Thursday, January 20, 2011

Trust the Processes

The last 24 to 30 months have brought mind-numbing financial challenges for a few churches and ministries. For others, the days have been challenging to say the least.

For years, it seemed so easy. Revenue increased nearly every year; expenses were allowed to proportionately increase. Everyone received a salary increase each year; there were few lay-offs. The number of people served by our programs went up. Reserves often increased.

But then, revenues began to decline. There was no certainty on how far they would go down. Budgeting principles, as we knew them, were out the window.

Organizations cut expenses but many found themselves behind the curve. Some looked for a “new normal.” While “normals” feel permanent, they never are—they just don’t stick around very long. It has been a process.

It is a sobering thought but a vital one. The things I know best about Him are things I learn through the process of day-to-day ministry and life.

You wake up in the middle of the night—you hear a voice that quietly but firmly points out that there is One who can gather up the circumstances of our ministry and use them to His purposes and to our good.

It is partially, at least from this perspective of bad times and good times, that I so strongly see and believe this fact: one can come to know that God is infinitely willing and abundantly able to bring good out of the processes of our ministries.

In Dorothee Soelle’s book, Death by Bread Alone, she suggests “the language of religion is experience.” She writes about a deep experience she went through: “It began to dawn on me that people who believe limp somewhat, as Jacob limped after wrestling with God on the shore of the Jabbok. The experience of the sufficiency of grace for our life, and the experience that nothing—not even our own death—can separate us from the love of God, are experiences we can recognize only after the fact. Such experiences are not written down and incorporated in drawings and plans which we can examine and check during the course of construction.”

The processes of life are when we come to know Him as we should. We start out with a “profession of faith.” It is not that what we are saying is not true—His promises are definitely real. But we do not own these beliefs yet because we have not bought them with the experiences of our journey. In the last couple of years, many Christian leaders paid the price of buying their beliefs while working through the processes of ministry.

When I was younger, I was a frequent attender of Christian retreats. Bob Benson, an executive with Benson Publishing, was my favorite retreat leader. In one retreat prayer time, he asked us to envision a blank sheet of paper with a horizontal line across the middle. Then, giving us time for reflection, he asked us to remember the good things that happened over the last couple of years—to think about them and rejoice over them. He asked us to put those things above the line.

Then, to help us get a truer perspective of how God works in our lives, he asked us to recall the negative things that had come to us as well—the dark, deep, troublesome times that threatened to engulf our souls. He asked us to list those below the line.

Bob asked us to commit the whole paper to Him—He is the God of the list on the top and God of the list on the bottom.

That day as I made my list, there were some things, for the life of me, I didn’t know where to put them. Some of the things were so evil it would seem their place would be a foregone conclusion. The day they happened, I knew, all right. The bottom of the bottom wasn’t low enough. I did not know whether I would make it or not. But looking back, I could see how God used for good what seemed so bad at the time.

That retreat with Bob Benson was years ago and he has gone on to the treasure laid up in a life-time of devotion, discipleship, and dedication. Still today, even the worst things that have happened to me in the last few years, I find them creeping up, over the line—illustrating that even out of the direst circumstances His call to us can be heard.

Listen to all your ministry has to say to you. He calls you from the processes.

Based on Bob Benson’s book He Speaks Softly, Word, 1985.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Long View

We live in a 24-hour news cycle, results-now world. In contrast, our God takes the long view.

Seeking immediate results is rarely more common than when our ministries are impacted by an economic recession. All of our measurement tools are in place to report short-term measurable “success.” We impatiently scan our ministry reports for positive data indicators.

Are concerns about short-term data important? Yes, par­ticularly if questions of sustainability of the organization are in play.

Yet sound guidance of a ministry is more like running a marathon than a sprint. It is focused on the Great Commission with an appropriate desire to attain short-term effectiveness.

Matthew 14:15 records the recommendation of the disciples to Jesus as they told Him, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” In his recent book, The Longview: Lasting Strategies for Rising Leaders, Roger Parrott, president of Bellhaven College, suggests “the committee’s decision seemed like a reasonable solution.”1

But Jesus took a long view perspective in mentoring these disciples, knowing the solution had sweeping ramifications beyond where to get dinner. Bolstered by the miracle on the hillside, Peter found the faith to step out of the boat and walk on water. That evening had long view implications.

God often builds his church using the long view principle. William Carey, the first missionary to India, worked for seven years before he had his first convert. Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary to China, labored for a quarter century and had fewer than a dozen converts.2

When taking the long view, the following principles are fundamental.
  • Remembering. We are often so focused on the current challenges that we do not take time to remember. How has God helped us in the past? Has he ever failed us? What lessons did He teach us in past challenging times?
  • Reflecting. Identify the season your organization is in by reflecting on your environment. Bill Hybels refers to the seasons of growth as consolidation, transition, malaise and reinvention. He traces the seasons idea back to Ecclesiastes 3:1, which says that “there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.”3 Simply naming the season we are in is the basis of determining the implications of the season.
  • Vision-casting. “God’s vision for your ministry will not change quickly, nor will it be something you will accomplish rapidly. His vision will require years of active pursuit. The vision itself may even outlive you!
“Thus, the heart of the vision will remain unchanged over a prolonged period. Some of the details lying at the outer edge of your understanding of the vision may shift somewhat over the course of time. But the core of the vision—the people you have been called to reach, the task you have been called to do, the purpose for which you exist—will remain constant.

“Because He is not a God of confusion but of order, because He is a God who is in control, because He takes great pleasure in seeing us find success in our service, He will be faithful in His support of the vision.”4

Reflecting on these principles, have you made short-term decisions in the last 12 months impacting the budget, programming, personnel, and much more? You probably have and this was important to do in the short-run. But even the short-term decisions can and should be made with the long view foremost in mind.

1 The Longview: Lasting Strategies for Rising Leaders, Roger Parrott, David C. Cook, 2009.
2 Ibid.
3 Axiom, Bill Hybels, Zondervan, 2008.
4 The Power of Vision, George Barna, Regal, 2009.

Keeping Up with the Health Care Reform Changes

For all plan years beginning on or after September 23, 2010, employers are required to dole out an array of reform notices to all plan participants. Here are six notices that should be provided to employees:
  • Dependent coverage notice. All health plans are required to offer a one-time enrollment opportunity to participants’ children who are under age 26. In addition, participants must have 30 days to enroll their dependents. Participants must be notified of the changes no later than the first day of the plan year beginning on or after September 23, 2010.
  • Lifetime limits notice. Under the new law, plans are prohibited from putting lifetime limits on the dollar amount of coverage plan participants receive. Participants who had previously reached the limits of their healthcare coverage must be given a special enrollment notice that lets them know they are once again eligible for coverage.
  • Primary care designation and OB/GYN notice. Employers must communicate to employees that they have the right to designate a primary care physician within the plan’s network to coordinate their medical care. Additionally, female employees need to be informed they can obtain OB/GYN care without prior authorization.
  • Grandfathered status notice. All participants must be notified as to whether or not their health plan will retain its grandfathered status. If the plan does keep its grandfathered status, participants must be told that the plan is exempt from certain reform law provisions.
  • Cancellation of coverage notice. Participants’ healthcare coverage cannot be cancelled or terminated retroactively except in cases of deliberate fraud or similar situations. However, if a plan does cancel a participant’s coverage, the individual must still be given at least 30 days advance notice of the cancellation.
  • Claims appeals notice. A notice must be given to all participants who have a claim denied, explaining their right to appeal the denial. It must also outline the plan’s procedures for internal appeals and external reviews of those decisions.
For model language to satisfy these six notice requirements, see Health plan providers may also furnish you with the proper notices.

What You Need to Know About Medical Expenses and 2011

The impact of health care reform begins to pick up speed after 2010. While churches received a reprieve on one health care-related issue, other changes are right on schedule even if little information is available to carry out some of the provisions.

The reporting reprieve. Churches were scheduled to report the value of employer-provided health coverage on Form W-2’s for 2011 to be filed in 2012. However, the IRS has now given churches (and other employers) a one-year reprieve (Notice 2010-69). Reporting the value of the health coverage for 2011 is now optional. The IRS has determined that this relief is necessary to provide churches (and employers) the time needed to make changes to payroll systems or procedures in preparation for compliance with the new reporting requirement. So, the information will now be required on Form W-2s for 2012 filed in 2013.

In addition, the IRS announced that it has issued a draft Form W-2 for 2011. When churches report the value of coverage under a church-sponsored group health plan (optional for 2011 Form W-2s/required for 2012), the data must be reflected in Box 12 with a code of DD.

Remember: The cost of church-provided health insurance is not taxable. The new reporting requirement is intended to be informational only and to provide employees with greater transparency into overall health care costs.

A 2011 change that is right on schedule. Over-the-counter drugs and medicines are not eligible for tax-free reimbursement under an employer-sponsored health plan beginning January 1, 2011 (insulin is not a medicine or drug for purposes of this rule).

A few large churches have cafeteria plans and many other churches have health care flexible spending accounts (FSAs). This new limitation imposed by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act impacts reimbursements under these plans (OTC drugs and medicines were never deductible as medical expenses on Schedule A.)

It is very important to determine whether a particular OTC item is a medicine or drug because the new rules do not apply to OTC medical supplies and equipment (such as contact lens solutions, bandages, crutches or durable medical equipment or diagnostic devices such as blood sugar test kits.)

The new OTC rules apply to medicines or drugs (other than insulin) incurred on or after January 1, 2011, without regard to the plan year of the plan. Thus, a plan with a fiscal plan year must begin complying with the rules mid-plan year. And, expenses for OTC drugs and medicines incurred during the two-and-a-half-month grace period following the end of a 2010 calendar plan year must be accompanied by a prescription.

What to do. Churches should make the following preparations:
  • Form W-2’s for 2012 to be filed in 2013. Even though reporting the value of coverage under a church-sponsored group health plan, it might be a good plan to report the data on Form W-2s for 2012 to get ready for the reporting required for Form W-2s for 2013.
  • Establish a flexible spending account. Your church doesn’t have to even be close to megachurch size to have a FSA. The smallest church in the U.S. can set up an FSA at virtually no cost to the church and allow church staff to have amounts reduced from salary and used to reimburse medical expenses tax-free (free of federal income and social security taxes—and often free of state income taxes).
  • Amend existing cafeteria and FSA plans. Existing plans must be amended to reflect the new OTC rules. Fortunately, plans may be retroactively amended effective January 1, 2011 so long as the amendment is adopted no later than June 30, 2011.