New board chairperson takes long view

Serving on the board of directors for the Florida United Methodist Foundation can be a 9-year commitment. Consequently, the people who accept the invitation develop a long-term view when it comes to vision, planning and continuity.

Robert B. White, the foundation’s newly appointed board chairperson, has served since 2010, including as vice chairperson since 2015 and chairperson of the loan committee for many years. The long view is exactly in his wheelhouse.

“When you undertake accepting a role where you know the commitment is nine years, that’s not a commitment you take lightly,” White said.

That long-term perspective has also marked White’s role as an Orlando attorney specializing in commercial transactions and litigation for 40-plus years.

“I’m still practicing law because I’m fortunate enough to have long-term clients and I enjoy doing their work,” White said. “And because I actually enjoy helping people.”

That sense of purpose spills into the community, where White is vice chairman of the board of directors for WMFE 90.7, Orlando’s public radio station.

“I have the ability to make a difference,” he said. “I enjoy that and do what I can to protect some of the institutions that must be protected.”

When White joined the foundation’s board in 2010, he served with the Rev. Mark Becker, who was later appointed as the foundation’s president, overseeing day-to-day operations.

Robert B. White (FUMF photo/Alain Boniec)

Robert B. White (FUMF photo/Alain Boniec)

“We got to know each other well,” White said. “I have always appreciated Mark’s intellect and style. I think because we worked together before, with an appreciation for each other’s talents, this will be an easy and comfortable fit.”

White says his role is to support Becker’s efforts. “The president gets things done,” White said. “The board simply provides him with the tools he needs.”

In turn, Becker is expansive in his praise for White’s leadership.

“Bob has an excellent working knowledge of the foundation’s operations and its goals for the future,” he said. “I have known Bob for many years now. He brings a special set of gifts, he has spent many hours providing guidance to management on potential legal issues, and he has a lot of experience understanding the role of a board in a complex nonprofit environment. I admire his dedication, and I trust his judgment.”

White believes the foundation is particularly effective because of a knowledgeable and experienced senior staff.

“Continuity is extremely important,” White said. “The strength of the foundation is their experience. Relationships are what you have to have.”

Looking forward, White said he would like to see the foundation diversifying its approach to assisting churches financially and how and to whom it makes loans from its Development Fund.

“In this world, diversification is key to continued success,” he said.

At the root of White’s service is his deep faith and commitment to preserving the witness of the church.

“I’m a Christian who believes in my heart and soul that the only way in which we’re going to have a life for our children and grandchildren is if the goals and the principles and the values of Christianity are preserved and made available for people,” he said.

To that end, the Florida United Methodist Foundation has a fierce and deeply committed advocate in White.

Members of the board are elected annually by the foundation’s membership to serve three-year terms and a maximum of nine consecutive years.

White, whose term ends in 2019, succeeded Julia Mercier, partner at Mercier CPA Associates in Englewood. Mercier served on the board for nine years, including the last two as chairperson.

“As a CPA, she brought a valuable set of skills to the operation of the foundation, and as an owner of her own business, she provided a perspective as to what it takes to run a successful business,” Becker said. “She has been an incredible asset to the foundation, and I look forward to seeking her advice and counsel in the future.”

* Maul is freelance writer based in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

Foundation modifies investment funds, simplifies choice

LAKELAND — When it comes to the foundation’s investment funds, staff and board members have decided more isn’t always better. Now, Florida United Methodist churches and affiliated agencies have the option of investing in three managed funds instead of five.

The change is based on experience with the funds since 2014, when the foundation increased the number of funds available. The goal was to provide more choices with greater flexibility, but the options proved less distinct than anticipated, says the Rev. Mark Becker.

As a result, the foundation’s investment committee and consulting firm, Chicago-based DiMeo Schneider & Associates, modified the funds to simplify the choices and provide “clear differences in both expected return and risk,” Becker said.

Investments can now be made in the Cautious and Balanced Growth funds, which have been part of the fund structure since 2014 and are largely unchanged. Cautious provides a regular and constant income stream with high liquidity. Balance Growth offers balance between income and growth.

The third option is Aggressive Growth, which is a combination of two previous funds, but with a higher target rate of return.

Fees on the funds did not change, and that was important, Becker says. The foundation regularly monitors its fees to ensure they remain competitive and appropriate based on the value of the funds.

Florida churches can also invest is the foundation’s Development Fund, which remains unchanged. It’s similar to a savings account, but provides a higher annual interest rate than offered by most banks. Launched in 1976, the fund provides low-interest loans to churches and agencies for new construction, renovations and loan refinancing. Any Florida church, business or resident may invest.

Both types of funds can help churches maintain balance between risk and return, Becker says. The Development Fund provides a higher degree of liquidity and less risk, but the investment funds “historically provide higher returns than simply putting money into a money market account,” he said. “The key point to remember is that the underlying philosophy of investing in the marketplace is that you should be there for the long term … to take advantage of the long-term growth opportunities the market provides.”

Many Florida Conference churches and agencies already do. As of June, 106 had 284 foundation investment accounts.

First United Methodist Church in Orlando is one of them. The church has been investing many of its endowments in the foundation’s funds since 1995. Vernon Swartsel, the church’s endowment committee chairperson, says they’ve continued because they feel good about the options available and the socially driven nature of the funds.

“I doubt we would have (established the endowments) if the foundation hadn’t been there,” Swartsel said. “The foundation is really looking after the churches. It’s been a very good relationship over the years.”

The Rev. Tom McCloskey shares a special message with the children during worship March 19, 2017, at First United Methodist Church in Orlando. (FUMF photo/Alain Boniec)

The Rev. Tom McCloskey shares a special message with the children during worship March 19, 2017, at First United Methodist Church in Orlando. (FUMF photo/Alain Boniec)

Consistent growth has also been key — one of the church’s endowments has gained $300,000 since its inception.

But beyond the financial gains, participation in the funds enables investors to support ministry. The majority of the assets are administered according to the Social Principles of The United Methodist Church, investment guidelines established by the foundation’s investment committee and the denomination’s guidelines on environmental, social and governance investing.

The foundation also uses revenue earned from the funds to provide many of its free consulting and educational services, as well as a limited number of ministry and emergency grants for churches and agencies.

The foundation is a “family investment,” says the Rev. Tom McCloskey, senior pastor at First, Orlando. “We’re all in the same business together.” And that’s spreading the Gospel, sustaining the church and bringing “people into a relationship with God through Jesus,” he says.

Becker agrees. “The foundation is a part of the Methodist connectional system,” he said. “We exist for churches and their financial wellbeing. We view our task as a ministry and are here to serve the Kingdom of God.”

More information about the funds is available at www.fumf.org.

* Parham is the foundation’s director of communications and public relations.

When it comes to stewardship, there’s no single season

The famous passage in Ecclesiastes 3 tells us that, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

It’s a wonderful reminder that life isn’t constant and there is a mystery to God’s workings in the world. We don’t know what God will bring to us and when it might happen.

Some things aren’t limited to just one season, however. There isn’t a time to be a disciple and another time not to be. There isn’t a time when we must love other people and a time when we shouldn’t. It’s the same with our financial stewardship; yet, the church has fallen into a trap of thinking there is only one time to consider giving to the church and its ministries.

Many churches hold their annual “stewardship campaign” in the fall. This is timed to coincide with the creation of the following year’s budget and the need to ensure the financial priorities of the church will be adequately funded. Once that’s over, finances are often not mentioned again, unless there’s a need for a special plea, such as the church falling behind in its payments.

   Rev. Mark Becker

This approach to financial stewardship is wrong on several levels. First, it reduces a spiritual discipline — which stewardship is — to a “campaign,” like the events United Way holds each year to reach its annual fundraising goal. And by focusing on stewardship once each year, we are teaching people that giving to the ministries of the church is not an important part of their total lives. This is further reinforced if we reduce conversations about giving to reactive pleas for funds.

I have heard stories from colleagues starting new pastoral appointments that an important part of the transition was receiving an envelope with the names of people who could be approached if things got really tight — as if to let everyone else off the hook.

We have trained our people so well, in fact, that many become upset if money is mentioned more often than during that one stewardship campaign season. There’s the common refrain, “My pastor talks about money all the time.”

Instead, we must understand and teach that stewardship is about more than money. Stewardship is about being faithful with the gifts God has given to each of us, and that includes our financial resources. And since stewardship is fundamentally about how we take care of God’s gifts, it is a lifestyle that we must practice constantly, not just once every year.

Stewardship is also a measure of our spiritual maturity. It is the proper understanding that stewardship is about the individual’s need to give back to God. It’s not about raising money to fund the church’s budget, but rather raising mature disciples of Jesus Christ.

If a church is to be faithful to God in its primary task to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, stewardship must be discussed with regularity in sermons, in classes and in small groups. If a person thinks his or her pastor “talks about money too much,” maybe it is because that lesson isn’t getting through.

This is one case where the author of Ecclesiastes is incorrect. There isn’t a single season for stewardship. There isn’t a time for giving and a time for receiving. Stewardship is about being faithful with what God has already given you, and that is always in season.

Resources

  • Ecumenical Stewardship Center: Provides resources, information and events on Christian stewardship issues for theological educators, students, pastors, laity and stewardship professionals.
  • Faith and Money Network: Helps individuals understand the relationship between faith and money.
  • Lewis Center for Church Leadership: Helps seminary students, clergy, lay leaders and denominational leaders enhance their effectiveness and develop leadership in others.
  • United Methodist Discipleship Ministries Stewardship Resources: Provides stewardship resources and information for clergy and laity.
  • umcgiving.org: Provides resources on giving and connects laity and clergy to the denomination’s connectional giving ministries.
  • Chronicle of Philanthropy: An independent news organization that provides philanthropic news, information and resources for leaders, fundraisers, grant makers and others
  • Planned Giving Design Center: Develops products and services to help those in the charitable gift and estate planning industry assist others in their efforts to increase philanthropy.

* Becker is president of the Florida United Methodist Foundation.

Foundation helps pastors decompress, re-energize

Many pastors feel their call to ministry is a blessing, but they also acknowledge it comes with stresses that are unique to serving a church or ministry practically 24/7. With work that’s seemingly endless, there’s little time for rest.

This year, the Passing the Torch Fund ramped up its efforts to give pastors the mental and physical break they need.

The fund is a partnership between the foundation and the Florida Conference that provides financial assistance for training, educational debt relief and leadership development for conference clergy and those preparing for ordained ministry. While the foundation provides the majority of the funds, along with gifts from the conference’s pension board, the conference Office of Clergy Excellence administers the fund.

Of the foundation’s $200,000 annual commitment, $40,000 is designated for grants that help conference clergy in full connection take sabbatical leave, with up to $10,000 awarded per grant.

The word sabbatical, according to Merriam Webster, is derived from Sabbath, which refers to the biblical day of rest. Both words trace to the Greek sabbaton, which itself traces to the Hebrew shabbāth, meaning rest.

Many pastors spend their entire ministry never experiencing that period of rest, either because they feel they don’t have time or can’t afford it. And although The United Methodist Book of Discipline allows clergy to take the leave, it’s often unpaid.

Six clergy received sabbatical grants this year, removing the financial barrier and giving them the opportunity to focus on whatever goals they felt would help their ministry most.

Uplifting the soul

The Rev. Jeffrey Kantz says he wanted time for his “soul to catch up after an intense season of ministry.”

Serving both First United Methodist Church in Lake Wales and nearby Indian Lake United Methodist Church, Kantz said he was burning the candle at both ends between his duties at church, with district committees and in his community.

He considered a sabbatical in 2014 after eight years in his current appointment, but decided it wasn’t financially feasible. Later that year he thought about early retirement. He says he felt so emotionally and spiritually drained he didn’t know if he could “make it” to retirement age.

Rev. Jeff Kantz (First UMC Lake Wales Phot0/SanddollarStudio)

Rev. Jeff Kantz (First UMC Lake Wales Phot0/SanddollarStudio)

“District Superintendent Walter Monroe, in one of our 2015 clergy meetings, reminded us that after seven years we were not only permitted to take sabbatical, but that he encouraged us to do so,” Kantz said. “I considered it again for 2016 and even looked at the foundation application, but 2016 was the church’s centennial year and my decade year, so it just did not feel like the right time.”

That year, Kantz participated in Courage to Lead, a conference clergy retreat program for renewal and reflection. He says that experience gave him the nudge he needed to take the leave.

“It was crucial in helping me recognize that to finish well, rather than just finish, I would absolutely need to do some better self-care, including some renewal time in sabbatical,” he said.

The Rev. Sara McKinley, director of the Florida Conference Office of Clergy Excellence, believes all clergy need to carve out time for rest.

“I think being a pastor is a tough job. Nobody does it by choice; they do it because they are called,” she said. “I once heard someone describe it as if someone were swimming in the ocean. You can tread water, but you never get out.”

It’s easy for clergy to become burned out, McKinley says, but it’s also possible to include regular times of renewal in a busy ministry life. Taking time off between appointments, working in short periods of time for a weekly Sabbath and scheduling annual vacations are a few.

Kantz is using his sabbatical, which started July 1 and ends Sept. 30, for renewal, reflective writing and travel. He and his wife will visit aging parents, meet a new granddaughter and attend a family wedding. The three months are a time to decompress, he says, but unlike a vacation, he’s using the leave to “refocus and reconnect with God’s creation and purpose.”

It’s time he almost didn’t have. “The grant application actually originally discouraged me because it wanted me to indicate my plans and how it will benefit my ministry, which I interpreted as ‘educational opportunities,’ when what I actually needed was simply time for my soul to catch up,” Kantz said. “When I did a Google search and found that ‘travel and family time’ were valid criteria for pastoral sabbaticals in other contexts, I proceeded to pursue the grant.”

Challenging the mind

The Rev. Pamela Feeser will take some time to decompress during her sabbatical, but she’s also using it to expand her pastoral skills. In addition to attending a weeklong family retreat, she plans to earn additional marriage counseling certification.

Feeser provides certified pastoral counseling as the founder and executive director of DOLPHINS to Stop Domestic Violence Inc. (Different Options for Living, Playing, Hoping in Non-violence and Safety) in the Florida Keys, part of Monroe County.

The county, Feeser says, has five times the national average in alcohol and drug addiction, divorce, domestic violence, and suicide.

“I was able to get some training in marriage counseling, but to complete it was simply not within my financial reach,” said Feeser, who is the only pastoral counselor in the county. “This Passing the Torch grant makes it possible for me to complete my training and take some time for renewal with my husband. It is truly a blessing.”

The Rev. Don Nations is also using his sabbatical June 1 to Sept. 1 for additional training, taking graduate level psychology counseling classes.

Rev. Don Nations

Rev. Don Nations

Nations is the founder and lead coach at DNA Coaching, a consulting firm that provides leadership training and coaching to churches and businesses. He said the grant is supplementing his income while he’s away from the ministry.

After recently celebrating 25 years as an ordained deacon, Nations said it felt like the right time for him and his family. “My family has relatives facing a number of transitions, and it would provide an opportunity for me to be of greater assistance,” he said.

Fuel for the journey

Feeser is excited about her upcoming learning opportunity, but she’s also looking forward to the rest.

“Your ministry deserves renewal, you deserve renewal and mostly God deserves to have the best of you and your efforts,” she said. “Honor the one who loved you into being and called you into service by taking the time to brush those edges and let the light shine through.”

It was a bright moment for Kantz when the staff parish relations committee at his church gave its full support for his leave.

“While it seems many parishioners underestimate the stress of pastoral leadership, there are also many who understand, particularly when a clergyperson has ‘been here’ for a longer season,” he said.

And some appointments can be more challenging than others, McKinley says, such as cross-cultural appointments, transitioning from a suburban or rural appointment to an urban one, or leading a church through a closure.

“A good candidate for a sabbatical is one who is overworked, one who has that burned-out feeling,” she said. “Everybody’s life is different. Sometimes there needs to be a time for hard soul-searching to hear the call again.”

Nations agrees. “People take a sabbatical for a variety of reasons — feeling tired, wanting to pursue additional studies, needing a break from some of the day-to-day stresses of life/ministry, exploring personal/professional transitions,” he said. “This is a great option, and I am thankful it exists.”

And for many, Kantz adds, it offers clarity.

“For clergy who recognize they are tired or worn or who just feel like the weekly schedule does not allow them time to really fully connect with God, I would encourage them to consider taking sabbatical/renewal time,” he said. “(It) may be the difference between just ‘finishing the race, keeping the faith,’ and doing it well.”

Related story

Grant program provides relief as seminary debt skyrockets

* Buchholz is a freelance writer based in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

Grant program provides relief as seminary debt skyrockets

One of the startling aspects of the current and future U.S. economy is a student debt landscape that is escalating beyond the resources and imagination of both individuals and institutions.

Generally accepted reports place educational debt at nearly $1.5 trillion, with 40 percent used to finance graduate degrees. For United Methodist clergy, especially recent graduates, this is no nameless statistic.

With 13 approved seminaries offering graduate degrees in divinity, The United Methodist Church gives future clergy a variety of educational options. Mitigating factors include geographic location, academic focus, practical ministry options and studying online versus on campus.

What’s common in every situation — from Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, to Asbury Theological Seminary’s campus in Orlando, Florida — is the considerable cost and potential shadow of crippling debt new clergy face practically from their first day in a first appointment.

The United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry recently compiled data from 11 of 13 seminaries, reporting an average of $22,048 in undergraduate debt and $44,319 in graduate debt. At the same time, the average compensation for elders and deacons with two years or less of service is $49,742, including salary and housing.

Student debt is a challenge for the U.S. economy, but it’s also a potential crisis for the church and its future ministry. God’s call to service may be clear, but for many young United Methodists, earning a divinity degree and serving the church may well involve more financial uncertainty than they are prepared to risk.

Answering the call to help

In response to this growing need, the Florida United Methodist Foundation and the Florida Conference launched the Passing the Torch Fund in 2015. For five years after its inception, the fund will provide money for debt reduction grants, leadership resources and training for both ordained clergy and students preparing for ministry.

“Recent seminary grads were coming into ministry with unsustainable levels of student debt,” says the Rev. Mark Becker, the foundation’s president. “In Florida, the conference board of pensions decided to award all newly ordained ministers $5,000 towards seminary debt. The foundation joined as a partner by providing half of the gift, but also by setting aside money for clergy financial education, scholarship money  … and for grants for existing clergy to take renewal leave.”

In June, the foundation gave $32,500 to 13 new clergy as part of its annual $200,000 commitment to the fund, which includes $40,000 earmarked as a seminary scholarship for a clergyperson of color and culture.

The conference’s Office of Clergy Excellence is responsible for administering the funds. This year, the task included deciding how to use $80,000 intended for the 2015 and 2016 seminary scholarships, which were not awarded.

“I met with members of the foundation and it was agreed that we would contact all our young clergy of color and see who had outstanding debt,” said the Rev. Sara McKinley, director of Clergy Excellence. “We then began paying off their debt.”

The help, which was a surprise to the clergy receiving it, ranged from $3,500 to $23,000 per clergy, depending on his or her level of debt. In addition, five students currently attending seminary received $8,000 each, sharing the $40,000 scholarship available for 2017.

Real and timely assistance

Rev. Erwin Lopez

Rev. Erwin Lopez

Among the beneficiaries is the Rev. Erwin Lopez, director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

“I accepted Jesus at a little Methodist church when I was 22 years old,” he said. “I found truth and purpose through the scriptures and was called to be a pastor.”

Lopez attended Duke, then found his passion working with college students. He’s concerned ministry could become a class-specific profession, with young Latinos rejecting it because of potential debt.

“It’s already an issue,” Lopez said. “They automatically say, ‘That’s not the life for me.’ We need to empower those in lower social classes. The cost of seminary is only step four. We need an entire culture change.”

Rev. Corey Jones

Rev. Corey Jones

The Rev. Corey Jones has also seen what the threat of debt can do.

“I know undergrads who felt called, but when they saw the cost, they bowed out,” he said. “It’s the same in seminary. Coming out with debt and starting a family, and you’re just learning what it means to be a pastor — that’s heavy.”

Jones can relate. The 2012 Asbury Seminary graduate is executive pastor at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando, and like many of his fellow clergy, he’s dealing with significant educational debt. He says the foundation grant he received didn’t erase his balance, but it has made it “more manageable.”

“The grant has had a huge impact,” he said. “It’s the conference saying, ‘We are with you.’ It speaks volumes to the graciousness and foresight of the foundation. This is my calling. I’ll be at peace about this debt, but not let it stress me.”

When you can’t go where God needs you

Tiffany McCall has a little more peace these days.

After completing her first year at Asbury, she wasn’t sure she could continue, but she says the grant “has relieved a lot of stress and uncertainty.”

“I had decided I would not go into a lot of debt, and I’d been praying,” she said. “All this hanging over your head prevents ministers from actively engaging in desperately needed ministry. You almost can’t go to the places God needs you the most.”

McCall is serving at Trinity United Methodist Church in Fernandina Beach while attending seminary. She says she understands how important it is to work hard in response to opportunity. She also understands how difficult it is to cross barriers.

“Minorities are already challenged by economic instability, already challenged with placement in the right education, already behind and playing catch-up,” she said. “You can never get there.”

Sandra Fader

Sandra Fader

Real estate consultant and Asbury student Sandra Fader literally works overtime to stay one step ahead of debt.

“Ministry has been a clear call, and I’m very excited,” she said. “I found my calling as a church administrator, every day joyfully going to the office. I believe I will find my fulfillment in serving God 100 percent of my time, bringing God to the world. My calling is to be in the church — the calling for a deacon.”

Receiving a grant confirmed her decision to trust that realization and what it takes to get there. “I was procrastinating,” she said. “But it was time to take a step of faith and go for it. I didn’t want a loan, and I had to come up with a plan. Now, obviously God came up with the plan.”

Fader is well aware of the stress debt places on clergy. “You end up with two masters, and debt is one of them,” she said. “But it’s difficult to come up with a boundary of what is fair and what is not. At the end of the day, if you are moved by the spirit, it’s obvious that God will provide.”

The future

God may provide, but Becker is concerned seminaries need to do more when it comes to the financial wellbeing of graduates. Despite denominational assistance to all 13 institutions, the cost of education continues to grow.

“Because clergy salaries are typically very low and education debt is non-dischargeable with bankruptcy, the implications of education debt are far reaching,” he said. “How can a pastor in debt lead a church in their financial obligations when they themselves are unable to do so? Unless we can find our way clear to make ordained ministry more financially viable for young adults, we may find ourselves losing out on their incredible gifts and graces.”

One strategy is to help clergy become more financially literate. The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry is partnering with the denomination’s Wespath Benefits and Investments and the Lilly Foundation to help young clergy head off debt before it happens, then provide assistance when debt is unavoidable.

And the foundation is trying to better understand what’s happening in Florida. “Our foundation has done some analysis to determine the highest debt load recent seminary graduates can handle,” McKinley said. “Many of our pastors are left struggling with debt way above this level.”

Therein lies a role for churches, McKinley says. “I’d like to see every church that has the blessing of someone from their ranks being called to licensed or ordained ministry support those persons in some significant financial way,” she said.

Final word

Brenton Lopez

Brenton Lopez

Gammon Theological Seminary student Brenton Lopez is effusive in his thanks for the grant he received. “To God be the glory,” he said. “It’s helped out significantly with tuition and books.”

Lopez, who already has an MBA, says he was “radically redirected by God” after an arrest for assault. “I prayed, ‘Take me out of this situation (and) I will serve you and never look back,’ ” he said. “When I made that promise, my whole life began to turn around. God makes no mistakes.”

Lopez is less concerned with the cost of education than the cost of not knowing Jesus.

“God is calling me to pastor a church — to grow a church and bring more persons to Christ,” he said. “In Florida, The United Methodist Church closed 17 churches this year. People are hungry for the Gospel, but it needs to be delivered the right way.”

“It is a great thing the foundation is doing,” he added. “I hope they’ll continue helping young clergy coming into ministry.”

Becker says the foundation is committed to providing financial training and education so clergy and students can make informed financial decisions. Funding for grants beyond the five-year period will depend on available resources since the monies come from excess revenue over expenses, which fluctuates from year to year.

But seeing evidence the funding is hitting the mark is exciting, Becker says.

“The best part of giving away money is the response we receive from the recipients,” he said. “It really isn’t about the size of the funds we have under management, but being able to make a difference.”

For McKinley, it was heartening seeing the joy in the recipients’ disbelief, with many asking, “Is this for real?” McKinley had the happy task of telling them it was.

* Maul is freelance writer based in Wake Forest, North Carolina.