Friday, February 29, 2008

Associated Baptist Press - 2/28/2008

Associated Baptist Press

February 28, 2008 (8-23)

Obama speech to denomination spurs IRS investigation of UCC
Let’s get organized: How should churches structure leader groups?
Abstinence compromise means AIDS relief bill back on track
Opinion: The deeper wellsprings of centrist evangelicalism

Obama speech to denomination spurs IRS investigation of UCC
By Robert Marus

WASHINGTON (ABP) -- A speech that Barack Obama made last year to his fellow Congregationalists has spurred an Internal Revenue Service investigation that threatens the tax-exempt status of an entire denomination.

Leaders of the Illinois senator’s United Church of Christ are fighting back, saying the IRS charges are baseless and “disturbing.”

In a letter dated Feb. 20 and received by church officials Feb. 25, IRS official Marsha Ramirez said “a reasonable belief exists” that the denomination violated federal law. Churches and other non-profit groups organized under Section 501(c)(3) of the federal tax code are barred from endorsing or opposing candidates and political parties.

The UCC is generally considered the nation’s most liberal large Protestant body. Obama has been an active member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago for more than two decades. Trinity is the UCC’s largest congregation.

In the IRS letter, Ramirez said the agency’s concerns “are based on articles posted on several websites” that described Obama’s June 23 appearance at the UCC’s biennial General Synod meeting in Hartford, Conn. The senator -- by then an announced Democratic candidate for president -- spoke to about 10,000 church members, according to the denomination and news accounts.

But UCC officials said they took pains to ensure that the speech was not perceived as a campaign event or an endorsement of the candidate.

Obama was invited “as one of 60 diverse speakers representing the arts, media, academia, science, technology, business and government. Each was asked to reflect on the intersection of their faith and their respective vocations or fields of expertise,” a UCC news release said. It also said church officials invited Obama as a church member rather than in his capacity as a candidate and said they asked him to speak a year before he declared his intention to run for higher office.

“The United Church of Christ took great care to ensure that Sen. Obama’s appearance before the … General Synod met appropriate legal and moral standards,” UCC General Minister John Thomas said in the news release. “We are confident that the IRS investigation will confirm that no laws were violated.”

Prior to the speech, a church official told the crowd that the appearance was not intended to be a campaign event and that campaign-related material and other forms of electioneering would not be allowed inside the event venue.

The IRS letter claimed that “40 Obama volunteers staffed campaign tables outside” the Hartford Civic Center, where the event was held. But church officials said they barred any campaigning inside the venue.

Thomas said that, while he believes the investigation will ultimately acquit the denomination, he nonetheless is concerned about its effect.

“The very fact of” the investigation’s existence “is disturbing," Thomas said. “When the invitation to an elected public official to speak to the national meeting of his own church family is called into question, it has a chilling effect on every religious community that seeks to encourage politicians and church members to thoughtfully relate their personal faith to their public responsibilities.”

IRS officials do not discuss such investigations with the press because tax information is private. But several ministries and local congregations have been warned and investigated in recent years for electioneering.

The agency is currently investigating Southern Baptist pastor Wiley Drake for using church letterhead and a church-sponsored radio show to endorse Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

Last year, the IRS ended an investigation without any sanctions against All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif. It had been under investigation for a guest sermon its former rector had given just before the 2004 presidential election. In it, he strongly criticized the war in Iraq but said he believed that both President Bush and his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, were good Christians.

IRS officials contended that the sermon amounted to an endorsement of Kerry over Bush. The church contested the charge. In a September letter to the congregation announcing that it was ending its investigation without penalty, IRS officials said they continued to believe the church had illegally intervened in the election.

All Saints’ legal defense ended up costing more than $200,000, according to church leaders. Anticipating a similar financial burden for the UCC, Thomas sent an appeal Feb. 27 to church members asking them to donate to a special legal-defense fund.

“In order to adequately defend ourselves, as well as protect the broader principle of the freedom of religious communities to entertain questions of faith and public life, we will need to secure expert legal counsel, and the cost of this defense, we are told, could approach or exceed six figures," Thomas wrote. “This is troubling news.”


IRS letter to UCC officials

UCC news story responding to letter

Huckabee endorsement brings IRS investigation of Wiley Drake (2/14)

California church leaders question IRS investigation into war sermon (9/28/2007)

Let’s get organized: How should churches structure leader groups?
By Jennifer Harris

FRESNO, Calif. (ABP) -- Deserved or not, committees -- especially in Baptist life -- often conjure negative connotations.

The term is borrowed from government and corporate culture, says Don Simmons, owner of Creative Potential Consulting and Training, a management and training consulting company based in Fresno, Calif. And committees have a reputation for long, boring meetings that accomplish nothing and rarely “take a person’s giftedness and passion into account.”

A better option for churches wanting to organize their leadership structure is to form “ministry teams,” he said. While committees focus on tasks and agendas, ministry teams emphasize personal development and relationships: “Teams require a very human element -- trust -- that may not always be operable in committees.”

The team concept allows everyone to bring their ideas to the table, agreed Jim Dees, director of equipping ministries at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, Calif. Instead of the top-down leadership of committees, teams give the freedom to brainstorm ideas, he said.

The personal element generally means teams have a longer life, too, as people often choose to serve longer when they have developed relationships.

“At First Baptist Church [in Jefferson City, Mo.], committees are nominated by the enlistment committee and then voted on by the church to serve mostly three-year terms,” said Jeanie McGowan, associate pastor of equipping at the church. “Teams are led by volunteer leaders, and they can enlist anyone they choose, and folks can serve for as long as they choose, making one-year commitments as they go along. You may serve on more than one ministry team, but we try not to have anyone serving on more than one committee at a time.”

At Calvary Presbyterian, mission teams are lay-driven. While a minister or member of the equipping team may come up with an idea, it is soon passed on to a member of the congregation.

Dees said the change to a team-based structure changed the church’s ministry.

“It changed our church culture. Teams have greatly impacted the mobilization of people,” he said. “We’ve seen an increased number of church members involved in ministry in the community.”

But team-building requires commitment to a clearly defined mission, Simmons added.

“While some committees may function as teams, in order to build and sustain teams, leadership must be intentional and driven by a definitive purpose,” he said. “Teams do not happen accidentally -- they are built with time, trust and tenacity.”

It took Calvary nearly two years to get the systems in place to start their equipping ministry, Dees said, and mission teams continue to evolve as new people get involved.

What’s more, committees cannot -- and should not -- be changed into teams overnight. Simmons recommends changing one team at a time.

“Start with the most obvious areas where teams may already exist, and then work to make them models for the rest of the church,” he said.

Youth or student ministries may be a good place to start. Churches also may have worship or mission teams already functioning that can act as models for other changes. Simmons emphasized that “a committee becomes a team through their behaviors, not just their language.”

The next step in building a team is practicing essential relationship functions. “Good teams eat together, drink together, play together and pray together -- usually in that order,” Simmons said.

One of the most joyful teams Simmons served on was designed to provide services for a large hospice facility.

“With deep respect for the patients, our team knew that it was important to sing, dance, laugh and joke with one another and with the hospice staff in the face of great pain,” Simmons said. “Our fun was contagious, and we were often asked to train other teams of volunteers about the need to ‘lighten up’ with one another, to encourage long-term service and to prevent burnout.”

The team’s laid-back nature wasn’t accidental, however. “The fun we had was evidence of our care for one another and was borne out of time with each other outside of our service time,” Simmons said. “We shared meals often and committed enough time to knowing each other to be authentic with our joy.”

Another step Simmons recommends is forming a team covenant. Covenants are designed by team members to give relational boundaries and guidelines on how the team will function.

“Some believe that developing a covenant is useless time consumption, and if the covenant is not authentic and practical for the ministry team, then it may become just that,” Simmons said. “If the covenant is developed and written by the team, for the team and used intentionally, then the covenant can be the guide-star for the team’s work.”

Simmons said there are six guidelines for developing a covenant that supports the work of a ministry team:

-- Write the covenant as a team. Use time in the first two team meetings to develop the covenant.

-- Keep the covenant focused on behaviors that are authentic and practical. Be sure to include areas such as attendance, punctuality, fun, contributions, conversations, confidentiality and documentation.

-- Review the covenant at each team meeting. Allow for revision if a covenant area is being ignored or bypassed regularly.

-- Discuss behaviors as a violation of the covenant, not as sin or personal disappointment.

-- Review and “re-covenant” each time a new member joins the team to ensure ownership is understood and valued by the entire team.

-- Write the covenant in everyday, authentic language. Even the Bible was written in the language of the ordinary person.

“A team covenant can make the difference between a cordial work group and a highly functioning team, if the process of developing the covenant is authentic and realistic,” Simmons said. “The time invested in covenant creation will greatly benefit the team in fluidity and performance.”

Ultimately, Simmons said, teams benefit the church because “people matter. The fun that we have with one another exhibits to people that we are not only willing to share the work and tasks but willing to share our very lives.”


Abstinence compromise means AIDS relief bill back on track

By Robert Marus

WASHINGTON (ABP) -- A bill that would more than triple the amount of money the United States spends combating the AIDS pandemic got a boost Feb. 27 with a compromise over abstinence-focused prevention efforts and abortion.

House leaders and White House officials agreed on language that will send the five-year renewal of the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, to that chamber’s floor for a vote.

Pro-choice lawmakers agreed to remove provisions from earlier drafts of the bill that would have allowed it to fund the anti-AIDS efforts of family-planning groups that also provide abortions. White House officials agreed to loosen the program’s requirement that a large portion of the funds be spent on abstinence-focused efforts at stopping the disease’s spread.

“While not perfect, this bill continues the principles of the bipartisan PEPFAR program passed five years ago,” said Tony Perkins, of the conservative Family Research Council, in a press release applauding the compromise. His group had objected to earlier versions of the bill.

“Twenty million innocent men, women and children, we must remember, have perished from HIV/AIDS -- 20 million,” said Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the acting chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, just before the panel voted to approve the bill. “Forty million around the globe are HIV-positive. Each and every day, another 6,000 people become infected with HIV. We have a moral imperative to act, and act decisively.”

The bill allocates $50 billion over the next five years to anti-AIDS programs around the world, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa where the disease is rampant.

The original PEPFAR bill, passed in 2003, authorized $15 billion over five years. It is widely regarded as President Bush’s most broadly popular and successful foreign-policy initiative.

The renewal bill was named for the late Tom Lantos and Henry Hyde. Both men -- Lantos a Democrat and Hyde a Republican -- were former chairmen of the committee, and both died in the past year. Lantos and Hyde shepherded the original PEPFAR bill through Congress.

The bill is the “Tom Lantos and Henry J. Hyde United States Global Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Reauthorization Act,” H.R. 5501.


Opinion: The deeper wellsprings of centrist evangelicalism

By David Gushee

(ABP) -- Discussion of the concept of an emerging evangelical center (or some other label for an alternative to the Christian Right) has taken off in recent months -- indeed, in recent weeks. Hardly a day goes by without some news article or opinion piece addressing the concept and its implications. Inevitably, these discussions of an emerging evangelical center are also evoking attacks, denunciations and misunderstandings. I guess that’s how you know you’re getting somewhere, when the attacks come.

In this column, I want to explore the deeper wellsprings of the concept to which several of us are now attaching the imperfect label “centrist evangelicalism.” These wellsprings are far more important than the label and certainly more important than the ideological categories of left, center and right. Not everyone would identify the wellsprings in the same way, but here are my top three:

-- A consistent pro-life ethic. Beginning in the 1980s, Catholic and some evangelical thinkers began writing and talking about a consistent pro-life ethic. The idea is that because every human being is made in the image of God and sacred in God’s sight, every human life is immeasurably valuable to God and must be treated as immeasurably valuable by the rest of us. This requires every possible effort to protect humans from premature death, to respect human dignity wherever it is threatened, and to so act as to advance human flourishing wherever possible. The responsibility for these efforts rests with all humans and extends to governmental actions and public policies.

What makes an ethic “consistently pro-life” is its commitment to view and to treat every human life this way -- “from womb to tomb,” as was often said. This requires concern and action in relation to every threat to human survival, every challenge to human dignity and every undermining of human dignity. It certainly requires efforts to reverse the social institutionalization of abortion. But it also requires efforts to reverse the social institutionalization of mass death in war, environmental degradation, AIDS and hunger. Passionate commitment to a wide range of “pro-life” concerns is precisely one characteristic of the evangelical center. It also brings centrist evangelicalism into close proximity with the best expressions of Catholic social teaching and opens the possibility of a powerfully centrist Catholic-evangelical alliance in American public life.

-- A kingdom ethic. In 2003, Glen Stassen and I published Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context with Intervarsity Press. Our goal in writing the book was to base an entire approach to Christian ethics on a primary commitment to Jesus Christ. As we sought to write an academic ethics text “as if Jesus mattered” (our original title), we discovered the centrality of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom, or reign, of God. Tracing Jesus’ kingdom teaching and ministry back to their Old Testament sources, we concluded that when Jesus celebrated the dawning of the kingdom in his own ministry, he meant specific things, such as: the coming of peace, justice, deliverance, healing and renewed community, all accompanied by joy and the vivid experience of God’s presence.

In unpacking Jesus’ life and teachings with reference to these seven categories, we ended up with a Jesus who offered a comprehensive pro-life, pro-justice, pro-poor, pro-community, pro-healing vision that amounts to the renewal of the entire human experience on this suffering planet. That indeed would be the reign of God, the healing of the world. We argued that Christians should be defined as Christ-followers who enjoy the amazing privilege of participating in the advance of God’s reign until Jesus returns. Christians do not work the kingdom into existence, and its fulfillment awaits Christ’s return. But nothing that we do that wins victories for God’s reign now is ever wasted, and every such victory is a sign of God’s grace and the reality of God’s reign.

It is not hard to see that passionate evangelical commitment to directly addressing a number of arenas of human suffering flows from such a kingdom ethic. I describe it as characteristic of the emerging evangelical center.

-- A Barmen ethic. A mark of centrist evangelicalism as I define it is a resolute commitment to the political independence of the church as it seeks to follow Jesus Christ her Lord. One source of this commitment is deep immersion in study of the Nazi era, agonized encounter with the Holocaust, and close attention to figures like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemoller and Karl Barth.

When the Confessing Church gathered in Barmen, Germany, in 1934 and issued its Barmen Declaration under the leadership of Karl Barth, participating members of the Protestant community in Germany said a collective “No” to the corruption of the church by Nazism and the Nazi regime. Their declaration was not perfect. But it was a stark statement of Christian resistance to a disastrous alien politic that was threatening the church’s soul and would soon very nearly destroy the Jews as a people.

It has seemed, to some of us at least, that one of the great dangers in recent evangelical Christian politics has been the cozy relationship between official church leaders and political parties and their leaders. The “church” has gained access at the expense of integrity and has gained worldly influence at the expense of missional clarity. Barmen stands for a Christ-following, biblically serious, theologically grounded church that knows how to resist the seductions of the powers and principalities of the world.

So, for those who are looking for a clearer definition of so-called “centrist evangelicalism,” here it is: Rooted in the Bible, centered in Jesus Christ, clear about the church’s unique mission, and pursuing God’s reign, centrist evangelicals are attempting to advance a consistent pro-life ethic into every reachable zone of human suffering.


-- David Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University.

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