Sunday, February 27, 2011

How to Help Your Church Grow

Hint: It's not about whether you play modern music.

This morning DairyStateMom and I went to her church, where the pulpit guest was the Rev. Sarah Drummond, Dean of the Faculty at Andover Newton Theological School, a United Church of Christ seminary.

After the sermon (which I'll refer to in a moment), the Rev. Drummond gave a short talk about a research project she did that was written up last year in the magazine published by the Alban Institute, a sort of church think tank.

The study, described in the link at the top of this post, looks in depth at one UCC church that reversed a long and seemingly unstoppable decline: First Church in Cambridge. Drummond recalled visiting it when she was a student at Andover Newton back in the early 1990s and being overwhelmed by a musty smell that signaled decay.

A decade passed, and when Drummond returned to Andover Newton to join the faculty, she was struck by how that decline had reversed itself: the congregation was now thriving, welcoming new members by the dozen, most of them in the 21-35 age group.

In response to this phenomenon, the church, along with seminary students and Drummond, embarked on a study of its new members in order to learn how to better serve them. In the process, they learned what it was that drew and kept these new members.

The whole article fleshes this out, but here's the summary:

1) The new members welcomed high expectations of them for belonging to a church, but wanted and needed flexibility in how they might participate in the life of the church.
2) They appreciated being welcomed -- but when the welcome had a whiff of desperation, it was creepy and a turn-off.
3) They found comfort in a clearly stated belief system -- but wanted acceptance of their doubts and questions: belief without dogma, if you will. They also were drawn by the awareness that the church was living out its beliefs.

Oh, and by the way, this was a church that throughout the period of both decline and growth has remained liturgically (including musically) traditional within its denomination. Indeed, the sense of calmness and the sense of a space apart from the world embedded in its worship aesthetic was attractive to the many people who joined.

During the Q&A today, someone asked Drummond what at the church had preceded this influx of new members -- had there been some kind of strategy or marketing campaign launched?

The answer, she said, was that the church had engaged in a deliberate examination of what its vision for itself and its role in the community should be. As a result, it became much more connected with the wider needs of the community -- for example, connecting volunteers with a local homeless shelter that had been operating separately in the church's own basement for years.

"I'm hearing you say," I said, "that what the church did wasn't focus on, 'How can we recruit more members,' but rather, 'How can we be more authentic.'" Drummond agreed.

In a sense, it really was a case of "Build it and they will come" -- with "it" being not "a place that will attract young adult members," but rather "a principled religious community."

My point here is not to condemn contemporary music in worship or alternative worship styles. Rather, my point is simply to say that to the extent those are matters of style, they won't accomplish much for people who hunger for substance.

Driving home, I connected the insight with the text from Matthew that had been the topic of Drummond's sermon that day: Matthew 6:24-34. Specifically, I recalled how the passage ends:
31. Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32. For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
So it appears to have been with FCC: Instead of fretting about how to market itself to more people, the church thought about how to seek the kingdom of God. And that's what made the difference.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Dairy State Distress: Part 2 (updated)

Evidence emerges every day of the deep irresponsibility embedded in Gov. Walker's power grab.

The latest is found in this story from the Wisconsin State Journal: Deadline looms for debt restructuring plan.

Walker's "budget repair bill" and its provision to strip public employees of all but the most meaningless of collective bargaining rights included a deadline-sensitive element to restructure $165 million in debt.

As reporter Dee Hall explains in the above-linked story, debt restructuring is something that has been done before, and could have been done as a stand-alone measure without controversy. Walker, however, insisted on an all-or-nothing bill that included his collective-bargaining-rights takeaway and has since refused to compromise.

The debt-restructuring deadline is real.

As everyone now knows, Wisconsin Senate Democrats absented themselves in order to deny a quorum and block the bill. That also had the effect of blocking the debt-restructuring, which seems likely to lead to the following scenario Hall describes:

Now it's unclear when or if the state will be able to sell bonds or notes in time to avoid a looming March 16 deadline to deposit $165 million into the state's bond security and redemption fund. The money from the fund is used to make the May 1 debt payment, which this year is $165 million.

So let's make this clear: Gov. Walker, in order to get his radical change in collective bargaining, is willing to hold the state's fiscal affairs hostage. In short, he's committed political blackmail.

I can anticipate a counter-argument that it's the Senate Dems who are the hostage-takers or blackmailers, in the name of preserving the collective bargaining rights of public employees. The problem here is that the burden of proof is on Walker, on two counts: 1) The radical nature of the change he is trying to make in what has been a settled and legal practice in this state for 50 years, and 2) the nature of that change to fundamentally destroy the human rights of a group of people.

For further evidence of our governor's fecklessness, read this, from Wisconsin blogger Jay Bullock.


I want to briefly address the question about Gov. Walker's motives.
Plenty of people argue, and I will assert, persuasively, that this bill is part of a much larger trend and strategy to eliminate unions and arrogate more power to capital. But I will put that aside for a moment.

There is a long-running structural deficit in Wisconsin's budget that does need to be solved. There are long-running concerns about benefit costs, particularly pension costs, for public employees. No one denies the need to deal with those.

But the real reach of the collective-bargaining-stripping position is to the rights of local public employees (rights that local officials have said they are not asking to be taken away). What that is about is that Walker's next budget will reportedly cut close to $1 billion in aid to local governments and school districts. By unilaterally stripping those bargaining rights, Walker is arguably buying his way out of accountability for the potential costs of that budget: telling taxpayers and municipal leaders they can effectively dump all of the cost of those lost revenues on workers.

Dairy State Distress: Part 1

Given that I live in the state that has become Ground Zero in the fight for worker rights, I've so far been silent here on the subject of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's war on public employees and their unions.

There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that work and family have taken even more of my energies than usual in recent months and pushed blogging down on my priority list. The second is that, even though this blog is semi-anonymous, my work as a journalist has made me cautious about public expression of opinion on subjects that circumstances require me to write about professionally. That's not a rule I follow without exception, to be sure. But it has governed some of my choices about what to write about and what not to, and how I write about certain topics as well.

My silence doesn't, however, reflect any ambivalence on the subject itself. There are many things that I view in shades of gray, aware that no side is completely wrong and many sides have an element of the truth in their favor. The battle going on in Wisconsin is not one of them.

Our governor, through his budget repair bill, is in the midst of a breathtaking power grab, one that is driven only partially by the state's straitened fiscal condition, and one that could easily have been avoided except for greed and hubris.

I know blogging standards call for me to post a variety of links to outside verification of what I'm about to assert. But here I need to cover too much ground to take the time to do that.

In case it is not already abundantly clear to the outside world, this battle is not about specific union concessions on wages or benefits. Days after the governor's budget repair bill being introduced, the state unions involved announced their willingness to accept the wage and benefit concessions as written into the bill.
What they opposed was the bill's wholesale stripping of all collective bargaining rights for local and state public employees except the right to negotiate wages, and that only up to the Consumer Price Index.

That bill represented a sharp, 180-degree turn from 50 years of Wisconsin law and practice -- a massive clawback in worker rights without the sort of public debate and consensus that ought to accompany such a huge turnabout.

Which is not to say that such a turnabout would be justified in any case, as you'll see from my further argument below.

I've followed labor issues for more than two decades, writing about them for a major metropolitan newspaper for nine years and, since then, as an independent journalist for a variety of outlets. I have wherever I have had the opportunity been a union member (and for two years I did work at a non-union paper), and via a small part-time newspaper job I have currently, I am a union member now. As a journalist, I will frankly acknowledge that I had more respect for unions and workers and their role than some of my colleagues and some of my readers. To the extent that my sympathies for unions meant that their story got more attention in the paper and in what I wrote than they might have otherwise, I plead guilty. But I will also vigorously defend the fairness of everything I've written to all parties involved: union, employer, worker. 

In fact, I consider worker rights, including the right to collective bargaining, to be as fundamental to democracy and to the good society as any other rights. They are as fundamental as the freedom of speech and assembly, the freedom of religion, and most of the other rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. (I don't consider the 2nd Amendment one of those fundamental rights, by the way, but I know that's a non-starter politically, so I'm not even going to debate that point.) I will acknowledge that, to date, my position on worker rights is not yet reflected in our Constitution, which is to me mainly evidence that the document is not yet perfect. I still want an Equal Rights Amendment, too.

Are unions imperfect? Absolutely. Have public employee unions (and private sector ones, for that matter) shot themselves in the foot at times? No question. Can workers be happy and productive in their workplaces without a union? Undoubtedly some can.

All that is beside the point. Inept politicians have not led us to chuck out wholesale the institutions of democracy; corrupt law enforcement has not led us to abandon the professional policing of our communities; sporadic legal misfeasance has not led us to abandon the rule of law.

For whatever faults they have--and I believe their faults have often been amplified by propaganda and bad journalism, while their benefits have been muted and obscured by the same forces--unions in both the public and the private sectors have been a bulwark against the winner-take-all economy and society. Their continued weakening has helped pave the way for an oligarchy of wealth that more and more controls our public and even private lives.

The actions of Gov. Walker--and of the Republican-dominated legislature, including a state Assembly that abruptly cut off debate early Friday morning and then held a vote and adjourned so quickly that some Democrats could not even cast their votes--are divisive, domineering, and bald-faced oppression. They are also deeply irresponsible, in the service of ideological extremism. And that will be the subject of my next post.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mental Health Break

I had hoped I could embed this, but I can't.

For anyone, near and far, who might need a little cheering up.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

An anniversary to remember

From "The Writer's Almanac" for today:

It was on this day in 1940 that Woody Guthrie wrote the lyrics to "This Land is Your Land" — now one of America's most famous folk songs.

The melody is to an old Baptist hymn. Guthrie wrote the song in response to the grandiose "God Bless America" song, written by Irving Berlin and sung by Kate Smith. Guthrie didn't think that the anthem represented his own or many other Americans' experience with America. So he wrote a folk song as a response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," a song that was often accompanied by an orchestra. At first, Guthrie titled his own song "God Blessed America" — past tense. Later, he changed the title to "This Land is Your Land," which is the first line of the song.

Or, for a little more upbeat version:

It's been another unplanned hiatus here at the blog. I think it's going to end soon.