Listening Sessions and Town Halls

I’ve been thinking a lot about how if we are not careful, any listening session, any conversation, any time we gather together around any hot button issues in our connection can turn into of the town halls we are seeing right now across the nation. Or can turn into the cable news shows that reduce conversation to WWE style wrestling matches. We have lost the ability as a nation, and seemingly, as a church, to discuss things in a loving Christian manner. I was thinking about this is as I saw this story today.

Towns halls gone wild: After going on for several days now, who looks worse in this town-halls-gone-wild story? An Obama administration that promised a new era of American politics, but that isn’t delivering on it? A Republican Party/conservative movement — less than seven months removed from the White House — stoking this anger and hoping it returns them to power? American citizens who can’t treat their neighbors or elected officials with respect, even when they disagree? Or a media covering the story but also amplifying the exaggerations and outright lies being told at these town halls? Ah, the classic political story … nobody wins, we’re all losers in these eyes of the true silent majority: the radical middle? To look at this debate through the prism of campaign politics, has anyone raised their POSITIVE ratings or simply succeeded in raising the NEGATIVE ratings of an opponent?

The ability for our country to have a constructive conversation is being lost, just like I see happening in the church. I think in the end, with all the yelling and angry talk, this radical center, this centrist view gets lost among the yelling and the entire Body is harmed. We’ve got to recapture the idea of Christian conversation. But I fear as I see the culture loosing this ability, the church may fall in line with culture, if we haven’t already.

Two of my favorite disciples are Simeon the Zealot and Matthew (the tax collector). Zealots and tax collectors didn’t get along. Zealots wanted to over throw the government and perhaps the only people they hated more than Rome were the tax collectors. And Matthew, was a tax collector. And both of these, these two that came from opposite sides of the street these two that had opposite opinions, opposite foundations, found unity in Christ.
Now we don’t know what they may have talked about on those dark night when the rest of the 12 were asleep. Maybe they yell, maybe they argued. But, we do know they were united in mission and love of Christ.
Can’t we as the church do that? Isn’t that what we should be about? Isn’t that who we are? We talk about being in the world, but not of the world. In the issue of our voices, if we are not careful, we are treading close to being of the world. And we are more than that.

Budgets, Church, and Change

I was at Rotary this past week here in Ripley and the president of the Mississippi School Board Association was giving a talk. It wasn’t the world’s most exciting talk (it is Rotary after all – and I love Rotary, but still). I was paying attention, but not too much, until he got to talking about the state budget is for Mississippi. Mississippi, like all states, is pretty much broke right now. The Governor is making huge cuts to that state budget right now and next year will be even worse. Folks smarter than I can argue about the politics and needs for all this, but the reality is is that it’s here and it’s something that our school districts will have deal with.

For instance, South Tippah, where my kids are in school, could stand to lose about a million dollars this year and potentially another two million next year. Those were numbers thrown out by the speaker, I can’t vouch for how true they are. Regardless, this district will lose a huge portion of it’s budget.

And it’s not just South Tippah. It will be other districts across the state, many of whom do not have big tax bases and the state money is the heart of their local budget. It’s going to be bad and have huge consequences for our teachers, administers, and students. But with the economy being what it is and revenues being down as much as they are, there doesn’t seem to be anything that can be done about it.

As most everything does, this got me to thinking about the Church. I always joke that nearly every subject gets me to thinking about the church. And just like the state, churches are seeing their “revenues” greatly decline. Locals churches are seeing it, and then churches like my own, the United Methodist Church, that are connectional are seeing connectional giving decline greatly. Within my Annual Conference, only a Herculean effort by churches at the end of last year saved our budget from being a complete disaster.

So, here we are. What is the problem? Is it simply a lack of revenue? One could argue that. But, let’s assume that the budget was paid 100% in full, both in the church and in the state. Are we still accomplishing our goal? Are our schools what they ought to be? In some places (South Tippah, for instance) things are pretty good. In others, in spite of the money, things are not as good as they should be.

Likewise, if the Annual Conference budget was paid in full, would that solve all the problems And I don’t mean financial ones, I mean problems with seeing folks coming a transforming relationship with Jesus? I mean problems making disciples for the transformation of the world? Is our problem in the church the budget? Or is it something greater than just the budget.

Now, that said, money makes it easier. Money, both for school and church makes both missions a lot, lot, lot easier. It’s a lot easier to worry about such things when you have all the money that you could possible need and want.

The speaker the other said something that stuck with me. Perhaps this crisis is forcing us to make hard decisions. Forcing us to see that our choices have consequences. If we want a certain thing, then we have to make choices and sacrifices and pay for it. And then we have to ask is it really worth it? Are the costs that we are incurring are they worth it and are they effective in accomplishing our goal.

This financial crisis is forcing us to ask questions. Who are we? What are we trying to do? Can we pay for what we are currently doing? Is what we are currently doing effective?

We are asking that in the state.

I hope we are asking that in the church.

Budgets shortfalls force us to make decisions and force us to look at things that can avoid in easier times. And often the choices are between doing things the way we’ve always done them because it’s the way we’ve always done them. We have a system, we have a pattern, we have a comfort zone. Maybe it’s not bringing about the desired goal, but “we’ve always done it this way.”

Or, the other choice could be doing something new. Doing something different. Looking things in a new way. All organizations, and most people, tend to just float on, not making changes or reflection upon where they are until it’s too late. As someone once said the only way we will change is when it’s more painful to stay the same.

I think in the state, and in the church, we have to ask ourselves, is the way that we’ve always done it, in terms of budgeting and spending our resources, is it working. Is it helping us accomplish our goals? Is is effective for the higher purpose?

Budgets force us to make choices.

For the church, the current financial reality says to us in short, we can’t stay the same. We can’t remain as we always are. We can’t do things as we always have. We can’t budget as we always have; we can’t do ministry as we always have. Put another way, we as the church have to stop doing ministry like it’s 1955.

It’s not 1955. We can’t go back. It will never be the same.


It is what it is. We can either complain about it, long for it, and die away. Or we can roll up our sleeves, get to work, figure out what will work in 2010, and then, do that.

As the church, as the Body of Christ, we have not choice to move forward. In our local churches with tight budges and strained resources, we have to keep the main thing the main thing.

In our Annual Conference with even tighter budgets, we have look at what we are doing and ask ourselves, not is this good, but is it effective. It is accomplishing what we are called to do.

We can no longer do everything and be everything. We need to find our niche, find our calling, and then do that. We simply can’t afford to do things as we’ve always done them. This time of trial and crisis, it is a moment.

Will we stay the same? Or will we become something even greater. This is a moment to reflect, to change, to grow. We can do great things. Will we step up to the challenge.