Mentoring young leaders

From time to time I have a conversation with a colleague who just needs to blow off a bit of steam. I can help by allowing them to diffuse a bit with me and sometimes redirect their emotions to a more productive expression. Not long ago the administrator of a small non-profit in our community expressed a long list of complaints to me. The complaints were familiar, because i’ve felt some of the same pressures. Non-profits are under a lot of pressure these days with decreasing revenues and support from government grants and changes in tax laws. This particular person has been working long days, had deferred days off and vacations, and was truly putting a great deal of effort into making things work. I could understand some of the emotions because I often respond to troubles by working harder and putting in more hours.

However, I tried to counsel this particular individual to take more responsibility for self care. I asked, “Who is making you work these long hours? Who told you you couldn’t have vacation?” I inquired about the board and who in the organization was providing support for the individual. I was trying to help the person assume some responsibility for the situation and see ways in which changes could be affected. I’m not sure I was successful. I think the person is so caught up in a particular style of leadership that it is hard to see a way out.

Professional burn out is a real phenomenon. I’ve witnessed it in a lot of my colleagues, both in the church and in other organizations. The call to service isn’t always accompanied by a living wage. It isn’t always accompanied by a supportive board of directors. It isn’t always accompanied with predictable days off and generous vacations.

I was contrasting this in my mind with a young person I know, someone about the same age as the non-profit administrator, who works for a for-profit company in our town. This particular individual was recovering from a major illness and told me about how the employer had really gone above and beyond expectations to provide support during the illness. This particular person also had a significant amount of vacation that had been saved up which aided in the need to be away from work to recover from the illness. I know such support does not exist for the non-profit administrator should the need arise.

This world isn’t always fair. Jesus said, “If anyone would follow after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” My career certainly has not involved that depth of sacrifice. I have worked for congregations who have supported me generously, provided a living for my family, given me vacations and days off, and treated me well. But there have been plenty of long days and plenty of lonely times when I have felt like I didn’t have the support I expected.

Being a professional involves developing patterns of self care. Pastors need to learn how to take time for prayer and study and devotion. We need to learn to work with others and enable others to become engaged in ministries. We need to have patience for the congregations we serve and be willing to understand the busy and complex lives of the people who are a part of the church. There are times when we have to put the needs of others ahead of our own.

The church has changed dramatically in the span of my career. When we began our ministry, there were a host of rural congregations who could afford to provide housing and a basic salary for a starting minister. They were places where we gained experience without all of the pressures of a larger congregation. In addition, many of my peers began their ministries as the second or third pastor in a multiple-pastor staff, with mentors and guides for the early days of their ministries. The high cost of health insurance combined with high debt of students after four years of undergraduate school and an additional three years of graduate education means that a lot of those congregations can no longer afford the price of those pastors. With fewer jobs and more competition, pastors find themselves struggling in more challenging positions with less support.

Despite knowing all of this, I admit that I often am a bit short of patience with the complaints of some of my younger colleagues. From the beginning of my ministry, I made a commitment to not complain about the congregations I serve. When I am with my colleagues, I report the best qualities of the congregation and tell stories of our successes. So I have become a bit short with the practice of some pastors of always complaining about their situations. Still, plenty of my colleagues seem to feel safe telling me about their troubles.

A new generation of leadership will lead in new ways. And I know that there are many in the younger generation of pastors who have deep commitment and care a great deal. This is also true of those who are serving in non-profits outside of the church. There is good leadership begin provided by millennials and those who are younger. But they won’t be doing things the way we did. The world has changed. Their education and training is different.

I feel honored to have moved into the role of a sometimes-trusted elder who can listen when the complaints crop up. I can help diffuse my colleagues and give them energy for what I hope will be a lifetime of service. In the meantime, I will occasionally be biting my tongue and holding back the most cynical of my comments. I try to avoid “you think you’ve got it rough!” and “You young people don’t know what we went through.” It is all part of the responsibility of being a mentor to younger leaders. And I can be impressed with their knowledge and skills and encourage them to express their best in their lives.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!


I’m not a math whiz. I am fairly competent in basic algebra and I can manage simple arithmetic in my head. I know how to do long division and I can usually tell if an answer is way off of what it should be. I have an appreciation for the beauty of mathematics as a language and a system of symbols, but I never was one to shine at mathematics. I suppose that part of the reality is that I grew up in the days of the space race when schools were making a very serious distinction between those who excelled in math and science and those headed for other vocations. I sort of stayed with the math and science bunch through elementary school. I was the son of pilots and I was fascinated by the astronauts. In high school, however, I started to drift toward the humanities. I was fascinated by religion and philosophy. By the time I got to college, I took only the basic required courses in math and science.

Still, I like numbers. I like the way they look. I like the way they sound. And I’ve been having fun with the year 2020. Today’s date struck me from the first of the year. If you say it out loud the long way, “O two, two O, two 0 two 0,” it has a kind of musical sound. We’re in for a bunch of them over the next couple of years. Take George Washington’s Birthday two years form now: “O two, two two, two 0 two two.” Say that one fast five or six times! I know it is just silliness, but it is fun to write and say numbers.

Checking out the calendar of holidays I’ve found some pretty interesting things being celebrated today.

Since 1985, February 20th has been observed as Clean Out Your Bookcase day, a time for avid readers and bibliophiles to focus on getting their bookcases clean and win order. It is a day to dust and wipe down bookcases and make sure all books are organized for them. It is also a day to donate books that are no longer needed or wanted. It may also be a day for building or buying new bookcases for some folks.

On February 20, 1912, a patent was granted to George A. Carney for a swinging arm type of adjustable, ratcheting handcuff. Of course before those lightweight handcuffs became standard, people used animal hides, vines and ropes to ie the hands of others. As early as 600 BCE the Greeks were using iron bindings to restrain prisoners. So National Handcuff Day was started in 2010. Guess where it started? At the home of the Peerless Handcuff Company.

If handcuffs and bookcase aren’t your thing, you might be glad to know that today is National Muffin Day. For what it is worth, I can find almost nothing about the day except that it has been observed since 2014. I guess you’re supposed to bake and eat muffins to celebrate the day.

Today is also The Great American Spit Out, a day to raise awareness about the dangers of smokeless tobacco. This holiday garners an entire week with Through With Chew Week, which is the third full week in February. I’ve never gotten into chew or snuff. Cancer of the mouth, esophagus or pancreas don’t seem like things I’d enjoy having.

I’m all in favor of National Cherry Pie Day, which is observed on February 20. Perhaps it is in anticipation of George Washington’s birthday. On the other hand he is famous about not lying about chopping down a cherry tree, which would have decreased the number of cherries for making pies.

Today is also Fat Thursday, the day that is 52 days before Easter. On the last Thursday before Ash Wednesday, there is a feast ay that is similar to, and a bit less important than, Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. In countries that observe Carnival, it is the beginning of six days of over-consumption, eating sweets and other foods that are avoided during Lent. Pastries and donuts are the food of the day. In some places people wear costumes and street celebrations and pubs open at 11:11 am. In Greece it is known as “Thursday of the Smoke of Grilled Meat,” a day to consume meat before the fasting of Lent. Special pastries and special sausages are pat of the observance in several different places around the globe. I’m pretty sure that a holiday dedicated to eating foods that aren’t good for you is my kind of holiday, but I’m really trying hard to make healthy choices, so my observance will be a bit dimmed this year.

There are a number of other holidays observed by some folks on February 20, 2020. It is Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, which I don’t think is about the very geeky make students at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology trying to get dates, but rather about encouraging more women to go into engineering. It is also love your pet day, but I think that it is best to love your pet every day. At least that would be best for the pet, and I think for the owner, too. It is National Day of Solidarity with Muslim, Arab and South Asian Immigrants, also National Student Volunteer Day and World Day of Social History.

It is also Northern Hemisphere Hoodie Hoo Day. Hoodie Hoo Day is supposed to take place a month before the official start of spring, so it falls in August in the Southern Hemisphere. The day is celebrated by going outside at noon and yelling “hoodie-hoo.” This is done to chase away winter and make way for spring. I’m wondering about it, however. If you were able to speed up the arrival of spring up north, wouldn’t you be speeding up the arrival of cold weather for those who live in the Southern Hemisphere? Maybe they need a day to yell whatever the opposite of “hoodie-hoo” is to counter the noise from up north.

Thinking of dates and other things yesterday it occurred to me that the 1999 car that I drive can now be fueled with ethanol. At 21 years of age it is legal in South Dakota for it to consume alcohol. I’m not saying that it didn’t engage in some under age alcohol consumption, but it was never caught and charged, so I’m sticking to my story.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Supporting young people

Next Tuesday there is a vote in our community on a proposed school bond. Voters will either adopt or reject a bond for $189,553,000. If passed the funds will provide for three new elementary schools, a new middle school, Major renovations at several schools and an addition at one of the high schools. One high school, Rapid City High School, a school that serves student with special needs and challenges will be relocated, but the location and cost of that move has not yet been determined. The plan also calls for the closure of four neighborhood elementary schools.

It has been a long time since voters in the school district have approved a bond issue, so the list of needs is very long. The proposed plan is complex and there has been quite a bit of debate about various aspects of the plan. The vote, however, will not be nuanced. It will be a simple “yes” or “no.” The yard signs are equally simple.

It is, however, refreshing to hear our friends and neighbors talk about schools and children. We’ve lived in this community for 25 years. Our children both graduated from Rapid City area schools. We haven’t however, found this community to be exactly child friendly. There is a lot of lip service and no small amount of complaining about the lack of young people in our community. Our children, like the children of many of our friends and neighbors, have chosen to move to other states in pursuit of their lives and careers. A lot of South Dakota young people do just that. They pack up and move away.

Recently I read a letter written by a retired teacher that said, “If you see a person under the age of 50 you assume that the person is either in he Air Force and stationed at Ellsworth or has come home for the funeral of an aging relative.” It isn’t quite that bad. We have families in our church with young parents who have chosen to live and work in our city. We have a host of friends who are in their 20’s and 30’s. But the general climate of the community does tend to lean towards elders. Rapid City is, in many ways, a great place to retire. it has good medical services, convenient shopping, lots of entertainment options and a relatively low cost of living.

That low cost of living is due, in part, to low property taxes. In other words, we have been reluctant to pay for community services such as schools. It is a balancing act and Rapid City’s place in the balance is different than a lot of other communities.

Just last week the state legislature rejected a proposal to impose an extraction tax on limestone and bentonite to fund a new building at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Our neighbors in North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming impose extraction taxes on oil and minerals mined and use the funds to support schools, infrastructure and other community needs. But South Dakota has chosen not to impose that tax. The Governor is opposed to all new taxes and has the support of plenty of voters. It is the way we are here.

Regardless of how the vote turns out next week, our children will continue to face an uncertain future. As a nation we have not made children to be our highest priority. According to a new report by the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and the Lancet Commission concludes that no country offers a child both the chance of a healthy upbringing and an environment fit for their future. The report ranks countries for the overall health and wellbeing of children. The United States ranked 39th in a list of 180 countries.

The report, of course, is only one way of judging the prospects of children, but it is a bit of an eye-opener to see that a child’s opportunity to flourish is higher in 38 countries than it is in the United States. It says something about our priorities as a country.

I frequently find my self in conversations with people my age and older who bemoan the lack of young people’s participation in various organizations and activities. The complaints, however, don’t seem to translate into action to make their organizations and activities more appealing to young people. A number of years ago I decided to quit participation in a service club after years of meetings that were filled with complaints about young people not getting involved while the club did nothing to welcome young people. When a younger person tried to check out the club, they were told that they had to do things the way we’ve always done them. At the time I was one of the youngest members of the group and I became tired of the inflexibility of the others. The club has continued to shrink until it now has merged with another group because it lacked enough members to continue. That’s the thing about certain organizations - either you find ways to welcome younger members or one day you will all die and the organization will die with you.

I don’t know if a single vote on a single school bond will translate into a referendum on our community’s support of children and youth, but the conversations around the issue make it feel like it in some ways. Our state already is at the bottom when it comes to average teacher salaries. After years of being the lowest in the nation, we’ve improved our ranking to 49th. The ranking has 50 states plus the District of Columbia, so we’ve climbed up from 51st which was where we ranked during the years that our children were in school in South Dakota. Low pay doesn’t always translate into poor teachers. Our children encountered excellent teachers. There are other motivations for teachers than just salary. The Niche ranking of best places to teach in South Dakota examines other factors for teachers such as tenure, absenteeism, student-teacher ratio, administration, safety and resources. However, it doesn’t give Rapid City schools a very high ranking in our state.

In a week we’ll know the results of the election. No matter how it goes, we still have a lot of work ahead of us to make our community a place that truly honors and supports young people.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Hard times for non-profits

This noon I have a meeting that at best will b uncomfortable. I serve on the board of a local nonprofit that has been wrestling with delinking revenues because of a wide variety of causes including decreasing governmental funding due to shifting priorities, decreases in local donations, partially due to chains in tax deductions, and other issues. The meeting is going to be uncomfortable because the organization can no longer afford its current staffing level. Loyal employees, who have sacrificed much to serve the organization will be without jobs. It isn’t the kind of decisions that any board likes to make. This particular organization is near and dear to my heart and I’ve invested a lot of dollars and a lot of time in trying to keep it going. Its essential mission will continue and the organization may be able to emerge from this crisis as a stronger, leaner and more focused institution - at least that is my hope as I approach this meeting.

We are not alone.

I’m a product of church camps. One camp in particular was my summer home for the first d25 years of my life. I was taken to that camp as an infant less than two months old when my mother served as camp nurse. We returned every year and I served as the manager of that camp for two years when I was a young adult. The experiences at that camp were very formative in my life. It is where I met my wife. It is where I experienced a sense of being called to the ministry. Now that camp is being sold by the church conference, which can no longer afford the continual cash subsidies that were required to keep it operating. There is a long backlog of deferred maintenance that they could not master. The decision to sell was painful and controversial. Now a group, mostly of former campers, is raising funds to purchase the camp and so that it can continue to operate. Their challenges include not only raising the funds to make the purchase, but also finding money for deferred maintenance and operational costs. It seems unlikely that the camp will be able to produce revenue enough to break even on its costs. I receive appeals from the committee, comprised mostly of my friends, who are working hard to hang onto the institution that has been so meaningful to so many.

I have corresponded with other friends across the nation who have reported the loss or sales of their church camps. The camp we participated in during our years in North Dakota has been sold. Another camp in Minnesota has been sold. These are properties that, once sold, can never be replaced by the church. Churches and conferences of churches are not able to raise funds to buy expensive recreational property and in many cases he camps have been subdivided and large tracts of land required for church camps are simply not offered for sale.

It is not just church camps.

the Boy Scouts of America has filed for bankruptcy. The group is struggling with declining membership. It also faces a number of lawsuits over claims of sexual abuse that allege the organization failed to prevent abuse. The group Abused in Scouting has identified over 2,000 individuals with complaints of abuse, including one in every state. Current liabilities of the organization are estimated to be in the $1 billion range. The Boy Scouts is one of the largest non-profit youth organizations in the country. Sexual abuse allegations have created financial problems for other organizations including the Catholic Church and USA Gymnastics.

Compared to the problems of those organizations, our little non-profit’s problems are tiny. We have to figure out how to express our thanks and appreciation to employees that we can no longer afford to retain. We have to come up with a plan to provide management and organization of our essential programs without the help of paid staff. We don’t have abuse claims. The finances of our little organization are pretty simple. But, like those other organizations we are bankrupt. Liabilities exceed assets. We will have to continue to raise funds to meet our obligations.

The current climate in our country is a real challenge for non-profits. We have survived for years on a shoestring, cobbling together grants from private and public sources, donations from local members and a small amount of income from direct services provided. We have believe passionately in our mission. Grant funding is always fickle. In the case of our organization, funds that had been available for suicide prevention were moved to opioid abuse prevention. It is an important cause, but not the business of our organization. Other organizations were more visible to some of our other funders. We will lose some donors because of their loyalty to the staff we have employed or their perception that the organization is not stable. That is the thing about living off of donations. Donors are under no obligation and there are plenty of other organizations appealing for funds.

All is not lost. We believe in what we are doing and we will find ways to continue our work even though we might lose our flashy web site and well-placed office. The future of the organization may be uncertain, but the need will not go away. Suicide is still a crisis in our community. It is the leading cause of death of teens in our state. We cannot stop our work even though we face financial and organizational challenges. We have to be honest about the mistakes we have made in the past, and realistic about the scale of our efforts going forward, but we will endure.

Sometimes difficult times become important steps in the history of an organization. Challenges help to focus priorities and refine practices. When you cannot afford waste, you get serious about eliminating it. Still, I approach today’s meeting with a certain dread. I am not looking forward to those uncomfortable moments. May I bring compassion and caring to the time that lies ahead and may I be open to God’s guidance as we seek a way forward.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Sacred spaces

Saturday morning we went for a walk. We had a couple of errands to run, so we parked in the lot at the Post Office and mailed a package and then walked to the library to return a book. I know that the library has a drive-through book return. I know that you can renew books online, but we were done with that particular book and we needed a walk and the weather was nice. Since we had other things to do that day, we had started out fairly early. We reached the library at about 9:45 and it was obvious from half a block away that the library wasn’t open. We deduced, correctly, that the library doesn’t open until 10 am on Saturday. It was no problem for us. We deposited the book in a book deposit slot and continued our walk.

I mildly missed the fun of going into the library building, but it is an experience that is common for me and so I’ll go another time. I have been thinking about those people who were standing and sitting outside the entrance waiting for the library to open. They came early. I don’t know their stories, but I can imagine that there were all sorts of stories behind the people who were patiently waiting on a Saturday morning to get into the library.

There is something very special about a library. In some ways it is like a church - it is a sacred space hallowed by generations of use and activities. Libraries, like churches, are quiet places. They are places to think and contemplate and they encourage a slower pace.

Yesterday the children of our church were talking about rules and it was pretty much universally agreed that one of the rules of the church is “no running.” I think that rule applies to libraries, too. At least it wouldn’t occur to me to run inside of a library. I usually walk quietly and carefully in libraries.

When we lived in Chicago, I was always a bit troubled by all of the locks and doors. Our apartment was on the second floor of the building. We had a locked door to get into the building, another locked door to get into the stairwell and another locked door at the entrance to our apartment. The space was small and isolated. Windows faced only one direction. We were comfortable and safe in our apartment and our building wasn’t too noisy and we were fortunate to have an apartment on the back side of the building. The ones that faced the street were entertained by a regular procession of fire trucks and other emergency vehicles that used the street as a corridor to reach neighborhoods to the south of the University where fires and other emergency calls occurred frequently. But we could walk a block to the Seminary and soon be inside of the library. The seminary library was spread out over multiple stories with lots of staircases. There were study nooks for students connected by passageways. But the main reading room was two stories tall with high windows and light streaming in on massive oak tables. the space was always quiet and always had an air of being a part of something bigger than oneself. There were too many books for one person to read in a lifetime. There were mysteries that remained after years of study.

Just a few blocks away was Regenstein, the main library of the University of Chicago. It was a temple to books and reading. There were entire floors of collections. And with our seminary IDs we had full access to the entire library. We could even fill out the applications to view documents in the rare book rooms.

I imagine that some of the people who were waiting to get into the library on Saturday morning come from houses that are more chaotic and less spiritual than a library. If you come from a crowded house with multiple people in every room and maybe many people in the same bed, there isn’t really a quiet space in your home. If you’ve spent the night at the Rescue Mission or in one of the safe beds at the Care Campus, you might be longing for a little private space - a place where you can get away from other people. At the library, you can spread out. There is room. There are chairs by the windows where you can dream and be quiet and look out at the world going by. There are high ceilings and architecture designed to inspire. There is peace and quiet.

Like a church, a library is building designed to nurture your spirit. And if you don’t have a space of your own a library welcomes you into a space that you can call your own, if only for a little while.

After we moved from Chicago, I have always worked at a church. I have had ready access to sacred space whenever I want. I regularly take advantage of that space. I go into the sanctuary when there is no one else in the building. I use is as a place to pray and to think and to sort our my ideas. I’ve developed the habit of walking the building even when there are no others there. It started by a simple walk about to check all of the windows and doors to make sure the building was properly locked and all of the lights turned off. I still do that before leaving the building each day, but I also will get up from my work and take a couple of laps around the building to clear my head from time to time. I look into the rooms and remember the meetings and classes and activities that have taken place there. I think of the people who frequent the spaces. I read the names of the children from their artwork posted in the halls and think of the sounds of classrooms full of preschoolers that are there during the week.

I don’t know if librarians walk their buildings in a similar fashion, but I do know that they, like me, are among those privileged to work in sacred spaces. I hope they too find meaning in their spaces.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!