Thursday, December 3, 2009

Some Things Just Don't Come Easily

Writing is hard work, at least for me. I marvel at the way authors like Dean Koontz and Stephen King can write so prolifically while I struggle to get out a simple article once a month. They write hundreds of pages a year and I only need to knock out twelve short articles a year. I realize they’re doing it to make a living; fortunately my livelihood isn’t dependent upon my writing!

Actually, writing isn’t really the hard part. Putting words on a page is easy enough. It’s knowing what to write about -- that’s the hard part. Figuring out what to write, then doing it in an informative and entertaining fashion, that’s the hard part.

Do I right about things in the news? Tiger Woods confession. (for all have sinned) President Obama’s troop deployment to Afghanistan. (there shall be wars and rumors of wars) The New Orleans’ Saints unbeaten season. (miracles happen) I suppose I could, but you don’t read my article to keep up with stories better covered by CNN and ESPN. Nope, the news is out.

Do I write about something theological? The interface of resurrection theology and the current economic crisis. The conflict between the radical Muslim agenda and freedom of religion in America. Global warming and our stewardship responsibilities for the planet. Theology is more my style, but not too many folks are excited about the interface between theology and life.

The latest UBA happenings? Insights into the state of our churches based upon the latest Annual Church Profile reports. The upcoming Pastor to Pastor series for 2010 (the 2009 series was a big hit, btw). The impact of the Fire Torch city transformation tour. Our redesigned UBA website. Giving patterns of UBA congregations. New churches started. I could, but I write about things like this all year long. Besides, many of them are adequately covered in the emails we send out regularly. No need to be overly redundant.

I could write about something personal, but I’m not sure anyone outside my family would be interested. See? It’s not as easy as it seems to write these articles.

There is one sure fire, can’t miss option. It only happens once a year. Christmas is days away. Snow is (literally) in the air. New Year’s is coming. Something seasonal and sincere seems appropriate. So let me say (quite sincerely), from all of us on the UBA team --
associate directors -- Dian Kidd and Ron Towery
our incomparable church consultants-- Rickie Bradshaw, Josh Ellis, Sally Hinzie, and Campo Londoño
our fantastic support team -- Dana Bowdoin, Sharon Cain, Gloria Londoño, Alex Martinez and Nallely Torres
our invaluable voluntary staff members -- Ron and JoAnn Holt in our financial office and UBA prayer coordinator Margie Randall
• our ever-faithful missions teams -- Mary Valerio and her team of WMU leaders and Herb Weaver and his men/boys ministry team
our first-class subsidiary ministry teams -- Nick Howard and our Baptist student ministers, Ginger Smith and the MCH staff, Phil Springer and the TPCC staff

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. It truly is our privilege to honor Christ by serving you.

PS: Now wasn’t that creative?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Houston and UBA Overview -- for BGCT Messengers

Houston is the host city for the 2009 Annual Meeting of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Messengers from many of the 5,700 churches that comprise BGCT will meet for two days in November, and we want to say welcome.

For our guests, let me tell you a bit about our city. Houston is the largest city in the state of Texas and the fourth largest city in the US. More than 4.5 million people currently call Houston home. Believe it or not, the Houston Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) covers an area slightly smaller than Maryland but larger than Massachusetts. At 634 square miles, the City of Houston could contain the cities of New York, Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis and Miami. The Houston MSA contains more people than Minnesota, which ranks 21st among the states in population. Houston is as diverse a city as there is in the US. We’ve identified over 300 different ethnolinguistic people groups living in Harris County. One out of four folks that live here was born overseas. One in three will not speak English when they go home tonight.

The 600 churches of Union Baptist Association minister to the folks who live in our highly diverse, rapidly growing city. One-third of all UBA churches are Anglo, one-third are African American and one-third are congregations that speak a language other than English.

Houston is our primary mission field. People from all over the world move to Houston daily. When they do they bring with them their ethnic identity and rich cultural history including their religious heritage. Consequently, every major religion in the world is actively practiced in Houston. Still, with all that religious plurality, half of the population of Houston claim no religious identity.

A couple of years ago I wondered what would it be like if Pentecost were to happen in Houston today like it did in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. I called together church leaders from across our city to help me ask and answer that question and to begin to build a strategy which could set the stage for Pentecost Houston. About the same time Dr. Randel Everett returned to Texas as the Executive Director for BGCT and shared his dream of “prayer, care and share.” As we talked, it became apparent that Pentecost Houston and Prayer, Care and Share (now called Texas Hope 2010) were parallel initiatives that could easily be merged. Consequently, Pentecost Houston/Texas Hope 2010 are a major part of the strategy for reaching our city in the immediate future and for years to come.

We are working to see that everyone in our city has a chance to hear the gospel in their heart language just like they did at Pentecost, and to be able to attend a church where they can identify with folks ethnically, culturally, linguistically and spiritually.

We are bringing together secular and sacred care agencies to help eradicate hunger in Houston, much like the early church shared with others so that no one was in need of food.

Fervent, focused intercessory prayer undergirds and provides the foundation for all our work, just as with Pentecost.

We long to see our city transformed by the power of God. We know we cannot orchestrate it. God is not our's to command and control. Still, we want to do our part so that God can do His.

So to all our guests, we say welcome. We hope you enjoy your time among us. As you walk the streets of our city, pray for the churches of UBA and the body of Christ in our city as we fulfill the Great Commission in our lifetime in our city.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

UBA Welcomes Texas Baptists to Houston

This month Houston will host the annual meeting of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. UBA is an association of churches that partners with both the Southern Baptist Convention of Texas and the Baptist General Convention of Texas to promote and extend the cause of Christ in Texas and beyond.

Prior to 1886 there were as many as five state conventions in Texas. Over time the leaders of the various conventions realized it would be better to consolidate the conventions and agencies and work together rather than compete with one another. They consolidated under the name “Baptist General Convention of Texas.” From then until November 1998, BGCT was the only state Baptist convention in Texas.

The Baptist General Convention of Texas encourages, facilitates and connects churches in their work to fulfill God’s mission of reconciling the world to himself. Approximately 5,700 churches affiliate with BGCT as do 23 different institutions and human care agencies including Buckner International (the largest Baptist human care agency in the world — founded by a transplanted Tennessee pastor like myself I must add) and ten educational ministries including Baylor University (largest Baptist University in the world).

Sadly, many, if not most, Baptists have lost a sense of their own history and distinctiveness in the body of Christ. When I was a child, denominational distinctives were emphasized, so much that I sometimes wondered if anyone would get to heaven other than Baptists. Today the emphasis is more on recognizing that we are all part of the larger body of Christ with all its plurality and diversity. That doesn’t mean, though, that Baptists should not know and celebrate their uniqueness. 2009 is special because it marks the 400th anniversary of the beginning of Baptists with John Smyth. (For more on the history of Baptists, cf. www.baptisthistory.org) If you want to know more about our Baptist distinctives, I’d encourage you to check out www.baptistdistinctives.org.

Of course, I’m partial to the special role Union Baptist Association plays in the history of Texas Baptists. UBA was the first association formed in Texas (1840). At the second meeting of the association, two actions were taken that even today impact the priorities of our Texas Baptist witness and ministry. The first action was the creation of a “Missionary Society.” Today, missions and evangelism remain the heartbeat of Texas Baptists. The second significant action was the creation of an Education Society. From these efforts, Baylor University was chartered by the Republic of Texas in 1845.

So to the messengers to the 2009 meeting of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, we say “Howdy, partners. Welcome to Houston.”


Thursday, October 1, 2009

It’s the economy, stupid. Or is it?

"It's the economy, stupid" was a phrase in American politics widely used during Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign against George H.W. Bush. For a time, President Bush was considered unbeatable because of foreign policy developments such as the end of the Cold War and the Persian Gulf War. The phrase, coined by Clinton campaign strategist James Carville, refers to the notion that Clinton was a better choice because Bush had not adequately addressed the economy, which had recently undergone a recession.

In order to keep the campaign on message, Carville hung a sign in Bill Clinton's Little Rock campaign headquarters that said:

1. Change vs. more of the same

2. The economy, stupid

3. Don't forget health care.

Although the sign was intended for an internal audience of campaign workers, the phrase became something of a slogan for the Clinton election campaign. Today the phrase is often repeated with various other words substituting for “economy,” like “It’s the deficit, stupid” or “It’s the war, stupid.” (For more, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It's_the_economy,_stupid.)

Today, three presidents later, the economy is still foremost in the news. Last week I heard on the news that economists say the recession is over. Last night the same newscasters announced the closing of Saturn, an American automobile manufacturer. Which is it? Is the economy getting better or worse? Likely, it’s both. Economists are saying the stimulus package has made a positive difference on the economy; that the economy has bottomed out and that the recession is over. That doesn’t mean that companies won’t continue laying people off, that industries won’t continue to close, that you won’t have to take another pay cut just to keep your job.

Things are tough. People suffer, therefore churches suffer, therefore the denominational groups like associations and state conventions suffer. I talk with church leaders across Houston and the U.S. almost daily. Everyone is saying the same thing. The new phrase is becoming “resource challenged” (meaning giving is down, they’ve got less money, they are cutting budgets, reducing staff, and making other adjustments). Even if the recession is bottoming out and the economy is turning around, there is going to be a delay before things get better in churches. Just like there is a lag or gap between the time you turn the water in your shower to hot and the time hot water actually begins to come out of the shower head, there is a gap between the time the economy begins to improve and churches experience an increase in giving.

What does this mean for UBA? Even though the economy is getting better, we are likely to be even more resource challenged in 2010 than we were in 2009, all of us: our associational staff, the Mission Centers, student ministry, all our ministries. We have a great team. We will find creative ways to get things done. That’s our commitment.

For us, it’s really not the economy; it’s the mission that drives us. We long to see God’s kingdom come in our various areas of responsibility: inner city work, student ministry, church work, leadership development, among blacks, white, Asians, hispanics, all people. We long to see our city transformed by the power of God. We long to see the Great Commission fulfilled in our lifetime. That’s why we do what we do.

That leads me to say thanks to all our ministry partners. We know times are tough for you as well. Thanks for sharing your resources with us. Thanks for keeping us in your budget. Thanks for believing that what we do is important enough that you continue supporting our work. As Robert Schuller once said, “Tough times never last. Tough people do.” We will last, and we will do it together.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Sad Farewell

A mentor and friend once told me, “There is no easy way to do a hard thing.” In the August Associational Meeting we voted to cease operating the UBA Center for Counseling on September 30, 2009. This action will likely come as a surprise to many, and, personally, it was a difficult action for me personally. My first connection with UBA was through the Center for Counseling as a part-time therapist when I came to Houston in 1988. From 1991 to 1993 I served as the director for the Center.

So why close the Center? Let me share some background. The Center for Counseling has struggled financially for almost twenty years. When I first came to UBA as the director of the Center for Counseling, the Center was in severe financial straits. Expenses exceeded revenue and the Center went heavily into debt. It took several years to recover. Changes in the health care industry — managed care, HMOs, reduction of benefits — and other factors made it harder and harder to survive. (In 2008, for example, income from therapy was less than half of what it was ten years ago: 1998 = $414,926; 2008 = $207,078. Income through June of this year was $36,769 behind last year.).

We took a number of steps to keep the Center operating through the years. We cut back on personnel. We reduced the director from full-time to half-time to quarter-time. We moved our offices from leased office space to donated space in churches. We raised money through the golf tournament and TalentFest.

Things were looking enough better in 2007 that we started to have hope that things were finally turning around for the Center, but that was not to be. Enter stage right the great recession. Suddenly, therapists hours were down significantly (thus operating capital for the Center) putting more pressure on the Board to raise money. When this year started the board was responsible for raising over $150,000 to meet this year’s budget. The reduction in income from fees meant the board would need to raise even more money. One of our prime fund raising initiatives — the UBA Golf Tournament — brought in a little over half what it did the year before. We finally reached the point where the income generated by fees and the money we raised through fundraising events were simply not enough to keep the Center open.

While there is no joy in the decision to close the Center, I do take great joy in remembering all the good work done by the Center for over three decades. The positive impact of the Center is incalculable, but if we had to put a monetary value on it I can say the Center gave away over $1.5 million in therapy in the past ten years. Many, many folks today could testify to how their lives were enriched by the work of the Center. Families have been knit back together. Lives have been changed. Relationships have been restored. Desperate and despairing people have found help and hope through this ministry. (Watch our website. We are setting up a place for folks to share testimonials of what the Center meant to them.)

I am grateful for those joined with me serving as directors of the Center: Howard Hovde, Mike Horton, Joan Neal, Darlene Ham, and especially to Dr. Kathy Galvin. Her leadership in these last few, difficult years has been heroic. I am thankful for the many board members who served, especially for those who have served in these last days. Jim Herrington has been chairman of the CFC board for the last three years and done a fantastic job. Last, I want to say thanks the the therapists of the Center, most of whom I have known and worked with through the years, for your ministering spirit, professional competence and outstanding work.

There is some bright lining to this otherwise dark gray cloud. While shutting the Center down, we are retaining the corporation and perhaps, at some point in the future, we will be able to begin again. And, and this is a big “and,” the therapists who have worked with the Center will still be seeing folks, just not through the Center for Counseling. The Center will send out letters to all former clients notifying them of the change and how to get in touch with their therapist in the future. Also, all calls that come into the Center through September will be referred to a therapist in that part of the city just as before.

So how do you wrap up an article like this? I began quoting one of my mentors: there’s no easy way to do a hard thing. But there are some ways that are better than others. The closure of the Center, while difficult, is the right decision and has been done well.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

There Probably is No God . . .

There probably is no God . . . if you believe the advertising on buses, that is. Late last year a group of folks began purchasing advertising space on buses and in tube stations across the UK. The ads said: “There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Ads are now appearing in other countries across Europe and in major cities here in the United States. (For more on this story including a video go to http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/7813812.stm.)

There’s more. Have you heard of de-baptism? I hadn’t until recently when my son directed me to an article in USA Today. The article featured a 32-year-old medical transcriptionist who decided to renounce her faith by being de-baptized … all part of her Atheist Coming Out Party. According to the article, within the past year, "de-baptism" ceremonies have attracted as many as 250 participants at atheist conventions in Ohio, Texas, Florida and Georgia” and now it is spreading to other countries. In Britain more than 100,000 people have downloaded de-baptism certificates. (Go to
http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2009-07-21-atheists-debaptism_N.htm for the story.)

Atheist ad campaigns? De-baptism certificates? What’s up?

Obviously, these articles are just a reminder that the greatest wars are not fought with sticks and stones. They are fought with words and beliefs. Sticks and stones can break your bones, but beliefs will determine your eternal destiny.

Jesus once told a parable about a man who sowed good seed in a field. Over night an enemy came and sowed weeds in his field. When the seeds germinated and began to grow, he realized what had happened. “An enemy did this,” he rightly surmised. What to do? Jesus said “It’ll all come out in the wash” - okay “harvest.” (See Matthew 13:36-43)

But there’s another point, a poignant reminder, one we’d do well to remember: not everyone is sowing good seed, at least, not from our perspective. We share the gospel; they preach atheism and encourage de-baptism.

Churches across the city are in the middle of an important initiative. . . gearing up to share the gospel with everyone in the city in their own heart language by Easter Sunday, 2010. We want to saturate Houston with the good news that God loves us and offers salvation and eternal life through Jesus Christ. But not everyone will be happy about this. Some will take a very contrarian point of view. Some folks, even in the church, might suggest we don’t need to do this because not everyone will respond positively. (I’ll address that in another article.)

What should we do? Retreat? Be silent? Not do it because someone won’t like it? Not at all. When you have the truth, you need to share it. Freely, but not forcefully. Graciously, not aggressively. That’s what our Pentecost Houston / Texas Hope 2010 initiative is all about.

Just know, there are others with a different agenda. That just makes what we have to do more urgent because, contrary to the ads, there really is a God and knowing Him is the key to really living.



For more information about Union Baptist Association and its ministries, view our website at
http://www.ubahouston.org or call 713.957.2000

Our Vision:
Healthy, reproducing congregations cooperating to transform
our communities, Houston, and the world!