Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The DCE: Last of the Mohicans?

Yesterday I had a delightful lunch with several of the gals I know around the presbytery who served their churches as Directors of Christian Education during the same time that I did--about 3 years ago.

Note the past tense. None of us are acting in that capacity today. Three of us retired for personal reasons. One was "made redundant" when the church decided to hire an associate pastor for education instead. One is now employed at the presbytery level.

Discussion revolved around plans for a DCE retreat later this month. When we talked about who was going to come, I realized that only one was currently employed as a DCE in a church and that her position was tenuous due to financial issues there.

Eight years ago when I first became a DCE there was a sizeable group of us in the presbytery. We served "program" size churches for the most part. The largest churches had associate pastors overseeing their Christian Education programs and the smaller church CE programs were covered by elders and interested lay people. Based on the discussion, it seems that DCE's are going the way of the albatross.

One of the problems, of course, is the odd position the DCE has in our polity. If you pursue the certification courses and become fully qualified as a DCE then your minimum salary in our presbytery is the same as that of a first-call pastor. Efforts to have the position of DCE become an ordained position, like that of a minister of Word and Sacrament, have been rebuffed at the last two General Assemblies and are unlikely to be successful. One of my friends pointed out that if you completed all the certification courses you only needed two additional courses to qualify as a Commissioned Lay Pastor and there is much more demand for CLP's in our presbytery than DCE's because small churches can afford them.

Although I took a couple of the courses, I made the decision not to pursue the certification because I believe my call to work in the church is not as a church professional but as an elder. I am sympathetic to the fact that without the protection afforded by being ordained under the Book of Order and having a formal call to serve as a DCE the educator can be underpaid and lack job security. But the demographics and financial realities of most PCUSA churches are not conducive to change.

Program size churches looking for DCE's find that their best (or only) candidates are found within their own congregations and will be women who can afford to work for part-time pay and no benefits. In these cases the church can't afford to cover continuing education costs for the DCE, so she either does it on her own or doesn't do it at all. Neither option is good.

The PCUSA has a surfeit of pastors seeking calls in urban and suburban areas and a decreasing number of members to support them. That doesn't augur well for the future of the DCE. And it is a shame, because when I looked around the lunch table yesterday I had to give thanks to God for the energy, intelligence, imagination and love my friends have given to the church as Christian Educators par excellence.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

About Numbers

Here's my latest Best of the Blogs column for the October issue of Presbyterians Today. It's About Numbers.

The biggest challenge in writing this feature for PT is that the deadline is 3 months in advance of its publication--an eternity in the land of the blogs! However the annual decline in the PCUSA's membership numbers is always a timely topic for discussion.

I've been asked to continue the column next year, so I'd like to ask my Gentle Readers to give me suggestions for blogs to feature that would be of interest to PT readers or any other ideas you may have in the comments.

Muchas gracias!

Monday, September 28, 2009

In Which QG Indulges in a Fashion Rant

This weekend I was surfing my favorite online shopping sites looking for fall clothes. Yeah, I know, it was briefly fall-ish here (below 90 degrees) and I'm sick of wearing my summer stuff.

I could not find anything. At. All.

What is up with the clothing industry? I couldn't believe all the flimsy, floaty tops in wild prints that I saw. Like this one. They look like maternity tops, but they're not. And no, I'm not looking at the junior department but at staid sites for "women of a certain age and size". I can't think of anything that would make me--or many of my friends--look worse.

And while I'm at it, I have a word for Coldwater Creek, which I generally like because they have some tall pants that fit me perfectly. Why can't you make some skirts that are in sold colors, not wild flimsy prints with uneven hems? And how about some blouses in a nice print and not just solid colors? I think you have it all backwards!

~rant over, as you were~

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Book Review: Have A Little Faith by Mitch Albom

Mitch Albom, the best-selling author of Tuesdays With Morrie, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, and a slew of other books, has a new non-fiction book coming out September 29: Have a Little Faith: A True Story. When one of his publicists emailed and asked me if I would be willing to read an advance copy and write reviews for my blog and Presbyterian Bloggers, I was flattered and agreed.

I haven’t read any of Albom’s books except Tuesdays With Morrie. There are a lot of parallels between Tuesdays With Morrie and Have A Little Faith. Albom wrote a memorable character study of his beloved professor in Morrie and he writes another excellent character study of his beloved Rabbi Albert Lewis. Albom develops a very close relationship with the “Reb” over several years after he agrees to the Reb’s request that he deliver the eulogy at his funeral and so visits with Lewis frequently in order to gather material for that purpose.

Albom’s first chapter “The Great Tradition of Running Away” will resonate with every religious leader or layperson who has ever said to God “Why me? Choose somebody else.” Although he professes to be mystified about the motive behind the rabbi’s request, it isn’t hard to conclude that the Reb wanted to have a well-known writer with a gift for characterization represent him at his service and to re-engage Albom in his Jewish faith.

Albom says that he was brought up in an observant Jewish home and studied his religion extensively, even leading youth groups while in college, until he graduated and, in his words, “pretty much walked off from it.” Lewis succeeds in both of his objectives--Albom includes the eulogy he delivered for the Reb in the book and it is truly memorable.

The story of the developing relationship between the author and the Reb is interwoven with the story of Henry Covington, an African American pastor in Detroit struggling with a poor minority congregation in the inner city and his own criminal past. Gradually the author comes to trust and respect the authenticity of Henry Covington’s faith and life and his need for atonement.

By far the stronger parts of the book are those that deal with Henry Lewis, the Reb. Albom shares a personal history, cultural, educational and religious affinity with him, so that is not surprising. I did not find the arrangement of the two different narratives helpful, but distracting, since almost every other chapter switched the focus. Sometimes two disparate narratives like these cannot be forced into one coherent whole.

Evangelism is a much-used and abused word in Christian circles these days. Have A Little Faith reinforces the proposition that true evangelism comes from developing relationships with others. As Albom said about Rabbi Lewis, “he had stirred up something in me that had been dormant for a long time. He was always celebrating what he called ‘our beautiful faith’...Maybe the faith didn’t mean that much to me, but it did to him, you could see how it put him at peace. I didn’t know many people at peace. So I kept coming...”

Or as the old saying goes, “preach the Gospel, use words if necessary.”

I’m sure the book will be well publicized. I’m told Mitch Albom is already booked on Dr. Phil, Good Morning America, Fox and Friends and other venues to talk about it. It will probably be a best-seller and many people will find the two men described in the book inspirational figures. When I finished the book, though, I was left wondering whether the author ultimately reclaimed his faith in the God of his fathers, or just found faith in the idea of faith.

UPDATE: I edited the post to reflect the shows Albom has confirmed bookings on. I'm told there is not yet a confirmation on the Oprah Show.

(Cross posted at Presbyterian Bloggers).

Landscaping and MOB Updates

Landscape Update: Thanks to everyone who contributed suggestions for our back yard! I'm thinking about planting a red oak and an elm for shade, adding some sweet olive near the back porch, moving the knockout roses now at the back of the house to a sunnier area and replacing them with azaleas, and adding Mexican firecrackers and dark red crepe myrtles to the oleanders and knockout roses along the back brick fence. Then I'll put in a Meyer lemon near the courtyard. Pictures will be forthcoming when we get this done--which could be a few weeks.

MOB update: Babs scheduled a cake tasting next week! Yum. The best part of the planning! She and P-Dubya previewed a rehearsal dinner venue yesterday in the driving rain, so I'm not sure what they thought of it. Music for the reception is the next issue to settle, but that will be fun, too. Then all will be quiet on the MOB front until the New Year.

Aside: don't you just hate it when Blogger's scheduled post feature doesn't work? I had to save a book review I want to post tomorrow morning instead of scheduling it because the darn thing keeps publishing it. Check back tomorrow for an advance preview of Mitch Albom's new book Have A Little Faith, which will be published September 29.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Landscape Question

Here's a question for my Gentle Readers With Green Thumbs, especially those of you who live in my southeast Texas area. What trees do you like in a back yard?

We need to put some in this fall, but El Jefe doesn't want trees that drop lots of leaves to rake (this is our "retirement" home after all) or that drop nuts or other stuff to pick up. I'd like something that will grow quickly so we will be able to enjoy it. Any tree down here needs to tolerate heat and occasional droughts.

I do miss my old yard with its very mature bushes and trees!

So, what do you recommend? Crepe myrtles? Any type of oak? Something else?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Book Review: The Center Cannot Hold

If it weren't for my daughter Babs, I never would have read The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn R. Saks. This is the compelling story of a brilliant law professor who has battled her own diagnosis of chronic paronoid schitzophrenia since young adulthood.

The descriptions of what it was (and is) like for the author to experience periodic episodes of this devastating mental illness are just amazing. She is able to give the reader some understanding of how this affects her perceptions, thoughts and emotions. Saks makes it clear that her condition can only be stabilized with treatment but not cured. From time to time, the illness will re-assert itself.

The progression from the early emergence of the symptoms when she was an undergrad at Vanderbilt to full-blown psychosis as a graduate student at Oxford University and later at Yale Law School resulted in many forms of treatment--some quite brutal. Finally a combination of drug therapy and psychotherapy bring her life into a manageable but fragile balance.

I'm awed by this woman's intellectual brilliance and strength of character. Most people with this diagnosis are unable to live independent lives and are often institutionalized. She has fought an incredibly difficult battle and is honest about the limitations her illness forces on her everyday life. Although she has found happiness in marriage and success in her profession, she cannot have children and maintenance of mental stability requires a strict adherence to routine, schedule and medication.

One continuing theme of the book is the ongoing struggle that those with chronic mental illness have with the temptation to go off their medications. Professor Styn recounts many times in her own life when she tried to cut back with disastrous results.

Another major theme is the importance of the consistent loving support of friends and family in achieving and maintaing this fragile stability. Surely there is a special place in heaven for the author's friend Bill, whose patience and concern was undeterred by distance or time over the course of her life.

One of our best friends and his family have had to cope with the tragic impact of a similar illness. This book helped me to understand the situation better. I highly recommend it for anyone with a loved one who suffers serious chronic mental illness. Thank you, Babs, for giving it to me to read.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Congratulations to Babs

Last night we celebrated with Babs and P-Dubya the news that she just received her unrestricted Licensed Professional Counselor designation from the State of Texas. That means she no longer has the "intern" label on her license and therefore does not have to be supervised by an LPC at work.

It takes 2000 hours of supervision on top of her master's degree to get the LPC. We're very proud!

Now we're just hoping she doesn't spend too much time practicing on us.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Things I Didn't Anticipate

This morning I'm contemplating the things I didn't see myself doing twenty years ago. Things like...

  • Running a doggy day care for Olivia and Beatrice
  • Writing a column for Presbyterians Today
  • Attempting a major revision of the operating manual for one of the largest PCUSA churches in the denomination ~sound of teeth grinding~
  • Living near my daughter and son-in-law
  • Learning how to cook from my Babs
  • Being involved in sewer controversies in Calhoun County, TX
  • Seeing my niece become an opera singer
  • Having my very own study (love it!!!!)
How about you? What didn't you anticipate twenty years ago that is part of your life today?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday Fun: Pet Rapture Insurance

You know, what with trying to follow the health care reform controversies in the news, the beginning of BSD, planning to move The Diva to her new abode in Houston and the coming of the Inconvenient Cold, I have totally forgotten to make provision for Beatrice and Olivia when the Rapture occurs.

Think about it. When we're all RAPTURED, who will care for our pets who will be LEFT BEHIND???? There's nothing in scripture that says our pets get to come with us. Now, I know there are some of you who will tell the Angel Gabriel at the last trump that you aren't going if Fluffy and Fido can't come too, but let's be realistic. If you are pre-destined to be raptured, you're going to be raptured. Fluffy and Fido are not.

Hat tip to Houston Chronicle blogger Jill Carroll for solving our dilemma--Eternal Earth Bound Pets USA provides for your peace of mind by offering Rapture Insurance for your pets.

For a mere $110 one-time premium, Eternal Earth Bound Pets will guarantee a forever home with a loving atheist (who of course will also be Left Behind) if the Rapture takes you within 10 years of your payment date. For a small additional fee of $15 each, you can insure multiple cats, dogs, birds, rabbits and small caged mammals. Sorry, no reptiles or amphibians are covered.

Unfortunately, at this time no pet-loving atheists in Texas have registered with EEBP so this insurance is not available here yet. If you live in Texas and have a pet-loving atheist friend who would take good care of Beatrice and Olivia, let me know!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

An Inconvenient Cold


I caught Portia's cold yesterday. Tomorrow is the big kick-off for BSD and I don't need to be red-nosed and sneezing while I hand out curriculum to a couple hundred women and try to make a good impression as leader to my small group.

And it seems I don't have any tea bags, either. Must have pitched them in the move. Dang.

Double Razzlefraczkit.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

MOB Redux Update: Yes to the Dress

Portia, the Diva, SIL, Babs and I had a wonderful time Saturday shopping for THE dress. And yes, we found it. It was clear by the way Babs' face lit up when she modeled it for us that it was the ONE.

We also found the dress for the matron of honor (Portia) and bridesmaid (P-Dubya's sister) in a beautiful saturated shade of coral. There was a darling flower girl dress as well. Now the question is, one or two flower girls?

We had a wonderful day and it was all topped off by the wedding of Dr. O's eldest daughter, Valerie! The ceremony was just perfect (Babs was one of the readers) and the reception a joyous celebration of the joining of two families and cultures from opposite ends of the word --that would be Nigeria and Australia--right here in the heart of Texas.

For us, Labor Day weekend was chock-full of blessings.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Friday Fun: Pastor Warning

Today's Friday Fun comes from the inimitable SpookyRach at Skewed View.

PresbyReaders can substitute "elders" for "deacons."

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Mom of Congress: Opening Day Assignments

Dear Congress Boys and Girls,

CongressMom hopes that you enjoyed your August break, even though some of you had a better time than others. I have been getting everything ready for the first day of the new session.

CongressMom was saddened to hear that some of you exhibited very poor deportment over the break. Shelia Jackson Lee, I am talking to YOU! Hand me that cell phone right now. When you return, you are to report directly to the Time Out Room for the first week of the session.

Now, it has also come to my attention that a big clique has formed and will not work with those who are not in the clique. This is not acceptable behavior in Congress, boys and girls! We have to learn to work together and co-operate. Can you say "CO-OPERATE"? It is a big word, boys and girls, but it is a very important word.

CongressMom needs to teach each of you the meaning of that word, so when you return you will have assigned seats and be divided into groups to write your bills. The health care reform bills you wrote in the last session were so poorly written that poor CongressMom could not understand them, so she threw them away. You are going to have to start over boys and girls!

Each group will have liberals, moderates and conservatives and you will be expected to learn how to work together and write a bill that everyone in the group can agree on no matter how long it takes. Pay attention when you write that bill because you will be tested to see how much of it you remember after your group turns it in. Yes, that means you are expected to read it. All of it.

Enjoy the rest of your recess,

Mom of Congress

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Book Review: In The President's Secret Service

Ronald Kessler, formerly a reporter for both the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, has written a series of "inside the (fill in the blank)" books that have been best-sellers. He tackled the CIA, Congress, the FBI and now has written an "inside" book on the Secret Service: In the Presidents Secret Service: Behind the Scenes With Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect. (Also available at

I heard Kessler interviewed about this book on a radio show and thought it sounded intriguing. And it is! Kessler provides a history of the establishment and evolution of the Secret Service which began as an agency within the Treasury Department in 1865 to track down and arrest counterfeiters of US currency. He traces the evolution of the agency to its present day role as security provider for the President, Vice President and their families; Presidential candidates; and others as ordered by the President.

In the book's prologue, Kessler notes that
"because Secret Service agents are sworn to secrecy, voters rarely know what their presidents, vice presidents, presidential candidates and Cabinet officers are really like. If they did, says a former Secret Service agent, "they would scream."
Some of the revelations in the book are not new--JFK and LBJ were compulsive womanizers and Nixon was strange. Since Secret Service agents spend 24/7 with their protectees, it was interesting to learn which Presidents and Vice Presidents treated them well.

At the top of the list is Laura Bush. "I've never heard a negative thing about Laura Bush. Nothing. Everybody loves her to death and respects the hell out of her," Kessler quotes an agent as saying. Ronald Reagan, the Cheneys, George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, and the Obamas are also praised in the book for their considerate relationship with their agents. On the bottom of the list are Jimmy Carter, LBJ, Al Gore, and Hilary Clinton.

Being the child of a President has got to be tough. The two former First Daughters, Barbara and Jenna Bush, chafed at the Secret Service oversight over their lives and led them a merry chase for most of their father's term in office. My own daughters are the same age as these two and I can just imagine them reacting the same way. What college student wants a permanent security escort dogging them? At the end of W's term, though, Kessler relates that the twins had matured and showed more appreciation for their security detail. Agents thought Amy Carter was "a mess" and Kessler says that the least liked child of a president was Chip Carter.

There was a lot of praise, by contrast, for Chelsea Clinton who was a favorite of the agents. " In my career, Chelsea Clinton did it the best. Treated the detail right, told them what was going on, never gave problems that I know of," Kessler quotes an agent as saying.

Gossipy anecdotes and factoids aside, the book presents a forceful and detailed argument that the failure of the Secret Service administrative heads to adopt modern personnel practices and to advocate effectively for the budgetary needs of the agency is creating a serious security risk for those they are charged to protect. Kessler says that threats against President Obama are up 400 per cent compared with those against George W. Bush. If Kessler's analysis is correct then this is an issue that should be addressed immediately by Congress.

Kessler also documents several incidents of threats against recent presidents that were thwarted by the Secret Service which have not previously been publicized. It is interesting to see the different ways in which the agents get, analyze and act upon all the information that comes into them.

The downside of any "inside the" book is the fact that there is little or no named attribution for the facts and opinions of the "insiders". That is certainly true here, because the agents are sworn to secrecy about their day to day life with those they protect and the intelligence techniques that the agency uses. Are axes being ground by the unnamed agents Kessler interviewed? Probably. Caveat lector.

I enjoyed the stories about the different presidential families and learned a lot about the history of the service and the issues it confronts today.