Monday, December 4, 2017

Advent Influenza: Churches as Public Health Advocates

     Normally, you might not think a United Methodist pastor would have a strong position regarding influenza. I do, however, thanks in part to the time I was working with community gardens and joined the American Public Health Association, and because my spouse is a professor in a College of Public Health.
     It appears that influenza is arriving early in the United States this season, and with a ferocity we have not seen in some time. The peak season may be as early as December, and this year's vaccination appears to be less effective than in the recent past. Influenza, not to be confused with the Norovirus or what some might call the stomach flu, can be deadly. Its impact can be lessened by following basic public health practices. 
    Why is this information important to congregations? I contend that churches and other religious organizations are already engaged in public health policy making and advocacy, whether or not we realize it, and as such we are equipped to contribute to the overall physical health and well-being of the communities in which we live. Health policies at the local level can range from informal (do we encourage people to bring side dishes with vegetables in them to potlucks?) to formal (did someone take a vote on what type of beverages should be in the pop machine? are the water fountains designed so water bottles can be filled?).
     First, the case for paying special attention to influenza this year: 
1) Influenza is starting earlier than in recent past. The CDC produces a map that charts the occurrence of the flu, which is updated weekly using reports from the field. You can find the FluView chart here: FluView map Four states are already reporting widespread cases of the flu; all have seen at least some activity. This earlier peak coincides with an increase in calendared events, both at churches and in communities; more people are out and about and there may be more pressure in December to attend events while ill than we would see in January or February. 
2) The flu vaccine appears to be significantly less effective this year than in recent years. The flu vaccination is more effective when given well in advance of exposure, so with the earlier occurrence of the flu combined with a lower effective rate, more people will be vulnerable than in past years. Please note, this does not mean it was a poor decision to receive the vaccine - a ten percent effective rate is better than zero. While we trust science, the fact is that preparing for an influenza outbreak that has not yet occurred is an exercise in estimation. Scientists tracking the disease do the best they can with the data they have but sometimes their best guess is a miss. Trust me, they are just as upset or more than the general public when they discover a vaccine not as effective as they had hoped it would be. 
3) This means that pastors in particular and people in general will be encountering more people who have the flu, and therefore will have greater exposure this season. Some of those who are ill won't realize they have the flu; others may have a job where they do not have an option for sick leave. 
     The good news is this: congregations can make a difference by educating the community about influenza, and by putting best practices in place. Here are my best tips:
1) Wash your hands and talk about the importance of washing hands with soap. Soap is a champion germ killer. When soap and water are not available, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are another option. 
2) Encourage people to both be aware of flu symptoms and to stay home if at all possible if they are ill. 
3) Remind people that Christmas will come, even if they are unable to attend worship - and make plans to stream worship services or prepare recordings of worship for those who are torn between being ill and missing Christmas Eve service.
4) Affirm that greetings can be exchanged without shaking hands.
5) Approve sick leave policies in the congregation so church employees can stay home if they are ill.    
     Congregations and leaders that take the time to familiarize themselves with these basics will serve their communities by educating church and community members to mimimize the impact of this growing public health concern.

Lantana, Berlin Botanical Garden. Photo from September 2016.

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

     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.

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.