Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category


May 21st, 2012 1 comment

May has been a tough month for the Cabrini Ministries’ family. 

My last blog post was about the death of two toddlers connected with the organization who drowned in the canal.  Unfortunately, this post is also about death.  Yesterday we found out that our night watchman Matthew had passed away.  He had been battling tuberculosis and other complications for several months now, so it wasn’t out of the blue.  But, to make matter’s worse, Matthew’s son Mfundi is also an employee, so the impact is doubled.

Matthew didn’t speak much English, but he was one of the Cabrini employees that we interacted with most often.  As the night watchman, he often hung out by our door and we frequently shared our dinners with him.  Mikayla was particularly found of Matthew and would run up to him and try to have long conversations with him.  He was just smile and say “Yes Sisi (sister).”

Even though his shift was primarily over night, he would often cut the grass in our front yard with a machete in the dawn and dusk hours.  Many a summer mornings I woke up to the sound of methodical slashing coming from outside.

Matthew was mostly soft-spoken, but when given the chance, he would gladly share from the bottom of his heart how blessed he felt in his life.

He was not without his faults, but he was still a great guy and earnest in his love of Cabrini Ministries and its work.  Sister Barbara was always fond of saying tongue in cheek: "The only security issues we have are with our security staff."  The truth is, whether or not we were safer because of his services is debatable, but what is unquestioned is that Cabrini as a whole was better off for having him as part of the staff.

This isn’t the first time I have had a co-worker pass away, but anytime it happens, it is difficult.Like I said… May has been a tough month for us.  Here is hoping June looks better.

Themba Import (Cabrini Kids) 354 [Matthew enjoying the buffet at the Child Protection training.]

Categories: Thoughts Tags: , ,

6 Months of Reading

January 21st, 2012 3 comments

As of this week, we have been in Swaziland for six months.  In my last blog post I talked about just how much has changed in the past year and how I now feel we are settling into our "new normal."  One part of our new routine that I am very grateful for is that ability we now have to read much more.  I have always enjoyed reading – especially historic nonfiction – but now it is easy to fit reading into our days.  What is crazy is that I don’t feel like I have turned into a bookworm; however, that must be the case since I just realized that I had read well over 20 books in 6 months.  Here is the list in alphabetical order.

1984 – I started reading "Hunger Games" but Beth took the kindle from me, so I started reading the classic dystopia book.

Animal Farm – At one point a few months ago I found an old paperback copy of this book in the closet and decided it was probably one of those books that everyone should read.

Bonk – I love Mary Roach and after reading all her other books, I figured I should read this one too.

Cold Death (or something like that) – I am not sure of the title, but this was another paperback I found in the closet.  It was about a bunch of trappers that died in Canada.  Not a great read.

Fear and loathing in Las Vegas – Another one of those books that I felt obligated to read if for no other reason than to connect with the cultural references it creates.

Flight to Heaven – Thought it was "survival story," but quickly realized that was not the main point.

Freakonomics – I had a pdf copy of this given to me and really enjoyed reading it.  I love the "approachable science" type  books.

Heart of Darkness – I have had this book on my kindle for a while, but finally found the time to read it.  Unlike some "classics" that I feel like I should read, I really enjoyed this one.

HIV/AIDS: A very short introduction – I read this book on the airplane over.

Hunger Games Trilogy – Beth got me to read these.  I enjoyed the concept, and found them very engaging, but I thought the last book ruined the trilogy.

  • The Hunger Games
  • Catching Fire
  • Mockingjay

Journey on the Estrada Real – This book was written by an author whom we met here in Swaziland while he was doing a story on the Cabrini sisters.  I really like his wry humor and crazy stories.

Kitchen Confidential – yet another book I found in our closet.  It was entertaining.

Lab 257 – I just finished this book tonight and found it interesting, but a bit wandering in terms of the topic.

Love Mercy – It was very interesting to read this book since it is about friends of mine from Kentucky going on a trip to Swaziland.  It was odd to read a book about people I know going on a big journey to the place I live.

Stieg Larsson Trilogy – I hardly every read modern fiction, but absolutely loved these books.

  • The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest
  • The girl who played with fire
  • The girl with the dragon tattoo

The Communist Manifesto – Another book I have had on my kindle for a while and felt like I should read.

The five dysfunctions of a team – Since I am getting more and more into the management side of things, I wanted to have some fresh ideas to have bouncing around my head.

The Red Badge of Courage – I read this book when I was in school and had downloaded it awhile ago. I didn’t like it then, and thought I might have just been too immature to appreciate.  But unfortunately no… I still didn’t like it.

Unbroken – This was a great true story of an olympic runner turned solider turned POW.  Excellent!


Of all the books, Unbroken was probably my favorite.  I also really enjoyed Freakonomics.  I enjoyed reading the fiction books more than I expected I would.  I also found myself fascinated by the classics "Heart of Darnkess" and "1984."

Who knows what the next 6 months will hold.  On one hand, I have read a lot of the books on my "to read" list and I don’t have a lot of books I am dying to read.  However, I actually expect to have more time to read now that things have started to settle down.  All I know is that the next book I will be reading will be Tipping Point because I already have it on my kindle.

If you have any suggestions on what I should read next – especially in the exploration/survival and "approachable science"  genres – please send me an email or leave me a comment.

Categories: Thoughts Tags: ,

HIV/AIDS and the First World Response

December 7th, 2011 No comments

The following are remarks by Stephen Lewis, Co-Director of AIDS-Free World, delivered at a plenary session at the 2011 ICASA.  I have reposted them in their entirety because I believe they are worth reading and sharing.  The emphasis is mine.  This can also be found online at:

ADDIS ABABA – With your indulgence, I’m going to deviate from the assigned topic. I shall address the Millennium Development Goals, but not in the way that was anticipated. There are two reasons. First, I want to speak in an unusually personal way, and from the heart, and in a fashion that leaves no room for ambiguity. Second, I consider the attack on the Global Fund to be the most serious assault it has endured in its ten-year history. I would feel utterly delinquent to let the issue slide.

I am seized by frustration and impatience. Let me explain.

I’m thrilled when UNICEF tells us of the possibility of the virtual elimination of pediatric AIDS by 2015. But I know-as knowledgeable people in this audience know-that it remains an unlikely prospect, but more important, that we lost several precious years during the last decade where we simply didn’t apply the knowledge we possessed to prevent vertical transmission. It was a terrible failure on the part of international agencies and governments. Worse, the mother barely factored into the so-called "PMTCT" equation at all. As we come to this thrilling moment of progress, I cannot forget the millions of infants who died unnecessarily and the women who were never given treatment.

I’m thrilled at the creation of UN Women, and the possibility, once they join as a formal co-sponsor of UNAIDS, that the focus on women will be given a new lease on life. But I can’t dislodge from my mind the experience of my years in the role as Envoy, and subsequently working with AIDS-Free World, when it became clear that in every aspect of the pandemic women were rendered subordinate. Gender inequality doomed their lives. Sexual violence fed and feeds the virus. The entire survival of communities and families was placed on their shoulders. Men were the social determinants of women’s health, and men simply didn’t care. As we come to this thrilling moment of potential progress, I can’t avoid the spectral faces of stigma, discrimination, isolation, and pain, and they are the faces of women. That doesn’t mean that women aren’t the core of courage and strength in this pandemic; it simply means that they have to struggle valiantly to challenge the phalanx of male privilege, of male hegemony. Just a few days ago, coincident with World AIDS Day, the Harvard School of Public Health held a symposium called AIDS@30 to assess the past and plot the future. The symposium had a Global Advisory Council of nineteen eminent experts on the pandemic: 17 men and 2 women. It is ever thus.  It’s the rare woman indeed who doesn’t ultimately report to a man in the world of HIV, or who can command, ever-so-rarely, the place and presence that legions of men command automatically.

I’m thrilled when I hear animated talk of male circumcision. But I know that we didn’t need to wait for the results of the three studies in Uganda, Kenya, and South Africa.  Nothing would have been lost if we’d focused immediately on making circumcision safe and available for informed parents to choose for their male babies; it’s a minor procedure that has been performed for centuries. Instead, during nearly a decade as the evidence piled up that circumcision was a defense against AIDS-evidence provided by experts in the field-we waited and waited and waited, in that self-justifying paralysis of excruciating scientific precision. As we come to this thrilling moment of progress I cannot forget the numbers of lives that might have been saved had we acted sooner.

I’m thrilled with all the talk of "Treatment as Prevention" and how it has suddenly become the mantra of the international AIDS community. But back in 2006, I sat beside Dr. Julio Montaner, about to become President of the International AIDS Society, when he first expounded the proposition at a press briefing at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto. His evidence and argument were rooted in science and common sense in equal measure. But he had to endure scorn and derision, and we had to endure a five-year delay until Treatment as Prevention was definitively authenticated by the National Institutes of Health in Washington. Julio’s theory suddenly became the 96% solution five years later, and it doesn’t-I emphasize-it doesn’t apply only to discordant couples. As we come to this thrilling moment of progress, I cannot forget the numbers of lives that might have been prolonged if we hadn’t waited nearly five years to create the momentum that now propels us.

I’m thrilled with the turnaround in South Africa. The dramatic roll-out of treatment is nothing short of miraculous. But I remember all those years of denialism, and not a single voice at the most senior levels of the United Nations-Under-Secretaries-General, the Secretary-General himself. Not one of them said publicly to Thabo Mbeki, "You’re killing your people". Oh, to be sure, it was said in private by everyone. They took Thabo Mbeki aside and begged him to reverse course. He didn’t budge an inch. Around him, in every community in South Africa, and in communities throughout a continent heavily influenced by South Africa, were the killing fields of AIDS. As we come to this thrilling moment of progress, I can’t forget the millions who died on Thabo Mbeki’s watch, while those who should have confronted him before the eyes of the world stood mute.

I’m thrilled by the embrace of the slogan "Know Your Epidemic; Know Your Response" and the current concentration on high-risk groups. But I note that there were many voices, over the years, not all of them eccentric, calling attention to concurrent sexual partners and discordant couples, to MSM and sex work and sexual violence, and particularly injecting drug use, and they were contemptuously dismissed. I cannot but remember that magnificent gay activist from the Caribbean, Robert Carr, who died such an untimely death … back at the pre-conference on MSM in advance of Vienna last year, Robert made one of those speeches that leaves you gasping. When you hear what the experts say, said the normally tactful Robert, it’s bullshit – and he repeated bullshit so many times in the course of thirty minutes that the crass word became a cry of mobilizing dignity. As we come to this thrilling moment of progress, I can’t forget the casual delays in responding to vulnerable groups. Experts fiddled while human rights burned.

So if you sense a certain impatience in me, you’re right. We don’t have another day to lose. Peter Piot did the arithmetic yesterday … 1,350,000 put on treatment in 2010; 2,700,000 new infections, exactly double the number in treatment in the same year. It works out to 7,397 new infections every day. And it’s 2011, for God’s sake. It’s appalling that such numbers continue to haunt us; it’s heart-breaking beyond endurance to contemplate further exponential agony. We cannot delay another minute in putting the ‘prevention combination’ to work.

And I think, judging from the mood in the corridors, that’s what seizes this conference. But right at the moment when we know, irrefutably, that we can defeat this pandemic, we’re sucker-punched at the Global Fund.

What’s a sucker punch? It’s when a boxer in the ring gets a punch below the belt that he doesn’t see coming. No one expected a complete cancellation of Round Eleven, with new money unavailable for implementation until 2014.

It’s just the latest blow in a long list of betrayals on the part of the donor countries, in this instance the Europeans in particular. I’ve heard from several people that the politics of the Global Fund meeting in Accra two weeks ago, when the decision was made, were not just complicated, but amounted to miserable internecine warfare. Certain governments on the Board of the Global Fund simply discredited themselves. They give a soiled name to the principle of international solidarity. The Chair of the Board, in a remarkably convoluted effort, tried to explain things in a press release. He would have done far better to remain silent.

The decision on the part of the donor countries is unforgiveable. In a speech a few days ago, I addressed the Global Fund predicament by talking of the moral implications of a decision that you know will result in death … death on the African continent.

I asked: "Do they regard Africa as a territorial piece of geographic obsolescence? Do they regard Africans themselves as casually expendable? Is it because the women and children of Africa are not comparable in the eyes of western governments to the women and children of Europe and North America? Is it because Africans are black and unacknowledged racism is at play? Is it because a fighter jet is worth so much more than human lives? Is it because defense budgets are more worthy of protection in an economic downturn than millions of human beings?"

These are not phrased as rhetorical questions. I mean each and every one of them.

Spare me, I beg of all the speakers … spare me the economic crisis. Everyone knows that when it comes to financing wars, or bailing out the banks, or bailing out Greece, or reinstituting corporate bonuses, or even responding to natural disasters that threaten economies, there’s always enough money. We’re drowning in crocodile tears. It’s not a matter of the financial crisis; it’s a matter of human priorities. We have a right to ask the G8: what do you sanctify as governments: profits and greed or global public health?

That’s especially true in the case of the United States. I was, like everyone else, delighted by President Obama’s endorsement of the proposition that PEPFAR could treat a total of six million people rather than four million people by 2013 with the same money. And I congratulate Ambassador Goosby for seeing that through. It’s wonderful. No one would take issue. How could you? There’s no additional money involved: it’s just greater efficiency and more targeted spending.

And then the President went on to affirm his support for the money that’s supposed to be destined for the Global Fund … $4 billion over three years, 2011-2013; $1.3 billion a year.

Now let me take you back a step. In 2010, when the three-year pledge for the Global Fund was being discussed, the activists in the United States were asking for $6 billion over three years, believing that this was a fair share for the United States and an inducement to all the other donors. They feared that the President would stay at $3 billion over the next three years … roughly the previous allocation for the Global Fund. When he endorsed $4 billion, it was considered a partial victory.

In my respectful submission, it’s time for the United States to take a hard look at $6 billion. Many American speeches glow with the words that the US is the largest donor to the Fund. Well of course they’re the largest donor; they’re the most dominant and wealthy economy in the world. I really think that apart from calling on the European governments to reverse their decision, President Obama should tell Congress he wants a full $6 billion.

I don’t expect that anyone ever listens to me. But I do point out what was emphasized at the opening of the conference: money to do battle against HIV/AIDS is the singular non-partisan issue in Congress. Even those irascible philistines who want to cut foreign aid, or global health, have shown in the past that they’re prepared to shore up funding for HIV/AIDS. It seems to me that President Obama should put his moral authority on the line, and ask Congress to raise the ceiling from $4 billion to $6 billion for the Global Fund.

It’s not a matter of comparison with other countries; it’s a matter of doing what’s  right. And that means doing your fair share regardless of whether others are doing theirs. There are many commentators who agree that the salvation of George Bush’s presidency was PEPFAR. President Obama doesn’t need salvation. But I can’t imagine a greater act of statespersonship than to say to the world: I, Barack Obama, cannot stand the thought of another unnecessary death; if the United States of America has to bail out the Global Fund, we will.

Is the extra $2 billion dollars outrageous? The economist Jeffrey Sachs has answered that question. He points out that the United States defense budget amounts to $1.9 billion a day. In other words, we’re asking that HIV/AIDS receive an additional amount, over three years, that equals American military spending in one day.

It seems to me that that’s an argument that African political leaders can effectively pursue amongst the many arguments they should employ in dealing with the donor community. I agree with Michel Sidibe-who’s given significant and visionary leadership to this struggle-that there must be a high-level crisis meeting, and that Prime Minister Meles should convene it.

We’ve waited for this moment for a long time. This is an opportunity for the African political leadership to show its muscle, and to demand that the Global Fund be restored to its intended level. Remember, at the last formal replenishment in 2010, the funding came in at a dismal $11.7 billion, far short of the $20 billion that the Global Fund really needed in order to scale up to meet universal access. Now we’re being told that even the $11.7 billion is out of reach. It’s unconscionable, indefensible, outrageous. It’s murder, that’s what it is: murder. And the donor countries expect to get away with it because there’s a culture of fiscal impunity.

As I wind my way to a conclusion, let me relate an anecdote that I think is relevant.

When I left my diplomatic post at the United Nations in 1988, I took on a role as the Secretary-General’s Advisor on Africa. (I admit that seems odd, but there is an explanation that more or less justifies the appointment.) There was an Inter-Agency Task Force established, and there was a kind of executive committee of four. The Chair was the noted African economist, Professor Adebayo Adedeji of Nigeria and at the time Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa; the Vice-Chair was the remarkable, brilliant Richard Jolly, Deputy-Executive Director of UNICEF; the Rapporteur was the accomplished economist Sadig Rasheed, also with the ECA, and I was the fourth, a sort of honorary post. (Note that then, as now, men were tapped to lead the way.)

We met, often in Addis – where the ECA was and still is located – with many of our colleague agencies working in Africa. The World Bank was almost always in attendance, and intermittently, the International Monetary Fund.

It was the height of "structural adjustment" programs. Every meeting was a battleground, filled with heated imprecations, accusations, and malice. Our little executive cabal of four detested the international financial institutions, and they detested us.

In the midst of endless angry discussions of conditionality, we looked carefully at the financial data, and suddenly realized a staggering truth: when you took into account the interest payments and some capital payments as well, and ran the statistics carefully, it became clear that Africa was paying out far more than it was taking in … hundreds of millions more. The continent was financing the World Bank; the World Bank wasn’t financing the continent.

And it continues to this day. Again, I remind you of Peter Piot’s reference yesterday. I have a close friend who writes columns for the newspaper The Globe and Mail in Canada. Commenting on the study that Peter Piot referenced, the title of his column was, "Africa: The World’s Most Generous Foreign Aid Donor". It confirms the fact that a study of nine African countries, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe showed that they had exported doctors to Canada, the United States, the UK, and Australia, costing Africa between $2 billion and $13 billion in education and training, and saving the four western countries more than $4.5 billion in education and training. The nurses’ financial ratios would be even higher.

This is an AIDS conference. We talk endlessly about capacity building. Africa desperately needs its doctors and nurses. Instead, in the vital field of health professionals, Africa loses billions in exporting its human resources.

I say all this to challenge the artificial debate on dependency. From slavery to today’s extractive industries of minerals and oil, Africa is financing the world. The modern world’s economy was built on Africa’s human and natural resources, and it depends on them to this day. The money from the Global Fund and PEPFAR amount to partial reparations. Western donors are not engaged in some kind of financial philanthropy: we owe Africa what we give to Africa. And a hell of a lot more to boot.

That’s the debate that Prime Minister Meles should induce. The donor countries to the Global Fund, having ransacked the continent for six hundred years, have no right to withdraw. They must be confronted. And all of you, who make up civil society in so many countries, must press your Presidents and Prime Ministers into action.

Let me end by coming full circle to the Millennium Development Goals. Africa will never reach the MDGs if AIDS is not vanquished. AIDS adds to the desolate state of poverty. Obviously, it affects both maternal and child health. It continues to leave children parentless (though the millions of orphans whose plight seemed a priority at past AIDS gatherings, increasingly, mysteriously, disappear from view).  Gender equality is a mockery in the face of AIDS. And the so-called partnership between the haves and the have-nots is rendered laughable. Even sustainable development is influenced, because climate change feasts on weakened populations.

If the MDGs are as important as everyone says, then AIDS must be subdued.

As a last parting thought, in respect of the Global Fund, I beg you to mobilize as a truly civil society and stand up to the reckless nation-states who dare to decide whether Africans will live or die.


July 19th, 2011 No comments

Right now it is the calm before (in the midst?) of the storm.  We leave Bowling Green in about 3 hours and family is scheduled to arrive any moment now.  Last night we said our goodbyes to close friends and didn’t finish our packing until a few minutes ago.  It has been a crazy few weeks.  It would have been nice to have a few more hours or days, but we have been planning this transition for over 4 years now so I can’t really complain.

Mikayla is very excited about this departure.  We have tried our best to prepare her and she certainly has a grasp of what is about to happen; but of course there is no way she can comprehend how much her life is about to change.

We have about 50 hours of traveling between Bowling Green, KY and St. Phillips Swaziland and that might be interesting with a toddler.  The sisters are meeting us at the airport on Thursday morning and then we have a 5 hour drive to get there.  It sounds like we will have some time to settle in, but there is so much to be done, I have a feeling I will jump in pretty quickly.  It will be nice to have Beth at home to help get things in order.

Lots of thoughts going through my head now.  We are certainly going to miss our friends and family, but I realize it is much different to live overseas now than it was even 5 years ago.  We may not reliable internet, but things like Skype and Facebook will keep us connected when we have access to them.

It is at times like this that the title of my blog, "Dynamic yet consistent" takes special meaning.  A whole lot has changed in our lives in the last 5-10 years, but looking back it is obvious that we have been moving in an intentional direction.  And while today’s move is pretty substantial, it is simple another step towards where we have been heading for years.  I am sure 5-10 years from now things will again look much different, but I am confident the movement will be consistent and for the better.

We will do our best to keep you posted.

Looking forward,


Categories: Family, Swaziland, Thoughts Tags: , ,

Problem with religions

May 3rd, 2011 No comments

A friend of mine asked me the other day what I thought was the biggest problem with religions in the world (not just Christianity or religion in America).  Here is what I said:

Religion exists to help explain the world and our purpose in it.  Religions become problematic when instead of offering cohesion to chaos they create their own chaos.

What do you think?  Too simplistic?  What am I missing?

Categories: Faith, Thoughts Tags: , , ,

Where do we go from here?

January 17th, 2011 No comments

The following quotes are from Martin Luther King’s book Where do we go from here?  It contains his honest assessment of where the world was in the late 1960s and what it would take to get things on the right track.  It is a book that cannot be reduced to sound bites and must be read cover to cover to be appreciated.  But, until you have the time do that, let these quotes challenge you.

Concerning worldwide brotherhood:

One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of the status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. But today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change. The large house in which we live demands that we transform this worldwide neighborhood into a worldwide brotherhood.  Together we must learn to live together as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools.

Concerning the image of God:

Deeply woven into the fiber of our religious tradition is the conviction that men are made in the image of God, and that they are souls of infinite metaphysical value. If we accept this as a profound moral fact, we cannot be content to see men hungry, to see men victimized with ill-health, when we have the means to help them. In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied together. They entered the same mysterious gateway of human birth, into the same adventure of life.

It is what it is…

November 3rd, 2010 1 comment

Election night in America has come and gone and while all the results are not yet in, the picture is pretty obvious.  The GOP handily captured the House while the Dems barely kept the Senate.

I am not angry, frustrated, disappointed or surprised.  It is what it is.  While my politics generally lean towards the progressive side of things on most issues, I have been just as frustrated with congress as many of my conservative friends have been.  I even support many tea-party back ideals: more personal freedom, less involvement in international conflicts, balanced budgets, term limits, etc.  Of course there are still many ideals I hold that would make a tea-partier cringe: strict oversight of corporations, universal healthcare, social welfare programs, international aid, etc.

The peaceful transition of government through national elections is one aspect of American life that I am deeply proud of.  That is why I am not angry about the results.  The American people have spoken, and our government will change because of it.

What worries me is that if were gridlocked with a single party in control, then what is going to happen with a split congress?  I certainly hope that it forces us to re-engage in meaningful political discourse and compromise.  However, I fear it is just as likely to launch us into increased (and more bitter) partisan wrangling, hyperbole and demonization of "the other guys."  Only time will tell which direction we go as a nation.

It has been interesting to go through this polarized political season while also preparing to move to Swaziland.  You see, in Swaziland political parties are outlawed.  The idea is that if people were allowed to organize into political parties then they would refuse to work with people in competing parties.  5 years ago I would have called that position completely irrational.  Our history has shown that in most cases people of competing political ideologies can co-exist, work together, and even be friends.  (In my own life I have close personal friends that are Republicans, Democrats, socialists, libertarians, neo-cons, anarchists, communists and even monarchists and my life is better because of it).  However, I think that as a nation we have regressed in the last two years when it comes to political discourse; it is harder and harder for people to be understood on their own terms without their political affiliation short-circuiting things to assumptions and hyperbole.  I am not going to point fingers, but it is disappointing.

In many ways I am really looking forward to moving to a country where political parties don’t officially exist, where there is no 24-hour news cycle, and where pundits aren’t making a living mixing politics / entertainment / ratings / stereotypes / etc.  Of course every system has its issue, but it might be refreshing to deal with a King for a while instead of this crap we have endured this election cycle.

It is what it is…

Fair salaries and the Kingdom of God

September 15th, 2010 2 comments

Last week at church we ended a 1.5 month sermon series on the Kingdom of God by discussing what it means to participate in the Kingdom; one of the passages we looked at was Mat 20:1-16, the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.  The main point is that in the Kingdom everyone is compensated fairly, but not necessarily equally.

That reminded me of an article I had read recently about the link between pastor’s salaries and church growth:

The researchers examined whether pastors earned more in years when their churches saw congregations grow and their pay suffer if membership declined. It turns out United Methodist congregations gave their leaders a $15 boost (in 2008 dollars) on average for each new member added (about 3 percent of new revenues generated from the membership increase) and cut their pay by about $7 for each member lost.

[You can read the whole article here on Slate: The Almighty Dollar: Are preachers motivated by the desire to save souls or to make cold, hard cash?]

Things like this give me great pause as I ponder what is the most faithful, biblical, and fair way to handle financial compensation for those working in the church.

I have long stated that people in ministry should not expect to make more than the average household income for the community they are called to serve (That is a bit over $30K here in Warren County).  Of course I don’t see that as a hard-fast rule, but rather as a starting point; in fact, I struggle with the idea of pastors getting paid at all – but that is for another post.

In a multiple-staff situation things get even more complex.  What is fair compensation for everyone when we are willing to think about it “Kingdom” terms?  Here are a few models I think we can consider:

  • Compensate based on “market” value – unfortunately this is the way most churches operate without even considering other options.  This approach forces a business mindset and causes people to think about “moving up the ladder.”
  • Compensate equally – pay everyone the same wage regardless of their position.  The full time janitor makes the same as the senior pastor.
  • Compensate based on skills / training – a cross between the two approaches above.  The doctor makes more than the M.Div who makes more than M.A. who makes more than the college grad… This approach doesn’t value one role over another, but does reward people who made the financial / educational sacrifices to be better prepared.  You could easily extend this thinking to compensate for years of work, additional training / skill sets, etc.
  • Compensate based on need – The young married couple has less financial need than the single father living with his two kids, or the older lady who has high medical expenses and is taking care of her parents.  This approach is the most selfless of all, but the hardest to implement.
    These questions are especially difficult (and important) when you start working through real situations.  I came from a multiple-staff church where how you answer the “fair compensation” question would have major impact on people.  We had a 5:1 pay ratio (the highest paid full-time staff member made at least 5 times what the lowest paid full-time staff member made), a wide variety of education levels (High School educated up to M.Div and everything in between), a huge span of years of service (fresh into ministry up to several decades), and an extremely diverse set of living situations (stable married couples without kids, up to individuals with major medical expenses and other extenuating circumstances).

I don’t think there is a right answer to these questions (although I do think there are plenty of wrong ways to handle it).  The big problem is that people generally refuse to discuss these matters.  If you want to know the quickest way to shut people up in a staff meeting, then just suggest you talk about salaries.

It is generally assumed that all churches will take the first approach and simply pay based on market value.  The problem with this is that is short-circuits meaningful discussions about the theology of ministry and the call to live by "Kingdom" standards.  People in ministry are paid through the tithes and offerings of people who believe they are contributing to God’s work.  At a minimum, we all should expect those in ministry to think long and hard about what is the best use of God’s finances when it comes to compensating staff fairly.

When you take the "market value" approach to ministry it forces you to only look inward.  All of the other approaches require ministers to contemplate the Kingdom as a whole and also to consider the situation and contributions of those they serve with.  It is not easy, but I think all of our churches would be better off if we at least entertained the question.

A church where the senior pastor makes the same as (or less than) the janitor would certainly turn a few heads, and I am convinced it is a more accurate implementation of the lessons from Matthew 20.  Just imagine how strong a church’s witness could be if they compensated based on Kingdom standards instead of worldly value.  It would certainly force people to take the message of the Kingdom of God serious if ministers were willing to "step out on faith" and change the way they viewed their salaries.

How can we expect those in the church to earnestly seek their place in the work in the Kingdom, if we do not evaluate some of these basic and essential questions about how the church operates.


Conspicuous Authenticity

September 12th, 2010 1 comment

Over the past 30 or 40 years, there’s been a shift in the culture where as we got wealthier, it actually became less socially acceptable to just sort of, like, engage in raw displays of how much wealth you have or what great taste you have. And so we engage in what I call "conspicuous authenticity," displays of consumption or experience that sort of express what a deep person, how spiritual you are.….

What I’m trying to point out is that when you wrap up your consumption in a sort of moralizing guise, it ends up sort of being almost a more pernicious form of status-seeking, because it makes it seem like you’re actually better than other people and not just simply better connected.

The quotes above are from a recent interview with Andrew Potter about his new book The Authenticity Hoax.  You can listen to the whole interview from Marketplace Money here: The New Holier Than Thou

I was really struck by the criticism because I can see and sense what he is talking about in my own life and the lives of those I most closely associate with.  Many of the things he mentions Beth and I do:

  • Compost and garden at home
  • Buy locally and organically
  • Reject Big Box Stores
  • Fetishize poverty
  • etc.

It is not that these things are inherently bad (in fact, most of them are based on solid values and ideals).  I am satisfied with my path of downward mobility.  However, when we hold the idea of an action higher than the action itself, we risk falling into the trap of conspicuous authenticity – it becomes easy to do things because we want to project a certain image rather than actually live by a set of ideals. 

I am the first to admit I am guilty of this.

Wrapped up in all this is my own understanding of just how important community is.  The community that surrounds you set the bar for the ideals you pursue.  Close friends can challenge you to love more deeply and serve more broadly, or they can promote selfishness and give you an excuse to become complacent.

I can honestly say my closest friends have brought both sides out of me.

My hope is not that I will do more “things” or live by more standards, but rather that I will become more deeply committed to the values I cherish.

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…

August 29th, 2010 1 comment

…or I could title this post “Don’t be a prick.”

I have been doing some reminiscing lately.  Last weekend was my 10 year high school reunion and I also visited with some old friends from college at a wedding.  In both cases it was great to think back to the way things used to be.

I thoroughly enjoyed my high school years.  Beth and I started dating, I had lots of good friends, an appropriate amount of freedom, and was involved in things I really enjoyed (racing mountain bikes, playing soccer and roller hockey, etc.). 

It is easy to look back and recount all the good times.  At the same time, I have to remember that high school was not an easy world to live in if you were on the fringe.  I have several friends who look to their reunion with disdain.  One person even said to me, “why would I want to go back 10 years later – I didn’t like those people a decade ago, why would like to be around them now?”

It really hit home for me when one gentleman from my high school class said to me, “I am surprised more people don’t still think of you as a prick.”  That statement didn’t offend me because I knew he was right.  While my life was pretty great, I am sure I made high school hell for others (especially as a Sophomore and Junior).

A lot can change in a decade.  There are few things that I look back at from high school and can say I still significantly proud of (sure they were “The glory days”, but how much of it really matters?).  On the other hand, I still have several regrets – especially when I think of the way I treated people.  I know that in an attempt to make high school “the best of times” for me, I made it “the worst of times” for others.

Some people say if they had it all to do again they would do it all the same.  Well… that isn’t me… I would change things.  If I could tell High School Ben Kickert any piece of advice it would simply be “Don’t be a prick!”

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