regarding why she's ready for a new chapter to begin in her professional life - you heard what my heart heard after I recovered from the initial shock. As she talked about her call I realized the hurt and pain I felt was generated by how Charlotte's leaving would effect me. My focus was me. But after a day of cooling off, I let the self get out of the way, and listen to Charlotte.

Charlotte wants to pastor her own church. She wants to give it a go. She's worked as a staff person and associate for nineteen years. She's ready for a new thing, and after seeing what other United Methodist clergy are doing out there, she's convinced she could be a greater asset to Kingdom if she could do what they are doing, because - quite frankly - she more talented than a great many of them. Given she's almost ghgsighst years old, she's afraid if she doesn't try this now, she'll never get the chance.

I get it. I spent fourteen years as an associate pastor, wondering when it would be "my turn". When you get that itch, you gotta scratch it, no matter how scary the prospects or degree of sacrifice is required

What I love about this arrangement most is that Charlotte will get the chance to do something special - a totally new challenge - without leaving the Shawnee family. She'll still be an associate. She'll still have an office here at the "Mothership" (as I've grown to calling the Shawnee location) but she'll get to preach each week. She'll get to raise up new leadership. She'll get to use all the creative things we've learned here (everything from Harvest for the Hungry to Fall Fest to Haiti Mission trips) to energize new people with the love of Jesus Christ.... all of whom will be a part of our church family!

So here's the deal.... I think God has put the right opportunity in front of us and given us the right leader. If we choose not to take advantage of these things, we miss a great opportunity and the stirring in Charlotte's heart will not be changed. Sunday night she made it clear. If this merger doesn't happen, she'll still ask for a new appointment. She's not doing it to hurt you. It's just what she believes God wants.

Q) Come on Bucher... what's the real story with Charlotte?

Sorry. Everything I've told and written is the truth. Ask her. The Spirit is moving her to a new challenge. What else can I do as her supervising pastor and friend but support her call? Hopefully we can do that and we can work together on the same church team but even if that's not possible, she would leave with my blessing, support, and prayers.

Q) So is this whole Bluelick thing just about keeping Charlotte with us?

Absolutely not. The roots of this project go back more than two years when in an informal conversation with BLUMC's pastor I heard him say that his church was really struggling to survive because it had declined to the point of worshiping less than twenty people a week. When the SPRC started investigating this last spring (at the invitation of the DS), the big question was, "This whole multi-site thing sounds cool, but who will the leader be?" As late as September 2009 I was still looking for a site pastor to serve up there. I had no idea Charlotte was thinking about a new challenge and new role in ministry. It just didn't take a genius to figure out that Charlotte - looking for a new opportunity - would be a great fit for this project we still didn't have a leader for. I mean, if we want to implant Shawnee's DNA in this location, who better embodies our theology of grace, dedication to serving the community, and willingness to take chance to make new disciples than Charlotte Hefner?

What else did God have to do... send up a flare? I got the hint. Search for leader, over.

Q) But we started this conversation talking about how heavy the load was for the pastors and staff and you're basically moving our only other preaching pastor elsewhere. Does this make sense?

Well, as it relates to Charlotte's role changing the point is mute. She knows what she wants, so regardless of how this merger thing turns out, we're facing a major staffing change.

Fortunately, I had this great mentor - a guy named Dick Lyndon - who taught me something very important about staffing. During my tenure at Goshen First we experienced a music director, two childrens directors, two administrative secretaries, and two graphic artists all turning in their resignation (actually in the case of one the artists, we... uh.... encouraged him to make a career change). And every time this happened, and all of the staff and most of the congregation wrung its hands wondering what to do, Dick would always say,

"When a staff person leaves, it's an opportunity given to you by God to improve your staff and your ministry."

I never forgot those words. Where others saw a setback, Dick always saw opportunity. Had he not, I'd never have received the chance to serve with him. In certain cases we had to take a step or two back in those hires, but ultimately in every case, whether it took one hire or two, the new person ultimately hired enabled us to do things we could never do before. Consequently, the scope and size and impact of our ministry just took off.

So, I guess what I'm trying to say is that Charlotte, the SPRC, core leadership, and myself see a unique opportunity here. A chance to really take this church in some new bold directions while adding a new person, or some new people to the team. Some will be paid staff and others unpaid staff, but in all cases we'll be opening up opportunities for some talented people to come take on some responsibility, and take us in new directions.

Q) Where is the money coming for all these new staff people? And I heard something about the renovation at Bluelick costing over $200k.... who is going to pay for all of this?

Good question. Really, you'll need to come to a presentation, or Charge Conference, to really see the breakdown of income and expense. We are applying for a grant from the District Trustees (of which I am one). The conference would like to help in a multitude of ways. There are some assets (namely a parsonage) that BLUMC owns that we'd put up for sale (as per our policy of not being in the parsonage business). There is a congregation already at Bluelick who would be folded into our family and are quite faithful. It's complex, but financial support is available for both the renovation and staff expenses.

But I'm not going to lie... we need to raise some money. We'll need to undertake a Capital Campaign to help not only with renovation costs at the Bath campus plant, but to do some marketing and outreach. The plan is to do it in the fall.

Q) Whoa!!!!!! You mean at a time when local unemployment is over 10% and we still owe $290,000 on our current mortgage (for the Centrum addition), you want to ask people for MORE money? Is this realistic?

There are many issues raised in this questions. Let me address them all...

- While the local economy is a great concern, regardless of what certain pundits might be saying, economies never stay down forever. While I do not discount how difficult this recession has been, and am also concerned about the future of the economy, I don't think you can under estimate the power of the free market. Eventually these things work themselves out.

And what's more, when do hurting people need the church more than in a time of great uncertainty? If the demographic and research data the Percept Group gave us is true, right now more than 14,000 people living within five miles of BLUMC don't have a church, and another 5,000 are looking for one that makes more sense for them right now.

What better time to be the church to these people arise than right now when things are tight? Jesus is right... the poor will always be us and that's no excuse to not invest in Kingdom opportunities that raise his name and make evident his glory and love (just ask the woman who poured perfume on his feet and washed them with her tears and hair).

- As for the mortgage, I think there are a lot of churches out there wishing their mortgage was less than $300k on what was a $2 million+ project, and could incorporate in their budget over $60k per year to pay it down. Last year our capital campaign funds ran out because the three year cycle was up. We went all of 2009 servicing our debt via the General Fund, and ended up with more money in the bank at the end of 2009 than we did 2008.

The point of a capital campaign for this project is that we have the chance of expanding our ministry while acquiring a property of value with no additional debt! BLUMC's plant and parsonage are mortgage free. Approximately $125,000 we don't have to raise is potentially available to us to begin renovations that will cost about $230,000. An appraiser has told us that if we do the work we say we're going to do, and it's done well, the value of the plant, currently $40 per square foot, will rise $5 to $15 (the building is 5700 square feet... you do the math).

In what business is investing $105,000 to to acquire a completely renovated and updated building and on a six acre plot worth more than $250,000-300,000 a bad business move.... even if you still have some mortgage debt? We're talking about the potential of a 300% return on an investment in a tangible asset that will be ours without taking on a dime of extra debt. When does that ever happen? That's incredible!

And as for raising $105,000.... did you know that we raised over $40k for Haiti relief in January and February and General Fund giving during that same time was up almost $10,000? If people in this church believe in something, they will support it. They have proved that so many times that my faith in them is greater than my fear of the risk.

- Finally, as to some of the costs associated with extra staff, in my conversation with the District Superintendent, he assures me that both he and the Bishop want to see this work and will stand behind us tangibly during the years it takes to get this endeavor rolling. Whether that takes the form of "New Endeavor" leadership grants, salary supplements for Charlotte when she takes the helm at the Bath Campus, a voucher to let us keep a portion of the more than $70,000 worth of apportionment we pay the conference each year, or some combination of these methods makes no difference to me. The fact is someone is going to get that money, and it might as well be us! I think we're a good bet. I believe that if you want United Methodist influence to grow there are few churches in this conference that would qualify as a better place to make that investment than us.

And what's more important is that I believe conference leadership believes the same thing. Why not work with them, take a calculated risk, and move on this?

If you love this congregation, and believe in it, do you really believe in your heart of hearts there's a better equipped UM congregation than this one to make something creative like this merger work? A congregation who's invested more than $1 million dollars in ministries to serve the poor and create opportunity in Haiti.... a congregation who's invested another million dollars over the last 15 years to help our regional food bank grow by more than 8 times during that period... a congregation who helped a local multi-cultural congregation move into a building that was considered to be nothing more than a white elephant and help it grow in influence and size in the process.... that congregation is less worthy of a conference investment than all the others in the West Ohio Conference?

The money is going to get spent. Might as well be spent by somebody dead serious on making it count.

(to be continued)