Month: July 2008

Priority drift and how to fix it

“Priority drift.” I made that phrase up to describe the state I found myself in a couple of weeks ago.  Simply put:  my priorities had drifted.  I found myself spread too thin, doing too many good things, and not doing the things I felt called — even compelled — to do.

What did I do?  I resigned from two boards of non-profits which I dearly liked serving on.  Both hold regular monthly board meetings, both expect help with fundraising, both have missions I support, but both were taking time and energy from my church and my life.   In two emails that took about 2-minutes each to compose, I resigned with regret from each.

Here are some other decisions I made previously to keep me free to do the things I want to do:

  1. I don’t watch TV. I got that idea from David Wilkerson (The Cross and The Switchblade) over 20 years ago.  Just last year I got the “courage” to buck culture, disconnect from cable, and quit watching TV.  I have since discovered that one of my favorite bloggers, Seth Godin,  does not watch TV.  Seth doesn’t go to meetings either, which is privilege I do not have…yet.
  2. I don’t preach revivals. Actually, I don’t preach revivals because 1) most revivals are not worth going to; 2) I don’t want to be gone for 3-5 days at a time.  Now, of course, nobody asks me to preach revivals since I’m off the “revival” circuit, but that’s okay.  Same thing goes for most conferences.
  3. I don’t try to be the leader of everything. I can’t be a good pastor, and the busiest guy in our Baptist association, state convention, national denomination, etc.  So, I’m very happy pastoring a small church in a small town with time to work in my garden, visit my neighbors, and let others take some leadership responsibility.  Am I shirking?  I’m sure some think so, but it works for me.
  4. I do try to live in a rhythm of prayer and work. I like the old monastic model, orare et laborare — to pray and to work.  Of course, the words pray and work get defined broadly, sometimes too broadly.  But I do try to do some physical work each day, which gives me a new appreciation for how hard others work.  Lately, I confess, our morning prayer time has gotten chewed up a bit by other “urgent” things, but I’m trying to get that back under control as well.

It is amazing how many good things can creep into our lives, distracting us from the best things that are our lives.  How do you stay focused on the things that are important to you and your ministry?

How churches might face the coming crises

(A couple of days ago I wrote about several converging crises — energy, economy, and environment. Since then the price of gas has gone down! Proof that I was wrong. Not! As a nation we are so shell-shocked by the energy crisis that we think a 10-cent reduction in the price of gas is a big break, forgetting that less than a year ago we were paying under $3 a gallon. Anyway, back to our original program.)

I see churches adapting to these three interrelated crises — energy, economy, and environment — in several ways:

  1. Redefinition of “church.” Church will no longer be the place we go, church will be the people we share faith with. Churches will still meet together for worship at a central time and location, but that will become secondary to the ministry performed during the week. Church buildings will become the resource hub in community ministry, like the old Celtic Christian abbeys. Church impact will replace church attendance as the new metric.
  2. Restructuring of church operations. Due to the high cost of fuel and a struggling economy, churches will become smaller, more agile, and less expensive to operate than in the past. Churches will need to provide direct relief to individuals and families with meal programs, shelters, clothing, job training, and more. In the not-distant-future, we will live in a world where government is increasingly unable to fund and provide those services. Church buildings will become increasingly more expensive to maintain, and churches with unused weekday space will consider partnerships with businesses, other ministries, and helping agencies. Or churches will sell their conventional buildings and reestablish in storefronts that operate as retail businesses 6 days a week, and gathering places on Sunday (or Thursday or whenever). Churches will focus outwardly on their “parish” more than inwardly on their members. Church staff will become more community-focused rather than church-program focused, and become team leaders in new missional ventures.
  3. Repackaging of “sermons” and Christian education. With fewer people “attending” church, fewer will also attend Christian education classes. Churches will deliver Christian education content via mobile devices. Short video clips accessible from iPhones (and other smart devices) will be the primary content carriers for church and culture. Church “members” (if that quaint term actually survives) will still gather, but more for monthly celebrations, fellowship, and sharing than weekly meetings, worship, or learning. Of course, there may be several monthly celebrations geared to different lifestyles (tribes), schedules, and preferences. Again, the abbey concept of the church as hub with many smaller groups revolving around the resource center.
  4. Refocus from institution to inspiration. Okay, so I went for the easy alliteration there. Restated, less emphasis on the “church” and more on how the church enables its adherents to live their faith. Declining church attendance is not a crisis of faith, it’s a crisis of delivery. We can bemoan the fact that fewer people come to church, but ballgames are not suffering from declining attendance. People go to what they want to go to. Church ministry has to focus on engaging people in meaningful ways that enable their spiritual journeys. In a world in crisis, people are looking for something to believe in as institution after institution crumbles. If banks, businesses, and whole countries fail, where can we put our trust? Church should have the answer 24/7, delivered like everything else is delivered now — when people want it, at their convenience, and in a way that resonates with them.

None of the things I have suggested here are new. But, the thing that makes them more viable now is the convergence of all three crises at one time. But, let’s hope for the best and assume that gas goes back to no more than $2 per gallon, the planet cools off, energy is abundant, and the economy flourishes. All the possibilities I suggest above are still viable strategies that may be more in keeping with New Testament values than our 20th century consumerist approach. What do you think?

Church at the end of oil and other crises

Last November, I posed the question, “If gas hits $4/gal, what will your church do?” We are beyond $4/gallon gas now, and the future looks different than we ever thought it would just a couple of years back. But, there are other crises which will affect churches in the next few years:

  1. The gap in moving from oil to other fuels. The buzz is already out there about electric cars. T. Boone Pickens and Al Gore have both challenged America with their visions of an alternative energy future. Talk about $12-$15/gallon gas is getting serious airtime, and no one is predicting a drop in oil prices. In the transition from oil to other fuels, transportation will change from private cars to public conveyance. The entire automobile culture that we have known in America will slowly and painfully be reformed to meet new energy challenges. How will congregants get to church in the future?
  2. Increasing electricity costs. Google “rising electricity costs” and you find articles like this one predicting that electricity costs will double in 5 years. Why? Increasing demand as we move away from oil. Electric cars will only add to the demand, straining an already over-burdened power grid that is in serious need of upgrading. Imagine that the electric bill for your church, and each family in your church, doubles in 5 years. How do you cope?
  3. Rising food costs. Accompanying rising gas prices — and increasing scarcity — and rising electricity costs are rising food prices. Riots have broken out in developing countries this year over the price of staples such as rice. According to Paul Roberts, author of The End of Food, the entire food industry is facing a crisis of quality, nutrition, and cost. Roberts might be easy to ignore as “Chicken Little” alarmist, but he’s also the author of the 2004 book The End of Oil which predicted the current oil crisis. We might want to pay attention to what he says about food.
  4. Scarcity of water. If you think it’s not possible for America to run out of water, talk to the residents of Atlanta where last year Lake Lanier dried up to record lows.
  5. Economic/financial institutional uncertainty. The federal government’s “bail outs” of investment banks, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, plus the falling dollar, the increasing national debt, the war in Iraq, low consumer confidence, and the continuing subprime mortgage crisis have converged to create an atmosphere of uncertainty. The next couple of years will not be business as usual for any institution, churches included.

The implications for the future of churches are great if only one of these crises matures. But, if all continue to move toward more critical levels, then churches will have to rethink standard operating procedures. Implications include:

  1. More family income spent on basics. Food, housing, utilities, and transportation costs are all basics. If families have to spend more on these items, they will have less to spend on other things, church and charitable gifts included.
  2. Increased building operating costs. If electricity doubles, and natural gas and heating oil prices double, the costs to maintain and operate church buildings will displace staff, program, and missions expenditures.
  3. Rising unemployment or underemployment. Churches will be faced with more families needing help than ever before.

Experts are predicting these scenarios in the next few years. More tomorrow on what churches can do to transition to effective ministry as these crises unfold.

Do some things for fun

Last Wednesday night we had a cookout at our church. Not a new idea or big news, but it was fun. Fun, despite the fact that we had to move inside from the town park next door because rain was on the way. Fun, even though we were jammed into our old fellowship hall because we let a local camp use our “new” kitchen and fellowship hall during July. (Both were built 10-years ago, but we still have the “old” so the new one is…well…new!)  We grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, ladies brought side dishes and desserts.  Our makeshift serving line was laden with sliced tomatoes, cole slaw, potato salad, chips, relish, chili, brownies, cake, pie, and the list goes on.  Over 50 people came (our usual Wednesday supper is 25-30), and we had a church business meeting around the tables after supper.   Great spirit and lots of fun for a hot Wednesday night in July.

Then today, Sunday, we had a really great singing duo, The Church Sisters.  Sarah and Savannah Church (their real name) are the cutest 12-year old twins you’ll find anywhere, and they can sing, too!  With their “Alison Krause” sound, they sing the old country gospel songs like “I’ll Fly Away,” and some newer stuff in the same tradition like “Down To The River To Pray.” Our normally reserved folks clapped through a couple of numbers, and generally enjoyed the girls, their brother and step-dad on guitar, and a friend of theirs on bass. Oh, because they had prepared 12 songs to sing, I ditched the sermon today. No one complained, much to my dismay, but The Church Sisters were a refreshing change during the long, hot summer.

We need to take more time to have fun at church. Make sure your congregation has opportunity to laugh, sing, kid one another, and enjoy being together. This was a good week for us, and I hope it was for you, too.  Oh, and both items presented at the business meeting passed unanimously.  Maybe it was the hot dogs…

Jesus on death row

Thursday night the commonwealth of Virginia executed Christopher Scott Emmett. Emmett was convicted in the 2001 bludgeoning murder of his co-worker Mr. Langley. Apparently Mr. Emmett was guilty. It took a jury less than an hour to convict him. Mr. Emmett killed for his victim’s wallet — so he could buy crack cocaine. One of those crimes that brings the phrase “senseless violence” to mind.

In an aside that reporters use to fill out a story when the editor needs more copy, the writer noted in the last paragraph of the article:

Virginia has executed 102 people since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, second only to Texas.

My state is the runner-up in capital punishment in the US. I’m not sure that’s a distinction we want to bear with pride. Then, there is the other global comparison that ranks the US fourth after China, Iran, and Viet Nam in numbers of prisoners executed. Again, not company we aspire to keep.

While I realize there is a lot of disagreement on the issue of capital punishment, it seems to me that followers of Christ would oppose capital punishment on the grounds that Jesus himself was an innocent victim of the Roman Empire’s capital punishment system. When we think of Jesus’ death, not as a theological doctrine, but as capital punishment gone wrong, it casts a different light on the subject.

Of course, Mr. Emmett does not appear to be an innocent victim. And to make matters worse, Emmett seemed rather flippant and unrepentant before his execution. But, I can’t help thinking of Jesus’ short stay on death row. Is this the best solution we have to society’s problems? What do you think? Have you addressed the issue of capital punishment with your congregation? What responses did your church members have to this issue? I’d be interested to know.

Build it and they will come, but somebody has to run it

About 30 years ago, lots of churches bought into the myth that building a gym was the answer to all their outreach woes.  Churches thought “build it and they will come” long before Ray Kinsella made it popular in Field of Dreams.  But in real life, somebody has to be there to run the place after you build it so they can come.  And before they come, somebody has to program the use of the building.  Getting both people and programs in place as we opened the community center has taken countless hours of my time, not to mention all the other folks involved.

Buildings are not the answer to any church’s problems, outreach or otherwise.  Buildings add to the complexity of church ministry because you need people and programs to fill them.  So, before you “build it” hoping “they will come” start some programs right now.  When we dreamed of building a community center, we started the Boys and Girls Club program first in the space we had, with a staff of 2 people.  Having that program established before we built and opened the community center guaranteed us an anchor program, complete with staff.  Currently the program serves about 80 kids a day with a paid staff of 5, plus additional community center staff of 3.  We also use volunteers, but we do not rely on volunteers for critical functions.  Volunteers supplement on-going programs, and relieve staff to focus on essential responsibilities.

Next myth to be busted: “Don’t worry, the building will pay for itself.”

Confessions of a Small-Temple Buddhist Priest

Title sound familiar? Well, apparently Buddhists in Japan are facing the same challenges as small churches in the US. Listen to this from the New York Times article, “In Japan, Buddhism May Be Dying Out:”

Across Japan, Buddhism faces a confluence of problems, some familiar to religions in other wealthy nations, others unique to the faith here.

The lack of successors to chief priests is jeopardizing family-run temples nationwide.

While interest in Buddhism is declining in urban areas, the religion’s rural strongholds are being depopulated, with older adherents dying and birthrates remaining low.

Perhaps most significantly, Buddhism is losing its grip on the funeral industry, as more and more Japanese are turning to funeral homes or choosing not to hold funerals at all.

Over the next generation, many temples in the countryside are expected to close, taking centuries of local history with them and adding to the demographic upheaval under way in rural Japan.

Sound familiar? Not enough priests, urban temples declining, rural temples declining due to death of older members and population shift, and many temples in rural areas expected to close.

What should we make of this? My take is that in a postmodern world religions of all sorts are taking a hit. The NYT article goes on to mention that even Buddhists funerals, preferred by many Japanese, are also declining as many in Japan have either secular funerals or none at all for loved ones. I read several months ago of the trend in England to non-religious life celebrations instead of funerals.

If the thing religions do is to give meaning to the great events of life — birth, growth, maturity, and death — then how is it that all religions seem to be losing the numbers battle in our increasingly secular world? Oh, I also read that young Buddhists monks are hanging out in bars to engage young Asians in theological discussions. Sounds like “theology on tap – Buddhist style” to me. There is truly nothing new under the sun.