Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Solar Eclipse, a Pilgrimage

     Midway through leading my congregation in this past Sunday's Psalm, I found myself thinking, "this would be a perfect scripture for the day before the eclipse!" I resolved to continue onward with the responsive reading, but to spend time this week gathering resources for possible use on Sunday, August 20th, a day that in my worship planning I had failed to note as "Solar Eclipse Eve." 
     The coming eclipse is big news here in Lincoln, Nebraska. We are located in the path of the eclipse, so each day brings with it new warnings about not looking directly at the sun, information about which stores have run out of or have shipped in a new supply of eclipse glasses, and updates about planning for students in Lincoln's schools to participate in eclipse viewing. 
     I assumed it would be simple to find resources upon which to draw for sermon content on Eclipse Eve, but what I have found is either in the death-and-destruction scripture end of things or uses a significant number of words to provide information about star charts and karma. I'll acknowledge my use of words like "theology" and "spirituality" in my search may be part of the problem. 
     I did find some advice from a specifically non-Christian astronomer who suggested eclipse viewers remember that there are two ninety minute time periods, one before and one after the eclipse, that are worthy of attention as their own special celestial events. 
    Putting the idea movement of the sun and moon towards and away from each other together with the reality that many people are making special arrangements to travel to a specific location to view the eclipse brings to my mind a word that I associate with both theology and spirituality - Pilgrimage. 
   Perhaps Eclipse Eve could be considered a time of preparation for a day of pilgrimage as we recognize both the patterns of nature, such as the way sun and moon traverse the sky and as we recognize human pilgrim journeys, both physical and spiritual.  
   The community in which I live and work has spent a good amount of time this past year preparing for the eclipse, gathering tools such as eclipse glasses, planning educational events well in advance and group viewing parties for the actual day, and plotting both viewing locations and routes to those locations to best view the eclipse. The eclipse itself will be a journey we watch as the sun and moon trace their paths across the sky, intersecting for as long as two minutes as darkness falls upon those of us directly below. 
    I think it will be appropriate for us as Disciples to spend some time the day before as we gather to worship to contemplate how we prepare ourselves for our faith journey. What tools are helpful for us our our spiritual pilgrimage? Do we make time for our spiritual journey the way we do for celestial events? What would it be helpful to learn more about in an intentional way so we can be better prepared for our ongoing pilgrimage through this life? Who might we invite to join us, and what could we learn from one another? 
  
    
roses and perennials from 33rd St in Omaha
     

Friday, July 7, 2017

Fair Trade Fun

Alert: I LOVE FAIR TRADE!!!
     I believe my first exposure to Fair Trade was shopping with my grandmother at an early version of Ten Thousand Villages in Lincoln, making me a 40+ year enthusiast. I find myself now volunteering weekly at the current incarnation of that store in Lincoln's Haymarket, and chairing the Board that operates the non-profit business that runs the place I used to visit as a child. In the 40 years in between, I've shopped Fair Trade when I have traveled, in the various cities I have lived, and was the proprietor of a combination thrift and Fair Trade shop in Omaha. It's hard to say what my favorite thing about Fair Trade is because there are so many choices. I appreciate the workmanship that goes into items themselves, and the tastiness of the chocolate and coffee that are shade grown. I enjoy the stories of the artists from throughout the world, learning more about people I know I will not meet but with whom I now share a connection. I am glad to know that my consumer dollars are being spent in a way that works for systemic change, supporting communities and families while preserving artisan craftsmanship. I like supporting a locally-run shop that is keeping alive the notion of actual real-life in-person retail in a city's downtown. This is just a start.
    So... let's talk a bit about how Fair Trade works. I'm hoping you will be as enthusiastic as I am.  
     The concept of Fair Trade has several components. When I describe it to visitors to Ten Thousand Villages in Lincoln, where I volunteer, this is how I explain it - Artisans outside the US are paid a living wage, up front, for their work. They work in a cooperative environment, meaning that ideas are shared and artisans work together not in a top-down system. A priority is placed on the environment, so many items are made from recycled, reused, and replenishable materials and foods like chocolate, coffee, nuts and tea are grown using organic farming methods that preserve old growth forests. As part of a commitment to justice, funds also go back into the communities where the artisans live for projects related to things like health and education, almost always with a specific emphasis in lifting up the most marginalized in the community.
     Given the above, it can be hard to figure out which items are Fair Trade, which is where non-profit businesses like Ten Thousand Villages and certification organizations come in to play. Usually when you examine labeling for Fair Trade items you will find they either come from a non-profit like Ten Thousand Villages or Serrv that guarantees all products with their logo on it are certified, or you will find a specific certifying organization's logo, for example Fair Trade USA. Some certification organizations specialize in different types of products, for example they might specialize in examining textiles or chocolate/coffee while others certify a more broad range of products. 
     Something to think about as a consumer is which stage of the product has been certified as Fair Trade. The more complicated the construction of whatever you are purchasing, the more stages there are to certify. Clothing is an example of a consumer product that can be very difficult to verify as Fair Trade at all stages of production. Is it just from cloth to garment stage that is being certified? Or all the way back to the field in which the cotton is grown, the person mixing and applying any dyes, and anyone involved in shipping materials between any of the stages? Some certification organizations have chosen to limit the types of products they certify because of these many layers, some use language carefully to describe which parts of the artistic process have been certified, and others dive deep to research each stage of the process. Consumers with an interest in ethical purchasing can learn as they go and form their own opinions of this process by observing both label language and which certification organizations are working with which types of products. 


Photo with Fair Trade sarongs, hand-dyed using batik on rayon fabric

The Faith-based community was an early and strong supporter of Fair Trade. It's a long story and I am not an expert witness, but we can thank Mennonites and their friends for the beginnings of both Ten Thousand Villages and Serrv. Recent waves of Fair Trade entrepreneurship have included leaders like Stacey Edgar, founder of Global Girlfriend. I think her story is fascinating, and I find the emergence of new Fair Trade companies is adding to the diversity of available products, even as it has bewildered those who try to keep track of certification methodologies. More artisan groups means more diversity, but also more work communicating about standards while figuring out how to meet demand without losing ground when it comes to ethics. 

There's much more to share, so I've gathered a few favorite resources below.

Resources
For more information, including official definitions of Fair Trade and other resources, I find the World Fair Trade Organization website to be helpful. 

Learn more about Fair Trade products and artisan groups while sharing with others by volunteering at a store. Find out more about Lincoln's Ten Thousand Villages shop here Lincoln Ten Thousand Villages 

Fair Trade: A Beginner's Guide, by Jacqueline DeCarlo, was originally written in 2007 and remains helpful. 

The No-Nonsense Guide to Fair Trade, by David Ransom, 2001, is also helpful and includes chapters on specific types of Fair Trade items such as chocolate and coffee. 

Overdressed,The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, by Elizabeth Cline, 2012, is not about Fair Trade so much as about the opposite, and will break you of any habit you may have of purchasing cheap throw-away clothing. 

United Methodists might be interested to know that UMCOR has partnerships with several Fair Trade companies so that a percentage of sales made by congregations benefit UMCOR. Find out more here: UMCOR and Fair Trade

Did you know you can fund raise with Fair Trade chocolate???? Total game changer!!
Find out more here Equal Exchange fundraising


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Non-profit Board recruitment resources


Board recruitment is on my mind because I'm starting my second year chairing a non-profit Board and the personnel committee, which in our organization serves as the nominations committee, has asked me to help them think through the framing of our nominations process. As a pastor in the United Methodist church, I also serve as the chair of our congregation's nominations committee, so it also true that I've always got nominations thoughts in the back of my mind. 

I remember the first non-profit Board on which I served. It was a local Board, and I remember looking around and noting that I was the youngest one there and likely the only person of my generation. I was also the only pastor. In retrospect, I had likely been invited to join the group in large part because someone had been working from a Board matrix and was hoping to fill in some spots that had looked empty. That Board was where I gained my working knowledge of profit/loss reports, donor relations and personnel committees; and in my second term learned how to conduct organizational merger due diligence when our affiliate merged with one in a city a few counties away. Since then I have served as the Executive Director of two non-profits, Interim Executive Director of two others, and been a member and/or officer of at least twelve others. I've learned a great deal along the way, including the value of taking the time to recruit a mission-focused Board of Directors. 

Some Boards on which I have served have fairly well-defined recruitment plans accompanied by firm two three-year term rotations for service, but many others have found themselves dealing with some stress when they realize that several long-term Board members are retiring from service at the same time. I went searching online for some of my favorite tools for considering both recruitment and composition, and have assembled some here.

I remember the first time I heard of something called a Board Matrix. I think it was about 15 years ago, and I was probably attracted to it because it involved a chart and the word "matrix." When I searched for more information about the board matrix, the first thing I found was a critique of it from Blue Avocado, the enewsletter of American Nonprofits (find out more and sign up for the enews here: blue avocado This article matrix critique describes both the board matrix model of analyzing board composition and then proposes a better way, which hinges on recruiting Board members to help meet the goals of the organization.

The idea is this: determine what your organizational goals are, figure out what your Board’s role is in meeting those goals, and recruit people who can help you achieve those goals. This might sound like an obvious recruitment strategy, but often we use other strategies, such as replacing a Board member with someone we already know well; finding someone who reminds us of the person who is departing; or continuing to mine a particular institution or workplace for volunteers who serve in sequence.

I suggest reading the Blue Avocado article above deeply but then returning to some of the notions of what made the matrix popular a decade or so ago. Here’s a link to a sample template I found online: matrix template While the formulaic nature of the matrix can be problematic, stifle creativity and prevent the nominations or governance committee from recruiting new members with the overall vision and/or near-term goals in mind, I do think it carries with it the asset of accountability when it comes to having a lens for diversity within the governing body. Any time we are intentional about saying, “who is at our governing body table, and are they representative of our community and people who might be overlooked?” I think we are helping our Board of Directors become stronger.

I think diversity in a Board of Directors strengthens the group, and this includes personal demographics as well as knowledge base, constituent and affinity groups, and local/regional perspectives. While I was looking for a sample board matrix, I found this article, which is one of many on different topics related to diversity on non-profit Boards. I think it is helpful and compelling: racial diversity on nonprofit boards

I like to include a garden photo - this is a photo of the Botanicial garden in Berlin, from September 2016

 

 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Resources for new SPRC members

One of our new members to the Staff Parish Relations Committee (SPRC) at South Gate asked me if I could help locate some resource to help them become more familiar with both the work of that committee and general United Methodist structure. I thought this was a good question, and figured I'd post what I found all in one place so I could share it with the other members of the committee and anyone else who found it useful. There are many resources out there; I thought these would be a good starting point.

Staff Parish Relations Commitee
Let's start with some basic information from Discipleship Ministries. Formerly known as The General Board of Discipleship, it is one of what we call the General Agencies of the UMC. The current General Secretary, or person with "the buck stops here" status, is Rev. Junius Dotson, a pastor who most recently served in Wichita, Kansas. The offices for Discipleship Ministries are located in Nashville, Tennessee, and include the Upper Room Chapel. Find their SPRC information here: SPRC leadership info

UMC Church Structure
The rule book of the UMC is called the Book of Discipline. It is revised every four years at General Conference by a group of 850 or so people. At the 2016 meeting of General Conference, it was decided that a free copy would be posted online. Here's the link: Digital Book of Discipline  for those who are interested.
Discipleship ministries has clickable links from the SPRC page that provide additional information about other church committees and general structure. Another excellent source of information about UMC structure is the website for the church itself. Start here: UMC church structure and click articles of particular interest.

Information to gather from the local church
I'm thinking each year it is a good plan to make sure all SPRC members have copies of the following for their congregation, and they aren't available to consider creating them:

Written job descriptions
Line item budgets for the previous and current year
Any staff/pastor evaluations from the past year, or a summary if that is more appropriate
Staff organizational chart
Summary of payroll deadlines/timelines with notes about who does which parts of the process
Review of any insurance related to employees
Review of how vacation/sick time/time off is recorded and calculated
Review of which employees are salaried/hourly/contract
Safe Gatherings policy

Any blog with the word garden in it should have at least one photo of something garden-fresh; this is a bouquet from a wedding we attended in Brooklyn last February.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Death Penalty: Resources for Study

Nebraskans will be voting this fall on whether to retain our current law that abolishes the death penalty in our state. The Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church, which includes both Kansas and Nebraska, passed a resolution at our June meeting asking all congregations to study the death penalty.

What follows are some resources that I think would be suitable and helpful for congregations anywhere in the US - not just Nebraska and Kansas.

Christian Reflections on the Death Penalty: Discussion Guide. Published by Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, this four-page discussion guide is found under the “resources” tab on the their website, nadp.net, or by clicking here: http://nadp.net/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Discussion-Guide.pdf
The discussion guide includes scriptures from both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, and provides questions for reflection related to the scriptures, which are grouped into thematic areas, such as “An Eye for an Eye,” “Redemption, Compassion, Mercy,” and “Jesus’ Teaching.” Statements from faith groups on the topic of the Death Penalty and a current fact sheet about the death penalty are also included.
I think this guide could be used as a single-session class, or split into 2-3 sessions if your group is one that enjoys a longer conversation. Because it is available online, it could also be shared via social media on a congregation’s website or facebook page for those who are unable to attend a small group conversation.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson, 2015 Spiegel and Grau (division of Random House). New York Times bestseller, available in paperback, and listed as a “bonus book” in the 2016 United Methodist Women’s reading program list.
    Would you believe I read a book about the death penalty while I was on vacation at the beach? The topic was sobering, but this non-fiction, first-person narrative was so compelling I had a hard time putting it down. While the book is broken into 16 chapters and Stevenson shares about many different cases and many different laws that relate to the death penalty, he weaves the stories together in such a way that I think this book would be best discussed as a whole or perhaps in two sections, allowing for a check-in at the halfway point and then a full discussion after everyone in the group has completed the book.
    I think this is the kind of book that could be shared: as a book review in a Sunday School class, church newsletter or UMW group; in a one- or two-time discussion for people who have already read it or listed to the e-reader version; or as a promoted book for the UMW reading program.
There is another option: the accompanying (Common Core-approved) world’s most thorough book discussion guide, which is found on the author’s website.  http://bryanstevenson.com/discussion-guide/ I regret not finding this until after I had read the book, as I might have benefitted from checking in after each chapter to see the discussion guide overview and related questions.

Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us, by Shane Claiborne, 2016 HarperCollins.    
    I met Shane for the first time when he visited the church I pastor, South Gate UMC, in Lincoln Nebraska on the second day of his book tour for this book. I wondered out loud, “why would he be coming to Nebraska to launch a book tour?” and finally realized that it was on purpose - he’s committed enough to ending the death penalty and current enough on national politics to know that the Nebraska fall ballot initiative is significant for the lives of many. 
     Claiborne's book has 14 chapters, which can be read in order, out of order, or individually. This means it is well-suited for a weekly study group that may have members that are unable to attend every week; a class that plans to focus on just one chapter for one meeting; or for a group that either hears a book review or reads the whole thing and gathers to discuss the book in its entirety. I find this flexibility attractive for local churches, as discussion leaders may be able to focus on a particular chapter that they think would be of the greatest interest to their congregation as a way of introducing the topic (or the book) to a group. 
     The website that goes with the book is found here: http://executinggrace.com/ and includes a video interview of Shane, a resource page, and other information. A study guide is also available from Harper Collins. 

Monday, August 1, 2016

PokemonGo: Embrace

     Ahhh... PokemonGo. My adventure started Tuesday, July 12th. I was trying to figure out whether South Gate UMC, the church where I am pastor, was a PokeStop, and I quickly realized the only way to find out was to download the game onto my phone and find out for myself. I was in a car, driving a carpool from Lincoln to Wichita, when this realization hit me. 
By Tuesday evening, I was walking on the Wichita riverfront from my hotel to the next hotel over, trying to figure out how to navigate the new-to-me world of Pokemon. Fortunately, a number of other people were out playing and were very willing to help me. "Are you playing PokemonGo?" two young adults called to me. I replied that I was trying to and that I thought I needed help. By the time I reached my destination, three groups of people had taught me the basics of the game. 
      By Sunday, July 17th, I was back at South Gate UMC, and was able to verify for myself that the church is PokeStop, a location where people playing the game can stop to reload on virtual items that are needed for play. Here's what our Stop looks like when players visit.
By Sunday, July 24th, I was leading a Sunday School class for youth, adults, and a 3-year old on the topic of PokemonGo. Why? I had observed people coming to our front yard to play the game, and I will admit I had developed a concern that we might turn into a church version of the cartoon character in the Scooby Doo cartoons who shakes his fist at the heroes and hollers, "you kids get off my lawn with your silly games!" 

Rev Steph's Overview of PokemonGo for the Admittedly Barely Interested:
 1) It's a game. It might be a fad, who knows? For now, it's a game that people are playing, many churches are utilized in the game, and for this reason if you are a pastor or member of a church I think it is a good idea to have at least a minimal knowledge of how the game works. 
a) The game uses mapping, and doesn't really work unless the player is walking around. The basic goal of the player is to capture wild Pokemon (short for Pocket Monsters) by flicking a magic ball at them (this is a swiping motion on a phone screen). 
2) The game uses locations in two ways. 
a) Some locations are PokeStops, where players collect virtual items that they use to play the game. Many, many, churches are PokeStops. So are many sculptures, murals, and historic markers. 
b) Some locations are Gyms, where players "battle" to win control of the location. Some, but not all, churches are Gyms. In the neighborhoods I live, two ice cream shops, two churches, an insurance company and a park are Gyms. 
3) These locations were determined by the game designers, and are left over from another, earlier, game that also used mapping and locations. If you really, really do not want your location to be a PokeStop or Gym, you can use a link on the PokemonGo website to request that it be taken down. In most cases, I think having extra foot traffic at a church is going to be beneficial at best, benign at worst. In our case, the photo of the church that Nintendo displays each time a player visits to gather Pokeballs at our church showcases our worship times. I say, HOORAY! 
4) If you are curious whether your church is a PokeStop or Gym, an easy way to find out is to download the app, register to play and see for yourself. It's free, and if you have trouble figuring out how to play, I promise someone will appear who will be willing to help you. Just last night, a nice young man from Osmond Nebraska helped me figure out how to help capture the gym at Zesto on 11th Street. We also discussed how much he enjoys the UMC he attends in Yankton, SD and he promised to come visit South Gate the next time he is in town on a Sunday morning.
5) You might meet some neighbors while you are out playing. Prior to my Zesto excursion, I headed the opposite direction on 11th street to the neighborhood mural that is the other local Gym. There I met the proprietors of the new helado shop, Letty's. We discussed the importance of quality ice cream popsicles, and after I placed my Flareon at the gym (isn't it cute?) I made my way home while enjoying a banana/nutella ice cream popsicle (only $2, you really should come visit).
6) What's the answer to how to interact with someone who stops by the church to play PokemonGo? 
Do say any of these things:
hi! 
come back any time!
what level have you reached?
have you picked a team yet? 
I sure am enjoying how many people have been stopping by lately
Are you playing PokemonGo? 

Do not say:
I heard you could get killed playing that game
I hate games
No one ever works any more

I realize PokemonGo is not for everyone. That's fine. I do think that a present reality is that it is a game for some. Because those some are visiting our churches to play, and because some of the active players are members of our congregations and are enjoying playing before and after worship services, I think it is better for those in the church to know the basics of how the game works and be prepared to welcome those who are playing than to not be prepared to welcome them. In the meantime, I'll look forward to seeing you - at the South Gate PokeStop, and at the neighborhood Gym.

 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

GC #4 It's not the Apocalypse

I woke up this morning thinking about the candidates for ministry that I mentor. They are a diverse group, comprised of pretty much all the seminary students in the Great Plains not enrolled at St Paul. We meet via facebook group and individual phone calls, skype and emails and I know them much better than you might think given the distance and time zones involved. I care about them, pray for them and worry about them. Below you will find what I wrote to them this morning. I want to think it applies to all members and pastors of the United Methodist Church church as well. 

Friends - this could be a rough day at General Conference. I can't protect you from alarming news and the accompanying social media posts.
Word came as I was preparing to sleep of a plan for schism that may or may not have been proposed by our Bishops.
As with all news from GC, I advise to proceed with caution for these and other reasons:
1) the hearer of the news is likely tired and comes to the news with more stress than they usually might
2) the communicator of the news is likely tired and comes to the news with more stress than they usually might
3) anything that happens in the next three days can be overturned, amended, reversed, reconsidered and/or thrown out on Friday. or any of the other days between now and the time we leave.
Finally - please know that no matter how much we appear to be fighting, God cherishes all candidates for ministry - including the ones we have told to wait, the ones who are LGBTQI, the ones who are no longer young adults, and the ones who have taken "nontraditional paths" - and I think our denomination does as well, we just don't have all the words quite yet.
Thank you for allowing me into your lives, I appreciate your trust.
If you have room for those of us in Portland in your prayers, please include us. It could be a difficult day.
Closing with this: I believe in the God who created and is creating, who makes all things new.
Love to you. SA


Here's a photo, because I feel like blogs should not just have words. 
 Sky was my parents' "young associate pastor" when they lived in Martin TN. I was a student at Vanderbilt the first three years they lived there, and Sky invited me to preach at their church. !!!! It was my first sermon EVER at a church. He wasn't my "real" mentor, but he is one of many informal and very real mentors I've appreciated on my faith journey. Now he is a District Superintendent, and a candidate for Bishop in the Southeast Jurisdiction.