MOVE Column for Apr 2016 – Jim Lyon, General Director, Church of God Ministries

 In From Jim Lyon

Whatever else might be said about Jesus, one thing cannot be reasonably contested: He was a change agent, a catalyst for change without peer. No one who ever met Jesus, as He walked through this world, was ever left the same. Accept Him (like Peter) or reject Him (like Pilate), your life’s trajectory would be inevitably altered by your intersection with Him. The same holds true today.

Jesus challenged the way the Scriptures were understood, He redefined relationships with friends, neighbors, and enemies; He even redefined who is our neighbor. He blew preconceived notions of the Messiah’s role and methodology out of the water, He dared the devout to re-examine the revealed law and better understand its application in…

the here and now. He stood ideas about redemption on their head and forever transformed the way we think about death and life. He was nonplussed by the spectacle of Herod’s Second Temple and, instead, drew His audience to marvel at the majesty of the lilies of the field. He redrew the floorplan of the household of faith, said the least would be greatest, called His followers to become like children to enter in, and gave His Kingdom a constitution, the Sermon on the Mount, like no other. Jesus is the guy who said we need to be born again (talk about a change-up) to enter that Kingdom. He, after all, brought the Old Testament to a close and gave us the New. Change was His A-game.

Jesus did not just discard old wineskins for the sake of upsetting the apple-cart, though; He knew the new would require something better. His was (and is) always a quest for blessing, life, and the better.

Change can be a painful and difficult process, of course, because all change requires loss, an ending necessary to birth a beginning. Something must be left behind if change for the better is to be embraced. Life is a series of chapters: one book, but a series of chapters still. One closes, another opens.

Jesus certainly understood this. The Lord’s original audience did not, however, and did not always receive His ideas-for-change sympathetically. His “Sabbath-breaking” was a constant source of controversy, even as He simply lived out the original truth of the Sabbath unencumbered by the traditions of men. The controversies were born, I suspect, because of the losses involved: the loss of a certain, predictable, known order that had become an anchor overshadowing the core truth. Those with the longest exposure to Scripture became His most adamant foes, furious that He dare suggest that the established norms should be overturned, changed, reformed. Their preoccupation with the preservation of what once was denied them the chance to experience something better.

If I had lived in the first-century world of Jesus, I fear I would have been one of His foes, too. I’m not, by nature, keen to embrace change. I much prefer the known to the unknown, the comfortable and tried-and-true to the risk and dare. Growing up as an adopted child, my greatest fear was change, that the established order of a loving family into which God had ultimately placed me would somehow be ended and that I’d find myself, once again, on the curb. I religiously (no pun intended) held tightly to the relationships, geography, and traditions that provided for me a security blanket. I wanted to be in the same congregation for my whole lifetime, in the same city, in the same circle of friends, attending the same camp meeting, singing the same songs, bathed by the same evening light. I wanted to preserve and reproduce the same routines, rituals (yes, rituals—we all have some), feel, and experience that had clothed me with life. For too long, I understood pleasing God as equivalent to resisting change.

But, Jesus has a way of confronting all of us with change; He never leaves us where He finds us; He is never the author of fossilization. He would not let me stay at the same address, in the same congregation, or even in the same state. He stretched me on one hundred fronts, daring me to dive deeper into His will and way every time I held more tightly to some place or thing. He even allowed my house to burn down, changing me forever, drawing me closer to understanding that we’re all just passing through, to comprehending that this world is not my home.

When I left Seattle to move to Anderson—and had a meltdown on the church steps I had always wanted to be a permanent fixture in my life—God spoke to me (yes, I believe God speaks to us, from time to time, specifically, precisely, clearly). He said, “Never hold on to anything, Jim, so tightly that it will cause you to disobey Me.” He said my name, He called me out. I got it. I was stretched and changed, again.

The Church of God is in a season of change; we are ourselves re-forming, re-claiming. As a people called into being as a Movement, we have been strangely drawn to focus on sacred totems and relics. Cultural patterns and the soil of history long enjoyed have assumed iconic status, sometimes diverting us from our original (and divinely set) course. The predilection to defend yesterday’s wallpaper at the expense of a fresh coat of paint too often robs the ministry of dynamic advance. I understand the challenge: I want everything to remain the same; it worked for me; oh, for the good ol’ days. Why can’t we keep the homestead forever and put the Christmas tree in the same place every year?

My problem is that I am prone to be preoccupied with the Christmas tree instead of the passion of the Christ Child it celebrates. I become too involved in preserving the holiday pageant at the expense of the truth it was intended to proclaim. I am diverted by my thirst for days gone by and forget why God called us to be His people in the first place. The heart of Jesus is for the lost, the poor, the captive, the oppressed, and the blind. He came to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord. He did not submit to the Cross to protect an address, a history, or a culture. We’re all just passing through.

The Movement’s first generation (in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) had no past to protect and was free to advance the Kingdom nimbly, effectively, and dramatically. They held no ground sacred, but moved with dispatch across every field they could find. The Gospel Trumpet Company jumped from place to place, always driven by the stewardship of Kingdom assets. If a new location could free up resources to proclaim the Good News, well, then, a move of the Movement’s base camp was in store. Grand Junction, Michigan, became the seat of the Gospel Trumpet (it was here that Daniel S. Warner died in 1895); it was a perfect location, given the time, at a “grand junction” of railroads (which then moved thousands from here to there). But, after a few years, the Trumpet Company found that coal (which fueled the engine of publication) was seventy cents-a-ton cheaper in Moundsville, West Virginia. The saints left Warner’s house and body behind (just outside of Grand Junction) and relocated the whole enterprise; less money for coal meant more money for ministry.

A few more years passed and electricity came into view; the city of Moundsville refused to run power lines to the Trumpet Company base and Anderson, Indiana, offered free natural gas in perpetuity. Less money for fuel equaled more money for ministry. After a tumultuous debate with the Moundsville city fathers, the Trumpet Company pulled up stakes, once more, and crossed two state lines to land in Anderson, quite literally: the Company’s buildings were disassembled and put on train cars bound for Hoosierland; nary a trace of the operation was left behind in West Virginia. A “tabernacle people” (moving from place to place) was the brand; it was only later, after the first generation of the Movement had passed away, that we flirted with becoming a “temple people” (focused on one place, no matter what the cost).

Events have unfolded in the last quarter century that are forcing us to change, once more, returning to our roots as a “tabernacle people.” Nothing illustrates this more precisely than the long-standing home of Church of God Ministries (ChoG Ministries) on Fifth Street in Anderson. Originally constructed in 1908 by the Gospel Trumpet Company (now Warner Press), and expanded in the 1930s and again in the 1960s, today’s handsome art deco building is beautifully manicured—on the outside. But, the building itself inside? Not so much.

Warner Press for many years filled all 233,000 square feet of the building with hundreds of employees and a printing and publishing ministry that reached around the world. But, in the 1990s, the presses went silent (Warner Press still publishes, but outsources the printing). In a season of sweeping change in the same decade, most (but not all) of our independent ministry agencies were merged to form what is now ChoG Ministries; Warner Press became a subsidiary of the new ministry engine and the building came into ChoG Ministries’ ownership. For most of the last twenty-five years, major structural maintenance on the immense structure was deferred; depreciation was not funded; nothing was banked to replace the roof (today’s estimate: $600,000), replace the windows, point the exterior brick facie, and so on. The dated boilers that provide heat and the air conditioning units on the roof are all long overdue for replacement or refurbishing; nothing has been saved to do so.

To make the mountain staring at the base camp even more towering to climb is the reality that we today actually occupy just 10 percent of the building, but must maintain the whole. Tenants used to help carry the freight, but, one-by-one they have moved out, worn out by the challenges (e.g., roof leaks damaging desks and equipment, carbon monoxide evacuation due to a faulty burner in the boiler). Hundreds of thousands of dollars are required annually just to keep it open (total last year? approximately $700,000). After two independent analyses by builders in the Church of God (one from Michigan and the other from Indiana), additional millions will be required just to keep it habitable going forward.

ChoG Ministries does not have that kind of money. Would the larger church favorably entertain a capital campaign to vouchsafe the building as our base camp for years to come, to the tune of millions? Or, would our church family prefer to invest that money in our college and universities, or on the mission field, or in the expansion otherwise of the Kingdom right here in the United States and Canada? Is coal cheaper somewhere else? Less money for coal equals more money for ministry. What would Jesus do? He is Lord, after all.

Indeed, ChoG Ministries, even if it were freed from the financial burden of maintaining the building, is not financially sustainable, in its present frame. I have to come to believe it never has been. ChoG Ministries has operated in the red every year since 1999 (with the exception of 2002, when, by a thin margin, it ended the year in the black). Successive unrelated crises (e.g., with some of our schools, one with the Board of Church Extension, which was not ever merged into ChoG Ministries, etc.) drained resources, too. My predecessors worked tirelessly to keep the boat afloat—and with some success—but still all of those years of red ink have taken a toll.

Financing ChoG Ministries (which serves the Movement here in the United States and Canada and abroad, as well), has been a gerrymandered mix of initiatives, patched together over time, developed in response to this and that, all the while fending off one crisis or another. Talk about old wineskins. Whew. The majority of funds we receive are designated (restricted for certain projects) and most of those are received under a prospectus for the funding of missionaries that guarantees 100 percent of what is received is sent to the field. No local church, no ministry of any kind, can be sustainable over the long haul with such a model.

To illustrate: at the end of fiscal year 2015, ChoG Ministries carried a $961,000 liability for pensions, health insurance, and other benefits for retired missionaries and agency staff that came on board before ChoG Ministries was formed; these promises to outstanding members of our church family, who have sacrificed lifetimes for Kingdom work, have been grandfathered into our balance sheet. While they were in active service, many churches directly funded their wages, benefits, and other more-than-legitimate costs. But, upon retirement, donors steer those income streams into other lines, or cease giving altogether. Our financial commitments to them continue, nonetheless. We honor those who have served so long, so well; there is no question about that. But, how to underwrite the promises made? In short order, that liability will exceed $1,000,000 (as those already retired live longer than forecast and new retirees who qualify for this grandfathered program come into play).

As the Board of Church Extension unraveled, a court distributed its assets. Church Extension was an independent agency within the Movement, separately governed. However, as the case came to a close (just last year), ChoG Ministries inherited (by court decree) all of the conditional deeds that had historically been given to Church Extension, with a mandate (from the General Assembly of the Church of God) to transfer the conditional deeds’ interest to our local state and district assemblies. In 2015, we spent tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, transferring equity interest, titles, and so on—and have only scratched the surface of the hundreds more still waiting to be addressed. Again, we honor the General Assembly’s directive to transfer, but how to pay for this new assignment? Is there coal that can be found more cheaply anywhere else to free up resources for what must be done today?

Of course, there’s much new ministry ground that might be taken, too. The Movement is on the move. For the first time in my memory, we have independent churches knocking on our door wanting to join the Movement. Has this not been one of our dreams, to see the Movement gather scattered flocks into one? They are drawn to our grasp of Scripture, to our emphasis on the centrality of Jesus, to unity and holiness, and to the sense of new wind in our sails. But, our capacity to launch into the deep is compromised by the antiquated system of financing now in place and, yes, the cost of maintaining the building on Fifth Street. Something has to give. Something has to change.

After a year and half of research, prayerful exploration of options, knocking on doors, engaging ministry partners, and more, we have decided to relocate our base camp to another building in Anderson. We’re landing at Exit 222 off Interstate 69, in the Anderson Flagship Business Park. The new digs are being secured with a very favorable lease arrangement, which will fix our building costs (and help staunch the flow of red ink). Previously, sights were set on a building off Exit 219; developments since, including an opportunity to better steward our resources, have directed us to Exit 222. We will mothball the building on Fifth Street, to protect its future, to the best of our ability; we believe it someday may be useful to Anderson University (which is not now in a position to accept our offer to gift it to them).

As we opened our eyes to the possibilities of change, we discovered unimagined new opportunities. I am very excited about the decision of ministry partners at Christian Women Connection, Warner Press, and Servant Solutions to all move with us, working collaboratively, across many disciplines, for the Church of God. We have always been friends; now we will be family, living in the same house. We will share many spaces (and economies), a common welcome and reception center, IT and telephone infrastructure (with new fiber optic access to the outside world), lunchroom, and more. The new space (totaling 26,000 square feet) has been custom designed to better integrate our work together. We have been already astonished at the synergy, new conversation, and new dreaming that is springing to life as we draw closer together. We hope to be in our new base camp in July; an open house, for visitors at the ChoG Regional Convention slated for Anderson in June, is in the works.

Our friends at Children of Promise have elected not to relocate with us but will, instead, move into the Servant Solutions building (as Servant Solutions moves with us to the Flagship property). All the players are content.

It’s a big change, no doubt about it. But, we think, a necessary one. And, we are persuaded, that the Lord is in it, just as He has been in all of the moves before (from northern Indiana to Grand Junction to Moundsville to Fifth Street).

The ChoG Ministries team is also hard at work on rolling out this year a new, sustainable, resource development, funding, and spending plan to take us into a new chapter. It is a plan that includes both new efficiencies and cost savings in the way we approach the ministry (like relocating the base camp) and new ways to engage our church family with services and opportunities to help cover the cost. Much depends on our success. Thanks for stepping up to invest in the global work of the Church of God; thanks for being faithful; thanks for watching for exciting ways you can be a part.

In 2015, 45 percent of our congregations contributed something to ChoG Ministries—some to initiatives like ChoG TraffickLight (exciting work here), others to Living Link (fueling missions and partnerships abroad), some to the general fund (which makes possible everything from grants to the National Association of the Church of God, Hispanic Council, and American Indian Council, to funding for the Be Bold Academy, Leadership Focus, credentialing bridges, the International Youth Convention, ChoG Conventions, a global broadcasting ministry, our Global Strategy base camp team, and many things more); 55 percent of our congregations did not contribute anything to any of our causes. If that sounds discouraging, it’s not. We actually grew our congregational participation last year. But, as you can see, we have a distance to go.

We are not in the church-building business, we are in the change-the-world business. We are a Movement, for Heaven’s sake. Oh yeah. Change. It’s all about Jesus. In our individual lives, in our neighborhoods, in the world for which our Lord came to save. And, in the Movement. Be encouraged.

See you at the ChoG Regional Conventions and ChoG Tables this year. We’re very excited about the pre-registrations for our first set, in Portland (Vancouver) later this month; over twice as many paid registrations have been received already than attended last year’s Western Area Regional Ministers (WARM) conference; we so appreciate the WARM officers’ warm embrace of the Regional Convention model and for their partnership with us this year. If you can’t see us in Portland, plan on Anderson (in June) or Philadelphia (in September).

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