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.