Finding Favor With God

Do you know anybody that reminds you of Eeyore* from Winnie the Pooh?  Somebody who's down on their luck and wants everybody to know it?

I'm around people like this on a regular basis and I've learned that their condition tends to be contagious.  When you start to talk to them about their faith, you typically get a statement like, "God hates me" or "God doesn't know I exist" or "God doesn't care about me."

This time of year it comes out a little bit more and when we retell the story of Gabriel appearing to Mary (Luke 1: 26-38), I almost always get the question, "What made Mary so special that the angel told her she was 'highly favored'?" 

The answer...nothing in particular and everything altogether.

Later, as Jesus gathered with tax collectors and "sinners" and the Pharisees began to scrutinize Jesus' companions (Luke 15), Jesus told a series of three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.  The lost son, also known as the prodigal son, gets a lot of airtime and it's one I point to that illustrates John 3:16 very well. 

Some people read the story and see it from the older brother's perspective - the father is showing favoritism for the younger brother.  Some read it from the younger brother's angle - I was lost, but now am found.  Some from the father's vantage point - I love my sons, both of them.  Thank God this one has returned home.

God sees us from the father's viewpoint.  Neither son is favorite, better, more loved, or more distinguished. 

Just like Mary, each of us has been created by God, in the image of God.  Each of us is a part of the world God sent the Son to save.  Each of us has worth and each has God's favor, even when God doesn't have ours.

Even in our worst moments, when we are most unworthy, God has deemed us worthy and redeemable.  That proves God's love for us - that his arms are always open to us, as the father's were to the lost son, and he desires to use our lives for great things, just like Mary.

I have a friend that has expressed to me that he feels disconnected and distant from God for the things that he has done.  What a shame that we have allowed people to think they can be unforgiveable. 

Our greatest gift at Christmas each year is Christ.  It's not the New Year or our resolutions that allow us to make a fresh start - it's the baby, born in a stable, and the life he lived, death he endured, and resurrection that was, that gives us a fresh start.

Mary was favored by God...but so are you!  Tell that Good News to everyone you can.

*On a side note, I discovered last week that the man who does the voice of Eeyore, also did the voice for Optimus Prime, both in the cartoons from the 80's and the two movies from recent years.  Just some more pointless knowledge for you to accumulate.


Primal: A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity

How would you sum up how to live your faith? 

If someone new to faith in Christ asked you how to live out their new faith, what would you tell them?
Would you tell them that they need to go to worship?
...to pray regularly?
...to read their Bible?
...to give to those in need?
...or something else?

There are 613 commandments in the Old Testament - I haven't counted them, but I'll trust my OT professors from seminary on that fact.  Teachers of the law - pharisees, saducees, and others - memorized each one and "helped" people keep each of the levitical laws so as to be in alignment with the will of God.  613 that ranged from "Thou shalt not kill" to how to properly prepare your dinner.

One day, while he was teaching, a local lawyer came to Jesus and asked him which of the 613 commandments was the greatest.  Is it one of the big ten?  Is is about how we worship, pray, give, or live?

The perfect commandment is that we should love.  "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength" (Mark 12:29-30, NIV, emphasis mine).  That is to say that God is more concerned with who we are and what our motivation is.  If we love God and we love others, our lives and our daily actions will reflect that - and the 613 regulations for life become tools to aid us in our attempts at Godly love.

I've recently gotten to try something new.  Having been in the right place at the right time, being a pastor and a blogger, I've had the incredible opportunity to preview Mark Batterson's new book, Primal.

Primal will hit the bookshelves on December 22nd and if you've read In a Pit With a Lion on a Snowy Day or Wild Goose Chase, this new book stacks up with the other two - no question.  Many of you know that In a Pit is one of my favorites and has been foundational for me when it comes to ministry approaches. 

Primal is based on the Greatest Commandment: "Love the Lord your  God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength" (Mark 12:29-30).  What does it mean to love God, not just in some wishy washy, feel-good way, but in the truest, deepest sense.

Obedience to the greatest commandment is real commitment.  It's the mark of a living faith and if we can regain our focus on these four ways of loving God, everything else just becomes trimmings.  We forget that sometimes and get caught up in trying to "earn our way into heaven" or be perfect or have all the right beliefs - and when we lose focus, we do so at our own peril.  Truly, we can do God's work and still forfeit our own souls.

Mark does a fantastic job of helping us explore what it means to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength.  The facts he shares and the stories he tells are captivating and leave you with a new appreciation for what true, godly love is.  When was the last time you tried to define how you love God with all your soul?  Batterson might be able to help make a few things come together for you personally.

Do this: when you get some cash or a gift card for Christmas this year, spend some of it on this book.  If you're pastor, read this one as soon as you can get it.  It's an easy read, but also one that has the potential to give a great deal of focus to the rest of your year.

I plan to spend part of January and February sharing the message of Primal from the pulpit and with my staff and leadership.  Thanks to the people at WaterBrook Multnomah and Mark Batterson for giving me the opportunity not only to preview this book, but to be one of the first to promote it.

Order your copy at one of these sellers:



Please pray for one of our members, Jason.  He's a husband and a father of two and has metastatic malignant melanoma.  He was diagnosed back in April, but now the clinical trials that are his last resorts aren't even working. 

In the last two months, he's gone from one tumor on his liver to 9.  No word on if there are any other treatment options for him.  Just pray.

Jason is 34 years old with a son in 9th grade and a daughter in 5th.


Stepping in it...On Purpose

Almost daily, I get forwarded emails from people that want to say bad things about our President.  I've posted about it a couple of times and I know that some people have read it and immediately said to others, "I bet he voted for him!"

Before I begin, let me start off by saying that I was taught growing up that your vote is a deeply personal issue, best kept to yourself.  When my parents voted, I never, ever, had a clue which way they cast their ballot.  I was taught that sharing your own preference is of NO benefit to anyone, especially yourself.  The world is divisive enough without having to choose sides around politicians.

So, for those reading my posts, rest assured that I will NEVER tip my hat one way or another about who I have or will vote for. 

A young man sent me one of those forwards today - a college student I know with the intention of going into full-time, evangelistic ministry.  I popped him a quick reply to try to share some wisdom with him.  You see, as ministers, we don't have the luxury of opinions a lot of the time.  If I pass along my political views to others, I may gain additional "support" from some, but simultaneously offend or turn off others - people who may have voted for or that may agree with the politician that I disagree with.  I run the risk of burning bridges for the sake of a joke or making a point - bridges that may be best used to share the Good News of Christ with others.  Despite popular opinion, God is not Republican or Democrat - God is much bigger than either side of the aisle and he's about people, not politics or issues. 

I am a minister of the Gospel first.  For that matter, I might recommend the same advice to anyone who would prefer their faith to be of greater importance than their political views.  End of disclaimer.


Not far from where my parents live, the Mayor of Arlington, Tennessee has declared some pretty outrageous politcal views, and like many he dragged God into his disapproval of our President.  Read about it HERE.

I've heard, several times over, arguments that our nation's leader is a heathen Muslim and is disrespectful of the fact that our country is a "Christian" one.  I may have heard it one too many times today. Especially since I was more interested in what the President's military plan would be in Afghanistan - where I have friends and family - would be than I was in watching Charlie Brown Christmas for the hundredth time - as I imagine several of Mayor Wiseman's constituents did as well.  Somebody buy this guy the Charlie Brown Christmas on DVD already!

I do want to help us set the record straight. 

I was in seminary when George W. Bush and Al Gore John Kerry were pitted against each other in the 2004 presidential campaigns.  At the time, one of the professors at Candler offered a class entitled "Religion and Politics in America".  I enrolled and looked forward to getting some good stuff.  The class ended up being dreadful - I actually cut at least half the classes (though I still passed with an A).  It was the kind of class where the professor would have us read the material and would spend the whole 3 hours reading it back to us.

I did learn some things about our nation's history though. 

I was reminded that we are not officially a Christian nation, though throughout our history the majority of our citizens have claimed Christian faith.  Our country was founded on Christian ideals - which are also Jewish and Muslim (to some extent) ideals - but not on Christian belief.  Our Bill of Rights outlines religious freedom:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

We call these our First Amendment Rights.  They give us the right to worship as Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus, Rastafarians, Zoroastrians, or any -ism we choose.

In fact, if you go back and study the faith of many of our founders, you'll find that several who signed their names to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution weren't Christian, they were Deist.  Deism is a "religious and philosophical belief that a supreme being created the universe, and that this (and religious truth in general) can be determined using reason and observation of the natural world alone, without a need for either faith or organized religion."  (read more here)  Thomas Jefferson actually took scissors to the Bible and made his own by cutting out all the parts about miracles, the divinity of Christ, and all other non-Deist beliefs.

I will go on record as saying that I'm a proponent of the separation of church and state.  Look at Iran and the mess they're currently in because the state IS the religion.  Look at the history of the UK and how many wars there were as proponents of Catholicism and Anglicanism came and went from the monarchy.  Heck, even Nazi Germany claimed to be its own brand of faith.

When there is a separation of church and state, the church becomes the accountability for the state.  When there is no separation, there is no accountability.

I am a Christian.  I have devoted my life and all therein to loving God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.  I thank God for the privilege of being born in a part of the world where I can proclaim my faith freely, not to mention earn a living by doing so.  I thank God as I remember the people in the Middle East and Asia who don't have that freedom and as I pray for them.  I am a Christian and I am an American.  The two are as different and unconnected as the fact that I am a male and I am right-handed.  I am proud of my faith and my citizenship, but neither is responsible for the other.

I don't know what faith Barack Obama claims as his own.  His autobiography talks about the encouragement his mother gave him to explore all faiths until he found one that fulfilled him.  He also attended a United Church of Christ.  It may be that he is a man of deep faith, but called to lead people of many faiths, and chooses to not advertise that faith.  I don't agree with that, but his decision is between him and God.

Maybe instead of trying to object to how a politician ties his shoes, what tie he wears, or how he expresses his faith, we should look at how we express our faith.  Maybe we should also look at how we express our politics, get our facts straight, and determine if our politics are damaging to our witness.

The world will be a better place when all people have the freedom to choose whatever faith they want and Christians remember to act like Christ so that all of those free people will want what we have.

I guess that even if my viewpoint isn't favorable to you, I probably won't have as many political forwards to delete from my inbox.  In an age where we are instantly accessible with Blackberries and iPhones, any forward is a bit offensive, don't you think?


Reinvigorating Churches

Back in June, I got to spend some time with friends at Annual Conference.  That's the big upside to heading to Athens for a week each year - reconnecting with people that you know well, but serve hours away.

Many of my friends are church planters, or plan to plant churches one day.  I hear their stories and I'm encouraged.  Chances are, I'll one day serve one of these newer churches, even though I have no expectation of planting one myself. 

The resources available to church planters, in terms of ideas, coaching, and support, seem unquantifiable.  The biggest challenges they face are funding and drawing in that first critical mass to be self-sufficient.  As we talked about some of these things, I voiced my frustration over not finding any significant resources for breathing new life into an older congregation.  This is the kind of ministry I'm in, but for the most part, I'm on my own.

In my few years of ministry, I've learned that for lead/senior pastors, you're going to be in one of three stages of ministry:  planting new churches, nurturing and leading existing, stable, fruitful churches, or striving to reinvigorate a declining church.  There doesn't seem to be a fourth option, unless you want to throw in the inept pastors that ride the declining church into the dirt (or the churches that self-sabotage and choose to die).

That was a big lead-in to what came across my desk this week.  The friend I voiced my concern with months ago sent me a link to an opportunity this week.  A pastor in Illinois who successfully turned around a church has decided to offer a coaching opportunity for 12 ministers over the first 6 months of next year.  What an opportunity - what an answer to prayer!  Just the chance to conference with others dealing with the same challenges and to share methods and ideas.  Needless to say, I had the application request form filled out online in mere seconds and waited impatiently to hear back.

Yesterday I got a reply.  Included was more information and an application.  I was already thinking of what I might say in my 5 minute video application when I read over the information for the program.  For six months of coaching - one meeting per month (online) and the opportunity to connect with 11 other ministers (online) - the cost is $1,200.  That doesn't include flying to Illinois, renting a car, reserving a hotel room, and all else for a trip to meet in person toward the end of the meetings.  It doesn't include books to read and materials to buy.

I know that this coaching could be immensely valuable and might contain something that will help things get off the ground here at Mt. Bethel.  But I can say this - my continuing education fund is only $750 per year and the church I serve is doing everything it can just to pay the staff and fund basic ministries.  The new ministries we're trying to adopt to achieve God's vision for the church are currently limited to things we can do for nominal or no cost at all.  Raises for our staff are out of the question for 2010.  $1,200 is more than we can spare. 

So here's what I'm proposing: An expense-free opportunity for ministers in the same boat to connect.  If you're interested in networking or know someone that might be, please email me: alexander.stroud (at) gmail.com.  I'm looking for lead pastors / senior pastors that are trying to transition the churches that they serve.  If you're on the other side of the experience and you've already accomplished this, I want to talk to you as well.

Please help spread the word.  A few dozen of you follow my weekly rantings, but we need more for this project. 


Comments are Back

By the way, I've put comment posting back on the blog.  PLEASE feel free to leave your opinions and comments.  Tell me if you disagree.  Tell me if you've been inspired.  Share your stories here.


This Sunday, I'm preaching about opportunity - praying for it and making the most of it.  We're finishing up a series of sermons on the newly adopted vision of Mt. Bethel: "to be a spiritually alive church, sharing Christ's love through service to the community.

Paul, in concluding his letter to the Colossian church, gives his usual instruction to pray for him and his associates, but he includes some additional instructions specific to this church:  "Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity" (Colossians 4:5).  Note that he doesn't say to take advantage of the opportunities that fall into your lap or the ones that are convenient - Paul says to take advantage of every opportunity. 

Wouldn't it be great if opportunity presented itself like this?

The truth is that many of us hope and pray for a better world, but rarely pray for opportunity (outside of selfish opportunity) and sometimes we avoid opportunity for the stress or work involved. 

There's a story about a potato farmer that had a shed that needed to be torn down.  Lightning struck the shed and it fell apart and burned up, saving him the work.  At the same time, the rain came down and washed his car and watered his fields.  When asked what he was going to do next, he replied, "I'm waiting for an earthquake to shake the potatoes out of the ground."

Sadly, this is how many of us live our spirital lives.  We'll do what is convenient or what doesn't risk too much of ourselves.  Sadly, for many churches, this is why vision never makes it past the paper stage.  The document looks great and it seems inspiring, but then it collects dust and in a couple of years, people forget it.  Pastors expect laypeople to be inspired and motivated and laypeople expect the pastor they pay to make everything happen.  And so time keeps moving and nothing else does.

God wants to do amazing things through each of us and each of our churches.  Are you praying for opportunity like Nehemiah did?  Are you expectant that God will part seas like he did for Moses? Or that he will present and Ethiopian Eunich reading Isaiah like he did for Phillip? 

Basic wisdom says that we see what we're looking for and miss what we aren't paying attention to.  Do your prayers and plans put you in position to catch the opportunity thrown your way? 

I think we can all look back and name several missed opportunities.  We all had the opportunity to purchase stock in Microsoft or Home Depot before they made it big, but only few did.  We all have the opportunity to make a difference in the Kingdom of God, but few of us do.  The question is, when you look back a year from now, will there still be just as many missed opportunities in your wake, or will you have lived on the edge and taken some risks?

"The reason some people don't recognize opportunity is because it often comes disguised as hard work." -Anonymous


(Brief) Encounter With the Klan

I'm coming to realize that when something big is happening at the church on a given Sunday, something out of left field is going to happen.  Call it coincidence, call it Murphy's Law, call it what you will - but SOMETHING is going to happen.

Yesterday was Charge Conference.  I was nervous enough simply because my District Superintendent was in the building.  Running around to make sure I had everything in order, I encountered a young man in the hallway just before Sunday School.  I shook his hand and welcomed him in.

In his early to mid-twenties, this man seemed a little timid and reluctant to come in, but said he was looking for somewhere to worship.  He qualified his statement by informing me that he was a member of the Christian Identity Church, which was a church I was unaware of until yesterday.

He was working on becoming a pastor and had visited other churches in the area, only to disagree with what was taught and preached and to leave.  I asked him to tell me a little about what he believed and the church he was a part of, so he pulled me aside, out of earshot of some of the others, and laid it on me.  He is a member of the Ku Klux Klan and Christian Identity is the church of choice for white supremacists. 

Didn't see that one coming...

I did the pastoral thing and welcomed him in anyway.  After all, what has the greatest chance of helping him to see the light, kicking him out or welcoming him in?  So I welcomed him in and immediately went into prayer mode.  This was a volatile situation - Mt. Bethel has members that are African-American, Hispanic, and Asian.  What would happen?  Would I give this man a chance, just to have to kick him out when he said or did something unacceptable? 

After about 5 minutes, he stood up, indicated some displeasure to me, and left...and I started breathing again.

I've done some research since then and Wikipedia has an article on Christian Identity as a movement and as a church.  Read more HERE.  Basically, they believe that only white people have souls and everyone else cannot be redeemed by God.  There's also the belief that Jewish people decended from Cain and that Europeans were the true Israelite nation because there were ten lost tribes of Israel expelled to Europe by the Assyrians.  As far as I can tell, there isn't a logical thread that can be found in their theology and, if placed on water, it would have so many holes in it that it would sink to the bottom in record time. 

Unbelievable.  This movement claims to have between 2,000 and 50,000 adherents in the US alone (yes, the gap in guesses is that wide).  A lot of these wackos are easy to spot with swastika tattoos and hate paraphernalia.  The groups are growing too, according to researchers and the Department of Homeland Security.

I don't understand anyone who would want their life to be defined by hatred.  I don't understand anyone who can claim to know Christ and not grasp the concepts of grace and love. 

Here's the kicker, I see a lot of it in mainline Christians.  Anybody want to venture a guess as to how many anti-Obama emails I've received from "Christians" in the last two years?  I've asked several people to keep those beliefs to themselves.  How many of you saw the YouTube video about Barack Obama being the Anti-Christ?  Watch it HERE, but be sure to follow up with this ARTICLE from Christian Post.

Do I believe that Barack Obama is perfect?  No.  Do I believe he's the best president in the history of the US?  Probably not.  Did I vote for him?  Do you really think I'm going to answer that question - it's none of your business.

But does any political decision or stance deserve hatred?  ABSOLUTELY NOT. 

Is it limited to our President?  Definitely not.  The shock of a few people when our new African American church member turned out to be better educated and more articulate than most other church members was almost palpable a year and a half ago.  Thank God for the strides we're making in becoming more diverse as a local church - I think it makes us look more like God's family.

In a world where we strive for racial, gender, age, and other equalities and groups like the KKK operate deep within the shadows, many of our regular folk still don't get it.

Do the world a favor, study your Bible more than you study your email.  Stop letting people tell you what to believe and when you are told something, study to see if it's valid.  Stop reading just the parts of your Bible that make you feel good - read the whole thing.  When you read the words of Christ and the stories of what he did, ask yourself why he did them. 

The Jesus I know came to the Jewish community, God's chosen people, as a fellow Jew.  He worked hard to teach, heal, and offer salvation to many Jews.  He also went out of his way to include Samaritans, Roman citizens, and others outside the fold.  Inclusive, not exclusive.  He loved, he offered grace, he sacrificed, and he gave very specific instructions for us to do the same.  Yet we still build our churches and pay our pastors so that we can be served, instead of building and paying to be able to serve others.

I think many of us can look at the young man that came to church yesterday and say, "Well, at least I'm not as bad as that guy."  (See Luke 18: 9-14) I get the feeling that God sometimes watches us with his head in his hands saying, "They still don't get it."  Guard your words and your actions.  More importantly, guard your minds and hearts.  The world will have you believe that it knows the mind of God.  You really don't have to go far to find someone that will pervert the Gospel for their own profit or benefit.  Paul spent time writing to many of the churches to guard against this same thing. 

Thank God for the grace that he's shown you, even when you weren't deserving - then GET TO WORK!


A Fix to a Big Problem

I'm in my office this afternoon.  I'm working on finishing up paperwork for Charge Conference, which will be this Sunday morning.  Honestly, I'm fighting a nap and I'm not sure if its the paperwork or the big lunch I had with our senior adults, but I'm sure that I'm in no state to operate heavy machinery.

Taking a break from the filling out of forms, I just read an article from the United Methodist News service about possible restructuring and all sorts of new teams and committees that have been formed for the purpose of turning around some negative trends in the UMC (read it HERE).  First, our declining numbers of members (most west of the Mississippi) and our increasing average age.

The two seem to go hand in hand.  We're not bringing in younger members at the same rate that we're losing older ones.  The Baby Boomer generation is getting older as well, so the average age of people in our country is on the rise.

Age concerns have been a recurring theme at Annual Conferences over the last few years and at General Conference in 2008.  I can understand.  I'm one of less than 20 "young clergy" (under 35) in our Annual Conference that has around 1,000 total clergy.  I think the stat is something in the neighborhood of there is one young clergy person for every 48,000 young adults in the U.S. right now (don't quote me).  That's going to be a very heavy load in the years to come.

While I'm reading all of this, I'm listening to Robbie Seay and other Christian worship artists.  I miss contemporary worship - I mean truly contemporary.  I grew up in traditional worship and I know the hymns, the liturgies, and everything else that comes with.  I have an appreciation for it, but it doesn't feed my soul the way that some of the newer worship songs do.  I want to be able to sing loud and without the trouble of stumbling over thys and thous.  I haven't had the opportunity to worship in a truly contemporary worship setting on a regular basis since I was in college.  The two churches prior to Mt. Bethel had what they called contemporary worship, but it was watered down and still 10 years (or more) behind the times.

I miss it.

Earlier today I had lunch with our senior adults.  People I love dearly - men and women who have fantastic stories to tell and wisdom to share.  I enjoy my time with them.  I did get a chuckle out of the gathering when more than one person talked about how they wished they would see more young people in our church.  They segued from that topic to all of their aches and pains and all sorts of age-related ailments.  (You have to learn to filter a lot of the conversation or you'll hear way too much information sometimes.)

Meanwhile, our Council of Bishops and other various task forces are studying why younger people are choosing other churches, or no church at all.  There's not a Bishop on the Council under 50 and each task force has the requisite, solitary young adult.  Last time I tried to work with a group of older adults on reaching young men and women, the best suggestion they could come up with was to hold a dance at the church with punch and cookies.  No offense, but if I want to know how the church needs to be transformed to reach young adults, I'm probably going to put young adults in charge of the transformation and get out of their way. 

I'm a young adult - at least for another 5 1/2 years.  My friends are young adults.  I hang around young adults (when I'm not eating at a thanksgiving luncheon at the church). 

Do you want your church to grow?  Do you want the average age of your congregation or your denomination to get younger?  Perhaps instead of having another task force take a look at it you should boost your young adults to a level of higher authority (instead of making them earn their stripes first) and get out of their way.  If you want younger families, give people like them the freedom to make changes to worship, to Sunday school or Bible study, to the way their children are ministered to, to the way everything else gets done. 

I'm tired of being acknowledged in meetings and conferences for my age and never getting asked my perspective on such a big issue.  Its not just me, its the majority of young ministers and young laypeople (and there aren't many of us!  Don't worry, God is still the same yesterday, today, and forever - even if you have drums in worship and stop having so many committee meetings.

In the words of a young Will Smith, "Parents just don't understand."


Salute to the Vets

I came close to joining the military. I don't know how many people know that, but thanks to my brother-in-law, I really considered becoming a Navy Chaplain (to work with Marines).

I was in seminary at the time and Bryan was giving me his best recruiting speeches. I think I would have considered it, except for two things. First, I'm not really crazy about walking into a combat zone unarmed (Geneva Convention rules - I'd be a non-combatant). Second, my father-in-law took me aside and told me that his son and other son-in-law were military and I would not be doing the same. Pop's a retired Marine and a Vietnam vet, so I thought I'd heed his "advice."

Next Wednesday is Veteran's Day. We're recognizing those men and women at church this Sunday. I think about the vets that I know and I'm ashamed that this holiday seems to be nothing more than a sale day at their favorite department store.

When we graduated from high school, one of my best friends and I went separate directions for the first time. I went to college, he joined the Army. Todd became a paratrooper and saw action in eastern Europe, Africa, and Iraq before getting out a couple of years ago. Now he's a drastically different person. Like so many other vets, he has to deal with physical side effects of jumping out of planes and enduring combat and, even tougher than that, he has to deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

My heart breaks for the men and women who put themselves in harm's way, only to return to families and friends as a shell of their former selves. In many regards, these warriors never get to leave the battlefield and while they wage that war in their minds, the people back home don't understand or appreciate their dedication and sacrifice. Their sacrifice is just as great as those who never come home. "Greater love has no man than this," says Jesus. I believe it.

Because of the people like the many in my family and countless others who have served in the military, I haven't had to. Thank you.

If you're reading this, pray for my brother-in-law. He was deployed on an 7-month tour this past Monday. OOHRAH!

Vets in my family:
Rex Davis - Army & USAF
Rosemarie Davis - USAF
Reece Stroud - Army
Otis Ward - Navy
Clarence Frietag - Army (1st person to be drafted into WWII from the state of Missouri)
Miguel Nolla - USAF
Joseph Nolla - USAF, active duty
Chris Sexstone - USMC
Bryan Sexstone - USMC, active duty
Josh Nicoson - Army
Todd Hurley - Army

Want to recognize a veteran? Leave a comment.


Sexy Ministry

Matthew Paul Turner over at "Jesus Needs New PR" had a very interesting post last week.  Read it HERE.  He asks the question, "Is your ministry sexy?"

I think this might be the dream of most pastors as they leave seminary and set out in ministry.  I know it was for me.  I wanted, and to some degree I still want, a sexy ministry - the kind you read books about - the kind that boosts you to regional or even national prominence and creates a demand for the pastor at conferences.

MPT writes about a young Baptist minister in Mississippi whose ministry is far from sexy.  He's in a poor area, preaching about difficult subjects and not the trendy topics you hear about from sexy churches.  He spends hours each week preparing those sermons, visiting an aging congregation, and doing his best to connect with a younger generation that is battling with drugs and dropping out.  It's the kind of ministry that makes you old before your time.

I would venture to say that 95% or better of ministries are far from sexy.  Mine's not and I only know a few that are - most of those are recent church plants, built to be sexy.  So why is every bestselling church leadership book and highly rated conference based around this notion of sexy ministry?

Because its a dream that sells, just like all the "get rich now" books.

I had lunch yesterday with two friends - one an associate pastor and the other a youth pastor.  Both are in unsexy ministry in older congregations, have multitudes of established traditions to manuever around, and play the part of the rope in a constant tug-o-war between groups of church members.  They do ministry with small budgets, or in some cases (especially this year) NO budgets.  In many cases, their authority as ministers isn't recognized and their influence is minimized because they're ministering to people who have been a part of these churches much longer than they have and they've seen dozens of ministers come and go.

As another friend of mine put it, "It's more like selling Buicks than Ferraris." 

For everyone out there who's in the trenches, working insane hours for little pay and very little recognition, my hat is off to you.  Be assured that your ministry is making a difference.  Every one of those kids who grows up to be an active Christian owes that in part to you.  Every senior adult that finds companionship in your visits and whose family finds comfort in your presence during their last moments is different because of you.  Every church you serve and community you touch on that shoestring budget is better because of your leadership.  Keep working.  Keep serving.  Don't let anyone convince you that your work is less than godly.

Remember that your "unsexy" ministry is making a difference for the "unsexy" of God's children.


Lost in the Corn

For the last few weeks, our Youth Ministry Coordinator and I have been taking turns filling in the vacant Youth Minister position at Mt. Bethel until we can hire someone new.  I have to say that the weeks I've been there, even though I'm already tired from Sunday morning, have been fun.

I've learned that I'm still fairly nimble and I can take on most of our youth in backyard football.  I still throw a pretty mean spiral that some of the boys are a little timid in catching. 

I've also realized that there is still a part of me that misses doing youth ministry.  The 2 1/2 years I spent as a youth minister while in seminary were fun.  Who else can claim that they get paid to play and go on trips?  Would anyone dare say that senior adult ministry is more fun?  I think not.

This last Sunday, we took 8 youth up to Southern Belle Farms in McDonough.  The farm, owned by the Clark family, has pig races, hay rides, corn cannons, funnel cakes, and of course, the corn maze.  This is the fourth year of the maze and there seems to always be a crowd running around the farm. 

Last year's design in the field was Larry Munson.  This year it was the Atlanta Motor Speedway logo. 

I logged a few thousand steps on my pedometer and tried to out maneuver several teenagers for bragging rights.  Later, looking at an overhead picture of the maze, I noticed some life lessons:

Look at the pictures above.  You can clearly tell what they are.  You can even trace the three routes in and out of the maze (which I recommend doing before you go).  Do you know what this maze looks like from the ground?

Corn.  Lots of it. And it all looks the same.

Once you get into the maze, you have a lot of decisions to make.  Left, right, or straight ahead?  Sometimes you might get help - some of the crossroads have trivia questions and a correct answer will point you in the right direction (who knew that corn was used in making batteries?).  A wrong turn will send you way off course, loop you back around to where you were, or simply dead-end.

Life often looks like this from our perspective.  We stand at different crossroads throughout life, never knowing quite what might be around the next bend.  Should I go to college?  Should I get married?  Should I have kids?  Should I quit my job?  Should I take that job offer?  Should I retire now, or wait?  Truth is, we never know whether disaster or success is waiting for us. 

From above, there is a greater perspective - for the sake of the metaphor, God's perspective.  It's a beautiful design that ends where it began, with God.  It has twists and turns and sometimes when it feels like we're going the wrong direction, we're actually going the right way to our destination.  We can get direction from the signs in our lives, or we can ignore them, which will often teach us a lesson.

Just an observation.  Have fun with it and feel free to get lost in the corn.


The Safety of the Boat

The world is a hard place - and it usually gets harder when you're following God.  That's unfortunate, but it's the truth.  God calls us to some extraordinary things and other forces work hard to slow us down.  Call it Satan, the world, or as Paul does, principalities.

I grew up in church.  Most Sundays we'd get dressed and head to the First United Methodist Church of Valdosta.  The church had three sections of pews (not a wedding or funeral friendly sanctuary) and our "reserved" seats were on the right side, five rows up from the back.  From there, you could see everything that was going on and you didn't interfere with the old ladies' space or singing.

I remember a lot about that sanctuary.  I remember the embroidered kneeling pads at the altar, the ceiling that looked like they had turned an old ship upside down and made it a building, and the stained glass windows.  Most Sundays my eyes would catch one window in particular - the one facing Patterson Street that, at 11am on a Sunday, the sun would light up, showing a picture of Jesus rescuing Peter from the waves.

I wish I had a picture of that actual window.  It's been a reminder to me of who Christ is to me as a minister.

I think if I were in a similar boat today with several other people, I might be the one to give walking on water a try (chalk that up to naivete).  I've talked about it before - God has created a magnificent world that still needs to be reconciled to him.  He emplores us to step out in faith and do his work in that world and sometimes, that's as extreme as walking on water. 

The beautiful part of faith is that walking on water is possible because we are empowered by Christ - Peter proved it!  Paul wrote, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Phil 4:13).  Men and women throughout history have proven that the impossible is in fact possible, with the help of God.

Right now, with the church having adopted a new vision and set out in a new direction for ministry, I'm feeling a lot more like Peter.  I've been walking on water for about 28 months now, one miracle and leap of faith after another.  I certainly don't get credit for any of that.

I find myself, like Peter, wanting so bad to look back to the safety of the boat.  Remember?  That was Peter's "downfall."  He was unsure of his own ability to follow Christ and began to sink.

The further out I get, the more my spirit cries out for the boat.  The more a shrug off reasonable warnings, the more I hear the voices calling from the boat.  In just these last few weeks, the distractions have been incredible - from staff issues, to low worship attendance, to a flooded church building, to personal identity theft, to church budget strain, to antagonism from certain long-time church members, and back again. 

I've decided that in this denomination I love, there is one weakness to the United Methodist Connection that sometimes hinders ministry.  I could write for days on the benefits to being itenerant - both for the ministers and for the churches - but too often it becomes a safety net, or rather a safety raft.

The ability to cut-and-run is a temptation.  As a church member and staff member of other churches, I've seen it first hand.  When the heat gets too high or the challenges too great, everybody's got a way out.  The minister who feels overwhelmed can move to another church and start over with new circumstances.  The church that feels too challenged by the pastor can ask for him (or her) to move and start over with a new voice in the pulpit and the board meetings.

Does this stunt the growth of the church?  How many have been close to making a difference for God in the church or the community and have turned back to the boat?  How different would the world be if every minister was given a minimum appointment period of, say, 10 years?  Revolving door churches would be forced to consider working toward a vision.  Frequently moving pastors would be required to actually do something with their lives.

Don't share any of this with my bishop though.  While this has its merits, there are some places I wouldn't want to be "stuck" for 10 years.

In the meantime, I'm trying hard, against all odds, to keep my eyes locked on Christ and his purpose for my ministry and my life.  I'm putting one foot in front of the other and resisting the temptation to look back to the boat.  I know that I wouldn't be satisfied with the boat - so I keep moving forward, toward true satisfaction and fulfillment.

Thank God that when Peter sank, Jesus didn't let him drown.  That stained glass window I told you about, it showed Jesus pulling Peter back out again.  Thank God for the gift of grace and the opportunity to live perfect lives without the expectation that we will.



Has anyone close to you gotten the H1N1 yet?  A friend of mine in Colorado has had it and another one locally has as well.  One was miserable and recovered pretty well, the other tried to be a tough guy and ended up in the hospital on a ventilator (he's fine now by the way).

Turn on the news.  Every media outlet is talking about the vaccines that are slowly becoming available to prevent us from contracting swine flu.  Will you go get vaccinated?

There are upsides and downsides to every vaccination.  Because of vaccines, we've eradicated things like polio.  Now there are concerns over whether these drugs cause things like autism, but it's still a risk that many are willing to take.  Why?  Because the virus or disease you could get otherwise is awful enough that you want nothing to do with it.

Sadly though, many people look at their faith as a vaccine by itself.  There's a belief that many hold that if you believe in God and trust your life to him, that everything will be just fine.  You'll develop an immunity to hardship, poverty, disappointment, and tragedy.  Unfortunately, when people believe these things, and bad things happen to them, usually the first response is anger at God for not having prevented tragedy from striking.

I've seen it too many times.  One husband and wife that are members of this church and still live in the community will never be seen coming to church.  Why?  Because they're angry with God for a tragedy that struck them six years ago.  Another friend has completely turned away from God because he's dealing with terminal cancer and feels betrayed.

Why do we do this to ourselves? 

I got to thinking about this over the course of the last ten days because, frankly, I've been having a pity party for myself.  I returned from vacation to a pile of work that seems to be increasing:
  • Major staff problems that have now resulted in beginning to search for a new staff member.
  • A death in the congregation.
  • A near-death in the congregation.
  • A two-story flood in the church building from a busted water fountain.
  • Insurance companies.
  • Frustrated trustees.
  • Communication breakdown with a leader that I trust and respect greatly.
  • and as of Sunday night at 10:30, I'm dealing with personal ID theft.
Forget it.  I'm going back on vacation.

I've come to realize that often times when we choose to follow Christ and serve Christ in life, we don't become immune to hardship.  We actually become magnets for it.

Think about it.  If you're doing good things for the Kingdom of God, who isn't going to be happy?  So what do you think Satan is going to do about it?  He's going to try to slow us down or stop us altogether.  Two days after the leadership of this church had a serious discussion about making better use of our facilities for community ministry, the building flooded (it was literally raining in the youth hallway).  It was a setback.  Good came out of it though.  We're getting a new paint job in our youth and children's ministry areas which we desperately needed. 

Paul says to the Corinthians, "I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses so that Christ's power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong."  Christ's grace is sufficient, his power is made perfect in our weaknesses.

Here's the Good News:  God doesn't cause the bad stuff to happen - that's a part of the broken world we live in.  BUT, because God is who he says he is, we never have to go through the hard times alone.  In fact, when we do, we endure only by our reliance on Christ to get us through.

I'm leaning on God a lot right now.  That means I'm leaning also on other Christian brothers and sisters.  I've got a lot of ground to cover, but I know that by the grace of God, it will all be done.


Heardened Hearts and Ringing Cellphones

I broke from my traditional routine of watching Sportscenter as I got ready for my day today - I watched Headline News instead.  In the midst of the short segments about Iran, healthcare debates, and floods, there was news about Hugh Jackman (I'm not sure how that's as newsworthy as other things, but it is...to somebody).

What happened with Hugh struck me.  It turns out that he and Daniel Craig (the most recent James Bond) were doing a stage performance when someone's phone rang on the front rows.  Hugh stopped mid-dialogue to address the situation.  They didn't show the culprit, but by the time he finished, I'm sure the violator felt two inches tall and at least a little slimy.  I say bravo, Hugh Jackman, bravo. 

More than once, cell phones have gone off in church, usually mid-prayer or mid-sermon.  I look out over the crowd some Sundays and a few of our teenagers are using worship time to text their friends.  Among all the noise of life, cell phones have quite possibly become the most disruptive and disrespectful of all the noises.

Now, understand this, I'm very addicted to my "crackberry."  It goes with me everywhere and I've had to train myself to ignore it at certain times.  The only time the ringer is set to an audible level is at night in case there is a church emergency or during the weekend, when I leave it on the kitchen counter and don't carry it with me.  Throughout the week, it's on my hip and vibrates with every phone call, voicemail, text message, email, and tweet.  I've had to learn when that's even not appropriate though.  Some meetings I can get away with it going off and even have the ability to respond.  Other meetings, I've learned that I have to turn it completely off and give my full attention to whatever I'm doing.

Not everyone has bothered to learn good cell phone etiquette though.  I'm amazed at the number of phones that go off at a spleen-bursting level in very inappropriate places.  I'm even more amazed at the number of people who don't know that the red, end-call button will shut the damned thing up - these are the people that try to smother the phone, thinking you can't hear it, as the kids on the back row start singing along to the Snoop Dog song you've set as your ringtone.

Churches, in recent years, have countered these issues with expensive equipment.  Other companies, such as play houses and movie theaters have also bought cell jamming equipment.  With this equipment running, there are "fewer bars in fewer places."  I find it sad though that these places can't rely on people to at the very least, silence their phones.  How many times do I have to hear "A Country Boy Can Survive" in a funeral service before something changes?

Meanwhile, we gripe when we start to lose our freedoms with the addition of new security equipment or new rules and laws.

In Mark's gospel, the Pharisees approached Jesus, asking if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife.  Jesus' answer gets to the heart - "Because of your hardness of heart [Moses] wrote this commandment for you."  In other words, because you couldn't be counted on to do the right thing on your own, you've got a new rule to live by.

Think about it, the Ten Commandments (that some people have worshipped more than Christ) were given to the Israelites because they couldn't be counted on to live responsibly and in faithful relationship to the one true God.  Why are we having to regulate our banks' activities more closely now?  Because human beings can't be counted on to act appropriately.  Why do churches have extensive policies about how to serve meals to bereaved families?  Same reason.  Most of our rules, policies, and laws are ridiculous when you really think about it, but so we can live together, we have to limit each other and assume responsibility for each other.

Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matthew 5:17).  Paul said, "Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law" (Galatians 3:25).  So what do we make of regulation? 

Remember what Jesus said to the Pharisees?  Because their hearts were hardened, they were given regulation.  What's the alternative?  If we will live our lives pursuing God and honoring God by loving God and loving others, we will have no need for regulations.  God's Holy Spirit becomes our regulation with everything from not killing other people to learning when to turn off our cell phones.

I'm pretty sure this is why the greatest commandments, according to Christ, were to love God and love others.  If we can do those things, in everything that we do, we will have all that we need, God will be honored by our lives, and everything else will fall into place just as it needs to be.


Getting Noticed

I met with Phil Schroeder this week.  Phil is one of the most creative pastors I know, especially when it comes to bringing existing, "traditional" churches up to date and making them friendly and relevant.  Last year, he was appointed to our conference office as Associate Director of Connectional Ministries, which is good news for a church like mine - not only does he have the time to work with us, but he's being paid to.

Phil met with me for about an hour before heading to the district office for a training event and as we walked around the facility, he gave me his impressions and some suggestions for the church.  One of the things he mentioned that has stood out to me in the last few months is the traffic patterns of the area.

This hasn't been much of a concern for Mt. Bethel before now because I believe that we have had some more pressing things to deal with before we could become intentional about inviting in the masses.  I know that sounds bad for a church, but as a church leader, I feel strongly that you have to be able to put your best foot forward for guests and for Mt. Bethel, that meant sweeping leadership changes, building better communications, and improving our worship and spiritual formation.

Now that things are ramping up, the next step is to put the church out there as a place that people want to be.  A large part of that for Mt. Bethel is simply getting noticed. 

We have a tremendous facility which I have mentioned before - thousands of square feet that is getting minimal use.  All the visioning that we've done over the last few months is leading us to becoming a hub for our community.  We need to become a place that offers the things that no other church is offering and opening our doors 7-days to anyone in the community.

Here's our problem:  We are located just east of the easternmost major subdivision of Henry County.  Each day, people head west out of their neighborhoods whether to go to work, play, or shopping.  Very few people from our community pass by the church, which means many of those people don't even know we're here. 

So here's my question:  How do you get noticed?  Particularly, how do you get noticed by people that aren't involved in any church who are close, but might never drive by? 

Other churches have been successful by putting banners out at the edge of their property.  Obviously, this isn't a great option for us.  Direct mailings continue to be something that groups like Outreach.com push, but everyone in our area gets at least a dozen of these each week, so there is a legitimate fear that our message will be lost in the fray.  Additionally, there aren't many things in our area that draw people together - you have to drive 7 miles to get to anything that's not a house, school, church, or fire station (but there are 22,000 people living within 5 miles of Mt. Bethel) so partnering with existing organizations isn't an available option.  We want to BECOME that place that draws people together and a place that they can find purpose in worship and service.

Experts say that word of mouth is the greatest source of influence for newcomers.  I believe that and I know that if we can attract a few and get the wheel rolling, word of mouth will take over.  The challenge is getting to that point.

Here's where you come in.  Think of your route to work or shopping - the direction you turn out of your driveway every day.  Imagine there was a church (or even a business) in the opposite direction that has a lot to offer.  What would it take for that church/business to get your attention?  I really want to hear your ideas.  Email me at alexander.stroud (at) gmail.com.


Opinions on Ordination (Episode 5)

Ministry just isn't attractive to many young adults.  It's hard to get into and there's not much benefit once you're in.  I'm not sure that I believe there are less young adults going into ministry, there's just less young adults going into ministry in many of our denominational churches. 

I'll add this caveat though.  I think ministry is much more available in churches without denominational tags than it is in churches like the UMC.  Let me explain.

I felt called to ministry as a senior in high school.  My senior pastor, though I believe he cared about the youth of the church, was uninvolved in the youth ministry.  Out of respect for the youth minister, he left that work up to her (I'm sure he had plenty to do anyway).  I was fortunate enough to have a youth minister that could relay me back to the pastor and a pastor that was willing to take time for a teenager.

Not every student has that opportunity though.  Sometimes, when a teen has that experience, they might report it to their youth pastor.  Generally, that youth pastor isn't ordained and isn't aware of how ordination works or even what it means.  The discovery process might end there.

Sometimes, the pastor relies solely on the youth pastor to make the important connections with his or her youth and to nurture them into adulthood when the pastor begins to interact with them.  By that point, either the call to ministry has been quieted or alternative options have been made available to the teenager.

My Annual Conference has done a good job in recent years to make exploration of ministry easier for candidates and also for their pastors.  These are things I would have benefitted from as a teen and things that I can see benefitting others.  What are some ways we can improve these ministries?

Thoughts?  Comments?  alexander.stroud (at) gmail.com


Opinions on Ordination (Episode 4)

Why should a young adult choose to be a minister in the United Methodist Church.  The fact in these times is that they just aren't.  There's good job security, excellent resources for ministry, and wonderful levels of accountability and support to make us each better - but it doesn't seem to be enough.

Problem number one seems to be with the extensive process candidates for ministry have to endure to achieve credentialing in the UMC.  The process eliminates the possibility for anyone to be ordained until at least their late 20's.  That's a long time for someone that is supposed to be in the real world to have to wait to be official and free to be the minister they believe God has called them to be.

For me, the process looked like this:

  • 1998 (18 years old) - Felt a call to ministry, talked to my pastor and my district superintendent.  Submitted my information to the district office to be on record as asking about ministry.  Graduated high school, left for college.  Spent the next four years working with a mentor in ministry.
  • 2002 - Graduated from college with a 4-year bachelors degree.  Began a masters program at a school of theology and also took a part time job as a youth minister.  That fall, I was declared as a candidate for ministry by the church I was working in.
  • 2003 - Appeared before the district committee on ordination.  The committee certified me as a candidate for ministry.  This allowed me access to scholarships for my masters program.
  • 2005 - Appeared before the conference board of ordained ministry - submitted large quantities of information, prepared for months, interviewed for a few hours, and approved for commissioning as a probationary elder pending my placement in an appointed position.  A month later, I graduated from seminary and went to work for another church as an associate pastor.  That summer, I was commissioned at annual conference and began three years of meeting with a covenant group (which seemed to be more for the BOM's observation of candidates than for the personal improvement of those candidates).
  • 2008 - I appeared before the BOM again, having resubmitted the same work from three years before with added commentary from my experiences, and was approved for ordination.  Finally, at 28-years-old, I was ordained as an Elder in Full Connection.  10 YEARS LATER!
But I'm not bitter...*

There are several problems with this process.  First of all, its too long.  If we need three years of observation in ministry, is it possible to do that concurrently with our education?  After all, that's when observers would probably get a good picture of how we're improving in ministry.

Second, some of this seems out of order.  Why would we ask a candidate to finish seven years of school before we ever approve them, even tentatively, for ordained ministry?  How many people have invested that time and money, only to be denied by a conference board?  Some denominations move the approval process to the beginning of seminary, so that the candidate is attending school with the assurance that its not in vain.  Additionally, the denominational authorities can invest themselves in the candidates in a more focused way.  For a candidate that may be deficient in an area, they can be mentored and guided in ways to improve those areas specifically. 

There has been an attempt to shorten the ordination process in the last year or two, but so far, it's only really been shortened a year.  So, in a few years, maybe someone as young as 27 will be ordained.  This doesn't really go far to solving a problem. 

The best way to shorten the process seems to be removing some of the educational requirements, which I talked about in yesterday's post.  That may not be a popular option for many leaders, but even if you shorten the process to make seminary graduates immediately eligible for ordination, it's still a 7-year process, making the youngest ordinands 25 years old.

Comments?  alexander.stroud (at) gmail.com

*I'm really not bitter, though at times I was very frustrated with the process.  It's a work in progress and I don't know of anyone that wouldn't admit to that.  The plus side to the inconvenience is that I've personally seen people come and go from the program because ministry wasn't somewhere they needed to be.


A Money Sermon

This morning, I'm sitting in a local coffeehouse, sipping my coffee and working on Sunday's message.  This has been my tradition for the last 18 months. 

This particular morning, I'm working on a difficult sermon.  We're into a 40-day churchwide study (Treasures of the Transformed Life) which has been very good and gotten an excellent response from many, many people.  Weeks 1 through 3 were about our commitment, our prayers, and our presence.  This week I've had a few members make comments to me about how challenged I'm going to be this week - our topic is giving, in particular, our financial giving.

This economy makes for difficult circumstances for the financial stewardship message.  How do you ask people that are already strapped to be faithful with their money?  The rest of the world is coming to us with their hands out and the cost of living seems to continue to go up, despite cuts in salaries and loss of jobs.

Last year, Mike Slaughter published a short book, Upside Living in a Downside Economy.  His timing couldn't have been better and I've read it probably four times already.  He's done a good job of finding the silver lining in a really cloudy market.  The premise of the book is how we can choose to be faithful Christians, even in hard economic times and how those times can be a blessing in themselves. 

Here's one of the biggest points I've gotten from the book:  hard times cause us to reprioritize.  We are pressed to eliminate debt and take a serious look at our budget and our savings.  People are working harder on this now than they were a few years ago - my family is no different. 

How are we honoring God with our finances?

This Sunday's money sermon will have a little different flavor than usual.  Traditionally, we preach about money and we ask people to make their financial commitment to the church for the next year.  We'll ask people to make that commitment because bringing offerings is a vital part of an active faith - its a faithful response to God's love and grace in our lives.

Usually the commitment becomes church-centered.  We work in our committees to gain enough of these "promissory notes" to develop a budget that doesn't look past the next year.  Maybe its time to change that and make it more Christ-centered and person-centered. 

Many of our people aren't honoring God as well as they should because they're slaves to debt.  Money sermons are hard on people's ears because they're already stretched so tight that giving more to God or the church seems like an impossibility - especially when they are considering cutting back on their tithe to help pay some bills.

I've decided that this year we'll ask people to think beyond 2010 - to plan long-term.  If a person is in a place that they can increase their giving for 2010, that's great.  I'm also going to do my best to give permission to people who need to spend 2010 working on debt.  It's not until we are free from debt that we can truly honor God.  What would happen if we spent a year eliminating debt in our households?  What would offerings look like in 2011 and beyond if people had a different focus for 2010?

This year, on our commitment forms, you'll probably see another line next to the financial commitment for 2010.  A simple check box that indicates you will make it a priority to reduce and eliminate your debt in 2010 so that in the years that follow, you can be free to give more generously. 

Erin and I have worked out a two-year plan to be completely free from our debt.  We're tithing now, but in one year, we'll have money to give a little more.  In two years, we'll have a few hundred dollars a month to put away and give away.  I'm excited about the prospect of having the extra breathing room and the added ability to help others.  What would you do with the money you spend on debt right now if you were free?

Share your stories and your thoughts: alexander.stroud (at) gmail.com

Opinions on Ordination (Episode 3)

Ordination of young adults, especially in the UMC, has been a concern for the last several years.  My annual conference, which consists of 900+ ministers has less than two dozen ministers under 35.  That's alarming, especially when you consider that the North Georgia Conference is one of the strongest in the denomination.

If you haven't followed along to this point, take a minute and read the last two posts, starting HERE.  It will help this make more sense.

A large part of our problem is that there are tradeoffs between getting more good ministers in and keeping the wrong ones out.  Unfortunately, in order to make sure that we've sufficiently evaluated each one before committing to them through ordination, we turn some off to the process altogether.  What once took a minister a matter of months now takes 10 years.

Another problem is that ministry just doesn't compare in terms of compensation and opportunity to other professions in our world today.  For many, the fact that a committee within the local church is able to determine our living conditions is a concern - it is for me also.

I'm grateful for the home that my church has provided for my family, but its not the same as having your own.  Many churches have transitioned from owning a parsonage to adding a housing allowance to the minister's compensation package.  In many cases, this makes sense.  However, because it isn't standard across the board and we are subject to moving regularly, we are at the mercy of whatever the local church decides our living conditions will be.  One pastor in our conference bought his first home this year after at least two decades of ministry (he's in his 50's).

This creates problems now and problems later.

In the now, there is a problem with some parsonages not being well maintained, not being in preferred school districts, not being in good neighborhoods, and in some cases, not being sufficient for the family moving in.  In addition, some trustee boards of churches maintain absolute control over the property.  Who's wife hasn't occasionally wanted to paint some walls or get new carpet?  I had this experience when we moved here - we were willing to pay for materials and do the work, but were denied permission by the board to paint our dining room.  If a church has a parsonage, it's not usually an option for the pastor to choose to buy his or her own house in the community. 

In the later, there is a problem for retiring ministers.  My parents have owned their home for the last 28 years (let me clarify - not the same house, but a house).  By now, as my father gets a little closer to retirement, they've got a good amount of equity in their house that will give them greater control in retirement.  Some ministers that spend years in parsonages retire with no equity and little control over choosing a retirement home.

One solution that a colleague of mine has developed is to add a requirement to the pastors compensation for churches with parsonages.  Churches without parsonages pay more per year by adding a housing allowance than a church that owns and owes nothing on its parsonage.  Those churches could begin paying additional compensation into an investment account for that pastor.  The amount paid in would equal the amount of equity the pastor would build in a year's mortgage payments.  It's complicated, but it sets ministers up for a happy retirement.  Good idea, but it only solves the problems that will come later.

Another solution is to standardize how churches compensate pastors for housing.  Either require every church to have a parsonage or every church to offer a housing allowance.  Housing allowances across the board solve both the problems of the present and establish a better future for the pastor and his/her family.

The problem with that solution is that it will cost churches money and when the economy is in the dumps like it is now, pastors that move are burdened with trying to sell a house in a buyer's market.  Are there solutions to those problems?  Probably, but I'm not sure what they are.

It all comes down to this: I can choose a lot of professions and even in ministry, I can choose which denomination I want to be a part of, if one at all.  Nobody wants to be told how to live or where to live.  Giving young adults more freedom to choose could be big.

Comments?  alexander.stroud (at) gmail.com


Opinions on Ordination (Episode 2)

Yesterday, I started a post string about ordination, especially as it pertains to concerns over dwindling numbers of young clergy.  If you haven't read that post yet, check it out HERE.

I want to start at the end though.  I talked about three concerns yesterday that are potential reasons why we don't have more clergy in the UMC under 35.  Third on that list, I pointed out that our salaries don't match the educational requirements.  Every Elder ordained in the last 17 years has completed four years of college and three years of graduate school, with the exception of  a minority who have taken a non-traditional, longer route through Course of Study.  When a candidate is finally ordained, they become one of the lowest paid people in our country to have a masters degree.

We can argue the fairness of this, but I'm not so sure about worrying about fairness - my benefits as a pastor are much greater than a paycheck.  There are other problems with low salaries, especially when a low paid pastor is expected to live in and serve an affluent community.

The first solution is for churches to increase compensation for pastors.  The minimum for an ordained elder is currently in the ballpark of $32,000 plus either a parsonage or a housing allowance (minimum $17,100).  Increasing compensation isn't the best option since we're already eating up a large percentage of people's tithes in paying for pastors.

The second solution is for the rest of the world to decrease compensation as well as cost of living - not viable for obvious reasons.

Third, we can change the educational requirements for ministers.  What if seminaries and theological schools began offering bachelor's programs?  That would take 3 whole years off the ordination process.  For someone who begins ministry as a first career, that's the difference between ordination at 28 and ordination at 25.  It's also the difference in tens of thousands of dollars worth of tuition, books, boarding fees, and years spent not working (or working part time) to be able to attend school.

I think this is actually a reasonable option for everybody, except for those who teach at and run our theological schools and seminaries.  If you're in this group, there are new challenges to incorporating core educational classes and reformatting the way you do things for 18-22 year olds instead of 22-25 (or older) students. 

But why can't we do this?  Why isn't it feasible to create a bachelors program that can meet the educational requirements for ministers.  When I started college at LaGrange College in 1998, I struggled with what I was going to study.  I started as a religion major, but soon changed because I realized that what I would learn at LaGrange, I would essentially repeat when I graduated and went to seminary.  I'm a pastor with a Bachelors of Science in Computer Science* that I've never used, but that I spent four years and a small fortune on.

I think this is a win-win.  Candidates for ministry gain three more years of valuable career time, spend less on school, and a masters degree and doctorate are certainly still an option for those who WANT it.  More students can enter the ministry world full-time at 22 and achieve ordination (credentialing) at 25.  That means more young adults in ministry.

From that, you can also look at how that will change some of our current practices in the UMC.  Many of our apportionment dollars go to funding for UM schools, both undergrad and graduate as well as scholarship money for students at both levels.  If you shave 3 years off the educational requirements, maybe you eliminate the need for funding in some areas.  Maybe we begin to fund schools based on how many students they have enrolled in denominationally approved pre-ministry programs.  Send money on a per-capita basis for the students who have declared a major in ministry.

There you have it, problem solved.  Right?  Comments to alexander.stroud (at) gmail.com.  More to come tomorrow.

*Don't tell anybody - they'll want me to fix their computer.


What Should Ordination Look Like?

Question: What should the ordination process look like for pastors? 

Lay members, what sort of checks do you expect your pastor to have to pass before they're given the authority to lead your church and care for your family?

Pastors, what's fair?  What frustrates you?

I ask this because there has been a lot of talk over the last few years about ordination in the United Methodist Church.  For the last two years, our Bishop has asked the young clergy (under 35) to stand at Annual Conference.  In the midst of 900+ ministers, only 12-18 have qualified to stand.  I saw a stat this morning that in 1985 there was 1 young adult clergyperson for every 13,000 young adults in the US, but in 2005 there was only 1 elder for every 47,000 young adults.  I believe there are several factors at play here.

First, ordination in the UMC takes too long.  I began exploring my call to ministry as a high-school senior and began the ordination process at the same time.  After four years or college, three years of seminary, and a three-year probationary period, I was finally ordained at 28 years old.  I watched ministry friends in other denominations (or non-denoms) ordained in less than half that time.  I watched other friends in other professions achieve more and gain more credentials much faster than I did.  Simply put, it's unrealistic that it takes 10 years for someone to break into a profession, especially when you consider how much time we have after that to do ministry - it amounts to bad stewardship of those lives that are truly called to ministry for the sake of weeding out those who aren't truly called.

Second, the "perks" are few.  I realize that at the end of a 40 year career, I'm going to have a great retirement plan and a multitude of friends to share it with.  But compare the beginning of a ministry career to other non-ministry careers.  I'll be 30 next year and I'm living in a parsonage where the paint colors on my bedroom walls are dictated by a group of 9 church members who haven't seen those walls in 2 years and probably won't see them again until I move.  Many of my friends have been able to buy their first homes and have begun building equity in those homes.  While many churches have transitioned to housing allowances, there are still those pastors in their 50's who have never owned a home.  Now why would I want a profession that would take away my freedom to choose how my family will live?

Third, the educational requirements don't match the salaries that are available.  Pastors in North Georgia make between $32,000 and $150,000 per year.  The ones over $75,000 are very few and usually, you don't have a shot at getting to that point until those with more experience choose to retire.  Ordination in the United Methodist Church requires a bachelors degree AND completion of an 80-hour masters degree.  How many people, other than pastors, do you know that make only $32,000 after finishing their masters degree?

Now, I completely understand and believe that a ministry calling is a call to a life of sacrifice.  It's not meant to be glamorous or even materailly profitable.  I chose to become a pastor despite those facts and I love what I do.  The question that keeps coming up though is "How do we get more young people to become pastors?"

Thoughts?  Email me: alexander.stroud (at) gmail.com

I'll post more this week on what might be some alternatives/responses to these circumstances.


United Methodist Membership Vows

Church membership is an interesting topic to me.  As a pastor, I have visitors that come to the church, expecting to join and transfer their membership from another congregation as soon as they find the church they like.  Some visitors will visit for years and until you invite them personally to join and they do without hesitation.  Yet other visitors will visit for years and may never join officially as a member.

I don't worry about it too much.  Some of my bosses care about seeing growth in church membership, but most believe the better indicator of a healthy church is probably worship attendance and ministry participation.

For those readers who haven't been a part of a United Methodist Church before, let me tell you about the process for becoming a member.  Every church does things a little different.  Larger churches may have a membership class you take for 3 or 4 weeks before you join.  In smaller churches, like mine, you might meet with the pastor in your home or at the church office to talk about what it means to be a member.  Many churches simply give an invitation at the end of every service and anybody interested comes forward and takes the vows of membership (I think that's a little lazy and leaves room for lazy membership, but that's another post for another day).

Vows?  I'm glad you asked...

In any United Methodist Church, the pastor will ask those who wish to join two very simple questions.  First, do you confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?  Second, will you be loyal to the United Methodist Church by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness?  If you can answer yes to both questions, you're in.  No hot iron branding.  No selling your soul.  No gauntlet to survive.  And you don't have to sign away all of your earthly possessions.

So what's the importance of these vows?  Glad you asked that question too... (play along)

Right now, Mt. Bethel is in a 40-day study of John Ed Mathison's Treasures of the Transformed Life.  It's our "stewardship campaign", but don't tell anybody.  In these 6 weeks of study, the devotional and Bible study topics are on our prayers, presence, gifts, and service.  More importantly, how those things that you pledged to the church when you joined are the things that nurture and transform your life as a Christian.  If you pray, avail yourself to God, give generously, and serve others, you will have a meaningful relationship with Christ.  If you have a meaningful relationship with Christ, your life will bear fruit that will lead others to that same relationship for themselves.

In other words, in pledging your loyalty to the church, you pledge loyalty to your own relationship with Jesus, which benefits you personally.  The side effect of that loyalty is a healthy church.  Interesting, huh? 

When churches are full of loyal people - people who live their vows in public and in private - those churches spend less time and effort on themselves, hoarding their resources for their own members.  Instead, churches full of loyal people are leading transformation of their communities.  They're spending their time, money, efforts, and talents on people that still need to meet Jesus.  They are meeting people where they are, becoming the answers to their own prayers and the prayers of others, and expanding the Kingdom of God.

If you're a member of a United Methodist congregation, have you ever stopped to think about what it means that you're a member?  Have you ever given serious thought to what you vowed?  Have you come to comprehend the depth of that commitment and what kind of fruitful life it brings when we are faithful to it?

If you're part of another denomination or a non-denomination, what kinds of things are expected of you as a member?  How does your faithfulness actually nurture you and define your life?

Comments: alex.stroud (at) ngumc.net