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)