Monday, June 21, 2010


Last week I was in Mt Vernon, Iowa - a small town on the southeast side of Cedar Rapids, where 2 years ago there was massive flooding, the 5th worst natural disaster in US history. I was a part of the Habitat for Humanity International and AmeriCorps Build-a-thon. Last year, on the 1 year anniversary of the floods, we were also working in Cedar Rapids. When the river flooded, it not only ruined downtown buildings and the local Habitat affiliate office, it also flooded a large percentage of the affordable housing stock in the area - shocker that it doesn't cost as much to live in the flood plain and that many of those families didn't have/coulnd't afford flood insurance. Now that another year has gone by, we once again were working with the local Habitat affiliate to build new, affordable homes for Habitat partner families, but this year we also added some projects that rehabilitated some already existing homes and helped the affiliate start their "A Brush With Kindness" program, which helps those who already own their home maintain the outside of it. This is a growing need across the country and I know it's just a matter of time before we have the program going here in Kansas City.

As always, Build-a-thon was a great experience where I got to meet people who work with Habitat affiliates all across the country. I always enjoy hearing about how different affiliates are doing essentially the same work but all doing it a little differently, whether due to organization structure, management styles, or just the specifics of the local community. I love meeting people with a passion for this work and hearing about how they do it. It was a little bittersweet this year since this was likely my last Build-a-thon; my new position as Faith Relations means that I will no longer be overseeing the AmeriCorps program at my Habitat affiliate. But my new position also means that I get to grow and stretch myself in new ways, and get to focus fully on building relationships with local churches and the work we're doing in the urban core of Kansas City.

The biggest downside to my week in Iowa is that I got sick - nothing major, but my first night there I was slammed with a summer cold. There was one day I felt bad enough that I didn't go work on site, but stayed in bed instead. By the time I got home on Friday morning, it had developed into bronchitis. I went to a clinic at one of the chain drug stores and got my prescriptions, and am generally feeling much better. I'm still not 100% but it has me thinking about how lucky I am. I not only got to be a part of this great event and travel with some great people, but when I got home I was able to just go get the care that I needed. My insurance through work allowed me to pay just $20 for my visit to the clinic and the prescriptions were paid for through my flexible spending account. It was easy, relatively quick and didn't break the bank. But that's because I took advantage of opportunities that I had through work. Many people don't have these opportunities. If I didn't have insurance, what would I have done? Gone to the ER? How much would that bill cost? There are a hundred or more things wrong with the healhcare system in this country and I know that I have no idea how to fix it. But I also know how grateful I am to have what I have.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

What is success?

Last weekend I was at MO Annual Conference (United Methodist Church), and we spent a lot of time talking about how to be better leaders and get more successful churches. There were, admittedly, different ways of talking about success - based on numbers of members, numbers of people in attendance at worship, based on number of programs offered, amount of mission work done, etc. I certainly don't know which one of these is the "right" way to look at it.

This weekend I'm in Iowa at the Habitat for Humanity AmeriCorps Build-a-thon. Almost 600 AmeriCorps members serving with Habitat affiliates all across the country will be working together this week on a variety of projects, from new construction to exterior repair and painting through A Brush With Kindness. Today was a day mostly of hanging out and getting to know one another better, so I found it fascinating to listen to people's conversations. Inevitably they would ask each other which affiliate they were with, and if they didn't already know something about the location, the next question was often, "so how many houses do you guys do each year?" The similarities of these two recent experiences just shocked me, although as I write this I'm not sure why I didn't see it before.

I've worked with Habitat for 3 years, and have had some relationship to AmeriCorps for all of that time. Likewise, I've been in the UMC for more than 10 years and attended more than a couple of annual conferences. We get so hung up on the numbers, sometimes I think we don't give credit for the work that's being done even in the smaller places that aren't building 50 houses a year or doing multiple international mission trips. The fact is that there are people who need help in every kind of community all over this country - from urban cores to rural areas, both the church and Habitat affiliates are helping to meet those needs. So why do we look down on those who "only" build one or two houses a year or who "only" have 30 people coming to church on Sunday morning. Do those 30 people not count? Why do we assume that if your numbers aren't growing that there's no growth happening in the congregation? Are the two families who got their houses not better off than they were before? I wonder if we can find some other way to measure success, or if we can stop measuring it all together and let it be a subjective thing. Just like our economy, can it realistically always continue to grow?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Praying for Fred Phelps

One of the more difficult things that Jesus tells us we are to do is, "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matt 5:43). I don't think this means that we pray for vengeance either, but that we pray for some sense of realization that we're all children of God and all have some investment in each other. It's not hard to love those who love us - at least not most of the time - but to love someone who hates you, WOW.

Love is a complicated thing - there are many different types of love, levels of it, so just how far do we have to go? For me personally, as a woman in love with another woman, Fred Phelps is pretty much as vociferous enemy as I get. This is the founder of Westboro Baptist Church who sets up websites and pickets colleges, churches, and military funerals in the name of decrying America's biggest sin in allowing homosexuality. Regardless of your feeling on homosexuality, what this man has been doing has been causing a lot of emotional reactions all across the country and the Supreme Court will be hearing the case about their military funeral protests. (Is it free speech or do states have the right to make their protests illegal? Can't wait to see how that turns out...) This man has picketed my seminary and my local church, so this isn't just something that I've heard about in the news. A local film student did a documentary on his church (it's available on Netflix and is called "Fall from Grace" - I recommend it) and when you hear him speak and you hear his children (who are adults and the next leaders of the church) you will be amazed at their conviction and their passion. On some level, I have to respect them for that. Many people don't know what they believe, let alone why they believe it or have a belief that's strong enough to share with anyone else.

So what do I do with this man and his family? How do I love him? Respecting him for his conviction isn't really love, and I'm not sure that calling him a human being, acknowledging his sacred worth (oh, what a spin on that term!) is quite enough either. I'm supposed to pray for him. What do I pray for? That he comes to a realization that his hatred is wrong? That he stop picketing military funerals? That he keeps living so his kids don't take over quite yet (since they're even more radical in their beliefs and practices)? Somehow none of that seems to be enough... I feel like I somehow have to get to a place where I can sincerely pray for him to be happy and find a sense of peace and know that he is loved by God. And then I have to realize that God DOES love him, as much as God loves me. And then I have to pray for myself, to be okay with that and not feel like it's unfair. What do you pray for?

Monday, June 07, 2010

Reflections on Annual Conference

I made it back home and the bags and boxes need to be unpacked as I head into my work week, but the experience of Missouri Annual Conference 2010 is still be processed in my head. Sadly, while this was my first year with voice and vote priveleges, I really didn't get much chance to use them. There was very little debate and just some generic items (like the budegt) to vote on. Of course, that was probably a good thing. Rather than the whole event being mired in politics and heated discussions, this one was intentionally focused on internal spiritual development - feeding the leaders so they in turn can go back and feed their local congregations. I don't know that I feel like I was tremendously fed, but there were definite highlights, like the youth worship service (sand art story telling is pretty cool) and Michael Slaughter (see previous post). Perhaps I would have felt like I got more out of it if I had attended both workshops and wasn't also trying to work a booth in the exhibit hall around participating in the session. I might have to rethink how that goes for next year...

This morning, before I had to leave early to make it back for an appointment, Bishop Schnase gave a really good presentation about how appointments are made in our conference. He told us that he was surprised at how many people didn't know how it was done and took the time to walk us through the process, including showing us a scaled down board that helped them organize each appointment into a chain of movements around the conference. It was fascinating and enlightening to hear what their priorities are and all of the various things that go into their decision making process. It's more complicated than I had realized and it made me glad that I'm not an ordained elder tied to the itinerancy process. The more I learn and hear, the more I feel that I'm in the right place serving as a Deaconess and continuing to be a member of the laity. Now I just have to figure out what that means for my leadership role in the church - meaning the local congregation as well as the district and annual conference levels.

I was disappointed that churches really didn't indicate any interest in working with Habitat KC - I talked to a few individuals who picked up some information to bring back to their churched, and I talked to several people from other areas around the state who work with their local affiliates though. The seeds are being planted... And I talked with the Festival of Sharing folks and it looks like I'll have a booth out there in October to talk with people about donating their money to our local affiliate rather than to Habitat International. I spend a good deal of time educating people about how Habitat is set up. If you donate to Habitat for Humanity International, your money goes towards HFHI programs and affiliate work in other countries. Habitat affiliates in the US, however, get limited amounts of funding from HFHI. We're all independent 501(c)(3) organizations and do our own fundraising for our local projects, BUT we also tithe 10 percent of our funds raised to HFHI. SO, if you want to help local families, donate to your local affiliate (which you can look up at and know that you're also helping others around the world. Right now much of that tithe money is going to Haiti where Habitat International is winning high praise for their house design and organization.

Socially, annual conference was a great experience. I got to catch up with old friends and colleagues from Saint Paul School of Theology, and I got to meet lots of new people - some SPST alumni and friends of friends who I think I can now also call friends. I may have also gotten myself involved in a church camp for this summer - we'll have to see. I've lived in Missouri since 2003, but feel like I'm just starting to learn how things work here. Watching the ordination service, it was very moving to see so many people that I knew entering into that special relationship with God and the UMC. It was also painful to watch other friends that didn't get the blessing to take that next step. The church is still a human institution, flawed in many ways, and it was hard to see friends hurting and feeling personally shunned. Still, I'm confident that most of them are in the right place and that they will get approved next year. Ministry is a strange thing...

So that's where I am for now. There may be more reflections later, but since I'm headed to Iowa for AmeriCorps Buildathon with Habitat this week, chances are there won't be many posts until mid-June.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Annual Conference - part 3

I went out last night so I missed posting but will make up for it later. Right now I'm headed to what sounds like it will be a very cool youth event. more later!

Friday, June 04, 2010

Annual Conference - part 2

I've had more fun so far than I expected. I think that's because I'm a social person by nature and the fact that I went to seminary in Kansas City means I know quite a few folks around the conference - professors, pastors, and leaders. It's been like a reunion of sorts, and I think that's part of the point. When John Wesley started this who idea of conferencing, part of it was for the pastors to get together and lift each other up. He understood the power of being with your peers and talking with them about what's going well and what's a struggle. You build relationships and learn best practices and perhaps also get some insight into yourself.

Aside from the socializing, I'm enjoying the theme of this year's MO Annual Conference - Growing Deeper. We have a tree symbol hanging up in front of the assembly, not quite a tree of life since the roots aren't as substantial as the branches, but close. Opening worship was done in a contemporary style with words on the screen but no music to look at or liturgy to follow. The sermon was good, with a lot of stories and references to John Wesley, but it ended with talk about numbers - and this is a big struggle for me.

How do we measure success in the church? Is it in the number of people listed as "members" of our churches? Is it in the number of people who show up for worship on Sunday? Does it have to about numbers at all? I prefer to think of quality rather than quantity but how do you attempt to measure quality of churches? or the Christians who attend them? I guess you'd have to start by determining the goal, the point of the church in the first place. Talking with an old friend tonight, he stated that the ministry of the church is to change lives. I can go with that. But how you measure your success at changing lives? What kind of change are we talking about? If a church has only 20 people in worship every Sunday but is feeding the homeless in their neighborhood, are they not changing lives? Perhaps more than the megachurch of 5000 that has people showing up for small group activities? I just don't know that we can boil it down to numbers and i get frustrated when we insist that we have to have a way to know if all of these program we try to do are working. I'm not convinced that the changes that have the most impact are going to manifest in the numbers that can be tracked at the conference office. What do you think? How does it work in your church or conference?

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Missouri Annual Conference - Part 1

I'm a slacker and I know it. I haven't been blogging regularly for a while now, and as I'm gathering with United Methodist friends from all over Missouri this weekend, I'm trying to understand why. Many of them check my blog to see if I've posted and all I can come up with is that I've been busy doing other things. Yes, sadly, Facebook is one of those things that takes up more of my time now. I feel like I need to really evaluate the value of my time and how it's best spent. There are great things about Facebook but there are also great things about blogging that I miss, so I'm going to try to be intentional about posting some thoughts up here for the weekend I'm at Annual Conference at least. We'll see what happens after that. :)

As I was talking with one of my seminary friends about this earlier tonight I realized that what I miss most about my blog is pondering some of the bigger questions. I mean, look at my blog title - I used to live for this stuff! I would talk about theology and political ideas and now I feel like my brain gets consumed with making lists of things that I need to do or bring with me to whatever event is next on my agenda for work. I get so bogged down with the daily grind that I don't have the luxury of time to ponder the big questions. Of course, that's not entirely true since I make the the time to play Treasure Madness on Facebook each day - it seems that my priorities have shifted. I go from thinking about lots of daily things to wanting to do something mindless rather than intentionally intellectual. Where I used to have nothing but time to devote to that pursuit, I now see it as a luxury and not necessarily one that I care about having all the time. My priorities, it seems, have shifted. Or have they? I miss seminary and I miss the conversations I used to have about these things. I'm just going to have to decide how often I need them to satisfy that piece of me without draining what little brain function I feel like I have left after work. Do you ever feel like this? Am I making any sense at all?

Okay, so I'm trying to focus on Missouri Annual Conference. This is my first annual conference as a commissioned Deaconess, which means I have voice and vote. I'm also here partly for work, representing Habitat for Humanity Kansas City with a booth in the exhibitors' section - it is where I serve as a Deaconess after all. I've never worked a booth at conference before and I've only been to the MO annual conference one other time. That was in 2007 as we were voting on delegates for the 2008 General Conference so there was a lot of church business to deal with, some of which got pretty ugly, so I'm curious to see what a "regular" year looks like.