Monday, November 10, 2014

Pastor's Musings for November

Ecclesiastes 3: 1, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

Our newsletter theme for November is “Growing in Faith Together” and as I roll the idea around in my head, I hear echoes of the idea found in “Hilltop: a place to belong, believe and become.” The Ecclesiastes 3 with the sounds of Pete Seeger and the Byrds echoing in my brain, fingers, and ruminations. 

On November 30 at 9:00 AM, we are going to return to being a church with multiple worship opportunities. Prior to my arrival, Hilltop took an extremely bold and courageous step to move from three different worship opportunities to one. At least part of the motivation centered on bringing unity to the Body of Christ. Sadly, in our journeys to unity there is always the possibility we might have to pass through a little disunity. For example, we lost a few long time members. There was no one constant reason but in our unity quest, we got to a season where we belonged, believed, and became. But seasons are rarely, if ever, static. A church is a living organism and in our belonging, there are Ecclesiastes 3 seasons of contrasts for “every matter under heaven.” 

We are about to embark on a new season in the Hilltop story. 

We intentionally chose to return to multiple services as the start of a new season in the church year: Advent. Laurence Hull Stookey in his seminal look at the church year, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church writes: “the primary focus of Advent is on what is popularly called ‘the second coming’ … Advent is the celebration of the promise that Christ will bring an end to all that is contrary to the ways of God.” So, in this new season of the church year, we look forward, in hopeful anticipation to a time when the ideas of seasons disappear into the mist. But until that ‘second coming’ becomes, we have to focus, or perhaps, refocus, on our beliefs and our belonging. A new season emerges, and we get a chance to reexamine God’s divine purpose for us, and perhaps more importantly, our role in God’s divine purpose. 

We exist, at least in part, in order to make God’s reign, just a little more obvious, a little more visible, a little more real. Our purpose in going to a new service, at least in part, is to reach a group of people who might not be with us at the present time. One group is those who might want to celebrate their praise of God a little earlier in the day, and then “beat the Baptist to the Buffet” or to the trailhead or ski slope or … you get the idea. We know there are people who want to use the Sabbath as a time for family and reconnecting in various ways and the solitary 10:30 AM option sends them elsewhere, or maybe even, nowhere. A second group is those who want to have their children receive Christian Education while they are in worship. We know they exist. We are mindful that a few believe that we should be developing children who understand worship with more intentionality than this model presents, but we have elected to accept that a parent will know when their child can be better informed and grow spiritually through worship. They know their child’s season. 

I do not know how long the season of getting this service to fruitfulness will be. The Greek of the New Testament has at least two words that both mean time and one is about what we might think of as “clock” time but the other one means “the fullness of time.” It is, I think, about the idea of seasons. I don’t know the precise day that good skiing will occur in the Wasatch Mountains, but sometime this season, skiing will be an option and an opportunity. I believe that the 9:00 service will organically take on its own unique characteristic, style, charm, and approach. I just don’t know what they all are right now. I think cherishing elements of what we have done at 10:30 which is a style that encourages a certain amount of congregational work is where we will be, but at the end of the day, I no more know precisely what this service will be anymore than I knew precisely what the 10:30 service would precisely look like on July 1st, 2012, my first Sunday at Hilltop. I am prepared to allow the season to unfold in the fullness of God’s time. 

A key element of my personal ethos is that the church is the means by which God’s mission of transformation is deployed in the world. It follows that we are the church in order to meet God’s needs in the world, rather than our own needs. We are not alone: we stand in continuity with generations of women and men who found the Good News of God’s Grace through Jesus Christ to be transformative. Grace truly experienced moves them from a season of self loathing to a season of humble appreciation. I believe there are people who will know the peace we know through the threefold fullness of Grace we represent that will not find spiritual wholeness elsewhere. Through Wesley, we offer unconditional grace to all of God’s broken children. 

I do see this new season as a chance for us to ‘grow, in faith, together.’ We are setting out on a new adventure wrapping up one season of unity, and starting a new one of opportunity. I am excited. I pray you are as well. I invite everyone who calls Hilltop their spiritual home to plan to be at one of the two services on November 30th. In particular, I pray that those who plan to make the new service their spiritual connection to Hilltop plan to be here. I am going to be there. Join us. 

Selah, Pastor Dennis

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Fall Kick-Off

Romans 12: 2:  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
1 John 4: 1:  Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
In the middle 1980s, I fancied myself a Unitarian Universalist.  During that period, I heard a UU preacher string together epistemological, ontological and eschatological into a single sentence that actually made sense at the time.  I forget how he did it, and how he did it is beside the point.  Let’s forget eschatological in this conversation for a second and focus on the other two first.
Epistemological means essentially “how do we know, what we know?”  That might invoke the memory of that Pilate quote as he is about to hand Jesus over to the Roman Cohort that is going to carry him to Calvary:  “What is truth?”  Pilate is a confirmed post-modernist before it was cool to be a post-modernist:  everything is totally, 100% relative.  All truth is in short, to the post-modernist, relative.  Paul, and I agree with him, says  ‘just a darn minute here, everything isn’t relative, and we need to test what we think we believe against God’s word.’  Paul, and I agree with him, is strongly anti-post modernity:  everything isn’t relative; there are some absolute truths.  “How do we know, what we know?” 
A core concept within Methodism is reason.  We want people to be empowered to not check their minds in, in the narthex.  We want people to develop a deep, meaningful, comprehensive system of ‘testing’ what it is that the preacher on a Sunday or a teacher on a Wednesday labels with the exalted, and holy, ‘thus sayeth the Lord.’  “How do we know, what we know?”
Let this Fall Kick-Off be a time where you seriously covenant to go deeper into God’s holy word and discover what it truly means “to be” a follower of Christ.  Ontological, by the way, is the study of what it is “to be.”  Be a follower of Jesus Christ that knows how to “test and approve God’s will.”  Be epistemological so that you can truly be ontological so that you understand the eschatological.  Join us for growing as a Disciple of Jesus Christ. 

Selah, Pastor Dennis

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Hilltop Cash Flow

On Sunday, August 10th during worship I spoke to our income.  

We built our 2014 annual budget on the educated, and carefully analyzed, forecast we would receive $333,000 for all of 2014 from the congregation.  

This number is a function of (1) pledges received for 2014 and historical patterns of giving from those who (2) did not pledge and (3) those who visit (called "loose plate".)

Over three-quarters of that $333,000 number is drawn from the pledged total, e.g. 78%.  Performance in this key area has major impact on our overall income.  

Through the end of July, we are below where we need to be in our Congregational Giving to get to that $333,000. 

I showed the chart above to the Congregation on Sunday.  

What does it mean?  
On Sunday I made several invitations. 

First, I invited those who might be behind, and can, to use this time as an opportunity to get caught up.  This applies to both pledged, and those who have not pledged, but have an idea what they planned on giving.    

Second, I invited all to consider some type of automatic system in which to provide Hilltop their treasure.  We have Vanco forms in the office, which is one way of accomplishing this automatic approach.  

Third, for those who might be caught up, and can, to look at four potential areas of extra mile giving:

  • Music and Arts (Code 804)
  • Missions (Code 878)
  • Pastor's Discretionary Fund (Code 818)
  • Capital Improvements (Code 853)
  • (and not shown but a good account as well) -- Youth (Code 899)

All four of these are excellent extra mile candidates. The four codes are within our designated accounts and if it is shown on the check, envelope if cash, or in remarks of some kind if using an automated transaction, would help the counters.   

My temporary priority here is Music and Arts but all of these are important if a member of the church is at or above where they expected to be at this time of the year. 

All who call Hilltop their spiritual home should know that I do not know who gives how much.   

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Schnase Quotes from Seven Levers

I am going to run a series of quotes from Bishop Robert Schnase book on UMC Conferences -- Seven Levers:  Missional Strategies for Conferences, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 2014.  The list will grow as I read through the book.  
  • [Discussing a new vision for the Missouri Conference.]  Nothing was borrowed wholesale from others, nothing was entirely original, nothing was top down, nothing was rushed, and nothing was accidental . . . nothing remained entirely the same.  (Page 28)
  • John Wesley . . . created conference to unite, energize, strengthen , and empower faith communities and resource them with leadership. (Page 30)
  • Fear distorts vision, and lack of communication feeds fear.  (Page 49)
  • [The Missouri Conference] identified two activities that the conference must perform in an exemplary fashion or else the conference fails in its mission -- pastoral excellence and congregational excellence. (Page 117). (Shaw notes:  Our Rocky Mountain Conference Imagine Team has been focusing on competency as the single word to describe both of these.)

Monday, June 23, 2014

Imagine Team Sustainability Script

Bertrand Russell (in a quote sometimes incorrectly attributed to Chuck Schuster) once wrote that some of us are “moved emotionally by statistics. This capacity …. is as rare as it is important.” 
Numbers moved Jesus emotionally to action.  Otherwise, why would he gone to go looking for the Lost Sheep, if he were not moved? 
I am going to challenge you for a few minutes to be “moved emotionally” by numbers. 
Let me start with …
New Church Starts
From 1945 to 2001 – what is now the Rocky Mountain Conference started 61 churches.  That was an average of more than one a year. 
In the last thirteen years, we have gotten two churches to full recognition as a “church.”  Two. 
We celebrate the chartering of Elizabeth UMC this year.  It is our first chartering in a decade. 
Does anyone believe our current rate of establishing new churches is an indicator of long-term sustainability for Methodism in the Rocky Mountain Conference? 
Let me now move to …
Worship Attendance
Since the early 1980s, in spite of pretty steady declines in membership, our conference attendance held reasonably steady for many years in the 35,000 on an average Sunday.  Everyone … our attendance dropped below 30,000 in 2013 and in fact has declined by 13% over the last ten years. 
Does anyone believe our steady loss in worship attendance is an indicator of long-term sustainability for Methodism in the Rocky Mountain Conference? 
Our decline in attendance is modest compared to our decline in …
Making Disciples
Our mission statement is about the making disciples.  We are not doing well here.  Lets look at three indicators:  New Christians, Confirmations, and Baptisms. 
As I just said, we have lost 13% in our average Sunday attendance over the last ten years.  If our decline in disciple creation were comparable with that decline it would be in the range of 13% or so.  It is not.  It is in fact, much worse. 
New Christians joining our churches -- Confirmation classes -- Baptisms are all down about 35% or nearly twice what we would have expected given our attendance change.
Does anyone believe our sharp decline in overall disciple making is an indicator of long-term sustainability for Methodism in the Rocky Mountain Conference? 
Allow me to make an invitation for a movement to bottom up thinking
We need to try something new (pause).  We need to try something different (second longer pause). 
Our Discipline reminds us that it is at the local level where the church is the church.  Bishop Robert Schanse notes that we also have in our current Book of Discipline over four thousand “shall” statements. 
Does anyone believe that top down directives will lead to long-term sustainability …?  Or will it be bottom up? 
Doubtlessly, we are, scripturally and theologically, people of hope.  And there are in our numbers, glimmers of vitality that move us emotionally to see hope. 
Vitality is being displayed in many shapes, sizes and forms …. 
If we look for churches in the Rocky Mountain Conference that –
      Increased in attendance,
      Baptized someone,
      Brought in a New Christian, and
      Conducted a Confirmation Class.
We show here in your conference booklet (hold it up) the names of 25 churches with the smallest being Chugwater, Wyoming.  A worship attendance of 25, and Chugwater is in this report. In addition – Chugwater increased in membership and they paid 100% of their tithe plus!  Can we have a shout out for Chugwater? 
Vitality is not dependent on size. 
If we relax the Confirmation Class requirement and look only at positive attendance change, a baptism, and a new Christian, we add 32 more churches.  Thirty-two more churches on the edge of disciple making vitality. 
Vitality can be displayed in other transformational ways, but might we offer, it will be difficult -- if not impossible to transform the world -- without disciples. 
For those rare souls who want to reflect on the important, and prayerfully be emotionally moved, a more extended analysis is in this report (here) … but I invite you know that good people are working on this, people who love the church as much as you do are working on this.  Pray for us.
We are working in the belief that the people of the Rocky Mountain Conference values transformation, mission, competency, and inclusion. 

We believe that we here -- here now and in our local churches now -- have the capacity to lead us, in community, back to long-term sustainability.  Do you believe that?  If not, we ask:  If not you, who?  If not now, when? What is your part in this transformational work?  What is God's part?   Doug Palmer is going to talk about how we might work together to bring transformation into our local communities and the world.”

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

2013 Statistics Report

Rocky Mountain Conference of The United Methodist Church
2013 Statistician’s Report
Rev. Dr. C. Dennis Shaw, Conference Statistician[1]

The Challenge: Worship Attendance Continues Decline
The number of people who worship with us in the Rocky Mountain Conference has been on a steady, consistent decline over the past ten years, and this trend showed no sign of improvement during 2013. Worship attendance fell by over 800, which was the second-largest annual loss in a decade. Over that time the Conference has seen more than 4,000 leave our pews.  While indeed many churches in our Conference are stronger this year than last, overall this single most important measurement of church vitality makes it clear that we are not reaching people in our communities with the aim of “making disciples.”
In 2013 we showed larger losses in membership and a larger decline in attendance than in 2012. 

From 2011 Reports
2011 to 2012 -- Losses
2012 to 2013 -- Losses
Where we ended 2013
Table 1:  Membership Loss and Attendance Decline over Last Two Years
The above table shows a two-year loss totaling 5.6% of our 2011 membership and 4.4% of our 2011 average attendance.  In fact, our attendance dropped below 30,000 for 2013 and is the lowest reported since Sunday attendance became a statistical measurement in 1968. 
For the past several years, much of the decline has flowed from a few of our larger churches.  In fact, in 2013, twelve churches alone lost 600 worshippers, which was more than 70 percent of our decline. 
A good way to measure changes in worship attendance among different sized churches is by comparing overall attendance to the median attendance. This is shown in Chart 1 on the next page. The median (the line) represents the “middle of the conference” worshipping congregation, with an equal number of churches larger as smaller. Therefore, of 253 churches examined, the midpoint is church number 127 in attendance.  I have plotted this median church number for the past ten years.  Looking at Chart 1, you will notice that the median drops to 68.5 in 2006 and has hovered in that region for eight years, with a median change of only about four people.  This supports the observation that much of the attendance change over the last few years has been centered in our larger churches.

Chart 1:  Average and Median Attendance for the last 10 years
However, over a ten year span, our decline in average attendance has impacted both larger and smaller churches.  From 2004 to 2006 this decline was more focused in smaller churches but they appear to have stabilized.  Since 2006 the decline appears to be more focused within a few, larger churches that have experienced significant losses in attendance. As I said earlier, twelve churches accounted for more than 70 percent of our attendance decline in 2013.
Disciple Making
The United Methodist Church intends to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Our mission statement compels us to make disciples. Are we succeeding? Lets look at three measures of disciple making:  New Christians, Baptisms, and Confirmations. Then we’ll compare these indicators to our decline in attendance.
Over the past ten years, we have lost 13% in our average Sunday attendance.  If our decline in disciple making were comparable with that decline it would be in the range of 13%.  It is not.  It is in fact, much worse.  Our decline in attendance is modest compared to our decline in the making of new disciples, as the following table shows:
Average attendance at all weekly worship services
Down 13%
New Christians (Professions of Faith and Restored)
Down 35%
Number of persons baptized
Down 37%
Total enrolled in confirmation classes
Down 36%
Table 2:  A Comparison of 2013 from 2004 in Four Indicators of Vitality
Using 2004 as the baseline, this data looks at how we are doing making disciples through our local church ministries. While our attendance is at 87% of where we were ten years ago, we are actually much less effective (or about 65% of the 2004 number) in making disciples. This is about two times the decline we would expect, given our attendance losses over the same period. So, what hope is there that these trends can be reversed?  Hope is indeed present. 
There is vitality among some of our churches, both large and small. Looking at all the churches in the conference, 87 showed an increase in 2013 in worship attendance.  Of those showing greater attendance, these 25 reported increases in all three of the other vitality categories, (New Christian, Baptism, and Confirmation):

Boulder St Paul’s
Canon City First
Cedaredge Community
Cheyenne First
Cheyenne Grace
Colorado Springs Central
Colorado Springs St Paul’s
Durango First
Fort Lupton First
Greenwood Village Hope
Loveland Trinity
Ogden Community
Pueblo Adriance
Rock Springs First
Salt Lake City Christ
Salt Lake City First
Sandy Hilltop
Washington Park

Healthy Churches Begin New Congregations
From 1945 to 2001, more than 60 churches were started in what is now the Rocky Mountain Conference.  On average, we started more than one new church a year.
In the last thirteen years, we have started only two churches. As we celebrate the chartering of Elizabeth UMC in 2014, we should remember that it’s our first chartering in over a decade. 
There was a time when the “People Called Methodists” started other churches in their communities.  They shared people, time, talents, and treasure, to give birth to new congregations. At the same time, they experienced growth.  Our recent history includes:

Colorado Springs First starting four churches in Colorado Springs from 1957 to 1987, 
and in 2013, they were the highest attendance church in the Rocky Mountain Conference. 
 St. Andrew (sacrificially), Littleton and Park Hill contributing to the start of St. Luke’s. 
 Hope contributing to the start of Smoky Hill. 
 Salt Lake City Christ contributing to the start of Mountain Vista. 
 The sale of Pueblo Faith leading directly to the establishment of Pueblo West SonRise.
 Most recently, Elizabeth being born with Parker as the parent.
With the exception of Pueblo Faith intentionally acting as an Elijah, passing the mantle to the Elisha that is Pueblo West SonRise, all of these churches that gave of their precious treasure, talent and time are still vital, still alive, still beacons of hope.  We know how to do this.
Deaths haven’t caused our decline

                                                        Chart 2:  Comparing “New Christians” with Deaths
I provide Chart 2 to demonstrate that our decline in membership is not accounted for by the unavoidable loss of members through death.  We are more than replacing those who have died with New Christians although at a lower rate than in earlier years.  Our challenge is to keep the disciples we have created, who are leaving for other churches or no church at all.
An Example of Missional Good News: Increased Measures of Outreach, Justice and Mercy
There are other bright spots that create hopefulness among the measurements of church vitality. For example, in 2009 we began to document the number of people touched by the local church through ministries of outreach, justice and mercy.  Many of our churches have reported increases in the number of souls touched by this missional outreach.  The increase in four years from 150,000 to nearly 380,000 (in 2013) may be a reflection of increased awareness by reporting churches. But it’s a positive trend, nonetheless.  I encourage churches to continue measuring their outreach, as an opportunity to celebrate serving as the hands of Christ in the world around us. If you have thoughts that we can use to celebrate missional activity not captured in our statistical measures, please do send me a note at
Vitality takes a variety of forms
Paul writes in Romans 5 about suffering, endurance, character, sequentially leading to hope, “and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  From that hope, God calls us to action! 
Vitality leading to hope can be displayed in a variety of transformational ways that are not measured by numbers but are best understood by narrative. In many areas of our lives, data transformed into information often leads us to call for action.  Here, I believe the unsustainability of our current course requires a new narrative leading to a new and hopeful direction because it will be difficult, if not impossible, to transform the world without disciples.

[1] Chris Frasier, Co-Chair of the RMC Board of Stewards and Noreen Keleshian, Conference Treasurer, substantially edited this Report.  Rev. Dr. Melanie Rosa, DS for the Mile High/Pikes Peak District and Kristi Kinnison, Executive Director, Rocky Mountain United Methodist Foundation, provided additional assistance.  Dr. Rob Gordon, President of the Council of Finance and Administration provided, insight into elements of this analysis.  I am grateful for the team effort this project represents.