Monday, November 16, 2009

Our decision had an unusual but positive ending

After 40 years of marriage and just a few more years than that in the journalism profession, a few weeks ago Kay and I made a major, life-altering decision.

The decision was difficult for us to undertake. For months before we actually took the step, we fretted over it, analyzed it, and debated it.

Finally, we canceled our subscription to the Dallas Morning News, our local hometown daily newspaper. 

No, we weren't angry at the newspaper. We actually like the Morning News a lot. (In college one summer Kay worked there writing bridal announcements in the old "Women's News Section".) Since we no longer live in Houston, Dallas' daily newspaper is the next best thing to receiving on our front porch every morning the Houston Chronicle, where we both worked for nearly 15 years.

The reason we canceled the newspaper was quite simple: seldom did we see in it anything truly "new" that we hadn't already seen on the Internet somewhere earlier. We also didn't like having to pay the newspaper's rising subscription fees year after year.

Our main hesitations were: 

1. "Tradition" (ever since we married, we'd always had a newspaper delivered to our front porch. "What would a morning be like if it didn't start with me opening up the front door to retrieve the newspaper?" we wondered) and

2. Our love for the journalism profession (in which we spent most of our adult careers). Change is difficult under the best of circumstances, but when we see the profession that meant so much to us going through such gut-wrenching agony with declining advertising revenues, plummeting circulations, bankruptcies, and significant layoffs, we hated to contribute even in a small way to the depressing situation.

Eventually frugality borne on the wings of the Great Recession and plain old common sense finally won out over our emotions and attachment to tradition. Now my checkbook is fatter, my recycling bin leaner, and I even have more time to talk to my wife in the mornings while I drink my coffee.

Did we miss the newspaper?

Before we could address that question, a very strange thing happened. Apparently someone at the Morning News already had anticipated decisions by people like us.

The first day without a newspaper on our front porch a friend mentioned his puzzlement over a a smaller version of the Dallas Morning News, called Briefing, that landed in his front yard four days a week. He wondered whether someone was going to stick him with a bill some day, so he gave me a copy of the newspaper to inspect for the answer. I immediately realized that Briefing was a condensed form of the Dallas newspaper. Small and compact, it had shortened versions of most of the newspaper's main articles. It was easy and quick to read. Best of all it was delivered FREE (said so, by the way, on page 1 of every edition).

I called the Dallas Morning News to confirm that Briefing is truly free and then subscribed immediately. 

Since Briefing arrives only four days a week, I occasionally miss the newspaper the other three days, but I've quickly adjusted to the change. 

As I reflect on our personal decision and the newspaper's response to a changing business climate, I marvel that someone in the Morning News' leadership had the foresight and wisdom to break with the newspaper's own traditions and prepare for a future very much unlike its present or past. Many call newspapers a dying breed; what's really dying are newspapers’ abilities to "break" news stories ahead of other media, to charge readers for their "breaking" news, and  to do business "as we've always done it". 

All around us incredible changes are occurring at the speed of sound. Even churches, so often the bastions of complacency, are changing—maybe not as fast as they can, should, or need to. Rapid change seems inevitable today for every institution and person, including churches and other houses of worship. 

"Change or die" is an old slogan. "Change or get run over in the stampede" is another way I would put it.

Had I known the Morning News was ahead of its game (but deftly not sending me a notice that I didn't have to keep paying my subscription fees in order to get its smaller paper), I doubt that I would have dallied for nearly a year before I canceled my subscription. 

Next time I won't fret for so long over making a change I know in my heart is necessary. I hope I can say similar words like I said about the far-thinking approach at the Dallas Morning News about changes that need to occur in other institutions in our lives.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Baylor Alumni Association fails to reflect the school's diversity, width, and breadth

One of the many things I enjoyed about being a big-city newspaper reporter was personal access to news events and newsmakers.  Instead of having to read about people and events through the filter of others, I was there as an  eyewitness.

I was reminded of this perk the other day when I drove past the place in which the much-anticipated meeting for the Baylor Alumni Association was about to be held. My wife said to me, "You like to see things firsthand, so why don't you just go on in?" So I did.

Kay knew that for the past several years I've been concerned about the direction the BAA has taken.

What I saw and heard at that meeting in the chapel at Truett Seminary on the Baylor campus confirmed my worst fears. While proclaiming its desire to represent all Baylor alumni and be the true and independent voice for all Baylor graduates, the organization has in effect been hijacked by a small group of disgruntled alumni who have a political agenda (a.k.a. "an axe to grind!") that they are very carefully carrying out.

Seldom do I attend a meeting in which I feel I am among the youngest in the audience. Even though I am 63, I felt a virtual youngster at this meeting. As I looked around I saw an overabundance of people who could best be described as a "Who Was Who" at Baylor many years ago. These former administrators, former faculty members, and former student leaders seemed to have one agenda: to re-claim the days of yesteryear.

This tiny minority of alumni want to turn the clock back to the days when Herbert H. Reynolds ran the university with his iron fist—the days when everything on campus was as Herb wanted it to be, or else. Or else included faculty and students—liberal or conservative—who didn't bow to his authority and were shunned or tossed aside. The group also didn't want to acknowledge that the glory days of Robert Sloan, Herb's young and visionary successor, ever existed. Many in the room were in the mob that at Herb's instigation ran off Sloan, throwing the university into its current state of political instability and chaos.

At the BAA meeting Herb's name, history, and family were invoked numerous times—almost causing some of his loyalists to genuflect—while Sloan's name, history and family were never acknowledged or present in any way.  Herb's daughter, Rhonda, who led the attacks on Sloan, sits on the BAA board and at this meeting was awarded an honorary leadership position; his widow, Joy, was introduced with adulation. But nary a word was said about Sloan, his wife, Sue, or any of their seven children who like their parents also are Baylor graduates. Nor was a kind word said at all about Sloan's wounded friends or allies or any of the good things accomplished under the Sloan administration. 

I easily concluded that working together for the benefit of ALL Baylor alumni is simply not on the agenda of BAA. Instead divisiveness fills its agenda.

The focus of the meeting was on the current Baylor administration's proposal to assist the BAA in becoming what it should be--a forum for ALL Baylor alumni that unites and motivates instead of divides and weakens.  Instead of supporting the administration's plan, the folks gathered at the BAA meeting last Friday were poised to spit in the eye of yet another administration (the third since Reynolds) that they cannot control.
Several days after the meeting, the Baylor administration withdrew its fair-and-balanced proposal, basically letting the BAA wander off on its divisive and schismatic way. 

Baylor needs to march forward into its bright future acknowledging the diversity of its large group of alumni and its great past, including the many good things accomplished by both the Reynolds and Sloan as well as other administrations. What it doesn't need is a small band of gray-haired, angry, schismatics continuing to masquerade as speaking for alumni that they truly don't have any intention of representing fairly. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Can the SBC reinvent itself as a powerful force for God today?

Just a few short months ago Southern Baptists seemed determined to stonewall their deteriorating denominational situation.

Like ostriches with their heads stuck in the sand, SBC denominational leaders and laypeople alike seemed oblivious to declining baptisms, dwindling membership, and shrinking income—not to mention weakening morale in many quarters, especially among younger members.

Then late spring arrived and with it the so-called Great Commission Resurgence movement. At first the movement sounded like the kind of reform uprising the SBC so desperately needs—one led by laypeople from the grassroots up. Then just as quickly the denomination's bureaucracy rose up to seize control of the movement. The movement was institutionalized into a special SBC committee filled to the rafters with a wide assortment of SBC politicos and bureaucrats and only few of them genuine laypeople, women, or from the under-30 crowd.

After the committee's formation I was tempted to write a blog entitled "Can the SBC bureaucracy save itself?" (Perhaps in the end this committee will be able to muster the courage, insights and influence necessary to make the required dramatic changes, but I remain skeptical because too many politicians and bureaucrats are now involved. What isn't needed is a simple rearranging of the chairs on the deck of this Titanic!) Before I could pen that column, however, the situation at the top of the denomination began to unravel further.

The first blow occurred when trustees of the denomination's North American Mission Board unceremoniously dumped their new president and top staff (allowing them to "resign", of course)—a strong indication, which is widely known, that the agency is faltering badly.

Then last week the president of the SBC's mammoth International Mission Board, Jerry Rankin, suddenly announced plans to retire and step down by next summer. That bombshell was followed by the announcement this week that Morris Chapman, president of the SBC's powerful Executive Committee, is also making plans to exit the stage. Both men are 68 and neither has been inclined to go quietly into the night to pave the way for younger successors.

So what's going on in the midst of all this upheaval?

What was once a swirling mess is now churning into what looks like a denominational hurricane.

1. The decline in baptisms and church membership is serious business for a denomination that has had a decades-long love attraction to growth and big numbers. While the statistical decline so far has been minimal, any decline at all is like a bullet in the heart to a denomination that has attached its star and too much importance to rising numbers.

2. The economic recession is real and Southern Baptists have not been immune to the pain in the pocketbook of average Americans. Less money in Southern Baptist homes means less money in local church offering plates, which in turn means less money for the denominational bureaucracy to lay claim to. Unfortunately the SBC has lived too long on the illusion that the money supply will always expand—seen as another this-worldly sign of God's blessings on the denomination. SBC leaders know real emotional pain will follow dwindling dollars.

3. As I said in my book, Witness to the Truth, published 16 months ago, the SBC's entire bureaucracy is antiquated and in dire need of reform, revision, and dramatic downsizing. When they first took control of the SBC bureaucracy in the early 1990s, Conservative SBC leaders badly misjudged the situation they inherited from their Moderate predecessors. Had they not been so awestruck by the denomination's wealth and resources at their disposal, they might have stayed true to their original plans to downsize and severely overhaul the denomination's expensive, cumbersome and far-flung structures. Instead they liked the spoils of their war with the moderates too much and opted instead to mimic those they defeated. For starters, the denomination desperately needs to revise its way of propelling leaders into its hierarchy; setting term limits on agency heads and seminary presidents would be another worthy goal.

4. The technological revolution swirling around us is making many institutions obsolete, including many church organizations. Unfortunately, churches themselves are not immune to this trend. Facebook and Twitter provide social connections Sunday-school classes once provided. The Internet and cable TV expand our ability to tune in to a whole smorgasbord of preachers, theological discussions, and "religious" experiences for a lot less investment of time, money, emotions, and resources.

Meanwhile far too many SBC churches as well as others want to do things "like we've always done them"; they presume their traditions are written in the Bible instead of their own narrow ethno-linguistic Southern cultures.

5. Many denominational structures are ill-equipped for today when people don't need mission boards to find them places of service or money to support them, when givers to church want to see real progress and results from the money they are asked to invest instead of just trusting whatever religious leader puffs enough smoke, when old-line missions supporters are dying off at a fast clip and younger ones are not lining up to take their places at the offering plates; and when people in general want to cut across artificial denominational, political, and economic boundaries in search of things that help them live better lives in a more crowded, more complex, more dangerous, and a less-religious world.

Like people witnessing a dam that has broken, Southern Baptists today face a rising tide of transition that will determine whether the denomination as we know it will live on as a dying, myopic, irrelevant, isolated, navel-gazing institution or somehow dramatically reinvent itself as a powerful global force for God and good in our culture and world today.

I vote for reinvention, but then I'm just one lone voice crying in the wilderness of the Internet. Inertia and the fear of change are always major stumblingblocks to any real reform.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Health-care reform is absolutely necessary!

After 16 years of elder-care responsibilities, Kay and I have entered a new era in our lives in which all the family members of our parents' generation have now gone to be with the Lord. With the passing in May of the sole survivor at 102 that makes us now a part of the oldest living generation in our families.

During those 16 years we had our own health issues as well as had to watch over the health care needs of six different relatives. That gave us a lot of first-hand experience with America's health care system. We learned many lessons—much of which is now being played out these days in the national debate on health-care reform.

I am rather amazed at how some of the conclusions I reached during the past 16 years—that health-care reform is absolutely necessary—are now center stage in the public health-care reform debate. My positions on this issue track better with the Mainline Protestant denominations than with my historical Evangelical roots. Sadly, the two groups are severely polarized today on this issue, with the Mainline groups lining up for reform and the Evangelicals running pitched battles against it. Rather than looking for the "right" position or the biblical position, unfortunately today's Evangelical leaders seem unmovable in their allegiance to any position the Republican Party pronounces, including medical-care reform.

Take, for instance, the matter of the primary-care physician, a centerpiece in the reform discussions. Over the years we've chauffered elderly loved ones to just about every specialist you can imagine. But their primary-care physicians always remained our favorites. They were there through thick and thin, through one illness or trauma after the next, while specialists entered and left the stage in a dizzying cycle. Managing the medical bills for most of our crew, I always noticed one consistent fact: how much more the specialists got paid when contrasted to the primary-care doctors. And ofttimes I couldn't figure out why. I also wondered why we had to use specialists instead of requesting that the primary-care physicians treat all matters.

On a repeat visit to one specialist, the doctor asked our elderly loved one to hold up her hands and move her fingers back and forth. That was all. Very little conversation. No new prescription. Just show me that you can move your fingers. "Take Tylenol if the arthritis flares up again," the doctor said. A total of two minutes in this doc's presence. The bill: $200.00, most of which Medicare and her supplemental insurance policy paid and which was more than double what the primary-care doctor would have charged.

My favorite story about a specialist involves a young ob-gyn physician who was called in to evaluate something unusual on a hospital x-ray. Apparently he'd never before seen a partial hysterectomy, which was popular back in the 1940s—his grandmothers' era. He puzzled over what the remains he saw on an X-ray could be. Then much to everyone's surprise he recommended our elderly loved one start taking hormones to see if her long-dormant menstrual cycle would start again. Quipped the loved one, "Young man, don't you realize I am nearly 100 years old; that's the most ridiculous idea I've ever heard! We are absolutely not going to do that." The displeased doctor stomped off, leaving all of us in the room laughing and me dialing my cellphone to ask the primary-care physician to make sure the "specialist" was released immediately from the case.

Just because a doctor can do something and it's covered by a medical insurance doesn't mean he or she should do it! Common sense needs to prevail.

Besides the inequity in the payments to the primary-care physician, what I remember most were:

1. How a single-payer system would certainly save trees and lots and lots of confusion and time on the part of the individual and/or his/her caretaker. The blizzard of paperwork I had to sort through trying to make heads or tails of all the medical bills and all the paperwork doctors, hospitals, Medicare and the insurance companies could generate was ridiculous.

2. Clearer, simpler rules certainly need to be mandatory. Medical rules and mistakes today can be extremely confusing, contradictory, and very costly. For instance, doctors often forget to mention things such as Medicare's requirement that the oxygen level be 88 or less for Medicare to pay for oxygen—while nursing homes require doctors to unprescribe oxygen before they will remove it from a resident, even when their oxygen level returns to normal. So, guess who pays when oxygen is provided that Medicare and insurance companies say is not necessary and won't cover?

3. Health care ought to be a right rather than a privilege. Today money buys health care. Mention that an elderly person has both Medicare and a good supplemental health insurance policy and adequate resources and no doctor blinks twice at signing up the person for anything. And I mean anything! No test is spared when the financial formula is right. (Contrast that to a time more than 20 years ago when I was unemployed and without health insurance and a medical secretary demanded advance payment immediately for a minor checkup!) Ethically money should not be the determining factor in deciding whether someone gets medical care.

4. Clearer, cleaner, less how-much-money-can-the-medical-community-make rules are needed for end-of-life issues. A medical directive, medical power of attorney, and living will are all absolutely necessary today in order to avoid costly, unnecessary medical intervention. Medical personnel will bombard a dying loved one with every medicine, idea and device they can possibly think of regardless of cost, practicality, or reasonableness until someone screams "Enough is enough is enough!" Medical decisions need to be based on what is right, not on how much money medical institutions and personnel can make off people and their insurance providers at the end of life.

Do we need health-care reform in this country? Absolutely! The National Council of Churches recently rolled out an impressive array of religious leaders in this country who say the time is long overdue for a revision. On this particular issue, these religious leaders clearly are pointing in the right direction. They need to be heard.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Once again: Jesus Christ was not a right-wing Republican, nor a left-wing Democrat

In the years before the Conservative Resurgence, Southern Baptist Moderates, who ruled the SBC at the time, moved ever closer to total alignment with the Southern wing of the Democratic Party. This was personified by President Jimmy Carter, himself a former SBC politico. 

In their love for Carter, SBC leaders then failed to note a political shift occurring right beneath their noses across the country and even in their own denomination—a shift which eventually brought on the Ronald Reagan revolution and all of its attendant conservative philosophies.

Will history now repeat itself again?

The SBC today could be renamed the Republican Baptist Convention. When the Republican Party sneezes, SBC leaders pop up with handkerchiefs and hand sanitizers. Their alignment with the Republican Party far exceeds the love affair the Moderates had with Carter back in the late 1970s.

Recently Richard Land of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission produced yet another column in Baptist Press taking the standard Republican Party line, this time on the nomination of Supreme Court nominee federal Judge Sonia Sotomayor. That's just the latest of his and other SBC leaders' statements that read as though they fell right out of the Republican Party play book.

SBC leaders could take some important lessons from the late Pope John Paul II. In 1979 when he set out to corral the excessive political involvement of some of his priests, particularly the Jesuits, John Paul said, "Jesus Christ was no political revolutionary and his priests are not to be either."

I was at the meeting in Puebla, Mexico, where John Paul made that famous statement. I was impressed with the wisdom in his words then and have been increasingly so over the years.

I very much admired the way John Paul II dealt with this issue.  He was outspoken on various political points of view, yet no one could label him a particular party member. He had his own firm beliefs about many issues, yet he was able to speak out on social and ethical issues of his day without aligning himself with any particular political leader or party. He was, in other words, his "own man". He wasn't in the hip pocket of any politician or political party.

Through the past four decades I've often written and spoken on my basic belief that Jesus Christ was neither a Republican nor a Democrat and that church leaders err when they cozy up to one political party or the other. I believe firmly the church's agenda should never be fully aligned with any secular political party. 

Church leaders need to speak to social, ethical, and biblical issues as addressed in the Bible, not act in lock-step unison with one political party or the other.

SBC leaders today would do well to remember what happened to the former SBC leaders  when they became so obsessed with Carter and his version of Christianity as represented by the Democratic Party in the 1970s. Very soon they found themselves on the outs with the majority within the SBC, who opted to join in the Reagan revolution.

As with the days of Jimmy Carter, these are times of great political, social, and economic ferment and turmoil. If SBC leaders today keep opposing everything President Obama does and keep jumping at every play called by the Republican Party while the Republican Party continues to sink in public polls, SBC Conservative leaders today just could find themselves in the same mud puddle the Moderate leaders found themselves in during the aftermath of the Carter presidency.

Southern Baptists do not have a long history with the Republican Party. In fact, for more than 100 years, the Southern in Southern Baptist yielded a great disdain for the Party of Lincoln. A major component in the shift in the SBC's political loyalty occurred because of the rising affluence among Southern Baptists in general and the party's strategy to attract Southern loyalists in particular. 

Somebody needs to tell Southern Baptist leaders today that it's time to take a deep breath, stand back from all the political wrangling, and start quoting the entirety of their inerrant Bibles instead of dancing to the tune of the right wing of the secular Republican Party. 

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Are Southern Baptists ready to wake up, smell the coffee, and do something about their bloated, irrelevant bureaucracy?

A key, sitting Southern Baptist leader has finally admitted publicly the truth about the denomination's wasteful, irrelevant, unnecessary, and gigantic bureaucracy.

Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC, this week spoke the truth when he said, "We (Southern Baptists) have become bloated and bureaucratic."

"It is easier to move some things through the federal government than the Southern Baptist Convention. Overlap and duplication in our associations, state and national conventions is strangling us," Akin said. "We waste time and resources, and many are fed up.

"The rally cry of the Conservative Resurgence was, 'We will not give our monies to liberal institutions.' Now the cry of the Great Commission Resurgence is, 'We will not give our money to bloated bureaucracies.'"

According to Baptist Press, "Akin called on Southern Baptist leaders to rethink everything they do—boards, organizations, agencies, structures—in light of a Great Commission agenda that maximizes cooperation and minimizes bureaucracy in planting churches and getting the Gospel to all people, everywhere."

I just hope and pray the average Southern Baptists in the pew will listen intently to Akin's words. I also hope and pray the SBC bureaucracy won't muzzle, character assassinate, or try to harm Akin for speaking the truth.

As I've said many times over the years, the SBC bureaucracy is the largest and most cumbersome church organization in the United States today.  While Southern Baptists used to point fingers of shame at the Roman Catholic Church for its curia and its bureaucratic style, members of America's largest Protestant denomination were actually busy constructing their own indigenous form of the Catholic curia that dwarfs anything the Roman Catholic Church has in America today.

If the Southern Baptist Convention were a regular business, its wealth and personnel would rival some of the biggest companies in America today. So vast is the denomination's enterprise that it's difficult to calculate all the billions of its assets, all the thousands of its employees, and all the tentacles of the organization that reach into almost every country in the world today.

Yet the graying denomination today is mired in its own form of recession—falling church rolls, declining income, stagnated purpose, fragmented direction, and dwindling support among its next generation of church lay people and leaders.

Life in Southern Baptist's mammoth "Baptistdom" (my term for the SBC bureaucracy) has taken on a form of its own. It often would be unrecognizable to the SBC's founders and first-century Christians.  More Southern than Baptist, more polite than effective, more navel-gazing than evangelical, the SBC's bureaucracy looks more like the federal bureaucracy than it does the biblical City of God Set on a Hill that it should be.

A couple of days ago I was chatting on the phone in a personal conversation with a former top leader of the SBC. He surprised me greatly when he suddenly said, "You know, Louis, we Conservatives have done a really poor job of managing the denomination's bureaucracy. I have to admit that the Moderates were much better at it." 

Bullseye!  The Moderates built the foundation and first tier of the Southern Baptist curia. And they managed their creation very well. The Conservatives revolted, took it over, and at first threatened to downsize it, reform it, and minimize it. Then they suddenly made a U-turn when they found the wealth, power, and creature comforts the bureaucracy affords so appealing.

In a day when taxpayer anger threatens the federal, state, and local governments as well as multinational corporations, Baptistdom could face severe headaches when SBC church members wake up, smell the coffee, and realize how much of their hard-earned tithes and offerings are wasted on airplane tickets, hotel rooms, catered lunches, fancy automobiles, beautiful offices, above-average salaries, wasteful practices, and all the other perks and accouterments that feed the denomination's bloated and ineffective bureaucracy.

We'll discuss this further in the days ahead. For now, keep your eye on Daniel Akin and what develops from his recent comments. Let's all pray he gets the respect he deserves for such courageous and right-on remarks.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Three key reasons why the SBC is losing members

After rocking along for years showing small numerical increases in membership, the Southern Baptist Convention finally has reported a loss. The tiny drop is the beginning of what many believe could become an avalanche.

The reasons for the situation are multiple. Screaming "do more evangelism", as some are prone to do, merely puts a small bandage on the matter. This has been the hue and cry of denominational leaders at least since World War II.

The membership slowdown—now a statistical decline—doesn't surprise those of us who know the denomination well. The drop has been on the horizon for years. The biggest surprise is why this negative report has taken so long to occur.

The drop in membership has nothing to do whatsoever with the Conservative-Moderate theological war that was waged within the denomination 1979 to 1991. The surprise was that despite all that brouhaha, the denomination didn't tip into negative numbers back in those days. The Conservatives have been in power long enough now that they can't lay the blame of this current situation at the feet of the Moderates.  That worn-out excuse won't hunt in 2009.

The current issues are threefold:

1. For more than 30 years the denomination has failed to demand that its congregations clean up their rolls and keep accurate membership records. Instead denominational leaders blissfully skipped along acting as though the membership numbers they were reporting were the real thing and knowing full well a time bomb was ticking away. Most pastors, church staff, and knowledgeable lay people on both sides of the political fence knew differently. They knew that year by year the numbers on those rolls were flooded with names of people who couldn't be found—either because they had died, had moved away with no forwarding address, or simply had exited out the church's back door without so much as leaving a goodbye note. This is one reason that within the denomination the hue and cry over the decline hasn't been more severe. Most lay and clergy leaders have known for a long time that their numbers are radioactive and unreliable.

2. The shift of the denomination during the past 25 years from its Southern Democratic roots to its current right-wing Republicanism has precipitated a massive polarization within the denomination that is thwarting its original goal to evangelize any potential candidate anywhere. People who are not aligned with the Republican Party no longer are comfortable—or even welcome—in denominational or church-leadership roles. 

Marrying theology and politics—and aborting the once-cherished principle of the separation of church and state—now drives away potential converts to the Southern Baptist fold.  As I keep asking Southern Baptist friends over and over, "What supporter of President Barack Obama in his or her right mind would want to attend—let alone join—a Southern Baptist church right now given the negative and sour political climate within the denomination and its churches against them and the man they admire?" Salvation isn't about how one voted last November, though some Southern Baptists seem determined to add that as a new pre-condition—even putting it before baptism.

3. The obsession of the denomination's leadership with "strategy" and "training" instead of leading by example is a major flaw that has led and will continue to lead to diminishing numbers of candidates for salvation and baptism. Except when called on to do showcase events, many higher-ups in the denomination's pecking order are less likely today to engage in real, old-fashioned, regular, shoe-leather witnessing to individuals and more likely to engage in bureaucratic "strategy" planning and training of others. On down the hierarchical line many pastors and church staff have picked up this "Do-as-I-say-not-do-as-I-do" attitude. 

Simultaneously Southern Baptist lay people are more and more expecting "the church staff" to do the work of the ministry. That work includes bringing in new converts and new members. 

With Southern Baptist clergy and lay people at such an impasse, does anyone wonder that Southern Baptist baptisms are declining and church membership is stagnated and ready to head downhill? The gridlock begs the question, who is doing the work now that once grew the SBC into the largest Protestant denomination in America?

Other factors, such as the breakdown of the traditional family, the rise of independent and Bible churches, the lure and effectiveness of the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses among Southern Baptists, and the declining U.S. birthrate contribute to the drop in SBC numbers. Those are easier to cite—and hide behind—than the Big Three I've named. (For more information on the meltdown of religion in the average American's life be sure and note the new American Religious Identification Survey released today.)

Interestingly, Southern Baptist leaders seem mostly uninterested in addressing the matter of their shrinking numbers. Perhaps they believe "benign neglect" is their best approach.

The real issues I've addressed in this column call for tough actions. My hunch is Southern Baptists are no longer up for the challenge. They'd much rather stick their heads in the sand about their long-neglected, bloated church rolls, their divisive Republicanism, and their leaders who aren't really leading by example—and instead continue to beat the worn-out, guilt-producing, old drum song "do more evangelism".  

Yes, more evangelism may be needed particularly by both upper-echelon clergy and lay people, but simultaneously and more importantly major efforts are needed to clear the boulders and obstacles blocking the path to growth.  Otherwise these trends will continue and the SBC membership someday may look like the decimated memberships of the Mainline Protestant denominations, from whom the SBC has so readily tried to distance itself.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Eye-popping figures on SBC, RCC memberships released by National Council of Churches

The following press release from the National Council of Churches is one of the most significant religious developments this decade.  After bucking the trends that decimated other Christian bodies in the United States for the last 30 years, the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. and the Southern Baptist Convention are both now posting numerical losses.

The source cited is one of the most reliable and authoritative information sources for church life today.

I will be writing more about this later, but I want my readers to see this breaking news now:

NCC's 2009 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches
reports decline in Catholic, Southern Baptist membership

New York, February 23, 2009 -- The 77th annual edition of the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches , long a highly regarded chronicler of growth and financial trends of religious institutions, records a slight but startling decline in membership of the nation's largest Christian communions.

Membership in the Roman Catholic Church declined 0.59 percent and the Southern Baptist Convention declined 0.24 percent, according to the 2009 edition of the Yearbook, edited by the National Council of Churches and published by Abingdon.

The figures indicate that the Catholic church lost 398,000 members since the appearance of the 2008 Yearbook. Southern Baptists lost nearly 40,000 members.

Both membership figures were compiled by the churches in 2007 and reported to the Yearbook in 2008. The 2009 Yearbook also includes an essay by the editor, the Rev. Dr. Eileen W. Lindner, on the various ways churches count their members.

Neither figure is earth-shattering given the size of the churches. Roman Catholics compose the nation's largest church with a membership of 67,117,016, and Southern Baptists rank second in the nation at 16,266,920.

But this year's reported decline raises eyebrows because Catholic and Southern Baptist membership has grown dependably over the years. Now they join virtually every mainline church in reporting a membership decline.

According to the 2009 Yearbook, among the 25 largest churches in the U.S., four are growing: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (up 1.63 percent to 5,873,408; the Assemblies of God (up 0.96 percent to 2,863,265); Jehovah's Witnesses (up 2.12 percent to 1,092,169); and the Church of God of Cleveland, Tenn. (up 2.04 percent to 1,053,642).

There are no clear-cut theological or sociological reasons for church growth or decline, says Editor Lindner. "Many churches are feeling the impact of the lifestyles of younger generations of church-goers -- the 'Gen X'ers' or "Millenials' in their 20s and 30s who attend and support local congregations but resist joining them."

But former Southern Baptist President Frank Page told the Associated Press that the decline in his denomination was troubling because of the Southern Baptist emphasis on winning souls.

Page called on Southern Baptists to "recommit to a life of loving people and ministering to people without strings attached so people will be more open to hearing the Gospel message."

Lindner writes, "A slowing of the rate of growth of some churches and the decline of membership of others ought to be the focus of continued research and and thoughtful inquiry."

Churches listed in the Yearbook as experiencing the highest rate of membership loss are the United Church of Christ (down 6.01 percent), the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (down 3.01 percent), the Presbyterian Church (USA) (down 2.79 percent), the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (down 1.44 percent) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (down 1.35 percent), American Baptist Churches USA, on the other hand, cut its previous decline rate of 1.82 percent in half, now reporting a decline of 0.94 percent.

Membership of the top 25 churches in the U.S. totals 146,663,972 -- down 0.49 percent from last year's total of 147,382,460.

The top 25 churches reported in the 2009 Yearbook are in order of size:
The Roman Catholic Church, 67,117,06 members, down 0.59 percent. (Ranked 1)
The Southern Baptist Convention, 16,266,920 members, down 0.24 percent. (Ranked 2)
The United Methodist Church, 7,931,733 members, down 0.80 percent. (Ranked 3)
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 5,873,408 members, up 1.63 percent .(Ranked 4)
The Church of God in Christ, 5,499,875 members, no change reported. (Ranked 5)
National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., 5,000,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 6)
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 4,709,956 members, down 1.35 percent. (Ranked 7)
National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., 3,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 8)
Presbyterian Church (USA), 2,941,412 members, down 2.79 percent (Ranked 9)
Assemblies of God, 2,863,265 members, up 0.96 percent. (Ranked 10)
African Methodist Episcopal Church, 2,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 11)
National Missionary Baptist Convention of America, 2,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 11)
Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., 2,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 11)
The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS), 2,383,084 members, down 1.44 percent. (Ranked 14)
The Episcopal Church, 2,116,749 members, down 1.76 percent. (Ranked 15)
Churches of Christ, 1,639,495 members, no change reported. (Ranked 16)
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, 1,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 17)
Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, Inc., 1,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 17)
The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, 1,400,000 members, down 3.01 percent. (Ranked 19)
American Baptist Churches in the USA, 1,358,351, down 0.94 percent. (Ranked 20)
Baptist Bible Fellowship International, 1,200,000, no change reported. (Ranked 21)
United Church of Christ, 1,145,281 members, down 6.01 percent. (Ranked 22)
Jehovah's Witnesses, 1,092,169 members, up 2.12 percent (Ranked 23)
Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, 1,071,616 members, no change reported. (Ranked 24)
Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), 1,053,642 members, up 2.04 percent. (Ranked 25)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Trend toward hiding church-staff, church-bureaucracy salaries needs to be reversed

Churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions would do well to take note of the rising anger in the public over those huge salaries and bonuses big-name bankers and Wall Street brokers are making and take appropriate transparent action quickly.

Simmering below the surface is a salary issue that's been lurking and building in the religious community for decades.

Once upon a time everyone in most Protestant congregations knew the salaries of the pastor, staff members, and even denominational leaders. Not any more. Following a four-decade trend, hiding these salaries from the view of even the most involved congregants has become commonplace.

The move toward secrecy parallels the dramatic rise in church-staff and church-bureaucracy salaries. Except in isolated (mostly rural) situations, church workers today are paid commensurate with—sometimes better than—secular employees elsewhere.

Pastors, church staff, and church-bureaucracy staff certainly deserve to be paid adequately for their work. Most of the time they serve diligently and faithfully. No one I know or have read on this issue argues against that. The concern is with the secrecy that has evolved in trying to pay these employees fairly. 

As a child growing up in a Southern Baptist churches in Oklahoma City I was accustomed to the annual Wednesday Night Business Meeting discussion about how much the pastor should be paid. I just presumed that was how all churches behaved and would continue to act. Our pastor always made more than either of my parents or many other members of our church did. The discussions and tap-dancing that ensued were always fascinating to watch—probably a little uncomfortable for our well-educated, politically connected pastor but a good, clean, transparent airing of what otherwise would have been undercurrent gossip in the church.

My awakening that this wasn't the way all churches operated occurred in the early 1970s, after Kay and I moved to Houston and joined a large (now moderate) Southern Baptist church.  Noticeably absent in the church's annual report was a breakdown of staff salaries.  After the business session I politely approached the finance-committee chairperson and asked why that information was not in the printed budget I had received. His reply still rings in my ears: "If you want that information, you need to go ask the pastor for it. You'll have to present your reasons before he'll give it to you."  

My reply to that was, "So the fox is now guarding the hen-house door. How interesting!"

That episode alerted me to be on the look out for similar behaviors in other church setting. Sure enough the trend was emerging and building fast in many churches and denominations.

Southern Baptist Conservatives rode into power in the early 1990s proclaiming their concern about secret salaries and often said denominational bureaucracy salaries were too high.  Once in power, however, they quickly forgot that agenda. By 2005 the SBC Executive Committee, the power center of the denomination, was even fighting against some of its own trustees who claimed specific salary information was being withheld from them.

Camouflaging the issue is the fact that a few churches and denominational agencies continue to make salaries public. These handful are often cited by church officials as examples of openness in order to cover up the wider trend. 

Also confusing the issue is the fact that church "salaries" are often not the full picture of what a church employee is really paid. Few lay people today truly understand the parsonage-allowance concept and how it can protect as much as half a pastor's salary from taxes and public scrutiny. Just as with those highly paid Wall Street bankers and corporate executives, church and denominational salaries need to be understood in the context of the whole "salary package"—bonuses, housing allowance, tax subsidies, benefits, and so forth.

So, are some church officials' salaries in the league with those corporate executives whose salary packages are drawing fire today? No one can say for sure, since secrecy continues to rule the day in far too many congregations and denominational agencies.

Transparency, openness, and honesty are hallmarks of earlier church times that are just as needed today as they were then—maybe even more so given the current economic crisis and concern about "salaries" that have grown too large for the average person to comprehend.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Read this great article in Church Executive magazine

This one is short and sweet:

Church Executive magazine did a superb interview with me about Witness to the Truth. Ronald Keener, the reporter, asked some very insightful questions. His format is question-and-answer.

Click on the two links below to read parts 1 and 2 of the whole article:

I'm looking forward to meeting reporter Ron in person on Monday. He did his outstanding interview via phone and email.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Reflections on two presidential inaugurations 40 years apart

Forty years ago, on January 20, I was serving as editor of The Baylor Lariat, the student newspaper at Baylor University in Waco, TX, and busy supervising the newspaper's coverage of the inauguration of Richard Nixon to succeed Lyndon B. Johnson as President of the United States.
Our student newspaper desks contained the old Royal manual typewriters. Stories were typed on paper, then edited by hand before being transported by foot across campus to the Baylor Press, where they were keypunched into an old linotype machine complete with hot, molten metal.
We watched the Nixon inauguration on a 13-inch, black-and-white TV carted into The Lariat newsroom for inauguration day. We obtained our Associated Press wire stories about the event from an old AP machine that noisily flowed a steady stream of paper from its top.
This past Tuesday, January 20, I thought back to those days while I visited The Baylor Lariat offices, one of my few times since 1969 to be there. I just marveled at how things had changed and yet how they had remained so much the same.
Student reporters this week sat in front of beautiful, clean iMac screens. They watched the news on a large, overhead color TV that appeared to be a permanent fixture in The Lariat newsroom. Their news of the inauguration of Barack Obama arrived via emails and blogs written by four Lariat students in D.C. for the event. (Student reporters in my day would have been blown away by the possibility of The Lariat paying their way to Washington for the inauguration.) Lariat stories and layouts of the paper moved electronically at lightning speed across campus to the printing presses of the local Waco newspaper.  
Watching President Obama's inauguration also stirred other memories of four decades earlier. I entered Baylor the same semester John Westbrook broke the racial barrier, moved into Baylor's Martin Hall (where I lived at the time), and joined the Baylor Bears on the football field. As The Lariat editor in 1968-69, I hired the first African-American reporter for the school's newspaper. His name was Willie White. I worked diligently to see that he was in line to become editor of The Lariat two years later. I also wrote an editorial in The Lariat welcoming Dr. Vivienne Mayes as the first Baylor professor of African-American heritage to the campus. My editorial scolded the Baylor administration for waiting so long to hire a black professor and also for trying to play down the fact that Dr. Mayes had been denied admission as a student some years earlier because of her race.
So here I was 40 years to the day later sitting in The Lariat newsroom watching on TV as America inaugurated its first President of African-American heritage. The goose bumps told me that was actually more overwhelming than was seeing the computers sitting on the students' desks.

(Adding to my feeling of being surrounded by history, later that day I also was on Interstate 35 after former President George Bush landed in Waco and his motorcade traveled on to Crawford.)
I was there as a guest of the Journalism Department to talk about my career in religion journalism and my new book, Witness to the Truth about my 40-year career. I spent two days lecturing in classes, chatting with students, and visiting with professors in both the journalism and religion departments. What a marvelous and humbling experience it was!
I must admit I felt a bit ancient looking into the faces of the young student journalists—and even into the faces of many of the journalism professors. I was grateful that my host, longtime friend from college days and now Baylor journalism professor Mike Blackman, accompanied me most of the time I faced the youngsters.

I also thanked God that most of the religion professors with whom I dined were around my vintage.
Lariat reporter Jenna Williamson did a excellent job in her interview and article about Kay and me being back in The Lariat newsroom for the inauguration coverage. (Though she certainly doesn't look like she's been around that long, Kay had been city editor of The Lariat back then.)

Students seemed bright-eyed and eager to learn. I particularly enjoyed giving lectures on ethics in the media. Some of my greatest delights arrived afterward when Jenna, Mike, and others wrote to say students were still discussing what I had to say about ethics in the field of journalism. I had been able to tell by their eyes, rapt attention, and questions that they were listening without diversion.
As Kay and I bid adieu to the faculty and students Wednesday afternoon, we felt really good about the future of newspaper reporting in the next generation. Baylor journalism grads have always been a magnificent lot. Our peers have contributed much to newspapers over the past 40 years. I'm now confident that tradition will carry forth into future years.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Personal tie to Sanctity issue sparks my special letter (and plea) to President-elect Obama

Dear President-elect Obama,

Only one issue kept me from voting for you.

As an activist during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, I so looked forward to the day when I could cast a presidential ballot for a person with an African-American heritage.  I always thought I would vote for the first African-American Presidential candidate, regardless of which party, when he or she got his or her party's Presidential nomination.

I entered college the year my alma mater allowed its first African-American to become a student.  I lived in the same dorm as the young man and admired his prowess on the football field. As a newspaper reporter on the Baylor University student newspaper, The Lariat, I interviewed the first African-American faculty member at the school and dared to spotlight how years earlier she had been denied admission when she wanted to attend our school. As the student newspaper's editor, I scolded the university's administration for waiting so long to make that faculty appointment. I even won a journalism award for what I said in my editorial.  Then, I deliberately helped a young African-American journalist eventually become my successor as editor of The Baylor Lariat. (By the way, that was a feat that took decades to replicate.) 

Do you get my point?  I am so proud of you for making history this week. It hurt me greatly not to be able to vote for you.

But I still couldn't vote for you because of that one issue.

What is the issue? Abortion.

You see, Mr. President-elect, I have a very strong commitment opposing abortion. My commitment began long before my denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, changed course and became truly pro-life. In fact, long before the Southern Baptist leaders you're likely to encounter on this issue over the next few years ever spoke out against abortion publicly even one time, I was pro-life and outspoken on that position.

Today is Sanctity of Human Life Sunday in Evangelical churches across our land.  So, let me tell you on this day and on the eve of your inauguration as our nation's 44th President why I am pro-life.

It is a highly personal issue for me.

You see, I am married to an adopted person. I love her as much as you could love Michelle. We've been married almost 40 years.  She is my best friend, my soul mate, and the love of my life. She is also the mother of my beloved son and daughter and the grandmother of my only grandchild. (Call me up sometime and I'll tell you all about that 3-year-old who wraps her grandmother and grandfather around her little tiny fingers!) I love all three of them very much, too.

One day I met the woman who gave birth to my wife and made an adoption plan for her.  Back in the 1940s when people were so cruel to unwed mothers, the woman suffered much humiliation at the hands of many around her. I felt very sorry for her. Then she told me she felt so bad about being pregnant with my wife that she wanted to abort my wife and almost did.  A few missing bucks made the difference. That startled me.

Then I got to thinking.  If my wife's birthmother had aborted that baby, the love of my life would never have been able to enter my life. I would never have known the joy of being married for a very long time to a very special lady.

Then it dawned on me that my two precious children would not be here either. I can't imagine not having Matthew and Katie in my life. As children and now as adults, they have brought me untold joy and happiness. Years later when my granddaughter entered the picture, I thought, "Golly gee whiz, if Kay and I had never met and married and had our son, then this little princess would not be in my life either."

All this, of course, led me to read the Christian Scriptures more closely for an understanding of what God says about abortion. I found many passages in the Bible that underscored my concern and led me to a firm conviction about the sanctity of all human life.

Every time I think about abortion, I shudder and wonder who is going to have a great big gap in his or her life because some woman somewhere—perhaps because of humiliation, ignorance, greed, or whatever—chose to have an abortion.

I deeply regret that you do not share my perspective on this issue.  Perhaps you would if you had married a woman who had been adopted as a baby. You are lucky you never had to face such thoughts. Nevertheless, I hope and pray that some day you will rethink your support of abortion—and if not oppose it, at least not work to support it.

By the way, my wife, Kay W. Moore, is the author of Gathering the Missing Pieces in an Adopted Life, published in 1994 by Broadman and Holman and then reprinted later in 2008 by Hannibal Books. This was one of the first books ever written from a truly Evangelical Christian perspective about adoption.  It was based on a series Kay wrote in 1979 for the Houston Chronicle about her successful search (then a real novelty) for her birth mother. The series was even nominated by the Chronicle for a Pulitzer Prize. Let me know if you'd like to have a copy; I will personally see to it that you get one.

In the meanwhile, please know that I will continue to pray for you regularly, just as I have since the election. I may not have voted for you, but I truly want you to succeed. We may disagree on one major issue and maybe a few other smaller matters, but I do want you to become a truly great American President.

Blessings and Peace.

Louis Moore