Thursday, June 15, 2006

Faith Works 6-17-06
Jeff Gill

So Many Resolutions, So Little Time

Church bodies of all sorts, but especially Christian denominations, tend to have their conventions or assemblies or synods or whathaveyous in the summer.
Giving delegates a chance to wrap a family vacation around the affair is no doubt part of the plan, as well as less business or trade association traffic in the convention centers needed to pull off such an event. The size of the gathering has little to do with the size of the communion in question: The Episcopal Church numbers around two million members, but has around 10,000 people passing this weekend through the Columbus Convention Center, while 60 million Catholics await the reports out of a few dozen bishops at their conference.
Southern Baptists just elected a new chief executive officer with fewer delegates, or "messengers" than the Presbyterians use with six times the adherents.
One common feature from all of these gatherings I notice is a fundamental disconnect between national or general bodies and the average member in the pews. Sometimes that disagreement percolates up, as with the choice of an unexpected low key pastor at the Southern Baptist Convention, expressing a hesitation over the former front-running mega-church style pastor.
More often it is outright disagreement, such as is found among many Catholics in their personal and lifestyle choices versus the clear teachings of the US Bishops’ Conference (let alone the Vatican), or Presbyterians’ rejecting an "Israel dis-investment" resolution, or UCC churches withdrawing, including a number here in Ohio, over last summer’s resolutions on marriage equality for gay and lesbian persons (the synod was for it, many lay people are agin’ it).
Everyone from the local West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church, which just finished their annual "do," to the gathering of the UCC’s Ohio Conference, is looking at reductions in how much money local congregations are sending to work beyond their immediate areas, which forces cuts and major changes in how those state and national bodies staff and program their work.
Some blame this trend on increased personnel costs (which for full-time, especially clergy employees, has gone up drastically in recent years), building maintenance left undone by many churches through the last quarter-century, and fixed costs like insurance and heating. Others argue that a new form of selfishness pervades local churches, but much of that opinion comes from staff in wider ministries who are facing directly the outcome of those increased costs.
Or to put it another way, I just don’t think congregations are more selfish today than forty years ago. People are giving more, across the board, to their faith communities, it just isn’t being reflected in more income for nationally oriented programs.
There is an element of that holdback of funds that goes back to that disconnect, the one between local members and national leaders. It isn’t, if you’re assuming what I’ll say next, a liberal/conservative thing, since conservative groups are seeing much the same trends, just masked by more members.
People are not sure exactly what is being done, and why, in their name by many of these distant offices and programs and ministries. Offerings like "Week of Compassion," "One Great Hour of Sharing," or "(Blank) Relief Society of (Your Church)" get staggering amounts of money when a particular situation, with specific promises about where the resources go, are set before them.
But too many of the lobbying, opinion shaping, workshop after workshop presenting efforts, with a perceived lack of responsiveness or accountability to the local level, just don’t reach people on the basis of denominational loyalty anymore. Maybe they never should have . . .but they shore don’t work much now, brother.
Districts and regions and boards and commissions are closing down, replaced by smaller, leaner organizations, with the promise of greater transparency and stronger relatedness to the local church. The World War II generation, profoundly motivated by loyalty, is giving way to a generation that may well be less generous, but is also more skeptical.
Stewardship efforts will need to keep all this in mind as the work of the church is transformed by these trends. Local treasurers have known it for some time; maybe they could, um, ask them about it, no?

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he was only church treasurer once, and prays nightly this cup will never pass his way again! Tell him your story at

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Notes From My Knapsack 6-18-06
Jeff Gill

Crossing the Border

Ken Salazar speaks fluent Spanish. He lives and works in Colorado, but his family is from the south. Not Mexico, though. . .
New Mexico, actually, where his ancestors were among the founders of Santa Fe four centuries ago. His lineage does go back to south of the Rio Grande, but before there was a Mexico, so he jokes before audiences about whether or not he can really claim the label "Mexican-American" many put on him. Salazar goes on to point out that his family never crossed the border, but the border crossed them.
As a United States Senator, he has this conversation often. The first Hispanic elected outside New Mexico to such office, the Democrat is asked to help Anglo audiences in Colorado and around the US understand some of the challenges and intricacies of the immigration issue.
No one, from Salazar on down, doubts that ten million plus illegal immigrants over the last decade from Mexico represents a unique problem that has to be addressed. What can be lost in the political furor over the southern border is that tens of millions of Spanish speaking Americans are already here, are US citizens from before the Gadsden Purchase, and that the Hispanic/Latino element of this country’s ethnic mix is vital and longstanding.
We may not get Ken Salazar to speak in Licking County anytime soon, but a new novel can help you get some perspective on how Latino is not new piece in the national fabric, but one of our oldest stripes of color in the flag.
"The Night Journal," by Elizabeth Crook, is a fictional story about made up people, but set in actual places you can visit, like Pecos Pueblo southeast of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Las Vegas. Nope, not that one, but a quieter and much, much older one on the eastern edge of the Rockies, where the Sangre de Cristo range starts to rise to the north.
Crook has clearly done her research on New Mexican, Mexican, Mormon, and general American history, weaving them together with a tale of settlers and railroads and a briefly glimpsed appearance by Paul Harvey. Nope, not that one, but the fellow who a century and more ago, opened up the southwest to the first tourism boom. If you’ve traveled in the Grand Canyon area, you may have run into the name still used for hotel and restaurant management.
This book is a richly detailed story about people set nearly today (in the 1980’s) and also a hundred years back, with windows through those characters another generation before and more. If you have read A. S. Byatt’s "Possession," this is constructed similarly, with letters and diary entries believably created to tell earlier stories, with ghostly scenes written by a narrative perspective quietly omniscient but selectively revealing.
Generally, I keep my book reviewing to stuff that’s out in paperback for ease of access, but with the immigration debate flaring around us, and our local libraries mostly carrying Crook’s newest book, this was a recommendation I didn’t want to delay in making. Find a copy however you wish, or remember it until the cheaper version comes out, but I can heartily endorse putting "The Night Journal" on the top of your reading pile.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him about your immigrant ancestors through