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)


The Thief said...

That's a bold move you're undertaking - but don't ever confuse "bold" with "wrong". It's exciting to see what you're doing, how a church that is growing and living the Gospel is reaching out to transform a church that is shrinking (and will die otherwise), using the momentum and the people who God has gifted you with.

My prayers go with you, Bryan, and with Charlotte and the rest of the Shawnee/Bluelick church family.

Jerry said...

My heartmost prayers for the future of whatever god has his hands in..... My friend..sounds like an awesome time in the life of Shawnee.. and Blue....

scott said...

this sounds exciting! i wish i lived closer. i sense God moving people to look outside themselves. this will take more than money and thats why people will be "moved". if its just by ourselves, it won't work. i will wait to hear more.