Monday, September 29, 2008

Southern Baptist Convention: "I'm a PC"

You know, sometimes I think that Southern Baptists get upset with the Southern Baptist Convention because of a basic mischaracterization that they make of our convention. They expect the SBC to be Apple, when really, the SBC is just Microsoft.

Apple designs things elegant and beautiful and enduring. Apple dazzles. Apple addresses people as more than producers of spreadsheets and acknowledges that nobody should waste a minute of this short life learning the nuances of the DOS Mode command. Apple brings you music and technicolor art, and yes, the occasional spreadsheet.

Microsoft buys out companies of other people who create things, mimics what appears to work, and then leverages what it can in the marketplace to squeeze out the less-business-savvy and make a profit.

The creators vs. the managers.

The Southern Baptist Convention stinks at creating. It always has. Indeed, this is endemic among most, if not all, Baptist cooperative bodies of churches. Creating is about risk and failure a thousand times over before you succeed. Bureaucrats are afraid of such things. The "shareholders" within the SBC have very little tolerance for them. Baptists in general and Southern Baptists in particular are GREAT at creating, just not our conventions and associations. Oh, I know that you'll want me to defend my little thesis here (as you'll see at the end, it isn't an accusation), so here goes:

The Baptist Missionary Society ("Mother" institution of the IMB and all other such Baptist bodies)
After Andrew Fuller and William Carey dreamed for quite some time of getting the Northamptonshire Baptist Association to undertake a project of worldwide missions, those interested finally went outside the local association and created a separate society to (ultimately) send William Carey to India.
John Mason Peck's "Western Mission" (predecessor and prototype to our Domestic Mission Board, now the major portion of NAMB)
Luther Rice and John Mason Peck had the entrepreneurial vision to build a mission to the great American interior frontier. The Triennial Convention's flirtation with the idea was brief and unspectacular. Rebuffed by the Baptist denomination in America, Peck and Jonathan Going carried on undeterred.
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
The SBC repeatedly lacked the capacity to embrace J. P. Boyce's vision for a Southern Baptist seminary. With three other founders, Boyce eventually raised the money on his own (indeed, much of it WAS his own) and launched the school. Once it was successful, of course, the SBC gladly took it over.
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Let's give credit where credit is due: The Baptist General Convention of Texas did play a role in birthing SWBTS. But let's also not be so naïve as to miss B. H. Carroll's mammoth role in making SWBTS a reality. Once SWBTS was successful, of course, the SBC gladly took it over.
The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering
Lottie Moon begged for Southern Baptists to launch a special offering at Christmas for world missions, but with little success at first. The giant shadow that she cast was the immediate cause of our most successful special offering's coming to be.
Southern Baptist Disaster Relief
Cameron Byler and Bob Dixon created SBC Disaster Relief in response to Hurricane Beulah in 1967, serving makeshift meals out of the back of a truck. Once DR was on its feet, the SBC gladly took it over.

I could give more examples, but I believe that these are enough at least to give my thesis a hearing. The SBC is the manager, not the creator. The SBC is Microsoft. Conventions don't create things; people do.

And I'm not saying that is a bad thing. Microsoft may not be cool, but it certainly is successful as a corporation (Yes, as a confirmed Macaholic, it pains me to say so!). Good ideas, once they have been innovated, often need a good manager to help them gain stability and endurance. With its Cooperative Program, boards of trustees, corporate and legal expertise, and extensive mailing list, the Southern Baptist Convention is in a great position to provide support to established movements, even if it is not nearly nimble enough to get them established in the first place, usually.

But even if it isn't a bad thing, it does suggest that you're likely to wind up really frustrated if you come to the SBC with all of the wrong, Appleish expectations:

  • If you have a great new vision from God for something spectacular to do as a cooperative ministry, don't go to the SBC to try to get them to do it. You go out and do it. After all, you're the one with the vision for it, right? If it proves to be something worthwhile and blessed with success, the SBC could prove very helpful later on, and will probably be quite interested.
  • Every so often, the SBC is going to restructure, reorganize, re-cast the vision, and the like. The Convention has to do this sort of thing for several reasons. First, as it acquires and imitates all of these great ideas of other people and institutions, the SBC accretes enough extras that it has to reorganize periodically to figure out where it all fits. Second, when contemporary cultural ideas about business organization change, an organization built around mimicry rather than original thinking is going to shift to reflect changes in the times. Third, nothing excites a manager more than tinkering with an organizational structure, whereas a creator probably tires pretty quickly of such things. There are other reasons, but I digress. The point is, these periodic restructurings normally are pretty benign, and you probably do yourself a service neither to place much hope in them nor to let them bother you that much.
  • Putting creative people into a managerial structure is not going to make the structure yield great creativity. It will likely make the creative people somewhat less creative and a good bit more productive. The best computer programmers I ever worked with were guys who liked to START programming in earnest around 10:30 PM and wind up debugging code at 3:40 AM with a Mountain Dew in one hand and a keyboard under the other. OK, some of them drank Jolt. In fact, they said that Jolt was the Microsoft programmer's drink, while Mountain Dew was the Mac programmer's drink. Why? Because Mountain Dew is WYSIWYP (I'm not going to spell it out for you). But I digress.

    The point is that managers want people to show up at 8:00 AM sharp and work normal hours, or maybe stay a little late. And, when programmers will stick to the managerial hours, they get more sleep and are probably more productive overall. But they are more creative when you let them live in their little idiosyncratic world.

    So, even if the SBC structure is helpful to creative people in some ways and may protect highly creative people from their own selves in a thousand different ways, many highly creative people are going to chafe under the restrictions of working as a denominational employee. Expect it. Expect to hear about it from them. But take it with a grain of salt. Because a lot of those folks would create beautiful, wonderful, imaginative ministries and blow them to smithereens in mere months without somebody holding their feet down to planet Earth.

  • When it comes to theology, creativity is almost always a really bad thing, unless you are THE Creator.
  • Having possessed the entrepreneurial derring-do to launch some wonderful ministerial effort, and knowing full well that a group like the Southern Baptist Convention would have been the first (may actually HAVE been the first) to turn its nose up at the riskiness of the proposition and entirely fail to see the vision that you saw, it takes a great deal of humility and a heart that cares about what gets done rather than who gets the credit to let go of that wonderful thing that you birthed and to place it into the hands of an institution like the SBC. But that's a formula that has worked well over and over, and you've probably done a wise and Christian thing in the long run when you've taken such an action.
  • Don't expect the SBC to inspire you. A great many PEOPLE in the SBC will greatly inspire you if you give them a chance. But in the long run, go to the Bible for inspiration. Let Jesus do that. Expect the SBC to provide this sometimes-bland, occasionally-restrictive, often-grounding framework that takes inspiration as input and churns out accomplishment. Not with perfect efficiency…no, not by a long shot. But with economies of scale that wild-eyed radicals often fail to appreciate.

Applying this to myself, I think that we ought to have a yearly special offering for our seminaries. Our professors live in near poverty. New Orleans seminary executives may soon appear on a street corner near you with an outstretched tin cup to help keep the seminary afloat financially. The lion's share of the Cooperative Program goes to entities that also collect enormous amounts of money OUTSIDE of the Cooperative Program.

It is my understanding that some people have taken this idea to the Executive Committee in the past, but have found no interest there. One shouldn't automatically take that as a sign of some sort of animosity on the part of the Executive Committee. The Executive Committee just isn't there to start successful things. If we were waiting for the Executive Committee to start something, we'd have no seminaries, no mission boards—we'd be sitting still in Kettering with the echoes of William Carey's deathless sermon still ringing throughout the room, destined to do nothing yet again.

So, I'm going to start just such an offering in my church. And maybe some other people will see the need and join me in the effort. And if it catches on, and if the Southern Baptist people make a success of it all, then the Executive Committee will come along and take it over, and somebody somewhere in a lavish Nashville office will take credit for the whole thing.

And that will be just fine by me.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Live from the Baptist Distinctives Conference

From what I've heard, nearly 300 people pre-registered for SWBTS's Baptist Distinctives Conference. From what I've seen, I surely believe it. The place was packed earlier tonight for Malcolm Yarnell's exegetical analysis of the Caesarea Philippi declaration in Matthew 16. David Allen is now defending the autonomy of the local church. There's a buzz of amiability and warm excitement about the room.

Tomorrow at 11:00 AM they have me pitted as a breakout speaker opposite Dr. Emir Caner. I blog tonight to call upon all of you in attendance to come to my session and not to Caner's. Let it be a stunning defeat. Who is this Turkish goatherd come out against me? This Yankee festooned with a J. R. Graves beard? I will prop my feet upon this Ottoman. He will slink back to Georgia with his fez in his hand!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Changes to Guidestone's Health Savings Account

I've blogged previously about our move over to the Health Saver 2600, and the great advantage it has been to us. Not long ago I received a rather ominous letter from Guidestone warning me that the HS2600 was being discontinued and replaced with the new HealthSaver 2800. The language of the letter led me to believe that the changes would amount to a weakening of the benefits of the HS2600.

I guessed correctly.

Nevertheless, we're staying with the new HS2800 plan, for reasons that I will detail in this post.

The Current HealthSaver 2600

Under our current coverage, we have a deductible of 2600/5200 with 100% coverage for in-network care above that level. Our church provides the HealthChoice 1000 plan for pastoral staff, but agrees to buy the cheaper HealthSaver 2600 for us and deposit the savings on the monthly premium bill into our Health Savings Account. For this year that amount deposited into our Health Savings Account will top $2700. So, if we spend $2700 on health care out of our pocket, we actually don't spend any money out of our pocket, because we have $2700 that we used to spend on premiums sitting in a debit card account for us to use before we touch any of "our" money. And any of that $2700 that we don't spend really does become our money, to save until next year, or until retirement, accumulating in our Health Savings Account year after year until we use it on health care expenses. Our kids can inherit any of it that we don't spend. It's our money.

This year, there is no level of health care expenses at which the HealthSaver 2600 plan isn't a better deal for us than the HealthChoice 1000—no level of health care expenses where we aren't money-ahead for having the HS2600.

The New HealthSaver 2800

The HealthSaver 2800 features two primary differences from the HS2600. First, the deductibles have risen (as the name suggests) to 2800/5600. Second, (and most significantly) the plan no longer features 100% coverage once you have met the higher deductible. Instead, the plan duplicates the HealthChoice series model of 80/20 coinsurance to a maximum out-of-pocket expense after deductibles: in this case, 3000/6000. That, my friends, is a major difference! And it shows up in the numbers.

The chart given above depicts how much money we make by choosing the HS2800 instead of the HC1000 at varying levels of medical expense for the year. The blue line (generally the best case) represents the financial advantage of switching to the HSA plan if all of the medical expenses are incurred by one individual within the family. The red line (generally the worst case) represents the financial (dis)advantage of switching to the HSA plan if half or less of the medical expenses are incurred by the costliest individual in the family. If the costliest individual in the family represents 75% of our family's annual medical expenses, then the HSA advantage would fall halfway between the red and blue lines. You get the point.

This financial model includes some presumptions:

  • It presumes that all of the money that we save on premiums is placed into our Health Savings Account.

  • It presumes that all of the expenses given are "normal" medical expenses. In other words, none of the following "special" expenses:

    • "Wellness" care, covered at $25 per visit under the HC1000 and at $0 under our HS2800.
    • Prescription drugs, covered with a copay under the HC1000 and treated as normal expenses under our HS2800.
    • Doctors visits, covered at $25 per visit under the HC1000 and treated as normal expenses under our HS2800.

    And I recognize that this one is truly a false presumption, but failure to make it so complicates the math as to put the plans beyond comparison for me.

  • It presumes that we start the year with a $0 balance in our HSA, which we aren't, but the comparisons become invalid if we're applying the benefits of previous years to this year's analysis.

So, in our case, the switch to the Health Saver 2800 is a "sure thing" if our health expenses for the year are anywhere from $0 to around $5400. From there through $17,800 of medical expenses for the year, we are exposed to a potential downside of $108 (if we have that level of medical expenses with no one person costing half or more of the expenses), with a potential upside of $1,332. From 17,800 to 21,000 our downside exposure remains the same, while our upside potential gradually increases to 1,972 bucks (where it stays through infinity). From 21,000 to 35,600 our downside exposure deepens from $108 to $2,828 (where it stays through infinity).

Shedding the math and boiling it down to real life: Unless multiple people in our family have major medical issues next year that put us into the hospital, the Health Saver 2800 remains an upside situation for the Barber family. And we've never had a year like that. Someday, no doubt, we will. But if that kind of year happens as frequently for us as one in every three years (and again, we've NEVER had a year like that), we'll still accumulate enough money in years one and two to more than pay for our losses in year three. We've decided to roll the dice. I re-enrolled tonight.

Am I disappointed in the changes to the plan? You bet I am. But the HS2600, as it turns out, was simply too good a deal to be true (at least for very long). Let's hope that the HS2800 enjoys a longer life. My thanks to the fine folks at Guidestone for providing us with such valuable options for our health insurance needs.

Monday, September 22, 2008

One Story Concludes; Another Opens

Some of you will recall that FBC Farmersville unearthed a sexual predator in our midst in February 2007. A few weeks ago I received a subpoena calling for me to testify for the state at his trial in October. Then, two weeks ago, plea negotiations resulted in a deal. At a soon-upcoming sentencing hearing, James Souder will (if all goes as anticipated) receive a sentence of seven years to be served in state prison, followed by ten years of probation, and all accompanied by registration as a sexual offender for the remainder of his life.

It is a good deal. The victims will not have to testify at trial, but they will receive some justice for the way that they were violated in the way of actual time spent in prison. The sexual offender label provides some hope that James Souder will not find it quite so easy to find victims at another church in another town someday later.

Might I say something controversial: James Souder is a sinful man, but he is not beyond redemption. In our last meeting, when he confessed his guilt to me in my office after being confronted with the evidence, I told him that someday he would have finished serving his sentence for these offenses. Presuming that I'm still living and able, I told him that I wanted to go with him to his next pastor at his next church, somewhere away from here. Once there, I want to sit down with his next pastor and say, "James Souder has some good qualities about him, but he has this problem. He needs a church full of people who will hold him accountable and make certain that he is never, ever, ever alone with another young teenaged boy."

I figure that's a better plan than him just surfacing somewhere without any warning or accountability in a new church. It gives Jim a way to bring up the subject and get it right out into the open before anybody "finds out." It gives the new church full warning about the special ways that they need to beware Jim's temptations. And it reminds everyone that God's objective for us all is our conversion and then our sanctification through the action of His Holy Spirit and the mutual relationships of the church.

I'll be sure to report back seven years from now on how it all went. :-)

But I and my church are so thankful to see some sort of resolution on this case that has hung over our heads for so long and has occupied so much of my thought and energy lately.

In the same week, one of our precious members was shot in the stomach by a shotgun-wielding prowler on his property. This took place in the wee hours of a Sunday morning. Later in the week, on the same day that James Souder formally entered his plea, this man's wife—a faithful church member and a friend to so many in our congregation—was arrested for "hindering apprehension or prosecution." As it turns out, the shooter was her partner in an adulterous affair that had been ongoing for many months. She had sent him a text message while the police were looking for him, and that text message was the reason for her arrest. You'll find the sermon that I preached that next Sunday here.

I invite you to pray for the Cox family as they wade through turbulent waters. And I invite you to pray for me as, day-by-day, I try to shepherd a flock with not nearly the wisdom to do so.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

When Sorrows Like Sea Billows Roll

Standing guard over the harbor of Baracoa, Cuba, is a statue of Christopher Columbus, who first landed there in late 1492 (Above: The young man I photographed standing next to Columbus's visage is Jordan Reyna, now off at college but at the time one of our members). Just upshore from the conquistador is the obligatory Cuban community baseball stadium. Uphill stands the formidable Seboruco Castle, converted into barracks for American troops under the oversight of American governor Leonard Wood (namesake of the military outpost in South-Central Missouri), and then later into the El Castillo Hotel.

The Bay of Baracoa proceeds inland from the Atlantic and to the east of the hotel. At the southern extreme of the Bay a factory produces the most wonderful chocolate you've ever tasted—hot chocolate so good you don't mind that the weather is really too warm for hot chocolate in Baracoa. Several rivers end their journeys at the foot of the mountains in or near Baracoa. We watched two men lazily float on a makeshift raft that just nearly kept their ankles dry while they fished with nets on the Río Toa. Stay in Baracoa very long and you will hear the local legend that anyone who bathes in the Río Miel will never leave Baracoa. I never got near the waters of the Miel, but leaving was nevertheless a melancholy journey. Baracoa is just that beautiful, that picturesque, and that peaceful.

On March 13, 2004, I preached at Primera Iglesia Bautista de Baracoa. From a youth conference downstairs a film was blaring out pronouncements of the evils of rock and roll music. I'm no prince of preachers in my native English—translated??—well, at least you have the great benefit of having no idea what you really wound up saying nor what they thought of your sermon! But we found a strong people of profound faith in Baracoa.

Tracy and I lodged with a wonderful host family. The room they provided for us was at the top of a steep flight of narrow stairs (Tracy's suitcase BARELY fit), but was worthy of the climb. There is no luxury in Cuba by American standards, but this upstairs bedroom with sea breezes wafting through the shutters and balcony overlooking the street was as close as I've seen. We actually slept well in Cuba that night!

Hurricane Ike rushed into Baracoa recently enough that the people there are still in shock. At least 970 homes were damaged, with 270 of them completely destroyed. Looking at the picture above, I wonder whether it was the home that hosted us? The color of the walls looks familiar. I regret to say that, after a single night there, I doubt that I would recognize our hostess well enough to identify her. The house was pretty close to the sea, and reports say that the sea swept in over 400 yards into Baracoa when Ike arrived.

The damage is immense, as is the need for our prayers. If any place on earth can shake off the devastation and be beautiful again, it is Baracoa. If any people can step out of the rubble and sincerely sing "It is well with my soul" at such a moment as this, it is the perseverant and convictional Baptists of the Eastern Baptist Convention of Cuba, including the brethren we met at First and Second Baptist Churches in Baracoa. I cannot call them to tell them so, and it is doubtful that they will ever read this blog, but Tracy and I are praying for them tonight, that God will not only give them the strength to continue to stand, but that He would continue to bless richly their ministries in Guantanamo province.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Wielding Political Power as a Christian

There's an interesting discussion ongoing over at SBC Today about the politicization of the church. I believe that there are helpful points to be made about the topic. I do not believe that Christians err when they seek to let their faith inform their political activities, nor do I believe that political activities are somehow "soiled" such that believers ought to eschew them. I do, however, believe it a shame and a wrong when Christians allow secular politics to displace their activities on behalf of the gospel. I would offer such a slight criticism of the late D. James Kennedy, the great author of Evangelism Explosion, whose public ministry in its latter years, in my opinion, gave short shrift to the EE portion of his ministry to make way for increased volume about politics. What Kennedy said about politics was good and helpful, as I evaluate it, but what he had to say about the gospel was so much more helpful as to make it something of his duty to invest more time there, in my estimation.

So, the article and the discussion at SBC Today are both things that I regard positively.

However, although the topic is good as far as it goes over there, I believe that we miss an important facet of living as a political Christian in the United States of America. Here, political power is not something that we seek. Much of the negative discussion about evangelical "clamoring" for political influence presumes precisely that—that believers are naturally powerless politically, and that some believers are seduced into wanting to seek political power.

But as American Christians, political power is not something that we seek; it is something that we already have. Because we are voters. We govern ourselves, albeit indirectly. It seems to me that some of our pooh-poohing of political involvement as Christians amounts to a wish that we really owed no stewardship to God for the fate of our national secular politics. Paul and Peter certainly could make that claim, as could today's Chinese believers or Cuban believers. But American Christians are, to some degree, not only the citizens of this land, but also its rulers.

When a Christian serves as monarch of a nation, do you believe that he has a responsibility to God for the manner in which he conducts himself politically? If a Christian head of state refuses to work politically—if he disregards the apparatuses of state and refuses to engage his job seriously, lobbying for godly causes that help the nation and working against those that harm it, is that a virtue in his character? Will God reward him for that? Suppose that, while abandoning his political post, he promises to pray daily for the welfare of his people? Does that absolve him of the stewardship of his political power? I doubt that anyone will say so, especially in light of the manner in which God held rulers accountable for their actions in the Bible!

As voters, the difference between us and a monarch is one of degree, not one of essence. For each of us our level of political influence is much lesser than that of a head of state, but it is there nonetheless. What will we do with it? Are we so confident that we will not give an account for the answer to that question? Passivity and isolationism are not virtues, nor must political engagement necessarily result in spiritual disengagement. Yes, we must beware that we are not seduced by the siren song of "political greatness," but so far as grassroots political involvement, I choose to participate to some degree not because I believe that political involvement is the answer, but because I believe that I will have to give an answer for how I used the political power given to me as an American citizen to seek to work good and restrain evil in this world.