On this day after the Super Bowl, I don’t find myself really inspired with much of a devotional (maybe too many chips or commercials last night), so today seems like a good day to throw together a group of things that I have been thinking about saying, sort of a “This and That” list. Here goes:

2011 Giving Reports – the initial, unaudited reports of giving from our Indiana Conference congregations for 2011 are in, and the report on our Tithing Budget is mixed. That total giving represented 92% of the estimated Tithe Budget. It is noticeable that some of our churches were “down” in their own income in 2011, and thus their tithing was down in terms of dollars. That is the plan of our tithing model – that the Conference income goes up and down with the local church income, because we are all in this together. So the conference had to use some reserves to meet its budgeted expenses. Fortunately our CFA (Council on Finance and Administration) had planned for that and had the appropriate reserves to cover the difference, but obviously that will cause CFA to watch expenses during 2012 because we want our income and expenses to more nearly meet.

$0 is Never Acceptable – most distressing to me personally is that 36 of our 1183 congregations paid $0 to the conference tithe in 2011. That number of churches was fewer than the previous year (and much fewer than in the years of the old apportionment formula), but to me $0 is never acceptable. So let me be blunt: every pastor whose church refuses to pay anything into the Conference Tithe should at least designate his or her own giving to be sent to the Conference Tithe. Our pastors are charged by the Book of Discipline to ensure payment of connectional obligations, so at the very least the pastors should witness to that obligation by designating their own tithe to the local church to go to the Conference Tithe. $0 is never acceptable, as long as the pastor has a checkbook.

90% is Much Better – the Indiana Conference paid 90% of our general church apportionments in 2011, which is up from a little over 50% by each of the former conferences in 2009 before we became the new Indiana Conference. As you may remember, the Imagine Indiana Plan committed us to move toward 100%, and we paid 80% in 2010 and 90% in 2011. Our goal (as voted by the Annual Conference Session last year) is to do 100% in 2012. I am grateful for the faithfulness and generosity of the United Methodist people of Indiana as we make these strides in our stewardship. As you may know, the proposed budget to the General Conference for the 2013-2016 period is a 6% decrease, so it may become a bit easier for us to pay 100% in future years.

Vital Congregations Prayer List – there has been a very positive response to my request that we pray for 5 churches each of the 5 weekdays of each week, so we are now posting the weekly list on the Indiana Conference web site at www.inumc.org. I hope everyone will join me in praying for our churches – remember we are praying that each congregation will be empowered to accomplish their own Vital Congregation goals for 2012. Keep praying, please.

Diversity Training and Boundaries Training for Clergy – I have noticed quite a bit of Facebook conversation about these training events which every one of our clergy is required to attend once in each four year period. That requirement was approved by the Board of Ordained Ministry, and it coordinates with the requirements in our Book of Discipline. If clergy get such training elsewhere (in their Extension Ministry employment, in their military chaplaincy work, etc.), they can have that training recognized and be excused from our Indiana Conference training but otherwise every clergy is mandated to receive this training. Why is this so important? Part of it is to help our clergy avoid the kinds of behaviors which have resulted in chargeable offenses and even trials. Part of it is because all professionals need to learn to set appropriate boundaries and to embrace diversity (if our clergy don’t think laity have to take similar training, just ask them). Mostly it is because this is a Kingdom of God issue. We want our churches to be a reflection of God’s Kingdom where all persons are treated with respect and the diverse gifts of God are celebrated. We bishops go through similar training, and I am convinced it is good for all of our clergy to do so.

Social Media Guidelines – speaking of Facebook and other social media, our Indiana Conference Center leaders are developing a set of guidelines for the use of Social Media, and we hope to share that with everyone soon. This is a relatively new issue in our culture, and we all need to think and pray together about the appropriate ways to use all forms of social media. One thing to remember up front: all social media is public, all e-mail is public, and the right to express one’s own opinion is balanced by our Christian duty to be responsible in our actions. The first of John Wesley’s rules is “do no harm” and that is a good place to start. It is also important for clergy to remember that our right to express our own opinions does not include the right to speak on behalf of the United Methodist Church (only General Conference can do that) or even to use our local congregational name as a platform for espousing personal opinions. It is also helpful to remember that the name “United Methodist Church” and the cross and flame emblems are trademarks which may not be used to profess political opinion or personal vendettas. So we are working on guidelines for social media, and I suspect that this issue will become more and more urgent for all of us, especially clergy.

What’s In a Name? – we have several churches who are being creative with their names or logos in a valid attempt, I believe, to reach newcomers and encourage them to attend. Some have asked if there is a Conference policy about names. Aside from the legal aspects of changing names for a congregation (if you need help with those legal issues, please contact Brent Williams, our Director of Administrative Services), we don’t have a policy. Perhaps we need to develop one. However, I have two suggestions to offer: 1. The first is what my mother always taught me, namely that “honesty is the best policy.” I believe a church name must be honest, it ought to reflect the truth that a congregation is a part of The United Methodist Church or at least that it is a United Methodist ministry. To hide that truth is not honest. 2. The latest consumer studies show that the name “Methodist” is a positive name in the minds of the public (the highest rating of all denominations), so if a local congregation really cares about reaching new people and attracting them, then using the name Methodist is one of the best ways to do so.

Don’t Be Anxious – as we approach General Conference, there are many voices who want to raise our anxiety levels, and some of those voices and groups even raise funds by trying to make people anxious. My best advice is this: General Conference delegates are good people, all elected by their Annual Conferences, and all of them are approaching General Conference in a spirit of prayerful discernment. So let the church be the church, and don’t be anxious. By and large, General Conference makes good decisions, and I think we can trust God to be at work through that legislative body.

As we soon move into the season of Lent and the preparation for Easter, it is a good time to remind ourselves that we live on this side of the Cross – the Easter side of life and faith. Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed. Let us live like we know it.