Live from Pensacola

Today is Saturday June 26, 2010. The sun is shining, the waves are rolling, the sand is white, and the water is mostly clear at Pensacola Beach. If it were not for the large number of dump trucks, tractors, media vans, haz-mat tents, and occasional tar balls, a visitor would not know that earlier this week the beach was closed due to a massive wash-up of messy brown sludge from the oil spill in the Gulf.

Although I’m sure the crowds are down, I was glad to seeing that parking lots were mostly full, lines were forming outside of local restaurants, and traffic coming toward the beach was heavy.

Friends who have reservations along the Gulf Coast have been calling to ask whether they should cancel their reservation or come on down. While I don’t want anyone to come to the coast to be miserable, my best advice is to “come on down.”

There are at least five good reasons I think those having reservations on the Gulf should consider keeping their plans in place:

1. Most hotels, property owners, and real estate companies are offering unprecedented guarantees. If there is a major influx of oil prior to or during your stay, you should receive a full or partial refund.
2. The seafood is still some of the best in the world. Today we ate at Peg Leg Pete’s, one of our many favorite local establishments. A large part of the Gulf is still open for fishing, so the shrimp, the oysters, and the grouper were all harvested from Gulf waters. I am convinced that the Gulf seafood is safe, but for those with doubts, many local markets are also carrying farm-raised fresh water shrimp, as well as Atlantic and Pacific seafood.
3. Resort swimming pools offer a safe, oil-free alternative. Our friends who were vacationing in Gulf Shores two weeks ago enjoyed the beauty of the Gulf for the first two days of their trip. On day three, the brown sludge came ashore. As the Gulfront was being cleaned, a few miles of the beach was closed to swimming for a couple of days. During the brief closure, their family simply spent more time with children and grandchildren around the pool, time that became a highlight of their vacation.
4. There are many sites and attractions in addition to the beach. All along the coast there are waterparks, arcades, shopping malls, golf courses, tennis courts, and movie theatres. The Naval Air Museum in Pensacola is a must-see. The Wharf in Gulf Shores offers a variety of concerts. In Gulf Shores, Alabama or Gulf Breeze, Florida your family can spend a day at the zoo learning about animals from around the world. Rafting and kayaking trips are available in area state parks. In other words, you can have a fun week on the Gulf Coast, even if the beach is temporarily inaccessible.
5. The price is right. Many hotels, condo owners, and property management companies are offering properties at significantly discounted prices. As we continue to emerge from the recession of recent years, you can negotiate a quality beach vacation for an unusually affordable rate. Additionally, many local restaurants are offering specials similar to the “snowbird specials” that we typically see during the winter months.

Being a resident of the Gulf Coast, I am a little biased, but I think the beaches along the panhandle are among the most beautiful in the world. However, the Gulf Coast has so much more to offer than a walk on the beach. In the months ahead, I expect that we will continue to see brown blotches periodically on our white sands. But for now, that makes for a mild inconvenience.

The full impact of the oil spill on the Gulf is not yet known, and certainly there will be serious environmental consequences. However, one of the ways we counter the negative impact of the oil spill, is to focus on the venues that we as coastal residents enjoy all year long. Don’t let the spill spoil your summer vacation. Come on down and discover how many fun things you can do on the Gulf Coast.

Are Future Ministers Up to the Challenge?

by Barry Howard

This week I’ve had the privilege of sitting around the table with a distinguished group of future ministers and veteran ministers in a retreat setting as we collaborated about our sense of calling, the challenges and opportunities of the local church, and scenarios for the future. As the first session began, I found myself wondering whether these young ministers are actually up to the monumental challenges facing the church in the coming years. However, as I listened and interacted, I became convinced that many of these young ministers seated around me are better prepared for ministry than previous generations of ministers, primarily because of their participation in the Ministerial Residency Program funded by a Lily grant and administered by the Center for Ministerial Excellence.

Two years ago, the church that I serve entered a partnership with the Center for Ministerial Excellence to become a Teaching Congregation. That means for the past two years we have been host to a Ministry Resident, a recent seminary graduate who is preparing for a first call to ministry. Most of the churches I have served have provided short-term opportunities for university students to serve as interns. While internship programs are valuable in helping students explore their sense of calling, a ministerial residency actually provides opportunities for young ministers who have confirmed their calling and who have completed their theological training to serve on a church staff full-time for two years in a mentoring relationship with a veteran pastor. In the residency the young minister encounters a variety of real life ministry situations prior to moving into a first call in a local congregation.

In recent years, statistics have shown that young ministers who have a frustrating experience during their first call frequently transition from local church ministry to para-church organizations. Or, they are so overwhelmed with the challenges of church life, they leave ministry all together. I believe that a young minister who completes a residency will be better prepared to serve on a church staff with maturity and longevity.

The Ministerial Residency Program makes sense for young ministers and for congregations. My wife is a veteran school teacher. As a part of her education and preparation for becoming a teacher, early in her program she was required to spend a certain number of hours in a classroom observing interactions between the teacher and students. Then as a final step before being fully certified, she was required to complete a practicum, spending a semester working alongside a teacher in the classroom, preparing lesson plans, and doing “practice teaching.”

I have numerous friends who are respected physicians. Between the completion of their medical school training and their entry into a medical practice, physicians are required to complete a residency that typically includes a rotation in multiple areas of patient care…emergency medicine, pediatrics, oncology, geriatrics, etc. The variety of medical dilemmas addressed by the medical resident during residency prepares the young physician to enter a medical practice with sharper skills and greater confidence.

In Baptist life in particular, while ministers are not required to complete a residency prior to ordination or a first call, a residency program can provide pragmatic preparatory experiences which prepare a minister to serve effectively in the crucible of a local congregation.

In addition to our congregation becoming a Teaching Congregation who provided a place of service for a Ministry Resident, it has been my privilege to serve as a Supervising Pastor to the resident. In this mentoring relationship, our resident has experienced almost every kind of ministerial responsibility and challenge that I face as a pastor. Our resident has prepared and preached sermons, planned worship services, written columns, implemented ministry initiatives, worked with challenging people, prayed with patients who were entering surgery, counseled couples preparing for marriage, walked alongside individuals who were facing death, performed baptisms, administered the Lord’s Supper, conducted weddings, and spoken at funerals.

While I hope that I have provided a few bits of wisdom for our resident, our Ministry Resident has provided refreshing perspectives and insights to me. As a veteran pastor, it is easy to grow stale or mechanical or to become entrapped in the vacuum of meaningless traditions. Our resident has helped me, colleagues on our staff, and members of our congregation to think more creatively and to serve more passionately. And now it’s time for our resident to graduate from the ministerial residency program, and hopefully, in the near future to be called to a new assignment offering that fresh insight and energy to another congregation.

So here I sit, around the table with the Supervising Pastors and Ministry Residents, listening to their stories, feeling their anxiety, and sharing their dreams for the future. They are a diverse group. Some are young men and some are young women. Some are clergy couples. And I hear and sense their passion for ministry, their deep faith in God, their impatience with institutionalism, and their love for the local church.

I am convinced that the young ministers who have completed the Ministerial Residency Program this year are extraordinarily bright and gifted ministers who are now ready to fill the vacant ministerial positions in our churches. They are well-prepared for the challenge. The bigger question is, are our churches ready to be challenged and led by these young ministers? A church search committee would be wise to consider these young ministers as a pool of candidates with advanced standing. They are the cream of the crop and they are ready to serve.

(Barry Howard serves as senior minister in First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)

Crude Lessons: What I Am Learning from the Oil Spill Crisis in the Gulf

Some of the most valuable lessons in life are learned during seasons of hardship, suffering, or adversity. Wisdom is often forged from mistakes, mishaps, and miscalculations. John Maxwell reminds us that “A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them.”

As our coastal community deals with the anxiety and the challenges brought on by the Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf, what are the lessons we can learn that will help us be better custodians of our planet? I sense that many of us are working our way through some of the stages of grief…denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Rather than just accepting the reality of this calamity, I believe that we can be more proactive and progressive going forward. This month as our church family is focused on “Wising Up!” we are being challenged to learn from the mistakes of the past so that we can build a better future. When it comes to the realities of the oil spill, I recognize that I have a lot to learn. Although I cannot speak for everyone, here are five lessons I am in the process of learning:

1. Do not take for granted the treasure at your doorstep. I was raised in Northeast Alabama not far from Cheaha State Park, the home of Mt. Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama. When friends would come to visit from other parts of the state, I was surprised that they were awestruck with the scenic vistas from the Bald Rock, Chimney Peaks, and other landmarks, sights that I took for granted because they were in my backdoor. Now I live on the Gulf Coast where I routinely walk on the world’s most beautiful beaches, enjoy fresh seafood, observe marine life and drive along scenic coastal roadways. This catastrophe reminds me that the Gulf is a natural treasure and as a coastal resident I have the privilege of enjoying it and protecting it.

2. Be a better steward of creation in the future than you’ve been in the past. In the creation story after God breathed life into human souls, God gave to humankind a stewardship responsibility over all of creation. For me, this means adopting a lifestyle that is creation-friendly. I am habitually inconsistent in my responsibility of caring for creation. There are times I would give myself an A- in creation care and others times I would rate a C+. There are many ways I can be a better, more proactive custodian of creation: Using eco-friendly products, recycling, conserving energy, and supporting and protecting green spaces like national parks, state parks, and wildlife refuges.

3. Be better informed about the energy industry. My lifestyle is energy dependent. Energy consumption is not a bad thing, but wasting energy or being dependent on unsafe and monopolistic energy systems can be damaging to our ecosystem. I am pretty well up-to-date on information technology and the most recent telecommunication devices, but I am behind the curve on my knowledge of the energy industry. I am determined to become better informed about how my lifestyle drives the system of energy production and energy consumption.

4. Be more supportive of the research and development of alternative energy sources. Please do not misunderstand. I am not anti-oil and neither am I opposed to safer methods of off-shore drilling. But I agree with oil investor T. Boone Pickens who proposes converting more oil and diesel-based systems to natural gas and other cleaner fuels. In addition to non-fossil fuels, other possible sources include solar energy, wind turbines, wave power, and geothermal energy.

5. Make decisions about energy usage based on the ultimate cost and not just the current price. I am a shopper. I love a bargain. When I am about to purchase a product…whether a new computer, a new cell phone, or a new car…I not only look for the best price, but I read product reviews, and consider quality, service, and longevity. However, when I am filling my tank with gasoline, I usually pull into the station with the lowest price without consideration of fuel quality or cleanliness. When I work toward lowering my utility bill at home, I tend to be more concerned about my monthly costs than I am about the long-term cost to the environment. I need to change my way of thinking, understanding that there may be occasions where I may need to pay more in the short term to minimize costs in the long term.

Before this saga is over, I am sure there will be many more lessons to be learned. The impact of the oil spill in the Gulf will likely linger for several years. But hopefully, the major cleanup of coastal land and waters will be completed much sooner. I hope and pray that the lessons we learn from this crisis will equip and motivate us to be more effective caretakers of the Gulf and the planet because “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1a NIV).

Crude Prospects: A Rising Tide of Anxiety Along the Gulf Coast

by Barry Howard

Out of town friends are calling daily and asking questions like “How are you guys doing with the oil situation?”, “How do the beaches look?”, and “What do you expect to happen in the coming weeks?” Here are my most recent responses: “We’re doing okay right now but folks are worried about the overall impact.” “The beaches look great this week but last week there were more tar balls.” “We’re not sure what to expect at this point because so much of the early information has been unreliable and the forecast scenarios are constantly changing.”

Today there is a rather large and nasty sheen of oil just offshore near Pensacola Beach and it is anyone’s guess when it will wash ashore. Last weekend there were lots of tar balls. Yesterday you had to look carefully to find even one. The waves crashing the beach are clear and the sand is bright white. But what will it look like next week? Next month? Next year?

Predications about the environmental and economic impact of the oil spill on the Gulf seem to change several times a day. These shifting forecasts have been a way of life for Gulf coast residents since the Deep Water Horizon explosion on April 20 triggered what is potentially becoming the most catastrophic environmental disaster in history.

Coastal communities here seem to have experienced more than their fair share of hurdles in recent years. At least four hurricanes inflicted damage on the coastlines of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana from September of 2004 to August of 2005, with the winds of Ivan and the flooding associated with Katrina wreaking the most havoc. During the rebuilding season following these successive storms, coastal communities were among the first to experience the effects of a growing recession, an economic phenomenon which severely impaired the vitality of businesses already reeling from the storm damage.

When news of the Deep Water Horizon explosion flashed on screen, our hearts went out to the families of those who lost loved ones, because many of our coastal churches and communities have friends and relatives who work on similar rigs and who live much of the year on “floating cities” in the Gulf. Even when we heard that the explosion has caused a gushing leak about a mile below the surface, we supposed that the leak would be contained within a matter of days and the cleanup of spilled oil would soon follow. But in the subsequent hours and days, news agencies clarified the seriousness of the leak, reported on the failure of successive containment attempts, and began projecting economic and environmental damages.

In early May, I was having breakfast with a group of businessmen when one of them asked me sincerely, “Do you think the Gulf could be the next Dead Sea?” I think it was at that moment I realized the historic, ongoing, long-term impact this oil spill is likely to have on the Gulf Coast.

Now, two months after the explosion the leak is still gushing at approximately 2.5 million gallons of oil per day, much more than the original estimates. Although other containment efforts are underway, the most hopeful containment strategy…the drilling of a relief well…is not expected to be complete until August.

There are multiple scenarios of how life will change along the Gulf, scenarios that leave coastal residents wondering what to expect in the future. What will be the impact on the local economy? What will be the ultimate toll on marine life? How will the spill affect tourism? How long will we see oil in the Gulf? Will there be a residential odor? What are the health risks of being in the water or even living along the coastline? How will a hurricane in the Gulf complicate the risk factors?

After the onslaught of consecutive hurricanes five years ago, even the most weathered storm veterans began to experience “storm phobia.” The dread of another hurricane even motivated a small percentage of residents to sell out and relocate inland.

What is the mood along the coast as we deal with the impact of the oil spill? There are varying degrees of anger, grief, fear, and mistrust. But most of all, there is uncertainty.

In contrast to the “hurricane alertness” that accompanies the beginning of storm season, the mood along the coast these days is dominated by “horizon anxiety,” a psycho-emotive tension caused by the uncertainly of the short-term and long-term impact of the oil spill.

How will our communities respond? Although there are more than enough hopeless pessimists who have been interviewed by the local and national media, I concur with one restaurateur whose business is being severely diminished by the spill. On national television he emphatically declared, “We are a resilient people. We will make a comeback.”

The anxious mood along the coast is understandable. This is not just about beaches, seafood, and dolphins. The implications are global. We continue to hope and pray for complete containment of the damaged well and a thorough cleanup of our coastline and our waters. But we are not naïve. We know that rising up to meet the challenges presented by this crisis could require more perseverance, more faith, and more determination than any prior storm. And hopefully the lessons learned will make us better stewards of creation in the future than we have been in the past.

(Barry Howard serves as senior minister of the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)

A Bird’s Eye View of Church

By Barry Howard

My friend and fellow FBC Pensacola member, Bill Harden, went home to be with the Lord last week. A diabetic since the age of six, as Bill encountered mounting health complications in recent years he inspired his family and many of us with his cheerful humor, his durable smile, his positive attitude, and his artistic craftsmanship.

One of his favorite wood-working projects was building birdhouses. Although Bill invested most of his career in the travel planning business, as a retirement hobby Bill carefully constructed aviary residences in a variety of shapes and sizes. In addition to the dozens of birdhouses Bill gave to others as gifts, an assorted collection of birdhouses sit atop the mantle and around the hearth in the Harden home.

About a year ago, Dr. James Pleitz, our pastor emeritus, and I were each blessed to receive a unique birdhouse as a gift from Bill. Built especially for the pastor and pastor emeritus, these church-shaped birdhouses were built from the wood removed from the floor of our former education building, affectionately known as the old library building, which was severely damaged during Hurricane Ivan and eventually demolished a year later.

My birdhouse is strategically located in front of the chair where I have my quiet time early in the morning. As I have looked at it during my prayer time over the past several months, this birdhouse has become a wooden parable of how I understand church in the 21st century….not the bricks and mortar of our campus…but our ministry…our mission…our spiritual family.

While most of the wood on this birdhouse came from the old church, Bill also incorporated new lumber into the birdhouse, creating sort of a two-toned effect, a phenomenon that reminds me that our church is a composite of the old and the new, a merger of our heritage and our dreams.

For the perch, Bill installed an oversized doorknob front and center, which reminds me of the importance of opening wide the doors of the church to welcome both new friends and old neighbors with Christian hospitality, else we will become cliquish and stagnant.

Above the door is a cross. Intentionally placed over the entrance in a location similar to the street number or family name on your home, this cross explicitly identifies the occupants as followers of Jesus above all else.

And finally, Bill went online and ordered a miniature spire which now sits atop the steeple pointing upwards, beckoning us to look heavenward to God for our hope and our strength.

My friend, Bill, is now at home with the Lord, but he left behind an ongoing testimony, a well-crafted story, a wooden parable which gives to me, and to us, a bird’s eye view of church.

(Barry Howard serves as senior minister of the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)