North Carolina’s stunning coast is something to cherish

On Saturday, July 16, we departed our home in Richmond, Virginia. Topsail Island, North Carolina was our goal.

Including a rooftop carrier, our car was overpacked. We would stop in Raleigh to pickup our youngest daughter. That meant finding more space where no space existed.

I grew up in Burlington, and I will confess, I don’t remember making many vacation trips to the North Carolina coast. Cherry Grove, now part of North Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, was our beach destination.

Having lived in Virginia since 1975, I find the state’s Eastern Shore to be more satisfying than the admired Virginia Beach.

This was our second trip to Topsail Island. Over the years, we’ve explored Duck, Atlantic Beach, and I’ve been to Ocean Isle. I’m no expert, but the North Carolina coast is a treasure.

According to author, Glenn Morris, in The New Guide to North Carolina Beaches, the coast is 326 miles in length. That shoreline no matter ocean or sound side is unique and spectacular. And yet I wonder— how much more can these fragile landscapes take from mother nature and human beings?

A delicate tug of war, a complicated give and take is always at work on the coast. For this precious coast to survive, visitors and locals must work to find a balance to cooperatively manage that give and take that never rests.

On Monday, July 18, my family and I, including our four grandchildren, experienced an example of cooperative preservation at the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Surf City.

A playful billboard at the entrance Photo by Bill Pike

Our tour of the center gave us real time educational experiences about the challenges a sea turtle faces. We also learned how humans impact the life cycle of sea turtles with irresponsible disposal of trash into ocean environments.

But, despite this negligence, I found hope in the stories about the countless volunteers who work to keep shorelines trash free, and who with kindhearted diligence walk the local beaches during the season when mother turtles trudge on shore to build a nest and lay their eggs.

After the tour, we returned to Topsail Beach. An afternoon thunderstorm delayed going back to the beach. But when the sun returned, we went for a beach walk.

I was curious to see if I could locate a turtle’s nest. A short distance down the beach, I came upon a nest complete with the marker stakes, orange tape, and notification sign.

A marked and hopefully protected sea turtle nest Topsail Island, North Carolina Photo by Bill Pike

This find was perfect for our grandchildren as they saw firsthand what the docent had shared with us during the tour.

Next year, I turn 70. I don’t have many years left.

But, I will hold out hope that we humans can find ways to cooperatively take care of this stunning coast.

This preservation should not be done for you or me, but for our children and grandchildren.

Cherish your North Carolina Coast, and treat it as gently as a grandchild.

Author’s note this piece appeared as a guest column in the Wilmington Star News today, Sunday, August 7, 2022.

Sunday morning quarterbacking: First Sunday For The New Preacher

In my career in public education, I remember the “fear” I felt with each new job I took.

When I entered the school’s parking lot, fear wanted me to turn around and drive back home. I never turned around. But, there were many days during those thirty one years when I thought to myself—“What in the world am I doing here?”

My guess is new preachers, or when a preacher starts a new appointment, he/she has “fear” as a companion. Additionally, preachers probably have the same days as educators when they ask a similar question—“God, why in the world did you send me here?”

This morning, July 3, was our first Sunday with our newly appointed preacher. If he was nervous, the preacher hid it well.

For many different reasons, churches are interesting places. Sitting in the top spot as to why churches are interesting comes down to this—people.

Preachers have the daunting task of trying to figure out their congregations. While congregations have the same challenge trying to figure out their new preacher.

Today, a congregation can go check out a new preacher by clicking the archive of sermons on a church’s website. Yes, that will give you a sample from the pulpit, but today a preacher must be more than a Bible toting, word hurler on Sunday mornings.

In our post-pandemic atmosphere, preachers must possess an assortment of skills to inspire a congregation. Congregations must also realize that a new preacher can’t be looked upon as the much needed hero who in a quick snap of his/her fingers is going to turn a church around.

Gastroenterologists, heart doctors, psychiatrist, and even God probably see an uptick in their appointments when a new preacher tries to settle into an established church.

Lots of potential collisions are on the preacher’s transitional path.

First, there is saying goodbye to the previous church and coordinating the move to the new assignment.

This is rapidly followed by greeting key leadership in the new congregation, meeting staff, learning as much as is humanly and humanely possible about the church in nanoseconds. And maybe most important, quickly determining who can help the preacher navigate the hidden cow pies in the church’s complicated internal and external landscape.

So, how does a new preacher survive?

As a person who has worked in a church for the last ten years, I believe new preachers in established churches need to consider the following:

Manage your pace. Don’t over commit your calendar.

But as you manage your pace, be sure to make time for visibility. Visibility is an opportunity to learn.

Make sure you understand in detail the pulse of the communication options that are accessible to you. Use those communication tools without abusing them. Know when you can effectively apply them with your own voice and words.

Don’t make promises. Promises can promote failure and create distrust. Neither is helpful for churches.

However, there is one promise that a new preacher should make. Make the promise to listen. This is absolutely critical in churches where listening to the congregation has been a closed loop.

Opportunities to listen to the congregation must be constructed so that all voices can be heard—the timid, the elderly, the young, and everyone in between.

Learn names. Even though your brain will resist, preachers sooner, rather than later must learn the names of their congregations. Knowing names makes a difference in building relationships.

Do not be afraid of the “c”word—change. When talking about change, help a congregation to understand that change has always been a part of their church. Ask them to reflect where their church would be now if change had not been embraced?

Planning—failure is guaranteed if collaborative, long term planning isn’t initiated. Plan boldly, but with a pinch of reality.

Show the congregation your heart. Convey your heart as a we heart, not a me heart.

Now for the congregational tips, I’m sorry, but I don’t have enough paper.

But, I do believe a congregation during a period of preacher transition needs to embrace the word patience in their hearts.

We live in a very impatient world.

At times, I’m a very impatient human being in our world.

Yet, to move, to nudge, to slightly turn a church requires patience.

And there is no better reminder of this than the words found in Colossians 3:12: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.”

Photo By Bill Pike

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

Out on the Matteson Trail

Back on April 4, 2022, I signed up to run in a 5K. This run would take place in Hampton, Virginia.

The event was a part of the Annual Conference of the Virginia United Methodist Church. Proceeds from the 5K will go to the leadership development of military chaplains.

Signing up to run in the 5K was a gamble for me. Although I have been running for years, on April 4 my left hamstring was one unhappy part of my body. For weeks, the hammy let me know how miserable it was feeling.

Gradually, the hammy’s whine started to subside. In May, I started with a couple of short runs, and slowly I stretched the distance of my runs so that I would be ready for the 5K on June 18.

When the organizers first planned the course with the Hampton Police Department, the route was going to be along the streets near the convention center/coliseum complex. But as they planned further, the location for the race was changed.

Planners realized that a conference at the convention center, and high school graduations at the coliseum were not a good mix for traffic and 5K participants.

On May 27, we were notified that an alternate site—the Matteson Trail had been secured for the 5K. Leaders in the Hampton Running Community helped to facilitate this change.

In my running memory, I recall maybe three races that I participated in that were all trail or partial trail courses. Running a trail course requires a different focus.

A trail can be more narrow in width. A tapered path can confine runners in their spacing along the way. Also, the trail running surface can vary. Stone dust, packed soil, or mud are all possible.

My Trinity friend, Art Utley, and I traveled to the conference together. At some point on Friday, I went into the display hall to pickup my bib number and t-shirt.

My friend Alex Joyner, a Methodist pastor and writer, was working the 5K table. He found my name, but noted for some unexplained reason my bib number had been duplicated more than once. So, I would receive my bib number on Saturday morning at the race, but Alex did have my t-shirt.

Start time for the race was at 6:30 on Saturday morning. Art wisely decided to let me borrow his car to travel to the Matteson Trail.

I awoke early on Saturday morning. My goal was to be driving toward the location by 6, and I was. With the address plugged into my phone, I followed the prompts and made no wrong turns.

Soon, I was pulling into a parking lot where I saw other runners in the bright red t-shirt of the 5K. I parked, and walked to the registration table where I was given a bib number.

I went back to the car and pinned the bib number on to the race shirt. Next, I made sure I had the key to the car, and I walked off to find a port-a-john for my old bladder.

Runners and walkers were assembling near the start line. I chatted with John Wright who I had worked with on the Board of Higher Education. I introduced John to Hung Su Lim, our associate pastor at Trinity, who had just arrived.

Over the next few minutes, the organizers grabbed our attention for some pre-race reminders and a prayer. With in a few seconds of the prayer’s closing amen, the 5K started.

We began on the road just beyond the parking lot, and then we looped into the trail head. I was surprised the trail surface was paved asphalt. Additionally, as the runners thinned out the trail itself was not narrow or confining. But the greatest surprise to me was this—the trail loops around The Hampton Golf Course.

To my right was a diverse assortment of forest and tall grasses, and to my left was a manicured golf course. I appreciated the vision of Tess Matteson who was the driving force for the creation of the trail and instrumental in making sure the trail is properly maintained.

The trail is in good shape. Race organizers did a nice job of marking uneven sections where tree roots or other forces of nature had protruded asphalt away from its foundation.

With a 6:30 start, the sun was up, but its paths of pale yellow and golden light were slowly finding the angles to gently pierce through tree lines.

On my right, I passed one section of shoulder high grasses that were just starting to feel the cast of sunlight. Buried deep in the footings of that grass, I heard the unmistakeable chorus of crickets letting the night slip away into a new day.

Further along, the trail on my left, I saw at least ten deer out near the putting green of a hole. I’m sure the greens-keepers would be dismayed by their unprofessional manicuring of the grass. In their amber and tan coats, the deer seemed at ease, oblivious to the red shirted humans on the trail.

At another point, I saw a good sized lake. The water was perfectly still, not a ripple. I love looking at the reflection of the landscape in quiet water. I wondered how often frustrated golfers had cursed this water for consuming their golf balls.

I plodded along the course. Made it to the water stop. Grabbed a cup, took a couple of sips. Kept plodding along, hoping that a finish line was ahead somewhere.

Though the course was flat with lots of twist and turns, the air was moist, humid. The promised cool front had not made its presence known yet—I was dripping.

Trudging like a turtle, in the distance I could hear some voices cheering. I knew the finish line was within reach. Each step pushed me closer, and soon the final turn and straightaway to the finish was in sight. Goal accomplished, I finished the race.

Just past the finish line, I grabbed a bottle of water, a banana, and a small pack of trail mix. That would be my breakfast.

When I run, my mind wanders.

This has been my fifth annual conference. In all honesty, I’m not sure I want to attend another one.

Out on the Matteson Trail, I saw the base of a young tree trunk.

At the bottom, there was a split in the trunk—a dark cavity. To either side of this dark hollow, healthy strands of gray bark shot upward. Eventually, this robust gray reforms into a healthy single trunk again.

The split in the base of that tree reminded me of the turmoil within the Methodist church.

Despite our outward appearance, we are a divided denomination. That divide impacts conferences, districts, churches, and most importantly people. Clearly, that divide takes a toll on Methodists, but the divide also impacts people searching for a church home.

That split, the divide, the darkness in the chasm of that cavity, are real. This division is not going to vanish in a blink.

If the Methodist church expects to reemerge from this longstanding divide, church leaders and members must enter into the cavity, the chasm that splits us. Entering into the divide is the only way for finding a path forward.

In civil, respectful tones, we must have conversation about our division. We must figure out how to change our darkness, our division.

At times during this year’s annual conference, the divide was clearly present. That divide isn’t helpful, it is hurting our future.

Later in the morning, race organizers informed the conference that proceeds from the 5K had raised $15,000.

That was good hearts and teamwork coming together to support a worthy cause.

Why can’t good hearts and teamwork pull the Methodist church out of this darkness, this division?

Is it because our political climate in America and our own Book of Discipline have blinded us to the love that Jesus attempted to teach us?

I’m not sure.

But, I do sense this.

If our divide is grounded in our inability to change our stubborn hearts, then I wonder if we are capable of making the needed changes to move us out of our division?

5k t-shirt Photo by Bill Pike

When luck runs out

My wife, the Commander Supreme, did some of her best logistical planning for this trip.

Early on the morning of Tuesday, June 21, we would fly from Richmond into one of the New York City airports. From there, we flew west to San Francisco. Two nights in San Francisco, then three nights in Santa Rosa, and ending with three nights in Monterey.

The main focus of the trip was the wedding of the Commander’s niece, Ashley, to her fiancé, Rob.

On the afternoon of Monday, June 20 in office of the Commander’s doctor, those plans disappeared—she tested positive for COVID-19. She thought a bad sinus infection had invaded her head.

The Commander was crushed. Deep inside, so was I.

I’ll give my wife credit. There was no nuclear meltdown with household items being destroyed. No unladylike verbal lashing out, and no emotional sobbing session.

No, she took the virus confirmation note from the doctor, and rapidly made all of the proper contacts to cancel the reservations that had been made. This included notifying the airline, and the company who carried our trip insurance.

The Commander did all of this while feeling lousy from the virus, and knowing the toughest communication was next—telling her sister, her mother, and our children that we weren’t coming for the wedding.

On Monday afternoon, I ran an errand for her to pick up an over the counter recommendation from the doctor to help with the sinus drainage and headache. Once home, I put together dinner, but the Commander had no appetite.

I stayed home on Tuesday. At various points during the day, we looked at each other and said things like—departing New York, out over America, landed in San Francisco, checked into the hotel, starting to explore.

Late in the afternoon, we followed the flight schedules of Lauren and her family, and our youngest daughter, Elizabeth, as they boarded planes toward San Francisco.

On Wednesday, I went to work at Trinity. I worked outside on the grounds around the Memorial Garden. Later in the week, we had two interment services in the garden.

Also, on Wednesday, the pain of not being in San Francisco became more real. Our daughters started sending us photos and text messages of their movements through the city.

We saw happy faces, blue skies, and sites where we had visited on our first trip to San Francisco in the summer of 1980. Lombard Street, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company, a fog shrouded Golden Gate Bridge, a great park for the grand kids named after Joe DiMaggio, and of course—a streetcar ride.

For the grandkids, the San Francisco visit became even more exciting as their three cousins from Texas arrived. I hoped the hotel could withstand the energy of these five priceless children.

At some point on Thursday, the families left San Francisco and headed for Santa Rosa the site of the wedding.

Thursday evening was the rehearsal dinner, and Friday afternoon at 4 was the wedding. The wedding was being held at the B. R. Cohn Winery. For forty-five years, Mr. Cohn managed the Doobie Brothers.

More photos trickled in from Thursday and early Friday. Late in the afternoon on Friday, we started to receive some pre-wedding photos of the bride and others getting ready for the main event.

As we saw these photos, our minds were thinking—we are supposed to be in some of these pictures. But, our unwanted intruder nixed that.

After dinner on Friday, photos and videos started pinging our phones. These posts were all about the wedding, and after we went to sleep more video arrived.

On Saturday morning, we watched new video footage of toasts from the bride’s sister, Rachel, our daughter, Elizabeth, and Ashley’s father, Art. Their words were a real tribute to the newlyweds, Ashley and Rob. I know those heartfelt words moistened eyes at the post wedding dinner and here in Richmond too.

As Saturday morning progressed, the Commander received some phone call updates about the wedding. Some family members were heading back east on Saturday, others were departing on Sunday.

Besides the successful wedding, we had some good news in Richmond. Both the Commander and I were starting to feel better. That’s correct, both of us, I tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday morning.

On Thursday and Friday, I felt like a person caught in a confrontation between a bad head cold and flu symptoms. Chills, aches and pains, and a nose dripping like a leaky faucet were annoying me.

For two plus years, COVID-19 and its variants have created lots of challenges around the world. Despite having all of the required vaccines and being careful, our luck ran out.

Yes, the timing was rotten. We missed the opportunity to support Ashley and Rob as they start a new chapter in their book of life.

But this is what I must remember—luck in this situation was still with us.

Here’s why—taking all of the vaccines and our own good health made our unwanted encounter with COVID-19 bearable. That might not have been the case for us early in this pandemic. We might not have been so lucky as I think about people who did not survive their encounter with COVID-19.

Unless California burns to cinders, shakes into a pile of rubble, or mudslides into the Pacific, we’ll work to reschedule this trip.

Alcatraz, the Anchor Steam Brewery, the Charles Schulz Museum, the 17 Mile Scenic Drive, and the Monterey Aquarium are ready for our return.

But for now, this becomes a story for the future.

At a family gathering around a dinner table long after we are gone, this question will come up—do you remember when that COVID-19 virus kept Nana and Papa from going to Ashley and Rob’s wedding in California?

And someone will speak up, and say—yes, I remember that cruel afternoon when Nana told us.

But, you know there is another part of this story that is often overlooked in family history. Uncle Andrew was scheduled to attend the wedding too.

And there will be a pause, and everyone will look toward Uncle Andrew, and his wife, Kathryn.

After a few more seconds of silence, he’ll explain that COVID-19 intruded on his family many days before the trip. Andrew and Kathryn and their two daughters became sick.

In sharing more, he will state, “the challenge for our family was that the virus lingered too long. It did not exit quickly. The stubbornness of the virus forced me to rethink my travel plans. In order to help care for my family and to manage my work schedule, I opted not to attend. Yes, this was an aggravating decision, but under the circumstances—the right one.”

At the top of the stairs just outside our bedroom, our empty suitcases have quietly sat for days. I guess these suitcases felt some disappointment too.

From June 21- 29, they would be out of a hot attic.

But, then they would enter the unstable world of being roughly stacked into the cargo bays of large jets. Then frantically heaved onto the baggage handling system at the San Francisco airport. They would exit the conveyor system worn and weary just like the passengers who picked them up. With hardly a chance to gather themselves, their owners briskly grab their handles and find their way out of the terminal headed toward an unknown hotel destination.

Who knows maybe those suitcases didn’t feel the disappointment like we did.

Maybe, they felt lucky to be resting quietly at the top of the stairs.

I guess I’ll have to ask the suitcases about this before our next trip.

And, by now, you are thinking— Bill must be losing what is left of his mind. Conversing with suitcases is surely a sign of mental instability.

I think your observation is correct.

So, I’ll close with this.

Ashley and Rob, I hope your marriage has lots of stability, including a pinch of luck when luck is needed.

Empty suitcases Photo by Bill Pike

Blue tape

More From Bill Pike
June 24, 2022 by Bill Pike (Virginia, USA)
Related Devotionals: Rejection and Acceptance

It’s June. Some Methodist churches find themselves in transition with their leadership. After nine years at our church, and serving 35 years as a minister, our senior pastor is retiring. We’ll be welcoming our new pastor on July 1. Between now and then, life inside the walls of our church is a bit hectic.

Our retiring pastor has been working to clear out his office. The chair of the Trustees and I have been working on improvements to the pastor’s office—a new paint job, electrical work, and a thorough cleaning are in progress. Our staff parish-relations team has been busy planning the farewell for our current pastor and a welcome for our new pastor.

Even before the pandemic, the role of pastor, the leader in a church, was full of challenges. In our constantly changing world, a pastor can’t be a one-dimensional leader. A pastor must have a wide range of skills to be able to lead a congregation.

In my role as the director of operations for our church, I too have multiple responsibilities. One of my least favorite chores is painting, but for the last few days, I’ve been working on painting the pastor’s office. I started with the prep work. A bit of dusting, removing picture hooks, spackling the holes from those hooks, and using blue painter’s tape to tape edges at various points along the walls. The taping requires precise placement as I don’t want to create more cleanup work when the painting is over.

During the last ten years, I’ve learned a lot about churches. Often churches think a fresh coat of paint will make church life better—attendance, finances, community outreach, and helping people to grow spiritually will improve. In truth, that puts quite a bit of pressure and hope on a new coat of paint. Coming out of the pandemic, churches will need to do lots of thinking. Sometimes, this will mean doing the unthinkable—making overdue changes.

As I think about painting the pastor’s office, I keep coming back to the prep work. That blue painter’s tape was critical to the final product. The tape was both a guide and a shield. New pastors will also need a dose of guidance and shielding as they start to learn about their new assignment. It doesn’t matter the type of organization, there is always a lot for a new leader to learn about “the turf” and the personalities in a new environment.

Congregations can’t lose sight of the fact that they need guidance and shield work too. Congregations who continue to shield and protect programming that has lost its effectiveness will need to become more open minded—open minded enough to really see and understand how a new pastor might see their long cherished program from a different angle.

In fact, if we really think about the ministry work of Jesus, that might just be what he was trying to teach us—take a step back, and look at what your church offers from a different angle. Peering at your church from a different perspective might present an opportunity for asking relevant questions and having productive conversations that lead to change.

And when a congregation and a new pastor decide to initiate some changes, I hope these words from John 13:34-35 remain fresh in their minds: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (NIV).

Remember that love is just as critical as blue painter’s tape.

Blue painter’s tape Photo Bill Pike

Author’s note: This piece appeared in the Upper Room on 6/24/2022 as More From The Author.