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Survey finds growth, vitality in multisite church model


© 2014 Religion News Service

The vast majority of multisite churches are growing, according to a new study, and they are seeing more involvement from lay people and newcomers after they open an additional location.

Nearly one in 10 U.S. Protestants attends a congregation with multiple campuses, according to findings released Tuesday (March 11) in the “Leadership Network/Generis Multisite Church Scorecard.”

The report cites new data from the National Congregations Study, which found there were 8,000 multisite churches in the U.S. in 2012 — up from 5,000 in 2010 — including churches with more than one gathering on the same campus. Churches that have created worship space in a separate setting now exist in almost every state, several Canadian provinces and dozens of other countries.

Multisite churches typically operate with a main campus headed by the senior minister and one or more satellite locations. In some settings, attendees at the satellite location watch the same sermon that’s beamed in from the central location but have their own dedicated on-site pastor, music or small group meetings.

The scorecard examined 535 responses to a survey of multisite churches that had created worship space in a separate setting.

Among the findings:

* By the end of 2013, the average church has grown 14 percent since it went multisite.
* The vast majority (88 percent) report increased lay participation after having multiple locations.
* It’s still a relatively new phenomenon: 60 percent had opted for the multisite model in the last five years.
* Almost half (47 percent) have a location in a rural area or a small town.
* One in three (37 percent) started being multisite through a merger of different congregations.

Although megachurches (congregations with 2,000 or more weekly attendees) were pioneers of the multisite concept, churches with as few as 50 people and as many as 15,000 have tried this approach, said Warren Bird, director of research at Leadership Network, a Dallas-based church think tank.

Multisite is also an international phenomenon: One-third of the congregations on Bird’s list of international megachurches are multisite.

The report points out some of the challenges of juggling more than one campus for worship. Researchers found in 2010 that one in 10 multisite churches they surveyed had closed a location.

In this new survey, some said rented space in public schools — popular options for multisite churches — are “one of the toughest places to launch” an additional site.

“I can only guess that the climate of churches renting public facilities is getting more and more difficult with the number of school boards that are declining to rent either on Sundays or to religious groups on the increase,” Bird said.

Jim Sheppard, CEO of Generis, an Atlanta-based consulting firm that sponsored the report, warned that it is important to have a “good, sound contract” in whatever location a church picks to set up a temporary worship space.

“If your initial location is a public school, don’t over estimate the relationship,” he wrote. “People can change, politics can get involved and you might be forced out sooner than expected.”

Multisite church leaders report that they are finding a greater percentage of “unchurched” people in their new locations than at the original location.

“Historically, a church’s greatest impact on the community is in its early years, and so the same thing is happening with a new campus,” Bird said.

Both independent congregations and those affiliated with denominations are embracing the multisite concept. Some regional denominational groups, including the United Methodists, consider mergers and other multisite options as part of their revitalization strategies.

“One of them is vibrant but needs facilities,” Sheppard said of some merging congregations in a webinar about the report. “The other one lacks vibrancy but has facilities.”


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In rare public split, Catholic bishops differ sharply on anti-gay laws


© 2014 Religion News Service

The Roman Catholic hierarchy has generally been viewed as a unified bloc in opposition to gay rights, but the emergence of especially punitive measures against gays in various countries has opened unusually stark and public fissures among bishops in different nations.

The divisions are also raising questions about whether Pope Francis, who has struck a charitable tone toward gays and lesbians, needs to take action.

The issue is especially pressing in Africa, where Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, recently adopted a harsh law that imposes a 14-year prison term for anyone entering into a same-sex relationship, as well as a 10-year sentence for anyone found to support gay clubs or meetings. Even public displays of affection by gays and lesbians is considered a crime.

Legislation imposing similarly repressive sanctions on gays has been proposed in Uganda, Cameroon and Tanzania.

In Nigeria the leader of the hierarchy fully supported that country’s new law, which prompted a wave of violence against gays when it passed.

In a January letter on behalf of the Catholic hierarchy of Nigeria, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos praised Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan for his “courageous and wise decision” in signing the legislation. Kaigama said it would protect Nigeria “against the conspiracy of the developed world to make our country and continent, the dumping ground for the promotion of all immoral practices.”

A few days later, however, a strongly worded editorial in the The Southern Cross, a newspaper run jointly by the bishops of South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland, took aim at the new law, calling on the Catholic Church in Africa “to stand with the powerless” and “sound the alarm at the advance throughout Africa of draconian legislation aimed at criminalizing homosexuals.”

The editorial decried the “deep-seated sense of homophobia” in Africa and said the church had too often been “silent, in some cases even quietly complicit” in the face of the new anti-gay measures. It also noted that the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2358) explicitly states that gay people “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”

The differences are manifesting themselves elsewhere, as well.

For example, the Southern Cross editorial blasted as “astonishing” a claim last month by a retired Spanish bishop, Fernando Sebastian Aguilar, who said that homosexuality is a “defect” comparable to his own high blood pressure. Pope Francis is set to make Aguilar a cardinal later this month.

And in Poland, the hierarchy has launched a full-scale assault on what it calls the “ideology of gender,” a vague term it says is aimed at promoting homosexuality, among other things. The bishops’ campaign has prompted a strong backlash from many in the Polish church.

In India, on the other hand, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, the leader of Indian Catholicism and one of Pope Francis’ top advisers, last month came out strongly against a decision by the nation’s high court to reinstate a ban on gay sex, which includes penalties of 10 years to life in prison.

“The Catholic Church does not want homosexuals to be treated as criminals,” Gracias said, and cited the pope’s words when asked about his approach to gay people. “The church stand is, ‘Who am I to judge them?’ as the Holy Father has said.”

And this week in Ireland, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin reacted to concerns over anti-gay comments in the media by saying that “anybody who doesn’t show love towards gay and lesbian people is insulting God. They are not just homophobic if they do that — they are actually Godophobic because God loves every one of those people.”

Martin also lamented that church teaching can sometimes be used “in a homophobic way.”

What’s behind these high-level disagreements?

Church observers say part of it is a backlash against the new visibility of gay people in society and the corresponding push to grant them legal protections and rights they never had before.

But opposition to the legalization of some rights, such as gay marriage, has at times turned into support for criminalization, which Catholic teaching does not condone. In fact, during a 2009 debate over an earlier version of a Ugandan anti-gay bill, the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI was “opposed to ‘unjust discrimination’ against gay men and lesbians,” a statement apparently aimed at the Ugandan bill.

Similarly, the new criminalization measures have brought calls for Pope Francis to go beyond his supportive comments about gays and lesbians and directly condemn anti-gay laws. The most popular effort is a Twitter campaign that goes by the hashtag #PopeSpeakOut. Church observers wonder whether the pope’s inclination to allow disputes to be settled locally may incline him to let the debate continue without his intervention.

The controversy over the anti-gay laws is most intense in Asia and especially Africa, where culture can trump theology when it comes to dealing with gay people, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and columnist for National Catholic Reporter and author of “Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.”

But Reese said regional political realities can play a key role, too: Church leaders who support anti-gay laws often come from countries with large Muslim populations that also tend to support measures against homosexuality. The bishops may not want to do anything that would inflame tensions between the communities.

“I think they’re afraid of the Muslim reaction, and I think they’re afraid of the reaction of many of their own people,” Reese said.

On the other hand, Reese added, at least the bishops are facing criticism from within their own ranks — a benefit of the more free-wheeling style that Francis has brought to the papacy.

“This is progress,” he said. “In the old days, bishops wouldn’t criticize each other. Now we have the bishops talking to each other and some are saying, ‘No, this isn’t the direction the church ought to go.’”


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Chaplains help others grieve, but learn to grieve themselves


© 2014 Religion News Service

ARLINGTON, Va. — Seated at a table with other chaplains who have comforted grieving military families, retired Army Chaplain John Schumacher held the red rose in his hands before he passed it along, pausing to remember those who had died on the battlefield.

Schumacher then took the rose and added it to a memorial wreath. Two days later, he and another chaplain placed the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery.

“I’ve been in combat. I’ve been with a lot of wounded men. I’ve been with dead men who were my friends,” said Schumacher, a two-tour Vietnam veteran. “Chaplains give so much and carry all that pain with them for so long. It was such a tremendous honor to feel some of that pain kind of ooze out a little bit.”

Last month’s memorial ceremony, organized for the first time by the National Association of Evangelicals Chaplains Commission, gave chaplains, who usually help others grieve, a chance to grieve themselves. This often-unspoken need is now being addressed across the country, with new training and a greater emphasis on mentoring. As these initiatives take hold, chaplains working in hospitals, hospice and the military are finding ways to cope.

The Rev. Valerie Storms, president of the Association of Professional Chaplains, said many chaplains’ organizations, including Catholic and Jewish groups, tell chaplains to take care of themselves as well as others. Self-care ranges from knowing a chaplain they can contact on the spur of the moment to developing hobbies — from running to making jewelry — to maintain their spiritual and emotional equilibrium.

Storms, who is affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists, tends to her garden to help her through tough days as the manager of chaplaincy care at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla.

“I can go mow my lawn and edge my lawn and trim my bushes and I see what’s done,” she said. “When you deal with people, you don’t often see the results of your work.”

Kristin Lindholm Gumminger, who teaches communication at Trinity International University in Illinois, said hospice chaplains “debrief” with similar personal rituals or by talking with a professional counselor. In her 2008 dissertation on hospice chaplains, one told her that personal grief was a “constant companion.”

Gumminger is developing a workshop to help hospice chaplains. Others are working to help chaplains recognize and improve the ways they deal with grief.

Later this year, the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School in South Carolina will introduce a new training session developed by the University of Georgia that includes “secondary traumatic stress” among chaplains and grief counselors. The Army’s chief of chaplains has encouraged a “Care to Caregiver” initiative that matches retired chaplains to serve as mentors to younger chaplains.

Chaplain Milton Johnson, a soldier and family minister at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, said he relies on fellow chaplains, his wife and pastors of his Seventh-day Adventist denomination to help him channel his grief — including when he lost his running buddy to suicide.

But he said the new initiatives put a sharper focus on the need for chaplains to get help as they suffer along with their comrades. Chaplains need to heed the lesson taught by flight attendants who warn airline passengers to put a flotation device on themselves before others, he said.

“With chaplains and other professionals, sometimes it’s just the opposite; we have a tendency to put the float device on everybody else first and then put the float device on self and that’s really not the most healthy way to take care of self,” he said. “I think we are turning the corner on that. I think the paradigm is shifting.”

Chaplain Robert A. Miller, an instructor at the U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School in San Antonio, recalled a 2012 remembrance ceremony for 9/11 on a Kuwait City beach, where chaplains and other soldiers were given carnations, told to recall those they had served and lost, and watch their flowers drift away into the surf.

“I saw chaplains and soldiers alike shedding tears, embracing one another and recognizing it’s OK to share the fact that all of us do grieve, all of us suffer loss,” said Miller, a Southern Baptist. “We cannot change it but we cannot afford to let it change us so we can no longer be effective.”

The Rev. Steven Spidell has measured some of that toll. In a 2009 survey, he found that one-fifth of health care chaplains reported “disenfranchised grief,” or grief that was not supported in the workplace.

“Clergy are trained to be caregivers — that’s what we’re hired to do,” said Spidell, a staff chaplain at Houston Methodist West Hospital in Texas. “That we would need care is a foreign concept, I think, to most faith groups.”

Spidell said the hardest part of his job is when he cares for a family that has suddenly and unexpectedly lost a relative at the hospital — “sobbing and yelling and screaming and are just breaking down because their pain is so intense.”

Such an episode leaves him “physically and emotionally exhausted” and sometimes it takes days for him to admit how tough it was. But he said he is grateful for the time he spends with a family, which moves on to a funeral without him.

“I’m on to the next code blue,” he said. “My job continues.”


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For some Christians, sharing medical bills is a godly alternative


© 2014 Religion News Service

Every time he goes to the doctor’s office, Daniel Eddinger takes a leap of faith.

Eddinger, a 28-year-old father of two from Lexington, N.C., doesn’t have health insurance.

But he’s not worried about the cost of getting sick.

Instead of insurance, he says, he relies on God — and the help of other believers — to pay his medical bills.

Eddinger is one of a small but growing number of American Christians who have joined so-called health sharing ministries — faith-based alternatives to insurance.

Health share ministry leaders expect their programs to grow despite the rollout of the federal Affordable Care Act, which in some cases is less expensive.

Every month Eddinger deposits about $400 — known as a share — into an account set up through Medi-Share, a Florida-based nonprofit that has about 70,000 members nationwide.

If Eddinger’s family has medical bills — like those for the birth of his youngest son last year — other members deposit their monthly share into Eddinger’s account.

Otherwise Eddinger’s $400 goes to another family that has medical bills.

“I like that the money goes to other families, and not the pockets of the insurance company,” he said. “You can be confident that your money has been spent wisely.”

The last few years have been good for health-sharing ministries. Medi-Share, for example, had 35,000 members in 2009. Today that number has doubled. Samaritan Ministries International, based in Peoria, Ill., went from 13,470 households in January 2009 to 30,068 households in January 2014.

Tony Meggs, CEO and president of Medi-Share, expects the numbers to continue to grow because of the concept’s faith appeal.

Health-sharing ministry members sign a statement of beliefs, along with a code of conduct that bans smoking, extramarital sex and excessive drinking. They also pray for other families in the group, along with sending money. Health-sharing plans don’t cover abortion or contraception.

It’s an idea, he says, that’s based on the Bible, especially the New Testament book of Acts.

“The early church came together and they took care of their own,” Meggs said.

Health-sharing ministries offer a community — not just a health plan. James Lansberry, executive vice president of Samaritan Ministries International, keeps mementos from group members on his desk to make that point.

Last year his infant son spent 11 days in intensive care, due to complications at birth. Along with paying about $200,000 in medical bills, group members sent greetings and prayer cards to Lansberry and his family.

For some members, joining a health-sharing ministry was cheaper then buying insurance. But the new health insurance exchanges, and tax credits, have made some insurance plans more affordable for families.

According to an online health insurance cost calculator from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a silver level health care plan for a family of four earning the median family income would cost $8,290 a year, which works out to about $690 a month.

The Kaiser calculator estimates that same family could get up to $4,728 a year in tax credits for their health premiums. That would cut the cost of the plan to about $3,562 a year, or $296 a month, or about $104 a month less than the Eddingers pay.

Still, health-sharing ministry leaders believe their programs will continue to grow. Health-sharing ministries are exempt from the ACA — so they aren’t involved in legal battles over the contraceptive mandate. That allows members to follow their faith without being in conflict with the government, said Lansberry.

“We are thankful for this island of freedom,” he said.

Health-sharing plans aren’t for everyone.

Members have to sign a fairly conservative statement of faith and code of conduct. They have to be active church members.

And they have to be comfortable with risk.

There’s no guarantee that their medical bills will get paid. The system is based on trust, rather than a contract.

When his son was hurt playing football, the Rev. Tom Zobrist said, Samaritan members paid more than $10,000 in medical bills.

“When you trust God’s people, they keep their word,” he said.

Zobrist also likes that Samaritan members don’t always pay full price for health care.

He doesn’t show an insurance card when he goes to the doctor or hospital. Instead, he pays cash, which often leads to significant discounts.

Medi-Share also negotiates discounts for its members, said Meggs.

Health-sharing plans do put some limits on pre-existing conditions.  Medi-Share also makes some members work with a health coach, to deal with issues such as obesity.

At least one health-sharing ministry has run into legal problems in the past.

Leaders of the Christian Brotherhood Newsletter were accused of misusing millions of dollars for personal gain in the late 1990s and were eventually sued by the state of Ohio.

That group, now known as Christian Healthcare Ministries, is now accredited by the Better Business Bureau’s charity program and files a 990 tax return annually with the IRS.

Samaritan Ministries also files a 990 and makes its annual audit available to the public. Medi-Share, which is organized as a church, does not file a 990 but makes its audit available to the public.

For the most part, the health sharing groups operate outside of government regulation. Nevertheless, in 2007, Medi-Share was banned from Nevada after regulators there claimed it was an unlicensed insurance plan. Kentucky also banned health-sharing groups but lifted the ban in 2013 after lawmakers passed a bill making such plans exempt from state insurance law.

Leaders of health ministries take great pains to distinguish themselves from insurance plans. They’ve also lobbied Congress and state legislatures to keep them exempt from regulation.

“Insurance is about actuarial tables. We are about sharing burdens,” said Lansberry of Samaritan Ministries. “Insurance companies want to protect you from what might happen. We are going to share what already happened.”


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Green burials reflect a shift to care for the body and soul


© 2014 Religion News Service

Growing up in small-town Georgia, John B. Johnson had family friends who ran the funeral home down the street, so the particulars of a typical American funeral — the embalming, the heavy casket and remarks about how great the deceased’s hair looked — were all familiar to him.

When the time came, he assumed, his funeral would look much the same.

But Johnson, now 44, envisions a different sort of send-off for himself: a “green burial” that draws both upon his faith and his commitment to the environment. For Johnson and others like him, a green burial is a way to care for the Earth and answer to the part of his soul that recoils at the pomp of the average American funeral, and takes seriously the biblical reminder: “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

“It’s the notion that Jesus was so humble,” said Johnson, an Episcopalian who lives in Washington, D.C. “I am a follower and I want to follow that example. I want my death as humble as I think Jesus lived.”

Johnson wants to skip the embalming fluid, which often contains methanol, ethanol and formaldehyde — a suspected carcinogen. He wants a plain pine box. And he would just as soon skip the grand procession, led by a gas-guzzling hearse.

There are no solid statistics on how many Americans choose green burial. But an indication of its rising popularity comes from a 2007 AARP study, which found that nearly one in five Americans age 50 and older who have planned for a funeral have considered a green one.

The stereotype of these people, said Joe Sehee, who founded the nonprofit Green Burial Council, is of a “Prius-driving member of the eco-chic” — a person who is well-educated, environmentally conscious, liberal and not too keen on organized religion.

But the stereotype, said Sehee — a former Jesuit lay minister — ignores a whole group of people who seek green burial in great part because of their religious or spiritual convictions. Sehee, whose group sets standards for green burials, has worked with Catholic priests, rabbis and others who see it as an alternative to the funeral industry and a return to their religious traditions.

Green burial, Sehee said, recognizes that “there’s death, but there’s rebirth associated with it. And we don’t see any connection between death and life in traditional death care.”

Or, in the words of Maureen McGuinness, family service manager of upstate New York’s Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery, green burial “is a way for families to talk about resurrection.”

After fielding numerous requests from Catholics looking for a green burial, the Diocese of Albany set aside a wildflower-filled meadow at Most Holy Redeemer — one of its 16 cemeteries — and blessed it as a green resting place in September 2012. So far, 35 people have purchased grave sites, and about half of those have been used.

“When grandma dies and you come to this place, it’s all filled with life,” McGuinness said.

As in all Catholic cemeteries, all bodies interred in green graves at Most Holy Redeemer receive traditional Catholic rites.

But there is no embalming — or the embalming is with Earth-friendly chemicals only — and the caskets are made of untreated wood or other natural materials. For grave markers, the deceased’s name is sandblasted into a cobblestone. Deer and wild turkey roam the meadow, which is named for Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American Catholic saint.

The price of green burial is often lower than typical burials, sometimes by hundreds or thousands of dollars, McGuinness said, because there is no embalming and the casket — if there is one — is simple. Green burial also forgoes the concrete burial vaults into which caskets are placed.

The Green Burial Council has certified nearly 400 providers in 46 states. Some of them have religious orientations. And even some that are not certified consider themselves already green because their faiths have for millennia taken an ecologically friendly approach to death. Muslims and Jewish traditions, for example,  eschew embalming and require quick burials. A kosher casket is a plain wood box made without metal hardware. Muslim tradition specifies a simple shroud and does not require a casket.

But Sehee said religious funeral professionals often fall short of embracing their green religious traditions. He knows of Jewish cemeteries that require burial vaults and he has heard an imam lament that a funeral director serving his Muslim community pushes metal caskets.

“And there are Catholic cemeteries that won’t accept a body in a shroud, even though Jesus was buried in a shroud,” Sehee said.

Gilbert Becker was buried in a flannel shirt and overalls, the clothes he used to wear hunting, camping and fishing with his family. After he died last September, his Christian family placed his body in a casket carved from a fallen tree by his son and interred it in the woods at Green Acres Cemetery near Columbia, Mo. It just made sense, said his wife, Suzanne Becker.

“Gilbert and I always felt most close to God when we were out in the mountains or in the woods,” she said.

What “better place to camp out,” she said, “until the good Lord brings us up.”