Unwanted Floods

In one of my volunteer roles, I serve on the board of the Insurance Board (IB) an insurance company that only insures churches. As a board member, I can combine the learning and experience of my past career as an insurance agent with my current call as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. After spending 20 years immersed in insurance, it has become a part of my identity. This past week, the IB met in Boston to talk about loss prevention, sales, marketing, underwriting, claims frequency, and other things that make my heart sing!

Since the pandemic, a problem is occurring in our church buildings that I want to alert the Presbytery of Chicago about: water damage. Because of the pandemic, there are fewer people in our church buildings during the week. A result of having fewer people in the building is that liability claims are down (fewer people to fall or get injured on church property) while water claims are way up. This is because there are fewer days when people are in the building to notice when a pipe breaks or other plumbing issues. Water is always a concern in the winter with busted pipes, but water can also be running in broken toilets, water fountains, and damaged plumbing. It is often hidden until it breaks loose through walls, ceilings, or floors.

Today, technology has come to the rescue with a device that can warn if a water leak is present. These devices can call pastor or staff and alert them of water in the building. Churches have used the device to receive warnings after a hard rain, power outage, toilet malfunction, or frozen pipes.

I’m encouraging congregations to check with their insurance company about water detection devices. In some cases, the device and monitoring service is free of charge. As Ben Franklin once said (and badly quoted by Craig Howard!), “A drop of prevention may save a flood of expenses!” Hopefully, you get the idea!

I’m attaching some photos from Boston. We met at Old South Church, UCC. This is where Benjamin Franklin was baptized!
 

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Will They Come Back?

 

Recently I was taking part in a Session conversation about the future of their church. It was clear to me that these ruling elders were living up to the standards of leadership any church would want on their Session. They were bright, articulate, deeply faithful, visionary, and sensitive to the needs of the congregation. I listened as they struggled with the question I am hearing echoed throughout the presbytery and the church beyond: “Will they come back?” Will the church be able to return to the pre-COVID attendance? How many families have discovered that it’s easier to sit at home with their children and take a “rest day” on Sunday while watching worship online? How do we plan, budget, get volunteers if we don’t know if they are even coming back? 

Sometimes we are faced with more questions than answers.

I believe we are in a unique time in the life of the church. The pandemic has simply accelerated the direction things were going before COVID. Remember those times? Membership decline. Merging, yoking, and closing of churches. Conflict over politics, leadership style, and power struggles within the congregation. The previous way we were doing church was shaking and buckling, and now it is crumbling and making the way for new forms of faithful expression. I believe we are experiencing the end of something and the beginning of something else. How exciting! How fearful!

I would like to reframe the central question from, “Will they come back?” to “Who is coming back?” One observation is that the people who are attending worship are folks who want to be there.  

I once attended a church where the pastor also ran a business, and most of the people in attendance at the church were his employees. He made it clear that if you are going to work for me, you are also going to attend my church! They didn’t want to be there, and their lack of spirit, enthusiasm, and willingness to volunteer was also evident.

The people who are sitting in our pews are present because they want to be there. Our challenge then is less about membership and more about purpose. Our focus should be less about membership rolls and more about the identity of the church. The question then shifts to, “Who are we, and who would want to be a part of our church community?”

In his book, Quietly Courageous: Leading the Church in a Changing World, Gil Rendle writes, “Stepping into questions without answers produces chaos, and chaos is the right condition in which deep change can happen. . . I simply want to recognize that the appropriate role of the leader is simply to stand with the people in their confusion and discernment in their chaos.”

The in-between time we are experiencing often feels like chaos. But when leaders stand with the congregation and with one another, God seems to sustain them and reminds all of us of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, especially during change.

Rev. Craig M. Howard


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Sanctuary of Grace

As part of my birthday vacation last week, I attended a bird photographing event at the World Bird Sanctuary just outside of St. Louis. It was an opportunity to get close to owls, falcons, eagles, and other birds. And let me tell you, they were gorgeous! The psalmist writes, “. . . I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works . . . (Psalm 134:14)” This text can also refer to these magnificent creatures I experienced at the park.

As beautiful and magnificent as each of these birds were, they were at the sanctuary because something was wrong with them. One bird was blind in one eye, another had a deformed beak. Still another could not fully grasp with its right talon. Each bird had a condition that prevented it from living in the wild and needed special attention at the sanctuary.

We are part of a flawed humanity. Even at our best we are broken and in need of spiritual repair through confession and worship. We are in need of a God who is constantly loving us toward health and repairing broken chains of relationship between one another. The church becomes a gift, a sanctuary, to people seeking love and forgiveness from a God who is seeking to love and forgive.

Sometimes we get frustrated with one another. I have attended meetings and church events where folks didn’t play well with others. At that moment I am reminded that we are broken, and even I can be out of sorts on a bad day.  

I came away from the bird sanctuary filled with grace. It is a grace I hope to extend to the congregations, sessions, campus ministries, and other institutions I visit. It is a grace I hope to receive as we do the difficult and sometimes contentious work of God’s church together. For truly we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
 

Take a look at my photos here

 

Rev. Craig M. Howard


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The Value Of A Life

I spent this past July 4th weekend attending my family reunion. The last reunion I attended was 50 years ago, and I was excited to see cousins I’d known as a pre-teen. The education and family history portion of the event were both surprising and challenging. I learned that my great grandmother Jane and her son Eli were purchased in 1800 in South Carolina by a French Huguenot to work his plantation. The bill of sale listed sundry items like a wheelbarrow, lumber, and whisky. Then it lists “Jane and her son Eli, $400.”

Seeing my flesh and blood sold and purchased brings sadness, shame, and anger. To see in print the historical record that my flesh and blood relatives had a price placed upon them is still jarring. I do not know where Jane came from. I do not know if this was her first plantation, but it would be her last. Eli was age 7 in 1800 when he was sold into slavery. I was in second grade at age 7, playing with Hot Wheels and GI Joe. Eli was a slave.

What is the value of a life? Systemic racism results in the media attention that focuses on one community while ignoring other areas of Chicagoland, which are just as traumatized. We must ask ourselves, “How we as a church are contributing to the sea of racism and classism in which we’re swimming, and what are we willing to do to change this tide?”

The slaveowner who purchased my relatives was a Huguenot, which meant he was a Calvinist. Other than myself, he is the only Presbyterian I have found in my family. When I did my genealogy, I discovered that 93 – 96% of my bloodline came from West Africa (Cameroon, Nigeria), and 3 – 6% of my bloodline from Europe (Scotland, United Kingdom, France). Is it a coincidence that this is the same area of Europe where the slave master who purchased Jane and Eli is from? I lower my head in shame realizing my people were owned and possibly abused by a Presbyterian master or his family.

From this darkest of family history comes my cousins. They are educators, artists, business owners, and professionals. There are many pastors (surprise!), prolific singers (Mary Wells from the Supremes), athletes (the boxer Joe Frazier) and just good people to hang out with.

What does the race and class history of your church or institution look like? Maybe our turbulent past is a volcano whose lava becomes the rich soil for a fruitful future. Perhaps, even the turbulence of racism, classism, and gun violence we are experiencing today may bring our presbytery closer together as we tackle the challenges of Chicagoland together. Through this current trauma, we can create a future church that truly does value all lives. May it be so.  

Rev. Craig M. Howard

 


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General Assembly Top 10

Here are the Top Ten (in no particular order), which we think will impact our Chicago Presbytery churches and members:

1. The GA Per Capita Rate – in 2023, the GA annual per capita rate will go from $8.98 to $9.85. The total 2022 total per capita rate for our presbytery is $36.00. Read more here:  https://www.pcusa.org/news/2022/7/9/assembly-approves-capita-rates-and-budgets-2023-an/  and https://oga.pcusa.org/section/departments/per-capita/  

 

2. An updated statement on the PCUSA stance on Israel / Palestine, including our prayers for peace.  Read more here: https://www.pcusa.org/news/2022/6/28/israel-and-palestine-dominate-attention-internatio/ and https://www.pcusa.org/news/2022/6/28/overture-denouncing-antisemitism-islamophobia-appr/

 

3. All presbyteries will be asked to approve new minimum Terms of Call for pastors and associate pastors, which the GA voted to include 12 weeks of paid family leave.  Read more about it: https://www.pcusa.org/news/2022/6/8/mental-health-reproductive-justice-and-family-leav/

 

4. In line with our presbytery CARE Commission, and the Matthew 25 emphasis, the GA continues to dismantle systemic racism.  Read more here: https://www.pcusa.org/news/2022/4/18/final-report-special-committee-racism-truth-and-re/  and here: https://www.pcusa.org/news/2022/6/25/committee-approves-resolution-race-public-health-c/

 

5. With the tragic event in Highland Park on July 4th, the GA continues to call for an end to gun violence:  https://www.pcusa.org/news/2022/6/24/assembly-committee-approves-the-decade-to-end-gun/

 

6. The Race and Gender committee urged the GA to apologize for the sin of slavery and repair the lasting breach of racism, including a “Litany of Repentance” which was spoken by White Christians, and a push for more installed pastors at congregations of color:  https://www.pcusa.org/news/2022/6/24/apologizing-sin-slavery-and-repairing-lasting-brea/  and  https://www.pcusa.org/news/2022/7/6/reading-first-act-repentance/

 

7. Presbyteries will be asked to vote on a new Rules of Discipline, to be renamed “Church Discipline,” including recommendations from the Survivors of Sexual Misconduct Task Force:  https://www.pcusa.org/news/2022/6/25/listening-survivors-sexual-misconduct/

 

8. The Assembly took action to reject government attempts to limit abortion care and contraceptives.  Read more here: https://www.pcusa.org/news/2022/7/8/resolution-rejects-government-attempts-limit-acces/

 

9. A Commission was formed to work toward the unification of the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency, along with work for a new funding model for the PCUSA: https://www.pcusa.org/news/2022/7/2/approving-funding-model-development-team-and-prepa/

 

10. The meeting of the 226th GA will be a mirror image of the 225th GA, with committee meetings held on Zoom and the large plenary gatherings in person, in Salt Lake City, saving the church over $835.000: https://www.pcusa.org/news/2022/7/9/ga-226-will-feature-person-plenaries-online-commit/

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