Friday, November 21, 2014

Favorite public health resources

I'll write another post with some strategies for local churches to become more aware of and active in public health initiatives. For now, here are some resources that might be helpful in learning more about Public Health. 

One way to learn more about Public Health is to select a particular project and then begin to learn about the component parts to the underlying cause of whatever problem is being addressed. For instance, hunger advocacy might emerge from working with a particular food pantry and learning more about the needs of the people being served, the root causes, and then discovering interventions related to policies and practices that have led to the situation of people not having enough food.

General Board of Global Ministries: Find organizations doing solid public health work around the world. A wide range of topics, geography and scale are represented on this site, which has been revised to become much easier to navigate than "in the old days."

United Methodist Women: Public Health issues are included throughout this website; see the Advocacy and Press Room tabs for clickable links to particular topics.

General Board of Church and Society: Click on the "Explore Topics" link or use the search bar in the upper right corner to look for particular health-related issues.

American Public Health Association: resources on many, many, many public health topics. This is the national membership organization for public health practitioners. See the "policies and advocacy" tab to read about current issues and sign up for action alerts.

Influenza: everything you could want to know, including maps and statistics.

Ebola: course for the general public from the Nebraska Medical Center. Home to one of four biocontainment facilities in the nation, the Nebraska Medical Center has produced an online course with basic information about this disease.

Local Health Departments: If you are having trouble locating your local health department, this site should help.  Don't let the fact that the acronym seems to spell a tasty snack through you off; it stands for National Association of County and City Health Officials. 

UNICEF: Their website includes articles that help explain global public health issues from a local context.

American Community Garden Association: Community Gardens are an excellent way to strengthen local food systems, which then strengthen local public health and entrepreneurship. Find out more at this website, which includes a map of existing community gardens.

This was the last bouquet of the season from my yard, taken about two weeks ago before unseasonably cold air descended on Nebraska... and most of the nation. I'll look forward to seeing my flower friends again next year.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Pizza Crust, a recipe

I had a brief pizza crust crisis yesterday. I had planned for us to make our own pizza at youth group, but my cookbooks are now divided between two houses and the pizza crust recipe was in Omaha, not Lincoln. I did some research, and this is my working version of pizza crust. 

Stir one package of yeast into one cup of warm water. 
Add some honey, and let sit a bit.
Remember to turn on the oven, probably to 400 degrees. 
Stir in 1/2 cup flour with a fork. 
Add a tablespoon of olive oil.
Add another 2 1/2 cups flour, perhaps a cup at a time. 
When stirring doesn't seem to work any more, start kneading the dough.
Stop kneading once the dough seems elastic-y. 
Shape dough into a lump, set in a bowl in the back seat of your car, where it will remain while you do your errands. This works best on a warm, but not scorching, day. 
A couple hours later, divide the dough into two parts, spread out onto a pan (check to be sure baking sheet fits into your oven)(sadly, not all baking sheets you find in the parsonage actually fit in the oven).
Bake about 7 minutes, enough to get the dough to a place it won't absorb all the tomato sauce while you continue baking. Proceed with topping pizza, and bake about 10 minutes, maybe more depending on how reliable the temperature setting on your oven really is. 

The petunias and snapdragons on 33rd St are holding up well this fall. I like mixing peach and pink together in planters.

UNICEF Sunday - best Sunday ever!

Ahhh, UNICEF Sunday. My favorite Sunday of the year. 

My own giant UNICEF box = ministry highlight

My passion for UNICEF in general and Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF in particular began in the 1970s. I grew up in a household that did not believe children should “go begging for candy,” so we did not trick or treat on Halloween. I did, however, grow up in a household that believed it was important to learn about the global community and that children could make a difference in the world, no matter our age.
So, my brother and I would go trick or treating for UNICEF. On a sunny afternoon. Several days before Halloween. In our costumes. I think after a year my brother made the choice to avoid the humiliation of daylight trick-or-treating on the wrong day in costume for pocket change, but I persisted, motivated by the illustrations on the back of my UNICEF box that documented just how far a nickel or a quarter could go in the world of global public health.
One year, I had a revelation. What would happen if I took my UNICEF box around on the actual night of Halloween? Perhaps people would be more ready and willing to donate if I made my rounds at a time and on a date the neighbors were expecting children to come by and ask for stuff? I presented my case to my mother, who was wary until my father spoke up and volunteered to go with me. It would be dark, after all, and it would be reasonable for me to have an adult nearby.
We set out that night, and I remember returning from the first house to my father – UNICEF box clinking and my hands full of candy. “What do I do with the candy?” I asked. I was unprepared for the sweets, having set off with only my UNICEF box in hands. He replied, “I happen to be wearing a coat with very large pockets.” And so I learned about grace, care, and teamwork. We went door to door that night, bringing home the heaviest UNICEF box of all my years and my first-ever haul of Halloween candy, which of course was shared with the man who carried it in his pockets for me.
I remain a huge fan of trick-or-treat for UNICEF. I’ve convinced the last two churches I’ve served to join me in an annual tradition, celebrating a day when kids make a difference by advocating for other kids and raising funds to provide for basic personal and public health for our youngest global citizens. At South Gate, we hand out boxes on both of the Sundays before Halloween, and during the Children’s Message our organist plays “scary” music while they trick-or-treat up and down the aisles. Our congregation enjoys helping our kids help other kids, and they come prepared with plenty of change to fill the boxes. I usually tell the story of trick-or-treating for UNICEF with my father, explain the importance of kids helping other kids, and on the way out of worship everyone receives a reverse trick-or-treat fair trade mini chocolate from Equal Exchange.
It’s a great day, both in terms of generosity and advocacy, and hopefully helps reframe our traditions around Halloween to include care for our neighbors around the world. 

 Church kids and parents agree - my UNICEF box costume is the best!

Trick or Treat for UNICEF information and order forms can be found here:

Equal Exchange offers reverse trick-or-treat kits in season:

Friday, October 10, 2014

GPUMC health insurance - questions for the longterm

I could also title this: why we don’t have to meet in person

The Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church is working on deciding how to care for clergy health insurance in 2015. A number of resources have been made available this week, including details of a proposal to move away from group insurance to individual coverage. The decision about whether to make this change will be made by the Annual Conference, comprised of lay and clergy members. Which brings us to a pre-question: Should we insist on meeting in person to make this decision, or is it acceptable to utilize an e-ballot with a mail-in option for those without access to email?

My first instinct was to think that such a significant change absolutely demanded an in-person meeting. An inconvenient, likely-resented ritual gathering of the Annual Conference seemed appropriate for an inconvenient, likely-resented change to clergy health insurance custom and practice.

I’ve moved away from that first reaction for two reasons. First, I think people will have already studied the issue as much as they want to before the meeting, and will not be swayed during a mid-morning meeting. Related to this, I don’t think it will help our new history together to have a meeting of the Annual Conference that is either poorly attended or accompanied by participant schedule and travel stress.  
My second reason is the one that convinced me it would be ok to meet via email. As I started to think about the topics I would want to discuss related to clergy health insurance, I realized that very few of them related directly to the short-term problem of how to insure clergy in 2015. My questions and concerns have to do with longer-term process questions. Questions that deserve a richer conversation and a longer time for pondering than a single Saturday morning. 
Here are just a few of the things I think it would be interesting and good for us as a Conference to discuss, but not for just a morning:
1) What is our theology related to health and healthcare?
2) What is the role of the Church as we seek to find and bring wholeness to the communities we serve?
3) To what degree does the overall health of clergy relate to the overall health of our congregations and faith journeys?
4) If it is true that over time it has always been “hard” to insure clergy, what interventions (such as Virgin HealthMiles) might we create so that both clergy and church members might be more healthy?
5) How might we learn to have conversations regarding health and healthcare in ways that move us from blame and individual benefit to a view of the world that embraces community and benefit to the group?
6) How does the stress some clergy are articulating over this proposed change relate to national stress over healthcare, and how are we as a Conference called to address the right of people to healthcare, both in the United States, and globally?

I am hopeful that after we get through the next few weeks of stress over the immediate decision regarding how to care for clergy health insurance in 2015, we will remember to address the systemic and long-term issues that accompany the short-term decisions. 

October roses in Omaha
 (In other news, the roses are outlasting the tomato plants on 33rd St in Omaha)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Blog and Twitter favorites, suggestions

Blog and Twitter favorites


Steve Griffith is a UMC clergy colleague in Lincoln. He writes with care, intention and clarity about issues that are important to him. I think this is an excellent example of the pastor-as-author genre.

Kelli Samson is a cousin of mine who lives in Olympia, WA. I enjoy her blog because she has a very consistent writing voice, writes about food and books, posts photos that make me want to take more photos, and doesn’t mind offering an opinion. Something she does especially well is cross-reference her Instagram, blog and Facebook accounts. I usually find her blog within two hours of being posted, which I think is a sign of social media giftedness on her part.

Hacking Christianity. You might not agree with Jeremy’s content, but I think this is a fine example of excellent writing. He stays focused on his blog’s purpose, plans out his posts so his readers are not bombarded, and does a fine job editing. A new blogger could learn much about this communication form by studying this blog.

UMNS  @UMNS United Methodist News Service
Methoblog @methoblog They post UMC-related blogs! How convenient!
Trent Rosencrans, Cincinatti Reds reporter
Indian Country Today @indiancountry “Serving the nations, celebrating the people.” also have a fb feed from their media network
The Root @TheRoot “news and commentary from a variety of black perspectives” They also have a fb feed for their digital magazine
Rethink Church @umrethinkchurch
Great Plains UMC @gpumc
GCSRW @GCSRW I chair the Justice for Women committee, please follow
Tweet Smarter @TweetSmarter  They post tips for doing better with twitter

I feel like it is smart to subscribe to at least one of each of the following on twitter, at least as you get started. I’m thinking of clergy here, but I think the list works for others as well.
Weather update source, national or local
Local news source
National or regional news source edited by people of a different ethnicity than you
Local sports team of your choice
Social justice advocacy group
Local arts or food feed
Official denominational news source
Unofficial, yet actual, denominational news source

I find the above gives me a good chance at being aware of what my parishoners are likely to bring as prayer requests and gives me a chance at knowing enough about what is going on around me to be able to converse with others.

I find the best way to add to your twitter feed is to ask friends for suggestions or check the list of what they follow. It is very easy to add and subtract accounts from your twitter feed, with little to no risk of the kind of angst that happens when people “unfriend” one another on facebook.

Steph and Biebs

Guessing that Lyn Seiser took this October 2011 photo for me. We were in Washington State for a food justice meeting, and were so pleased to have time to catch up with our friend, Justin.

Blogs and blogging. Thoughts.

Blogs – thoughts

I think of blogs as public journals. They generally consist of a series of individual entries, each usually dated and frequently titled. Unlike a diary, where sequential pages usually move from the past to the present, blogs are usually arranged with the most recent entry, or “post,” first. Like a diary, there is likely not a safe hiding place for a blog – so don’t write things you don’t want other people to read. Blogs can be written by a single author or by several.

I have a rich history of blog-writing fear. The source of the fear is at least two-fold: 1) written words seem more permanent to me than spoken words so I worry more about errors ranging from typos to grammar to irrelevance to non-logic, and 2) my family of origin is very word-laden and I get worried that I will melt under the weight of the words I mix together, like a chemistry experiment gone bad.

Here’s how I’ve talked myself down from the blog fear: 1) I’m already in actual print every month with the pastor’s column in the church newsletter, 2) I am as word-laden as the rest of my family, so it’s too late now to traffic in word fear, 3) very few people will actually read what I write, and 4) on a practical level the blog format is better than twitter, facebook and pinterest for short essays and opinion pieces.

I find 4) the most convincing of the above reasons, and it is what spurred me to figure out my blog password, update my profile and restart myself down the written-yet-virtual word path.  For purely pragmatic reasons, a blog can be very helpful. Teaching at license to preach school but you are pretty sure the students will lose or fold into origami paper cranes anything you hand them? Give them the link to your blog and post notes there.  Do you have a bunch of book reviews from a previous life that you want to be able to find again? Post them on the blog. Doing your best to teach your colleagues about social media, but afraid someone will notice you haven’t written in your blog for a year? Post to the blog – that way there’s a current post, plus you might encourage someone else to lay aside their blog fear.

Where to blog and names: I picked blogger because it’s a google product, and I already use gmail so I figured if I could navigate one google product, I could probably figure out another one. When you pick a blog name, remember that the title of the blog can be longer and more descriptive, but the name of the blog is what your readers will use to find you online. So: the title of this blog is kind of goofy. Rev Steph’s Eclectic Garden. My guess is I was trying to give myself room for a variety of post topics without sounding too complicated. The blog name for web use, however, is The difference between the two? I advise keeping the name short and spellable, and the title as poetic and confusing as you’d like. 

Proofing: I have some typos and missing words in my recent posts. This is because I did not follow my own advice. Which goes like this: write your post in a word document and cut and paste it into the blogging tool you use. This way your spellcheck will find basic, annoying errors for you. Once you paste in the spellchecked words, utilize the draft function to proof what you have written again. Then wait at least ten minutes to post so you can read again while you feel less enthusiastic and therefore are better able to read for continuity, voice, structure, and redundancy. The good news is that after you have posted, you can go back and edit your work, so you won’t leave behind a permanent grammatical disaster.

Late July, 2014. Omaha garden

I once read that gardeners should keep a notebook, and anytime you plant a perennial you should make a note of the name and draw a map of where you planted it.  

I don't know the name of the purple plant, nor do I know when I planted it or its source.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

How to send email to several people

How to send email to several people

A friend of mine asked for tips on sending emails to groups of people.

I have mixed feelings about group emails, mostly because of what I feel is the overuse of the “reply all” option. I generally include everyone in the “to” line if I’m emailing a committee or small group. This way everyone can see who else was included. Once I get past about 12 people, I tend to use “bcc” and then list in the body of the email itself who is receiving the email. This way recipients know who else is receiving the info, and I can easily find the list of who received it in case I want to double-check. Here’s an article about bcc etiquette. I found it helpful to think about personal vs business email address norms.

Another way to handle group emails is… use the group email function on your email program. You likely have this option, even if you don’t realize it. An advantage to using the group email function is that once you’ve added the names to the group, you don’t have to worry that you’ve forgotten someone – you just add the group of names as a whole.
Here’s a discussion from the folks at googlemail regarding how to set up an email group on their system. You’ll find similar instructions for your own email program. You’ll notice they reference the “bcc” technique as a way to be “discreet.” I think you substitute the words “not annoying” and the sentence would still work.

A related question is how to set up an enewsletter. I’m most familiar with and  Both of these are cheap or free to use if you have a small database. Their websites have information about cost. An email tool like this is handy for many reasons, including: 1) you can import and existing database into the tool so you don’t have to retype email addresses, 2) spam filters realize they are enewsletters and not spam, 3) they come with templates so if you aren’t good at layout you can use one of theirs, 4) they come with an analytics tool so you can find out what percent of your newsletters were opened, forwarded, and stuff like that, 5) they are easy to forward and you can include information about how to sign up so people populate your database themselves.

If you are trying to decide which enewsletter tool is best for you, you might check and see what other churches your size are using and ask what they like best about their enewsletter, and if they feel strongly enough to make a recommendation. 

Frisco with Praying Hands
 Here's a photo of my Lincoln neighbor cat, Frisco. He's almost two years old, which I feel is too young to be a curmudgeon, but he's one of the crankiest cats I have ever met. In this photo he has just hissed at me from near my Praying Hands yard art. The hands appeared one weekend while I was in Omaha. I arrived late Saturday night, went to remove what I thought was a plastic bag... and instead found these. One of my friends says I should not worry unless I return home and discover "praying feet." The donor has not yet come forward...

About Social Media

About Social Media

I’ve heard other clergy claim that they plan to “have nothing to do with” social media. I suspect what they mean is that they wish to not start a facebook or twitter account, and are hoping to avoid dealing with a personal online presence.
Here’s what I’m thinking: it’s too late. Whether or not we want to be present on the internet, we are already there. Pastors are present and findable via internet search because our names are associated with our church, our photos are posted whenever we conduct a wedding, and we are listed in obituaries whenever we conduct a funeral. These and other digital references are happening, whether or not we are aware of them, so the advantage of participating in social media at least a little bit is twofold – you have a better grasp of how you are being represented online, and you can add your own perspective and stories instead of relying solely on others.

In addition, social media can be an excellent communication tool. Like all communications, how social media is used determines how effective it is. I think it was in Junior High that I was taught the two components of effective communication: 1) message sent, and 2) message received. Social media provides opportunities to both send and receive information.

As one of the two main curators of our church’s official information channels, my job is to choose wisely so we reach our desired audience effectively. This includes planning ahead and utilizing several tools so we create neither a dry spell nor a flood of communications. 

I find in Church communications that when I rely exclusively on the print newsletter and bulletin and spoken announcements from the pulpit, our information stream can have significant gaps in it. Adding social media to our information stream helps fill in gaps, engage people in new ways, and gives some of our members tools to invite others to participate.

While there are number of places a person can go to learn about how to use social media in the Church, I really really appreciate UMCommunications. Here’s a link to some of their information about social media:
Current articles at this site include Instagram, blogging, and text messaging.

Today's garden photo is from Baton Rouge, LA.The garden is across the street from First UMC - I love the garden name!!!! You might enjoy the church's website,

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Twitter: I am not an expert

This post goes with a social media class I'm leading the Thursday after Labor Day for clergy in my District. I expect a wide range of thoughts and feelings about social media from this group, so I'm posting some short essays/commentaries on social media on this blog in case they are helpful to someone from the class. 

So: Twitter. 
Twitter utilizes short posts of 144 characters or less. Content can include links to articles and photos. If you see an @ before a word, that's a reference to a person/account on twitter. If you see a # before a word, that's a tag to help people sort through the piles of words moving through twitter. 
One good way to learn about twitter is to set up an account. Setting up an account is very easy and I think it feels less intrusive/personal than setting up a facebook account. Each twitter account you set up will be connected to a different email address, so if you plan to have an account for both your church and yourself, plan ahead which email address you will use for which account. I suggest never using a personal email address as the main contact for a work social media account. If you don't have a separate email address for your church, it's easy enough to set up a new google account that you use only for church social media accounts. Here's where you go to set up a twitter account:

Once you have a twitter account you can follow accounts like @tweetsmarter, which has as its purpose the posting of tips and stories about how to improve your twitter skills. 

Twitter is a fast-moving information delivery system, but users determine how much information they would like to receive by selecting their information sources. This is called following. As a twitter account holder, you'll want to remember that unless you use a "private" setting, anyone can see what you are tweeting and who you are following. 

I am not a twitter expert. I tweet at @revstephanie and am the author/curator of the South Gate account at @southgateumc. When thinking about a twitter name, try to think of something fairly short, spellable, and descriptive. Few of my social media accounts include my last name because for most people it fails the spellable test. I don't write out United Methodist Church because that's a lot of characters I could be using for content. 

Here's an article from UMCom about twitter that answers 10 FAQs: twitter FAQs answered

Wormwood stem

Today's garden photo is from the front yard of my Omaha house. In the middle you'll see a silvery plant. It's wormwood. I think every pastor's garden should have wormwood in it so we can pluck off a stem to show kids what wormwood looks like when we sing the hymn with the lyrics "wormwood and the gall," which I think is used to rhyme with "this celestial ball."

My favorite hippie master gardener says that wormwood repels rabbits. My spouse reminds me of this each time we see a rabbit hanging out next to this plant.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Social Media Resources. Squash and Ironing Board.

In preparation for an upcoming presentation for a group of UMC clergy on the topic of Social Media for Churches I've been gathering a list of online resources that I think might be helpful.
Links and brief descriptions are below.

United Methodist Communications has a helpful website that includes a number of topics. is an excellent source for current UMC news; resources on the topic of digital communications and social media; communications best practices; and more.. including how to order print and digital official UMC program calendars.

Great Plains UMC communications office has a resource page: GPUMC communications resources
This website page contains links to a variety of communications resources, including photo/video release forms and how-tos for setting up church websites.

I'll update this list as I continue remembering favorite websites. I decided to go ahead and post even though the entry is not finished because I'm working on actually posting and not just thinking one day I will. 

The garden theme continues this post with a photo I took in East Tennessee, somewhere between Dandridge and Bristol. The hardware store/flea market where we stopped was also home to a vegetable garden, which was home to this squash plant... growing on the frame of an ironing board.

Ironing board with squash

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Return of the blog

As promised to my new best friends at Great Plains UMC licensing school this morning, here's the start of a group of posts related to my assigned topic (I've abbreviated the topic for your convenience): mission and justice in the UMC.

What follows are book reviews I wrote while at United Methodist Ministries; I've cut and pasted them from the resource tab on their website, the home page for which can be found at  From this home page one can also move to the website for the Big Garden - where basic resources, contact information and photos are posted related to community gardening.

Here goes with the book reviews:

Exodus from Hunger, by David Beckmann

Westminster John Knox Press
reviewed by Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede

This 2010 book, written by the President of Bread for the World, address global hunger from a faith perspective. Chapters include such topics as a review of the current hunger realities, scriptural references to hunger, reflections on how congregations can combat hunger, and suggestions for advocacy on both a personal and public level.
While the material included can be very intense, the chapters themselves are quite readable, and would be suitable for a group book study either as whole or one chapter at a time. This is one of the more clearly written books we have found that addresses hunger from a faith-based perspective, with the added bonus of information about advocacy and public policy. Beckmann is a Lutheran pastor and an economist, a native Nebraskan and winner of the 2010 World Food Prize for his work.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver
Harper Perennial
reviewed by Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede

Who knew a memoir about eating locally and seasonally could read so much like a novel? This book has been on the required reading list for United Methodist Ministries staff since it came out in 2007 because of its accessibility to people with a broad range of interests, the author’s clarity that her family’s choice to eat locally for a year might not be an option or preference for other families, and because we find that people who read this book seem better able to articulate the advantages and challenges of eating locally while having a better sense of what questions they would like to ask about their own food systems. A reader’s guide is available at the HarperCollins website.

Food for Life: The Spirituality and Ethics of Eating (2004, Fortress)
Sharing Food: Christian Practices for Enjoyment (2006, Fortress)
Hunger & Happiness: Feeding the Hungry, Nourishing Our Souls (2009, Augsburg)
by Shannon Jung
reviewed by Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede

Jung serves as Professor of Town and Country Ministry at St Paul School of Theology, which means not only that he has taught a number of pastors in the Nebraska Annual Conference, but that there’s a good chance that his books are on a shelf in a pastor’s office near you with other seminary textbooks, ready to be borrowed. In addition to being regional talent, Jung’s writing is significant for its emphasis on scripture and theology as a context for thinking about hunger and food. Both books have excellent indexes, endnotes and resource lists. Sharing Food includes discussion questions at the end of each Chapter and is a 2009 UMW Reading Program book in the Spiritual Growth category. Hunger and Happiness includes discussion questions and includes a rich discussion throughout the book on justice issues related to both hunger and poverty.

Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty by Mark Winne
Beacon Press
reviewed by Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede

This book provides a framing of our national food system that may be surprising to some and challenging for others. A 2010 UMW Reading Program selection, Winne’s book is also well-regarded in the food justice community for its analysis of the intersections of food systems, poverty, and justice as well as information regarding advocacy, current programs, and possibilities for the future.

Chapter Four, entitled “Community Gardens: Growing our Own” is a particular favorite of Big Garden, while Chapter Six’s discussion of food deserts might be particularly eye-opening for Midwesterners.

Hunger for the Word: Lectionary Reflections on Food and Justice
Years A, B and C (three volumes) Larry Hollar, ed.
Liturgical Press
reviewed by Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede

Written with support from Bread for the World and edited by a senior BTW staff member, these books offer hunger-related exegesis, vignettes, children’s sermon prompts, and hymns for each Sunday of the liturgical year. Some selections will be weighted more towards the particulars of a text, while others will focus more on a hunger-related connection to the day’s scripture, but thanks to careful editing, the flow from week to week works well both for developing sermon series and for individual use.

I'll conclude with a photo from my front yard in Omaha.  There's tomatoes, peppers, basil, and some crabgrass in with there with all the flowers.