The Cost of Business

February 19, 2010 at 7:12 am (Leadership) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Shortly before I was terminated, we were in a regional staff meeting and were told that the denomination was bleeding $200k a month.  This would mean there would most likely need to be 10-12 FTEs cut from the budget.  A couple months later, my politically-motivated termination occurred.  One of my friends, who is skilled in the ways of the Church, explained it to me this way:  “You gave them a freebie,” he said.

In other words, because I’m a challenger of the status quo, they felt no emotional attachment to me, saw me as a threat to the organization, and had no qualms about pulling the plug.  The irony, of course, is that when things get tough, that is exactly when you want people who can see things differently and are passionate enough about the organization that they are willing to stand up to the establishment.

It isn’t hateful terrorism that motivates me.  It is passion to do the right thing – as opposed to doing (the wrong) things right.

Well, since last Spring, things have continued to get worse.  At a recent town hall meeting, the constituents were told that there would be approximately 25 additional FTEs cut.  Also, a $1,000,000 grant would not be paid to a local university – and some other budget cutting options, which include a 5% employee pay cut for.

(NOTE: Because pastors have not seen a cost-of-living pay raise in a couple of years, and now have had their pay cut by 5%, in effect they are making about 15% less than they were a few years ago.  However, the cost of living continued to increase during that same time.  This means that someone making $50k a few years ago, is essentially only making $43k now.)

During the course of this town hall meeting, it was made clear that the $1million grant obligation would be honored when the economy turned around.  This was probably due to the pressure put on the denomination by the president of the university, who upon receiving the news, immediately drove four hours to meet with the leadership and plead for that money.

One employee at the town hall meeting asked if the same salary obligations would be honored for employees?  In other words, would employees be reimbursed for the pay cuts they’ve endured over the past few years – including the recent 5% cut?  Though the president acknowledged the question, and though he didn’t actually answer the question, most were left with the impression that the answer was “no.”

Asked where the 25 FTEs would be cut, constituents were told that three or four would come from the approximately 50 administrative and support positions.  Five or six would be teachers.  The remaining 15 positions would be front-line pastoral positions.

If it’s true that “the resources are in the harvest (Matthew 17:27),” then one would wonder, “why cut front line personnel?”

Aren’t these pastors the very ones who will continue to grow the church?

Currently, 50-60% of operating budgets go to maintaining a parochial school system.  Teacher staffing levels are state-mandated – at least if the schools want to keep their accreditation.  Research has shown that there should be at least one FTE pastor for every 150 in attendance – and in order to grow the church, pastoral staff needs to be front-loaded and in place before the next 150 start attending.  Without excess pastoral capacity, the church is unlikely to grow.  Yet, in the past few years, most churches are not only not staffed for growth, they are understaffed for their current attendance levels.

I’m beginning to believe what George Barna, Frank Viola, Brian McLaren, and others have been saying for awhile.  We are witnessing the dismantling of the church.

I don’t believe this is an overt action on anyone’s part.  I don’t believe anyone has anything but the best of intentions.  It is merely a lack of courageous leadership and a willingness to do whatever it takes to push forward and not retreat into a state of irrelevance, impotence, and ineptitude.

What do you think?  Can the Church survive if we keep treating pastors like second-class employees (not only cutting their salaries and resources, but not taking their input when things get tough)?  What would you do if someone asked?

I’m asking…

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Shattered Living in Compromise

February 14, 2010 at 5:18 am (Introspection, Leadership, Musings) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

So many thoughts flood my fragile soul.  Just when I think I have what it takes to step forward and conquer the challenges that lie before us, a light breeze blows across the landscape and smacks me to the ground.  Like a grocery bag in the wind, it doesn’t take much to toss me about.  Forget the storms of life, I can’t even get out of the harbor.

Too many tell me to move one, let it go, lay it down.  All of which are great suggestions – and I’m trying.  But it feels as if my soul is empty of any source, sauce, or sanity.

Tonight, I was awoken by my son crying in the other room.  My short two-hour nap left me now wide awake.  In the dark, as I contemplated my options, I wondered what I could do to stifle the voices tonight?  Often I’ll find release in some mindless Internet-fueled entertainment.  Other times I’ll peruse the news, finding solace in the plight of others and the reminder that I am not alone, yet even quite blessed.  Often, sleep is elusive and only in the dawn do I begin to succumb to the fatigue of another sleepless night.

Formal, verbalized prayers are uncommon from my lips during times of trouble.  These past few months have been no different.  I rely on the promise that the Spirit interprets my groanings and cries.  Sometimes, during our walk down the beach-heads of life, we have to be carried into battle.  The alternative is to lie wounded in the surf and wait for the waves of the incoming tide to engulf our soon-to-be, lifeless bodies.  I don’t mind being carried.

Tonight, I lifted my family in prayer.  Tears fill my eyes as I realize I haven’t had the energy, means, or cognition to extend my thoughts outside of my own embryonic isolation.  As I prayed for my wife, my daughter, and my son – I felt the assurance and strength of my God.  I know He has been carrying them too.

In many ways, we will all carry scars from these events – and I don’t mind the wounds.  I’ve been wounded before.  Ultimately, these scars will blend with the others I carry; but my family?  This is a different story entirely.  The innocence lost – as I watch it ebb from their hearts, I begin to feel some of the pain Jesus must have felt as He stood on that lonely hill overlooking Jerusalem, surrounded by the crowd, He wept.  He wept for the souls lost and the pain of the process.

I would have stopped attending church awhile ago – had it not been for the needs of my family.  The Church is broken and has lost it’s focus, mission, and vision.  People perishing within the walls of a superficial community, but there seems to be no recognition of the blood pooling in the Foyer.  My faith in God has not wavered, but I continue to seek a community who are equally faithful and passionate.  A community that can lead and carry a broken family forward.

A couple of weeks ago, as I sat here writing, I received a text message on my phone: “I’m done with that church.  Let’s take the kids to SS and then go to the beach – or hiking or something?

I finished what I was working on, and retired to our bedroom.  After crawling into bed, I asked her if she meant that?  My heart barely containing my glee.  We talked at length, and that following weekend after the kids spent time in their classes, we drove to the beach and had a great afternoon!

It felt as if the pressure had been lifted from my shoulders – it’s the best gift I’ve received in ages.  And yet, I’m not sure this is a survivable plan for us.  When she speaks of church, which is never far from our conversational topics, I’ve noticed an increasing cynicism in my wife’s words and tone.  While this, in and of itself isn’t bad – it does pain me to see the innocence lost.  I’m one who has always thought that a healthy dose of cynicism will protect us from untoward abuse – but we were created to live innocent lives.

It is the love of God that sustains us.  I need Him to fill me to overflowing.  I need the overflow, not for myself – mind you, but for the care and thirsts of my family.  They need me to be back in the game.  Pray for us.

Lyrics to Washed By The Water (Needtobreathe):

Even when the rain falls
Even when the flood starts rising
Even when the storm comes
I am washed by the water

Daddy was a preacher
She was his wife
Just tryin to make the world a little better
You know, shine a light
People started talking
Trying to hear their own voice
Those people tried to accuse my father
Said he made the wrong choice
Though it might be painful
You know that time will always tell
Those people have long since gone
My father never failed

Even if the Earth crumbles under my feet
Even if the ones I love turn around and crucify me
I won’t never ever let you down
I won’t fall
I won’t fall
I won’t fall as long as you’re around me

[ Washed By The Water Lyrics on ]

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Banquets: The Medium is the Message

January 17, 2010 at 11:05 pm (Introspection, Leadership) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

It is amazing how much of our lives revolve around food.  We meet people for lunch, have church potlucks, and rarely have guests in our home without feeding them.  Given this centrality of food, it shouldn’t be any surprise that many of the stories involving Jesus, also involve food.  It started at His first miracle – the wedding feast where He turned water to wine – and then progressed to feeding thousands of people, harvesting wheat on a Sabbath afternoon, or using banquets as the foundation for a relevant parable.

In one parable Jesus openly condemns those who were the rightful invitees to the Kingdom, but were too busy to come.  That is when the opportunity is taken to invite and welcome those who wouldn’t expect to be in the Kingdom.  In another parable, Jesus explains that people need to be careful about taking the honored seat at the table, lest they be displaced by someone more honorable than they.  But my favorite story, is more than a parable.  It is about a woman of ill-repute, who attended a banquet uninvited, and then honored Jesus the way everyone should honor Him – despite the scorn and hatred with which she was being targeted.

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were orphaned children who were taken in by their uncle Simon.  We are told that because of Simon’s abuse of Mary, she, like many young women who were sexually abused, entered a life of prostitution.  Whether Martha or Lazarus were ever abused, physically, emotionally. or sexually, we don’t know.  What we do know through modern research is that living in a home of dysfunction and abuse is taxing.  Everyone pays a price – even the innocent and ignorant ones.

Interestingly, Jesus did not seek out the religious leaders of the day to start His revolution.  Leaders like Simon were overlooked and people like Peter, John, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were more likely to find themselves in the company of Jesus.  Why is it that Jesus ignored the priests, the Levites, and the other religious leaders?  And more importantly, why did these leaders continue to seek Jesus?

Toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, Simon threw a party for Jesus.  He invited the who’s who of Jerusalem.  Most likely Martha and Mary were invited to serve – for they were mere women.  Lazarus was probably the conversation piece, for his resurrection from the dead was an amazing story.  Ostensibly, this banquet was for Jesus, but like many parties of this irk, the party is really egocentric.  It is an opportunity for the host to show off his connections.

Jesus, true to His form, was not seeking to draw attention to himself.  From what I understand about Jesus, it’s possible he didn’t want to be at this party.  Except, Jesus was never surprised and I believe He knew what was going to occur at this party.  So, He went, but Jesus didn’t take the seat of honor, he was sitting with those who were considered less special – the less visible people.

It is then that Mary comes in with a vial of perfume, worth more than a year’s wages.  Unashamedly, she lavishes Jesus’ feet with oil, tears, and love.  This is one of the most amazing acts of worship recorded in the Bible – which is why this story is so striking for me.  Mary has been saved by Jesus – but it isn’t an eternal salvation that she is so passionate about, it is the salvation from the shame, pain, and oppression that were killing her.  She is a new person!  She is alive!

Simon and his crew are sitting at the other end of the table however, and they are ticked.  From their perspective, this harlot has come in and stolen the show.  The focus is no longer on Lazarus, and especially not on the host – but now Mary has one-upped Simon.  How dare she!!!

Jesus reads this contempt.  It was hard.  Anyone with basic intuitive skills could have seen it.  Just look at their faces, look at their focus, look at their furrowed brows.  They don’t care that Mary has been saved.  They don’t care that Jesus is being paid the honor He deserves.  But this entourage is angry that Mary has disrupted their egocentric hedonism.  In fact, Simon says something very cutting:

Luke 7:39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!”

Jesus looks up.  His words strike right to the core:

Luke 7:47 “I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.”

Upon arrival at our last assignment, I was struck by the lack of true love in the church.  As I prayerfully analyzed it over the next several months, it began to get clearer and clearer what was happening.  It is a problem that exists in churches across the west – and it remains entrenched.

I saw it at the first potluck.  Certain groups sitting together, but not intermingling.  It was a painful reminder of my junior and senior high school years.  The cool, popular kids sit together, but they do it in such a way that there really isn’t room for the uncool kids to join them – nor do the cool kids go out of their way to include the uncool kids.  I hadn’t seen this kind of blatant behavior in years – it was atrocious!

I saw it in the pre and post church mingling.  Certain groups clumped up, made plans with each other, but fairly regularly ignored the invisible people of the church.

I saw it in the decision making of the church.  The cool-kids seemed to “know” what was best for everyone, so they didn’t take the time to ask others – especially the invisible ones.

I saw it when we were invited home to someone’s house for dinner.  It often felt like we weren’t there because of who we were – but because of the title “Pastor.”  Sometimes I wonder if we’d been invited if we hadn’t been the pastors of the church.  It didn’t take long to get an answer, as soon enough I saw other newcomers not get invites.  Others told me stories how they’d been attending the church for years but had never been in the homes of certain key leaders.

Jesus, when He arrived on the hilltop overlooking Jerusalem, wept.  His pain for the broken people was deep.

It’s no secret that organized religion is dying.  The Christian Church, as many understand it, has ceased to be a mission and is mostly focused on the preservation of the institution.  Unfortunately, one will hear few top leaders mention this.  From their lips you will hear how well the church is doing and what great things are happening.  This could be ignorance, or self-preservation – I’m not certain which.  Once an elected leader begins to tell his constituents how bad things really are, that leader is certain to have their career cut short.

So, I’m not sure.  When my boss told me there was no evidence that the church was dying – I don’t know if he really believes this, or if he has blinders on, or, if like the bankers testifying to congress, he is just trying to protect his position and income.

As I preached, I saw three groups of people emerge.  The first was immediate.  Several people came to me and encouraged me to keep preaching how and what I was preaching.  This was basically to go deeper in our relationship with Christ.  This first group was made up of semi-regular attenders, and their attendance rates improved.  Many in this group encouraged me to keep preaching what has needed to be preached for a long time.

The second group to emerge was made up of disempowered, broken, and desperate people.  Former (and current) addicts, former prostitutes and dancers, the unemployed, the broken, and the forgotten.  Typically these people were fed just enough table scraps to keep them coming back, but they weren’t being led out of their current state of emotional and spiritual poverty.  While many were kind to the members of this group, most failed to pay much more than lip-service to these people.

The third group that I saw emerging were those with certain expectations of entitlement.  They saw themselves as the foundation of the church.  It was their money, their brains, and their hard work that was keeping the church afloat.

Many in the first group, despite their best intentions to support the direction, I knew they didn’t have it in them to actually step out as a volunteer against Satan’s attacks.  The people in the second group would often be weeping after a sermon.  The people in the third group would iften have their arms folded, their brows furrowed, and their frowns displayed by the end of the sermon.

It was this third group that hired me – which is why I was clear about my ministry and calling from the very first time we met.  Unfortunately, they either didn’t hear me, or figured they could change me.  It was the third group that showered us with kindness.  And it is this third group that we tried to convince that there is a real need for deeper spirituality within the church.  I talked to this group about expectations being premeditated resentments.  I talked to them about making room in their lives for people they wouldn’t normally choose to be around.  I talked to them about admitting how naked and desperate we all are.

All of this seemed to fall on deaf ears.  Didn’t Jesus often repeat, “He who has ears, let them hear…”?

Most of my time was spent with the second group – in and outside of the church.  Some people who were used to being enabled by “kind” pastors of the past, stopped coming.  I wasn’t too concerned about that.  They needed to address some of their issues without being enabled by those who think giving in is love.  At the same time, people in the other two groups began to increase their attendance, sought baptism, or began a regular process of spiritual disciplines.

A good politician knows how to play to their base, serve all constituents well, and expand their service to those outside of their realm.  Unfortunately, I’m a terrible politician.

  • I was right to focus on the oppressed, the broken, and the invisible.
  • I was right to not allow myself to be used by the “official” leaders of the church.
  • I was right to reach outside of the church walls to seek seekers.
  • I was wrong to take the attacks personally and to lose my cool.
  • I was wrong to seek modification of my ministry (when things got ugly), because I feared the loss of an income.
  • I was wrong to not pray more.
  • I was wrong to get stressed, discouraged, and frustrated.

I made other mistakes, I have character flaws, I am an imperfect man.  But to this day, I know that God knew the mistakes I would make and He still called me to be the spiritual leader I am.  This isn’t to give me permission to make mistakes, but knowing that God knew first – that is reassuring.

I believe the leaders of my last church, and the denominational leaders, continue to harbor a superior attitude, much like Simon in the story above.  And also like Simon, it was their actions that caused the problem in the first place.  So, instead of dismissing me, they could have instead taken the opportunity to correct the issues.

As I begin to heal from the injustice we’ve experienced, my biggest pain remains for the people who are invisible and don’t see other options in their lives.  Like a beaten dog, or an abused wife, they just keep returning for more.  The abusers, just keep giving them enough scraps of kindness to keep them coming back.

Jesus, through out the Bible, asked us to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.  We have much to learn about this.

Sure, the religious leaders killed Jesus – but did they win?

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