Flight of the Phoenix
By Colin Johnson, Council Secretary
One of my favorite television programs is the Smithsonian Channel’s Air Disasters, and I don’t know exactly why. But think about it . . . almost all air crashes result from a complex and unique sequence of failures of highly sophisticated technology. It takes an equal amount of similar technology, usually driven by persistence and luck, to solve these cases. And—funny thing--air disaster movies like the one in the title of this article made me think of Stewardship. Remember the phoenix, the bird that crashes in flames, yet soars again in glory, like the old crate in the movie? But I will get to that later.
With the Annual Meeting coming up, we can expect to find ourselves engaged in sometimes delicate, sometimes hard-nosed discussions about our budget. Approval of the budget is the main item on the agenda, but the meeting itself can be an opportunity for renewal of the vision and mission of Prince of Peace. The 400th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses (they exist whether the story is true that he actually nailed them to the door) was the occasion for reexamining many of the principles of the church founders. Prince of Peace has adopted “Gathered, Gifted, and Sent” as its touchstone for moving into the future and we approach the budget process in that frame of mind. A modern airliner gathers scores of people, is operated by gifted people—many in control centers not seen—and sent into the heavens.
When I took over the position of Council Secretary in 2015, one of my first duties was to bring the congregation’s registry of official membership up-to-date. This had not been done for about two years. Deanna Outsen had been the full-time office secretary prior to that time, but the downsizing of the professional staff became a priority that year and the meticulous membership records she kept were suspended, although she did have some records that had not been entered into the ledger, a large red book that sits on a shelf in the office.
Such records are very important as the Synod requires an annual report with this information. An annual meeting (or other proof of activity) is required by tax-free organizations in order to satisfy IRS statutes. Moreover, the Prince of Peace Constitution, as most constitutions do, requires that a quorum be present at official meetings where voting is undertaken. Our quorum, depending on the type of vote taken, is “20 percent of the voting membership.” So an accurate count of the membership is not a casual thing. A “voting member” at Prince of Peace is defined as a communicant member who has made a donation of record (i.e., one for which there is a paper trail, like a check or a credit card receipt, not simply green bills in the offering basket) and who has communed at least once within the last twelve-month period.
At the time I began my “census,” there were, I believe, somewhere around 110 individuals in the membership ledger qualified as voting members. The Council considers a confirmed child living at home up to the age of 18 a voting member if they have communed but not necessarily made a donation of record. The accounting was more difficult than I imagined because documentation was not always available or conclusive. Individuals and families who had been attending had never written their former congregations for a release and transfer with a letter recognizing their status. Conversely, there were names in the record of individuals and families still known to be in the community but not attending with no letter of request to transfer to another church. What to do? Such individuals become an “asterisk,” a statistic, until their status can be determined. This generally takes a call from the Pastor or a Council officer to follow up on the intentions of the individual. Sometimes an infant is baptized in the congregation to parents who are not members of the church, but the child still belongs to us, so to speak. Once my work was done, the list was passed to the Pastor to verify communion and then to the Financial Secretary to verify donations of record, this last step being confidential. We finally come up with a reasonable number.
When I had finished my accounting with Pastor Scott’s help, I ended up with a list of names that numbered somewhere around 70. In other words, the number of official members considered to be voting members was about somewhere between 35 and 40% less than the registry previously showed two years earlier. During the years prior to that time, the congregation had moved its place of worship, had had a series of interim pastors, and several long-time leadership families had retired and/or moved from the Valley. Moreover, the country, beginning in 2008, had suffered one of the worst recessions in modern times, from which it took about 8 years to make a substantial recovery. For some individuals, this so-called recovery is still happening. Are there food and utility-challenged individuals and families at Prince of Peace? Most probably so. Moreover, for the past several cycles, our annual budget forecasts have exceeded our previous year’s giving. Often we end up “balancing” at year’s end because some programs choose not to use their funding. Yes, it was a time for some serious discussion on strategic planning.
Everyone who has attended annual meetings as well as the congregational input meeting held earlier by the Finance Team prior to the Council’s final presentation of the budget knows what the discussions often sound like: “Costs are going up, giving has stagnated, and the budgets keep growing. We cannot continue using up our reserves and trimming around the edges.” Such discussions are heard not only at Prince of Peace. On the other side, we are reminded of the strategies—including prayer--that are available to congregations. Some do not like to publicize the financial potholes in the road to the annual budget, fearing that “crying ‘Wolf!’” or crying anything will alarm the faithful. We know that some members actually choose to go elsewhere. Call it a vicious circle or a self-fulfilling prophecy, but one thing we cannot do is not talk about it and address it head on. Some will say, prayerfully, “Maybe Prince of Peace will still exist in five years, maybe it will not. In either case, it is okay; it is God’s will.” A simply majority is required for most votes. With 70 eligible voting members, 14 would constitute a quorum, meaning that 8 souls could decide an issue for the church. Last year 42 voting members attended the Annual Meeting.
What to do?
Many of you are old enough to remember columnist Ann Landers’s famous question for a person stewing over a flawed, failing marriage: “Am I better in this marriage or out of it? Is it better to stay with my spouse or leave?”
Let’s rephrase that question to fit our situation: “Is it better that Prince of Peace remain an entity in Cache Valley or shall we dissolve the congregation and put our resources elsewhere?”
The question is not rhetorical. Where would you put your “resources”? (By the way, there is a lot of help out there for congregations brought up against the harsh reality of this question.)
Let me make another analogy, the one I started with, and I ask you to bear with me: Suppose you are the pilot on a transoceanic flight with 250 souls in your care in the cabin behind you. For some reason, you were unable to refuel at the last stop and have now run into terrific headwinds and hail, forcing you to consume extra fuel. Perhaps there is a leak somewhere. The fuel is just not there to sustain you for the flight. A simple calculation shows that it is not possible to reach a safe destination before the jet and the surface of the ocean come into contact with each other. But a complex calculation means looking at other possibilities. In this scenario, I see three paths, three choices:
You have all seen this movie. No one chooses #1 except a pilot committing suicide (which may have actually happened with the Malaysia Airline pilot, but he still put the plane on autopilot and flew several thousand miles anyway).
Choices #2 and #3 may be variations of the same thing. “Sully” Sullenburger chose #2 but he was within hundreds of yards of dry land and rescue ships—and really, really, lucky. No, I think #3 is probably the most likely choice most would elect. After all, it’s the movie scenario, isn’t it? Survival!! Survival for as long as possible!! It may end in the same result as #2, but at least all hands on board will have tried their best.
Now . . . what are the strategies we might use to prolong our existence, our journey across the barren sea? I say “our” because the smart pilot will engage us “gathered” passengers to assist with this. The first thing that comes to mind is that the pilot will adjust wing and engine trim, speed, altitude, fuel mixture, even his course heading based on using tailwinds, and other things we don’t even know about in order to maximize fuel consumption. That is his “gift.” He will use his training and knowledge to keep the craft on its best course. Depending on the aircraft and the configuration of its doors, one of them might have to be opened (hence, a low altitude is necessary). In my scenario, there is an emergency stairway at the rear (D.B. Cooper anyone?) able to be opened. Passengers will be enlisted to relay any unneeded weight out the back, especially food, food carts, luggage, and about 300-400 pounds of shoes as they won’t be needed. (I just saw an old movie in which such jettisoning happened; the southbound airplane even overflew its Panama City destination by 300 miles and crash-landed in the South American jungle? A DC-3 yet!)
What else? Have I dealt with the most obvious? Is there a novel, creative one that has been missed? (Have you seen the parachutes designed for small craft that floats them to the ground?) Maybe in your movie, President Trump flies Bruce Willis out on an Air Force tanker because Benjamin Netanyahu is on board, and he finds a way to hook the fuel hose he is lowered on some way into the fuel tanks of the airplane. Not in my movie. You are just being silly. You’ve seen Air Force One too many times.
Now comes the tricky part. What is Prince of Peace’s baggage, its food carts? How do we “adjust” its speed, altitude, and trim in order to prolong its flight as long as possible. Dare one mention them? We’ve seen movies in which both pilots, incapacitated by a bad chicken dinner or worse, were replaced by a weekend flyer from among the cabin passengers and it worked. However, I don’t recall a movie where the passengers grumbled, “The pilot, he got us into this! It’s his fault. Let’s toss him out the back!!” and then did so. Film over.
Every analogy like this has a point at which there is no further correlation, and this one is pretty flawed. First of all, while there might be a finite amount of fuel (resources) on board, our congregational “fuel” comes from within and is not limited to the amount in the wing tanks. We have the capacity to yield up or manufacture more “gas” and determine how to use it. Yes, only up to a point, some will say. In the case of Prince of Peace, some will insist that we have already used some of our gifts to increase efficiency—less staff hours, turned cleaning service over to volunteers, reduced materials (bulletins), solicited more in kind, donated materials (dinners). Indeed, that is true. Also, our goal is not a glide path to a safe termination of our journey. (Some say that another phrase for a “controlled crash” is a “safe landing.”) No, our wish is that our ship sails on and on and on!! That it be “sent” sailing into the heavens forever.
I guess the point I am trying to make in the example above is that survival (may I use the word?) depends on the leadership of a strong pilot (Council + Pastor + other natural leaders) collaborating with the “passengers” (congregation members) to come up with a combination of logical procedures + creative suggestions, and, yes, maybe just a cockamamie idea or two in order to prolong our flight. Their “gifts.”
And perhaps we could pace our drama with just a little sense of humor--some comic relief, some irony--as we work together, as any good screenwriter and director of an air disaster movie knows. (Incidentally, you do remember the surprise at the end of Flight of the Phoenix, don’t you? Spoiler alert: The “aeronautical engineer” who reconfigured the wreckage into an airworthy vehicle for the passengers stranded in a remote desert was found out to be a designer of toy model planes!)
This blog is run by the council members of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Logan, UT. For more information, check out our church's website at princeopeace.org.