Time for Connection or Silos?

I grew up in a very United Methodist home.  Going to Christ  United Methodist Church in Alliance on Sunday was never in question.  Dad was the Lay Leader for our church, my brothers and I did Sunday School, UMYF, various choirs and projects.  We earned our Eagle Scout Award from the church’s boy scout troop.  We were in it deep.  But we were in a United Methodist silo.  Other than going to Camp Wanake the United Methodist didn’t exist beyond the corner of Arch and Broadway.

Oh, and we thought that we were the Christ United….Methodist Church.  Not the Christ….United Methodist Church.

Then at age 32 I went to work for what was then the Berea Children’s Home.  In my first few months my boss gave me United Methodist orientation.   I was surprised to learn that we had a bishop, and districts and superintendents over those districts.  I grew up 15 minutes from Copeland Oaks and had no idea that it was connected to us.

For those of us deep in the United Methodist system, last week’s General Conference was devastating.  Yesterday at my church in Strongsville I talked of the pain and anguish I felt as we as a church voted to further disenfranchise LGBTQIA+ and the impact this can have, especially with younger generations.

But as much as we are focused on this, many in our congregations are not.  Many, perhaps most, are in their silos.

I’m also reminded of the words of Bishop Tracy Malone, for whom I am so grateful at times like these.

“Keep the main thing the main thing.”

If your church’s main thing is taking foster kids to camp, keep that your main thing.  Nothing we did in St. Louis will keep you from doing that.  If your main thing is children’s programs, a food pantry, Upwards Basketball, tutoring elementary school kids who are at risk, feeding kids in the summer when school cafeterias are closed, housing homeless families, whatever your main thing is, keep doing it.

Keep the main thing the main thing.

I am confident that we can get the General Conference thing figured out.  We simply have to.

I believe in the Connection, I believe that as 800 churches linked together we can do great things.  If you don’t believe me take a field trip to the Urban Mission in Steubenville or Flat Rock Care Center.

We have 61 weeks between now and General Conference 2020.  Can your church find 61 lives your church has changed and invite those people to share their stories?  Can you find 61 ministries to celebrate?  Where does your church write checks for mission?  Where does it send volunteers?  What are the ministries in your church?

I challenge you to spend five minutes at the beginning of each and every of the next 61 Sundays celebrating the Main Thing.

 

The One Church Plan Reimagined

In the past 24 hours I have read many blogs, posts, texts and emails along the lines of, “Now What?”

I say now is the time for The One Church Plan. No, not the one you’ve been hearing about.

My plan is for you to focus on One Church, yours.

In many communities around the world he have done harm, harm to those who identify as LGBQTIA+. We have further alienated young folks who at the least don’t see what the argument is and at worst have told them that their friends don’t matter to God. Folks who see as pious hypocrites may see this action as confirming those feelings.  Folks on the conservative side of this issue may feel villainized.

General Conference next meets in Minneapolis in May of 2020. Until then make your One Church the place you want our global church to be.

In the next 15 months what specific, inclusive, compassionate and merciful outreach project will your One Church initiate?

What disenfranchised group in your community will you reach out to?

In what ways will you acknowledge the harm done in St. Louis but demonstrate that your One Church is different?

Now is the time to plot a course for a true Way Forward. I believe the Way Forward is through love, One Church at a time.

So What Just Happened?

About 90 minutes ago the General Conference announced the results of the prioritization vote.  The Traditional Plan had 55% of the voters rate it a high priority for discussion  The One Church Plan had 48%, The Simple Plan 19% and the Connectional Conference Plan 12%.  Incidentally that adds up to 134%.

Folks in the conservative camp saw a victory, as the Traditional Plan had a higher percentage than the progressive plan.  But progressives point out that the One Church Plan and the Simple Plan combined had 67%, more than the 50% needed to pass and a dozen percentage points more than Traditional.

So who won?

Those chickens are far from hatched, my friends.

If you’re looking for optimism on either the One Church or the Traditional Plan, you have reason for that optimism.

So what happens next?

This afternoon and tomorrow morning we as a Committee of the Whole will debate, amend, and generally work on the Traditional Plan.  Once we finish with the Traditional Plan, we may get to the One Church Plan.  Whether or not we get to that point depends on the flow of the work.  See the previous post discussing obstruction.

So stay tuned, remain encouraged and we’ll see where this thing lands by the end of Tuesday.

What Sunday Looks Like

Sunday is looking like an interesting day.

It’s Sunday morning so we start with worship, of course.  At 7:30 a.m.  Why the early start?  Because one of our rules is that we have to be done by 6:30 each evening.  We’ll have an hour or so for lunch.  They’re planning for a busy day.  And I’m OK with that, let’s get this thing moving.

We have 78 petitions before us, those 78 have passed the initial vetting to “be in harmony” with the purpose of General Conference.  No doubt, 78 is a big number.  Each of those 78 will be debated, possibly amended, voted, etc.  Usually the heavy lifting of voting is done in any of a dozen or so committees.  The committees separate the wheat from the chaffe, with those petitions approved in committee making it to the plenary floor.  But we have a single committee of the whole to work with, so all 800 of us will work on those 78.

An early bell weather will be who is elected to chair this legislative committee.  The conservatives or traditionalists will lift up Dr. Joe Clark, the Bishop’s Assistant and Director of Communications for the Oklahoma Annual Conference.  Centrists or progressives are behind Cornelia,  “Connie” Clark, a member of the Tennessee Supreme Court.

To make the legislative process more manageable, today we will prioritize those 78 petitions.  With our handy dandy electronic keypads we will each rate each of those 78 as high or low priority.  The ones with the higher average rating will be considered first and the ones at the bottom we may not even get to.

So a couple things will happen tomorrow.  First, we’ll see what we’re really interested in.  Those of you who have been following this know that there are three plans in question, each comprised of 15 or more petitions.  Each of those will be considered separately, not as a package for each plan.  But we should still have a good sense of where we are going.  Those of you holding  a torch for the Connectional Conference Plan could see it fall way down the list tomorrow.

The second thing we’ll see (or hopefully not see) is the obstruction and political garbage that many are expecting.  We have a limited amount of time, so a strategy could be that a petition that calls for all churches to have blue carpeting could be debated with three speeches for and three against.  But before we vote some could move an amendment to replace blue with dark blue.  That amendment would then be debated and then voted on. But someone else replaces dark blue red and the debate goes on.  None of this, of course is because we care what color the carpet is, we just want to make darn sure the stuff on down the list never sees the light of day.

So check out the live streams Sunday morning at 7:30 central.  Worship at General Conference really is an amazing thing and it really is worth your while.  Then settle in and see where your favorite piece of legislation lands on the priority line.

Should be interesting.

Photo Credit Mike DuBose, UMNS

Under The Big Top

Because we’re the church, we pray.  A lot.  We pray before meetings, we pray at the office pot luck and we pray before General Conference.  But today was different.  An entire day of prayer, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. or so.  We sang hymns, prayed in languages I did not understand and prayed in styles from around the world.  A lot of our pre-meeting prayer is brief, afterall we need to get to the agenda.

But today there was nothing on the agenda but prayer.  We consistently heard that what unites as Christians is prayer, the worship, the submission and holy communion.

Folks back home want to know the vibe of the day, which translates to wondering if we’re shouting at each other yet.  We didn’t shout today.  We held hands.  We prayed, we had communion with that gluten free bread that crumbles into the chalice.

The big question, of course, is whether or not this will carry over to tomorrow.  It’s easy to be unified in prayer around our mutual dislike of gluten free bread (yes it really is that bad).  But the reason we are in St. Louis is because we disagree.

As that disagreement comes front and center, will we lose everything we loved about today?

Give me 24 hours, I’ll let you know.

Photo Credit East Ohio Communications

The Irony of a Theme

When General Conference met in Portland about three years ago we worked under the theme, “Therefore Go,” a shortened version, presumably, of The Great Commission, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” from Matthew 28:19, NIV.

That General Conference, of course, voted to table all matters relating to human sexuality to a specially called General Conference that was eventually schedule to begin this weekend.  So in a few days in St. Louis we were to consider all of the places in the Discipline that refer to this issue, especially homosexuality and make a holistic, cogent position.

You know by now of the three plans and their various nuances and amendments.  I expect that we will discuss all three.  I don’t know of many handicappers who are putting odds on any of the three plans passing.

What I believe will be front and center goes back to that 2016 theme, “Therefore Go.”

Perhaps the biggest decision we make in St. Louis is who is allowed to Go and under what terms.

If a church wishes to leave the denomination at what cost will it be possible?  Will it need to purchase its land, buildings, hymnals and light fixtures from the Annual Conference?  What pension liability is out there for pastors who have served that church in the past and will expect to be able to retire some day.  Consider an elder being ordained this summer could be 28 years old, work another 40 years or more before retiring, then live until perhaps age 90.  That pastor’s pension liability won’t end for 62 more years, in 2081.

Dale Jones, managing director of church relations at Wespath Benefits and Investments has, along with his top-notch staff, had done yeoman’s work to calculate some of these liabilities.  Both the amount of work completed and the financial implications are staggering.

The decisions made in St. Louis around what seems to be minutiae could have a significant impact until nearly the 22nd Century.

Conversation in the last year or so makes it clear that not everyone in The United Methodist Church will Therefore Stay.  It will be up to us to decide how a church Therefore Goes, and what it means for all of us.

Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS

Grants and Scholarships Available

Our annual grant cycle has begun and we invite you to apply for Foundation grants and scholarships.  Deadline for all is March 1.

See our grants and scholarships page for more information.

If you are a seminary student or know someone who is there are two options available:

The Excellence in Clergy Leadership Scholarship is for students attending a United Methodist seminary.  Awards are up to $12,500 and involve funding from a number of sources.

The Firebrand Scholarship is for seminarians who are on track to be ordained as elders by age 35.

Undergraduate students who are active in their local churches can apply for a number of Foundation scholarships.  We also have funds specifically earmarked for children of clergy in the Annual Conference.

If your church is launching a new outreach program, such as a feeding ministry, after school program or other program designed specifically to reach your community outside your local church.  We do not fund requests for capital improvements that are not mission-related, debt retirement, or operating funds.

 

Thanks for asking

My neighbor, Rick, loped up the driveway the other day and after a couple minutes of chit chat he said, “Hey I need to get that edger off of you this afternoon.”

Now I don’t mind lending out my tools.  Rick’s earned a reputation for taking care of stuff he borrows and prompt returns, but I was a bit taken aback from his, well, his informing me.  I’m sure in his mind he asked to borrow the edger, but he really didn’t.  Perhaps by definition a question requires a question mark.  I would have appreciated something along the lines of , “Could I borrow your edger?”

For the record, Rick left with my edger, I didn’t mind lending it to him and predictably it was returned quickly.  All’s well that ends well.

Some 20 years ago I was in a seminar led by the legendary fund raiser Jerry Panas.  He was adamant that every ask needs to be an ask.  And an ask has to have a question mark.  If there’s no question mark, there’s no ask.

As you plan your fall stewardship work, I encourage you to check for question marks.

  • “Would you consider a gift of $X this year to help us strengthen our children’s program?”
  • “Is this the year that you would be willing to increase the percentage of your income that give to the church by one percentage point?”
  • “Would you consider including the church’s endowment fund in your will?”
  • “The church is obviously a priority for you and your family.  Can we count on that support again next year as we work to reach more people in our community?”

Here’s the thing about a question.  At least in theory there are two reasonable answers:  Yes or no.  This terrifies Finance Committees.  What if you ask a generous tither to renew her pledge and she says “no?”  Then I say there’s a good chance she would have anyway.  But if you look at it from her point of view, you’re giving her the courtesy of acknowledging that what she does or doesn’t give is up to her.  And the better she feels about giving it, the more likely she is to continue to be generous.

Have you ever been backed into a corner by a pushy salesman?  There’s a good chance you have and an even better chance that you never went back there again.

So make the ask, use a question mark and invite, rather than demand, your people provide your church with the financial support it takes to change the world.

You just might be surprised by the response.

 

Gift Annuity Rates on the Rise

Gift annuities have always been attractive for donors.  They offer a great win-win, with individuals receiving a guaranteed income for life and their churches benefiting at the end of the donor’s life.

Here at the Foundation we manage about 45 annuities totaling more than $580,000.

Effective July 1, we will increase the payout rate for new annuities.  This comes at the recommendation of the American Council on Gift Annuities.  Charities with ethical gift annuity programs follow the ACGA rates.

The benefits go beyond attractive payout rates.  Most of the income is free from taxes:  federal, state and local.  Donors get a tax deduction for about 40-60% of the value of the annuity, and the security of knowing the rate is locked in, regardless of what happens with interest rates, the stock market or other investments.

But the key is that an annuity is a great way of supporting the church’s mission in a very simple, straightforward way that is relatively inexpensive to administer.  And with the Foundation’s minimum annuity of just $10,000 this can be a great tool for so many of your members.

Below is a sample of gift annuity rates after July 1:New gift annuity rates

If you haven’t discussed gift annuities or planned giving with your members, this may be just the perfect excuse to do so.

Your members who may be interested gift annuities should start with these resources:

Click here to personalize a gift annuity illustration.  Click on “Personalize this diagram.”

The paperwork to start a gift annuity is here.

 

Unexpected Market Volatility

In the last week or so, stock markets have seen significant volatility, or change, and it has folks worried.  Stocks dropped about 6% early in the week.  Does a bad week make Chicken Little correct, maybe people wonder.

The chart above is a great illustration for times such as these.  It was provided to me by Wespath Investment Management, our investment partner, based on data from Morningstar, a firm that does research in this area.  You can see a full-sized version of the chart here.

The blue bar for each year shows the annual change in the S&P 500, which tracks 500  of the largest domestic stocks.  For 2017 it shows an increase of 21.8% and in 2016 an increase of 12%.

But then look at the gold triangle for each year.  This compares the largest drawdown, the highest peak to the lowest point, of the S&P 500 during the year.  In 2017, the largest decline was just 2.6%, compared to 2016 when the index declined 10.3%.

I think it’s extraordinary that in a year of such significant growth as we saw last year, that the downside volatility was so low, in fact the lowest in 20 years or more.

And when you compare the 6% or so that we saw the market drop this week to previous years, we are well within reasonable ranges.  The average for those 22 years is an intra-year decline of 15%.  Further, among the years that the Average finished on the positive side the intra-year decline is still more than 11%.

Please do not take this as a promise that the we will not see another drop this year or even that the drop will be significant.  These are the realities of investing.

But I am saying to you that volatility is a very natural part of the investment process, one that lulled us to sleep last year only to wake us up with enthusiasm within the last week.

 

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