When you love your shibumi

I was ready for Saturday, July 16 to arrive.

Deep inside, I felt a need to get away.

My wife, the Commander Supreme, had worked with the calendars of our three children and their families. Those logistical negotiations had us returning to Topsail Island, North Carolina.

For a couple of weeks, a corner in our dining room had been accepting items designated for the beach. On the afternoon of Friday, July 15, I had my usual unpleasant encounter with our rooftop carrier. In the end, the tussle was a draw.

We were about fifteen minutes off schedule in departing Richmond on Saturday morning. The Commander blamed it on aging.

The drive to Raleigh to pick up our youngest daughter, Elizabeth was uneventful. The challenge would be squeezing Elizabeth’s stuff into any empty spot in the car. In the days prior to our departure, I had teased her about bringing only one bag.

There was more than one bag, but we fit the junk in the car. Thankfully, I did have a back seat space, but my left side could feel the encroachment of the new passengers. My seating wasn’t as bad as an airline seat, but close.

Elizabeth was the designated driver for getting us out of Raleigh. A heavy rain shower doused us within minutes of our start, but we quickly drove out of it.

After the rain, traffic, and some construction kept our attention as Elizabeth pushed us toward I-40.

The landscape and the terrain began to taper as we pushed further east. Soon, we were off the interstate, and we took a combination of North Carolina two lane roads into the coastal plain.

Single stop signs marked intersections where we made turns. These were almost empty crossroads with a service station and maybe a fast food store.

To my left and right, green was the dominant landscape color. Mixed in those parcels were houses and mobile homes. Occasionally, weather weary sheds, barns, and produce stands that were barely standing showed up.

Deserted houses and cars were woven into that countryside with weeds dominating their perimeters.

The need for lumber left some sections of green barren. Gone were the once densely populated, towering trees.

Former forest cleared for lumber Photo Bill Pike

There was more green—fields of corn and soybeans. Any empty plot of land sprouted over my head corn stalks and knee high swaths of soybeans.

Healthy corn Photo by Bill Pike

Field of soybeans Photo by Bill Pike

We inched eastward, and the traffic picked up.

Soon we were navigating the first round-about before crossing the high rise bridge over the intracoastal waterway in Surf City. After the bridge, another round-about awaited, and we scurried through unscathed.

Check-in time was four at the rental house. So, we drove to the Beach Shop and Grill for a drink and snack. We sat in their newly expanded patio.

Four o’clock arrived, and we drove back to the house, parked, and were ready to unload. But despite our efforts, the door lock would not accept the code we had been given. Finally, we entered the code by not following the recommended instructions, and we gained access.

Unpacking went well, and then the Commander and I took a walk to the beach. We checked out the pretty Atlantic Ocean, and the water felt warm in the ankle deep surf.

Shortly after our return from the beach, the confession took place.

Both of our daughters, Lauren and Elizabeth, have their mother’s DNA when it comes to the details of organizing and logistics.

Earlier in the spring, Lauren had borrowed the shibumi from us for a long weekend with her family on the North Carolina coast. The week before our trip to Topsail, Lauren handed the shibumi over to Elizabeth.

Of course, when we packed Elizabeth’s luggage into our car, the shibumi was forgotten. It remained in Elizabeth’s car.

So early on Sunday morning, I found myself driving back to Raleigh to retrieve the shibumi.

I retraced our route from Saturday. Traffic wasn’t bad. And as I drove, my old brain wandered all over the place.

I thought about the shibumi. It meets a very simple need for beach lovers in the summer— shade.

I thought further about needs. I have been very, very lucky in my life. I can’t ever remember a time when a need I had wasn’t met.

I had good parents, a stable home. I grew up in an imperfect world, but as kid that world seemed perfect.

The needs in our world today are massive. Immunity isn’t available. Any whining need I have is nothing compared to what a person might be experiencing in my neighborhood, county, city, state, country, and world.

Where am I in trying to reduce those needs?

Driving to Raleigh to bring back a shibumi.

But, I also ask myself what is at the heart of securing that shibumi?

The answer is love.

I love my wife, our daughters, our son, and their families.

And, truthfully, I love the shibumi’s simple shade.

And yet, I wonder if you, me, we, us will ever realize that love is the key to meeting those needs in the fragile people who surround us in our neighborhoods, counties, cities, states, and world.

What might happen if I loved the needs of those fragile people as much as I love our shibumi?

Perhaps, I need to consider the application of this wisdom from Gary Chapman: “ Love is a choice you make everyday.”

Our shibumi providing shade Photo by Bill Pike

Sunday morning quarterbacking: if I like the new preacher

In January of 2022, I started my eleventh year of working for our church. In truth, those ten years are a blur.

Church time is as speedy as the roadrunner in a Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoon. Blink, and time is gone.

When I started the job, my title was property manager, changed to director of facilities and administration, and now, the director of operations.

My thirty one years working in public schools helped me with my transition into church work. I have often thought about churches and schools and their similarities and differences, but I think a lot about their one significant commonality—people.

For better or worse, churches and schools evolve around people.

In the spring of 1975, I was starting my student teaching at Aycock Junior High School in Greensboro, North Carolina. My cooperating teacher, Wallace Pegram, gave me some advice that I have never forgotten—“There is a lot of psychology in teaching.”

Mr. Pegram was correct. But, I have come to realize—“there is a lot of psychology in churches too.”

Churches are full of “turf and personality” skirmishes. Usually those skirmishes are grounded in one of the most difficult words in our language—change.

Turf and personality collisions can occur over worship order, a program change, a building renovation, and personnel decisions.

Recently, churches have experienced an uptick in issues related to the political climate in our country and the disruptive COVID-19 pandemic.

Our political division seeped into health and safety decisions made by church leaders in their attempt to protect their congregations and staffs from the pandemic.

At our church, the mask policy became a trigger for some families to exit with lots of emotional anguish.

But in truth, even before the pandemic, our church had its struggles. When churches struggle, fingers are pointed, and usually fingers are singularly pointed in the direction of the preacher.

If I have learned anything in my ten years of church work, it is this—being a preacher can be very difficult.

The role of the preacher in a church is not much different from that of a school principal. Lots of demands are placed on their shoulders.

Dealing with those demands requires a special skill set to constantly deal with the barrage of short and long term challenges.

In today’s environment, preachers can’t be one dimensional. Their set of skills must give them the capacity to wear multiple hats to meet the diversity of needs in an ever changing congregation and community.

From my perspective, one of the most critical of those skills is the capacity for the preacher to develop relationships with every demographic in a congregation.

Church members no matter their age, their status, and how frequently or infrequently they attend, want the preacher to know their names. Along with knowing the names of members comes getting to know a bit about them. That getting to know a person can be helpful to a preacher in the life of a church.

A preacher can score a ten in the pulpit, but a preacher can’t score a one in building relationships with the congregation.

That disparity in the scoring from pulpit to relationships is not a morale win for a preacher.

Morale is just as important in churches as it is in schools. Morale impacts both preachers and congregations.

No doubt, COVID-19 lowered morale in churches.

But, according to multiple studies, morale in American churches was already in a downward spiral.

After thirty five years of church leadership, our senior pastor is retiring this year. I know decisions related to the pandemic wore on his morale.

Recently, I spoke with a long time friend in North Carolina. He told me that the senior pastor at his church was retiring too. My friend shared his pastor’s comments: “ I don’t feel like I can win anymore.”

In any setting, I believe this preacher’s comment captures how morale impacts leaders too.

Again, I sense the political division in America impacted the thinking of congregations. No matter the decisions made by a preacher, it is impossible to make everyone happy. Even a win can have dissension.

At our church, our annual stewardship campaign takes place in February and March. I wonder how many financial pledges in a congregation might be grounded in this comment:“ I might contribute more if I like the new preacher.”

That comment is one more example of the diversity of challenges preachers face in the daily operation of a church. Additionally, that comment illustrates a sample of congregational thinking, and a preacher must be constantly thinking about the psychology needed to work with a congregation.

Preachers like school personnel can’t be one dimensional in their leadership skills. A strength in one area is not going to compensate for for lack of leadership in other critical areas.

A preacher must have a wide range of leadership skills, but in this post pandemic environment, the ability to build relationships across a congregation might be the most important.

Churches must determine how to reach out to members who have not been in church for two years.

Strategies on how to reconnect with these members will be in some instances critical to the survival of the church. Preachers who can use their interpersonal skills to rebuild these relationships will have an edge in winning people back.

As tough as it can be to be a preacher and lead a church, preachers need to recognize the extraordinary possibilities in this post pandemic environment.

There is an opportunity to create an “I like the preacher” atmosphere.

To do this, preachers must build relationships.

Photo by Bill Pike

College Athletic Conferences Motto: We’re Only In It For The Money

March 4, 1968, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention released their third studio album titled—We’re Only In It For The Money.

The album’s cover spoofed the Beatles’ album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Of course, the Beatles’ record company had some concerns, so the proposed Zappa cover was moved to the inside sleeve.

Zappa album cover(Wikipedia)

When I read on July 1 that UCLA and USC were leaving the PAC-12 to join the Big Ten conference, that Zappa album title was the first thought that popped in my mind. Try as they might, college athletic directors and presidents, can’t deny that money is the motivator for conference jumping.

Sport Illustrated’s Pat Forde sums up the current thinking: “added revenue drives every decision in modern college sports now, regardless of the damage done to things like tradition, geographic sense, the student-athlete experience and any semblance of collegiality.”(NPR)

Additionally, I find this quote from USC’s athletic director, Mike Bohn, troubling: “Ultimately, the Big Ten is the best home for USC and Trojan athletics as we move into the new world of collegiate sports. We are excited that our values align with the league’s member institutions. We also will benefit from the stability and strength of the conference; the athletic caliber of Big Ten institutions; the increased visibility, exposure, and resources the conference will bring our student-athletes and programs; and the ability to expand engagement with our passionate alumni nationwide.”(NPR)

Aside from “student-athletes,” Mr. Bohn makes no reference to the fact that somewhere in their college experience—student athletes are supposed to be enrolled in academic classes, attending those classes, and earning credits toward a degree. I guess academic advisors and tutors in the USC athletic departments can be terminated as the school moves into the Big Ten.

Growing up in Burlington, North Carolina, I was in the heart of the Atlantic Coast Conference(ACC). As a kid, I loved following the basketball and football teams in the ACC. I listened to games on the radio, watch games on television, and read newspaper accounts. Players played for four years, some made it to the professional ranks, and some actually earned their degrees.

Today, earning a degree doesn’t appear to be a motivator. Players, their families, and future agents are more concerned about Mr. Bohn’s “increased visibility and exposure” and a player’s NIL (name, image, and likeness) potential than a college degree.

The lure of this athletic money makes me wonder if college athletic directors and presidents could pass the NCAA’s concussion protocols? Clearly, something has jarred their brains. Whatever common sense they once possessed has been erased by money.

And for me, that is my struggle—where is the common sense in these decisions?

Apparently for USC and UCLA, years of loyalty and tradition to the PAC-12 don’t mean anything. Clearly, USC and UCLA have lost sight of how the PAC-12 promoted and supported these iconic brands.

The travel piece is comical. Obviously, cost of jet fuel and availability of qualified pilots had no bearing on this decision. Doesn’t matter if a team flies commercial or charter, one glitch in computer travel systems, lousy weather, or plane mechanical problems can instantly change a team’s travel.

Another piece not factored into this decision is the quiet elephant in the athletic department—morale.

Expansions have lots of initial energy and excitement. I’ll be interested to see how the increased work pace impacts the people wrestling behind the scenes with logistics and planning. Also, included in the morale factor are the families of the players, coaches, and athletic staffs.

If I were ACC commissioner Jim Phillips, and other athletic conference leaders, I’d be worried.

Word on the street is that the Ivy League is going to enter this fray. Their expansion list includes—Davidson, Duke, Furman, Hampton Institute, Howard University, North Carolina A&T, University of Richmond, Wake Forest, and William and Mary.

No name change for the conference, but their mantra would be—“We’re Not In It For The Money.”

Maybe someday, the impact of money on college athletics will lose its hold. Until college presidents reclaim their backbones, college athletics will continue to be “only in it for the money.”

This is disappointing.

Valuable life lessons about common sense, integrity, and loyalty are lost when we need them most.

Photo by Bill Pike

Author’s note: sources NPR, and Wikipedia for the album cover.

Do newspaper hedge funds violate a reporter’s free speech?

Today in America, a local newspaper will close, and hedge fund owners of a local newspaper will significantly reduce the staff in a newsroom.

This closure and reduction in staff has two impacts:
people lose jobs and communities lose news.

In 2021, my wife and I canceled our hard copy subscription to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Increased subscription cost, shrinkage in news coverage, and reduction in staff drove our decision.

For years, newspaper ownership was local. Today, many surviving newspapers are owned and run by corporate hedge funds. Hedge fund newspaper owners have one goal—making a profit. Heartless hedge fund owners know the quickest path toward a profit is to make staff cuts.

Cuts in staff can reduce the quality of the newspaper, impact news coverage, and make newsrooms a fragile mess. Morale in depleted newsrooms is dismal.

Let me be clear, I have no expertise in newspaper management. But, as a person who for years depended upon newspapers for news, I’m concerned about the impact hedge fund operators are having on our newspapers.

Specifically, I’m troubled about the lack of detailed reporting when a hedge fund purchases a newspaper. I sense that remaining reporters and editors are handcuffed from reporting the severity of the changes implemented in newsrooms.

Clearly, the newspaper reports on the buyout. Those stories always focus on promises from the new owners and changes in internal leadership related to daily operations.

But, weeks after this announcement, the newspaper goes silent. After a hedge fund takeover, the gutting of newsroom staffs is not reported. Rarely do newspaper readers find articles about these reassignments, resignations, and firings. Why is this?

The First Amendment of our Constitution guarantees freedom of the press. To me, that guarantee raises these questions:

Shouldn’t remaining reporters and editors be able to write about these significant newsroom reductions without fear of retribution?

Don’t the readers of a newspaper have a right to know how the newspaper is being impacted by such changes?

When people in our communities are impacted in a negative way, isn’t a guiding principle of journalism to report their stories?

Isn’t it just as important to report about the impact of a newspaper buyout as it is to report about similar challenges in a local corporation or municipality?

In my mind, the answer is yes.

Yet, I’m certain hedge fund newspaper owners and their attorneys would disagree.

At this very moment, a disagreement is taking place in a decimated newsroom.

A reporter submitted a balanced story about the impact of reducing newspaper staff. The story is reviewed by an editor and the publisher. The editor wants to run the piece, but the publisher refuses. My question is this—has that reporter’s right of free speech and freedom of press been violated by the publisher’s refusal?

No matter where we look in America, we have multiple challenges. Newspapers are the heart of reporting about our challenges. When newspapers are closed, bought out, and newsrooms ravaged, the heart of our democracy is challenged.

At this critical time, America needs the integrity of reporters and editors to report our condition. That reporting must include the internal challenges facing bought out newspapers.

These internal challenges can’t go unreported. It is time for newspapers in America who are not controlled by corporate hedge funds to pool their financial and human resources to report on the gutting of newspaper newsrooms. This pooling of resources should also include newspaper related nonprofits and schools of journalism.

With urgent diligence, these stories must be researched and reported. Reporters and editors from non-hedge fund controlled newspapers are equipped to report these stories with truth and without fear of retribution.

If this eviscerating of newsrooms can be honestly reported, then maybe the collective conscience of newspaper takeover planners and their investors will be jarred.

That jarring should include people who still rely upon newspapers for their news. Readers deserve to learn about the frailty of freedom in these newsrooms.

Failure to report this story isn’t an option.

Failure to report ensures more buyouts and carving up newsrooms.

That template will continue to erode our freedom of the press.

And that’s not good for America.

Author’s note: I know this piece is an imperfect commentary. I sent the piece to three major newspapers in America hoping that one might take it. But, no paper took the piece, and I’m not surprised.

How much longer can newspapers hold on? Photo by Bill Pike

Sunday Morning Quarterbacking: What might churches learn from craft breweries?

Let’s start with the truth.

I’m an imperfect lifelong Methodist.

For the last ten years, I have worked for my church.

And, yes, I drink beer.

Historically, churches and alcohol have clashed.

But during the last two years, both craft breweries and churches have been in quite a tussle with COVID-19.

This pesky pandemic forced craft brewers and churches to quickly rethink how to reach their public. In each environment, what were once facilities alive with people seven days a week became empty buildings.

For churches, this meant offering worship and other programming on-line. To do this, churches needed to have invested in a technology infrastructure that would allow them to broadcast virtually.

Craft brewers had to figure out how to safely offer their product to the public. This required a shift in marketing strategies and making sure new options for selling beer complied with state codes.

Marketing and communication specialists for the brewers established a process for on-line orders including pickup and delivery. With pickup and delivery, customers were expected to comply with health protocols. This quick adjustment in distribution helped to sustain brewers during the pandemic.

Additionally, churches learned if they offered a quality on-line worship service, there was sustainable buy-in from existing members in their congregations. But unexpectedly, churches also picked up viewers beyond their usual community boundaries.

During the last five years, Scott’s Addition in Richmond, Virginia has exploded in growth. This former warehouse and industrial district has experienced a rebirth. Craft brewers have led the way in converting these old buildings into exciting new facilities.

On a weekday afternoon, as some restrictions from the pandemic were slowly being lifted, I met my church friend, Art Utley, at Ardent Craft Ales in Scott’s Addition.

That afternoon, Art and I were going to talk about pending transitions at our church over a beer. While studying the beer menu for the day, one of the brewers, William Poole, came out from the brewery. William and our son had been classmates in high school.

Whenever I see William at Ardent, I always have beer questions for him. This afternoon was no different.

Amazingly, during the pandemic, Ardent had released a new beer every week. I was curious about the timing of these releases and what was taking place behind the scenes to launch the beers.

William explained that each new beer required three months of planning. This included fine tuning a recipe, securing the required ingredients, coordinating graphic designs for the labeling, and marketing the release.

Advanced planning is critical for any organization. Yet, I wonder how churches might benefit from this proactive process?

For example, if on-line worship services are attracting new viewers, then churches must be planning ways to develop additional programs. Craft brewers are not one dimensional in their offerings of beers. Churches need to push beyond their one dimensional template by asking what more could they offer to capture the wide range of interests in a congregation?

Another interesting piece about the work of craft brewers is their capacity to communicate and share with each other.

William explained how he had a particular strain of yeast remaining from a recent brewing session. He did not want to waste the extra yeast. Because of the camaraderie among local brewers, William was able to share the yeast.

As churches begin to emerge from the pandemic, how might they benefit from this sharing and camaraderie attitude in communicating with other churches?

On April 7, 2022, the Brewers Association, who represents small and independent craft brewers in America, revealed 8% growth in 2021 by these breweries.

Mainline denominations in America would be envious of this growth, and also curious about how it was attained.

Writing in the Christian Citizen in 2021, Steven D. Martin makes some interesting points about how churches might grow. One point by Martin caught my attention: “Churches who produce daily content will move ahead of those who do not.”

At the very least, the brewers at Ardent were producing weekly content with a new beer release. With these releases, Ardent took some significant risks in a pandemic environment.

From my church work, I sense churches struggle with change and risk taking.

But, I also feel churches could potentially reinvent themselves by embracing change and taking some risks. Ardent took risks that mirrored Mr. Martin’s point. Why can’t churches?

Truthfully, the history of the church and breweries is grounded in risk taking.

Taking those risks helped to sustained Ardent in a difficult environment.

If the church expects to push out of its difficult environment, I hope church leaders will reach out beyond the walls of the church to their local craft brewer.

I sense church leaders will be surprised by what they learn from craft brewers.

Red Oak a North Carolina craft brewery Photo by Bill Pike