Churches and gun violence: 7 practical preparation tips

Gunshots rocked yet another church over the weekend. Sunday services in Sutherland Springs, Texas, turned into a bloodbath, with at least 27 dead. Before that horrifying incident, the folks of this small town felt protected by their rural setting. But as we’re discovering, even those things don’t prevent gun violence from unfolding.

What’s a church to do? I want to share seven practical tips from Rev. Derrek Belase, a former certified police officer turned pastor, with two degrees in criminology. He is now director of discipleship for the Oklahoma Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. His current portfolio includes coordinating Safe Sanctuary training.

Derrek believes you can’t completely prevent gun violence from erupting — even with the best-laid plans or the best legislation. Then what? How can a church adequately protect itself? Here are seven practical tips that can help any church prepare for the unexpected.

Rev. Rebekah Simon-Peter

1. Establish relationships with first responders and other key people in your community. Get to know the sheriff, chief of police and chief of the fire department, as well as the mayor and county commissioners. Let them get to know you and exchange cell phone numbers. That way, they’ll know if they get a call from you on a Sunday morning it’s a bona fide emergency. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t call 911 if violence or threats of violence break out in your sanctuary. But also call them.

2. Invite them to come tour the church buildings. Let them see the lay of the land, and the way your buildings are set up. If they have a mental picture of your facilities, they’ll be able to respond with foreknowledge, if the need should arise.

3. Be sure to have ushers, as well as greeters. Greeters can keep an eye out for folks who may look troubled. They can alert the pastor, or if need be, the authorities. Once worship begins, greeters are seated. That’s when ushers take over. Once ushers are done seating people, they can serve as a vital link between the worshiping congregation in the sanctuary with its closed doors and the outside world. They can walk down the hall to the nursery and make sure everything’s OK there. They can keep an eye out for stragglers, suspicious looking folks or someone with a gun. Make sure they can access the church office and a landline phone.

4. Consider the layout of the building and the property, and what might happen “if.” How far is the nursery from the sanctuary? Do they have a landline where they could make phone calls out? Do you have a landline in the sanctuary? Do cell phones work in the sanctuary? Do you have a lot of doors that are unnecessarily open during worship? Are there places outside that people could hide? Your first responders can give you helpful feedback on that.

5. Does your church building have an accurate sign on it so first responders can respond quickly? You may be known as First Church to your own people, the Methodist church to the larger community, and the downtown community church with the big spire to the neighborhood locals. Make sure your sign matches your website, Facebook page and bulletin. Also, make sure you have your street address handy. That’s how ambulances will find you.

6. Resist bringing in a security expert. They’ll suggest things most churches can’t afford, whether that’s a security guard or metal detectors, which will ratchet up expectations and fears. Instead, make these practical moves.

7. Focus on what you’re there to do: preach the Gospel, build the Kingdom, help people grow spiritually, connect with the community and with God, give hope, share love, pray, and practice the presence of Christ.

For more solutions, check out FEMA’s resource for protecting your house of worship. As in football, where offense is the best defense, there are additional ways churches and other communities of faith can respond. Next week, we’ll look at how to shift our larger culture, which gives rise to lone, aggressive shooters.

In the meantime, let’s do more than send our thoughts and prayers. Let’s make sure our own houses are in order.

* Simon-Peter is an ordained United Methodist elder and a church leadership coach and consultant. This article was first published Nov. 7 at www.rebekahsimonpeter.com.

Foundation offers interest-only option to help churches recover after storm

After wreaking havoc throughout the Caribbean, Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys Sept. 10. Later that day, the massive weather system made a second landfall at Marco Island, continuing to cut a swath of destruction throughout much of the state.

With active Development Fund loans valued at $125.7 million and serving 177 congregations, the Florida United Methodist Foundation had a huge amount of collateral exposed in the storm.

As of Oct. 6, the Florida Conference reported receiving 229 Irma-related damage claims from Florida United Methodist churches.

“The claims cover varying degrees of severity,” said LaNita Battles, director of the conference’s Ministry Protection office. “On a very preliminary basis, we estimate the insurable loss at between $8 million and $11 million, before application of the conference self-insured retention ($250,000) and the individual church deductibles.”

A different kind of response

Almost immediately after the storm hit, the Rev. Mark Becker, the foundation’s president, began pursuing creative avenues to help churches and communities recover, while working to protect the foundation’s investment in church property.

“I called David McCaskill at the Texas Methodist Foundation,” Becker said. “I asked, ‘What are you doing in response to Harvey? We don’t have the resources you have in Texas, but what can we do?’ ”

From that conversation and with approval from the foundation’s board, Becker sent a letter Sept. 21 to all churches with loans offering them the option of interest-only payments through the end of the year.

The relief effort effectively frees up about 50 percent of a church’s monthly mortgage payment to make repairs, meet deductibles — which total a hefty 5 percent of a structure’s value  — and assist other congregations in their neighborhoods needing help with storm-related repairs. The principal is not waived, simply shifted to the back end of the loan.

The steeple from Alva United Methodist Church near Fort Myers was ripped off by Hurricane Irma Sept. 10. (FLUMC photo)

“The economic piece is just part of this,” Becker said. “You can change lives without a whole lot of money and time. It’s about demonstrating ‘I’m with you, I care about you.’ ”

By Oct. 6, 10 percent of loan holders had accepted the interest-only option, said Margaret Cox, the foundation’s treasurer. “ The churches that have responded have been happy about the program being offered,” she said.

For Becker, it’s an opportunity to reinforce the core of Christian witness. “Grace starts with simple, humble gestures,” he said. “Some people get their hands dirty and roll their sleeves up. Others may not be able to do that. But there’s always a way to get engaged.”

Asked about the potential impact on the foundation’s mission if every affected congregation took the offer, Becker says it would be minimal since interest payments fund operations and pay dividends.

“Investors would not be at risk,” he said. “The only impact would be on the availability of cash to loan.”

The immediate need, Becker said, is flexibility during a time of tragedy and disaster.

“Christ tells us in extraordinary times we have to think outside the box,” he said. “I feel strongly about that. I believe the board feels this way, as well.”

Beyond Florida, the crisis in Puerto Rico looms large. Becker is looking at ways the foundation can help support relief efforts there and in other parts of the Caribbean.

“One of the key distinctive features of Methodism is connectedness,” Becker said. “The foundation is a strong part of this connection. It’s an important part of who we are. From reports I have seen, even in the mist of tragedy, you can see the hands of God at work. People band together, they come to each other’s assistance asking nothing and expecting nothing in return.”

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

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.