7 New Year’s Resolutions for Churches


churchAlthough New Year’s Day and the emphasis upon making changes in one’s life is generally a civic liturgy, it’s not inappropriate for the Church. After all, we just emerged from Advent—the beginning of the Christian year! If you are a church leader, what if you imagine the body of your congregation as a living organism who might make some adjustments for better health in the coming year? Here are a few ideas…

1) Live the Christian Calendar rather than the Civic one.

For many non-denominational churches especially, this is a giant opportunity to disciple the congregation. I’m talking about going beyond Christmas and Easter. Our calendar helps us rehearse the rhythm of the Gospel story: the Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Spirit, the Spirit sends us. So, make a big deal out of Lent. What if you celebrate Pentecost and teach on the Holy Spirit? How about helping your small groups have some light bulb experiences during Epiphany? What if you designed Ordinary Time to be extraordinary? Out of the 8760 hours available in a year, you have about 50 hours available in corporate worship to impact the congregation in a formational way. (And that’s if the church body is consistently, regularly attending). Is the wonder of the Gospel story worth trading for the endless consumer hours in which our culture will focus on national holidays?

The Christian calendar helps us rehearse the rhythm of the Gospel story: the Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Spirit, the Spirit sends us.

2) Design Corporate Worship for Discipleship, not Performance.

All 3 of my sons are athletes. My wife and I spend countless hours delivering and picking them up to practices. They spend hours rehearsing specific plays, working out, developing fast-twitch muscles, eating right, getting enough sleep, watching film, being mentored by coaches…all so they can perform well in their games. This is the liturgy of the athlete. Imagine that the ways you Gather, teach the Word, meet around the Table, and Send the congregation are drills, which over time build the collective health of this corner of the Kingdom. Building a consistent outline gives you the ability to be more creative, not less. Design consistent ways that involve people multi-generationally so they aren’t just watching what is happening on stage, but are participating in it. Allowing corporate worship to become boring says more about our personal spiritual growth as leaders than anything else.

Imagine that the ways you Gather, teach the Word, meet around the Table, and Send the congregation are drills, which over time build the collective health of this corner of the Kingdom.

3) Invite people to help lead their creative ideas.

All church leaders have folks approach with great thoughts on the things “we should” or “you should” do. Often, there are some very good ideas. Yet a big part of stewarding the Body is attention to time. If the idea is good, is this the best season to do it? Perhaps it’s a great idea for us next year after we have time to plan it well. Ultimately, is the idea advancing the Kingdom, or is it just another fun (and optional) activity on everyone’s already overloaded schedule? Is the person with the idea willing to help lead it? If not, circular file it. You are called to help grow the Kingdom, not turn your congregation into the Wal-Mart of opportunities from which people can select if they happen to be in town.

You are called to help grow the Kingdom, not turn your congregation into the Wal-Mart of opportunities from which people can select if they happen to be in town.

4) Continue unwrapping “the Gospel.”

“Gospel,”or the “good news, is a churchy, insider word that few in secular American culture use.  But it’s also a biblical word…euangelion. On the inside, this very important term has been the victim of reductionism. For so many, this simply (perhaps only) means “Jesus died for my sins so I could be forgiven and go to heaven when I die.” Not that this is untrue (although there is MUCH more to realize about sin, forgiveness and heaven), but making this statement the entirety of the Gospel is like saying a lifetime of marriage is the honeymoon. God’s salvific purposes are immensely greater than such a narrow (and perhaps selfish) view of John 3:16. For a starting point, re-read Luke 4 and underline every time Jesus talks about the “good news” and his role in bringing it. The Word cannot mean something for us that it did not mean for its original hearers. Ask yourself how good news could already be happening prior to the crucifixion and resurrection, and how “good news” now continues.

5) Promote Reaching In.

This is ministry. This is where we practice the Gospel, the good news, with one another who are in the family…and also with the “immigrants” who are attracted to the Bride of Christ and who are considering joining her. Teach the priesthood of all believers. Visiting, calling, counseling, praying, sending the casserole or the card doesn’t count more when the preacher does it. He or she does not have a 5G connection to God while the rest of the congregation is on dial up. Affirm with the church that their presence matters. All believers have the same Holy Spirit within them. “We cannot become what God intends for us if you aren’t here. You can’t become what God intends for you if you aren’t here.”

[The preacher] does not have a 5G connection to God while the rest of the congregation is on dial up.

6) Practice Reaching Out.

This is mission. Simply put, the way we are practicing ministry to one another on the inside, let’s practice that in our community. This means our presence. Although it may take money, it does not mean we get to send a check, proclaim that we have “done missions,” and feel wonderful about ourselves. At this point in our national history, do we really think human government will ever be a perfect solution? This is the Church’s opportunity to come alongside the poor, orphans, widows, people trying to navigate medical insurance and health concerns, college graduates who are trying to find careers and learn how to be an adult in today’s world, to model respectful dialogue and listen respectfully to opposing views, to pursue genuine friendships with people of another race, to honestly listen to the LGBTQ community, to be surrogate moms, dads, grandparents and to fulfill these roles where they are lacking. In the early centuries of Christian faith, this kind of selfless grace combined with an eye on eternity and the belief Jesus might come back at any moment caused the Church to explode into an unstoppable movement. (See The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark). Remember, benediction is blessing + charge, not a closing prayer. What is 1 specific way you can challenge the church to enact what you just taught them at the end of each service?

Benediction is blessing + charge, not a closing prayer.

7) Less is More for Regular Celebration.

Jean Vanier said, “communities who don’t celebrate become places where people just get things done.” Consider having fewer big events and more meaningful, weekly gatherings. Having so much energy vested in the next “big event” can rob us of the time to encounter the movements of the Spirit among us as we get too focused upon what must be done. Ask your people if they normally depart sensing the presence of Christ or a cattle prod to move out of the way for the next service. Invest in and enrich the weekly celebrations for those who are coming. Remember that celebration doesn’t mean partying in the face of those who are hurting. Create space to really see one another and the God who heals. How can we help our congregation see one way that the kingdom of God advanced this week? Every Sunday is a mini-Easter with a celebration of the resurrection, but answering this question well continues affirming Emmanuel—God is with us.



Why I’m a Dreamer Too: A Perspective from a Middle Class, White, American Christian


Pull up a chair. Some of you may be inspired by this. Some of you may want to take some pre-emptive Advil.  The point of this is to provoke thought, not anger. If you end up needing the Advil, I choose to love you anyway.

I’m a believer that history is one of our best teachers. History is full of stories. True stories that have framed the kind of people we are becoming. Ancestry.com gets this, and has built quite a successful business based upon this knowledge.

In my own family history, my (7-greats) grandfather Melchior (yes, what was his mother thinking?) fled from Germany to the Netherlands as a religious refugee, along with his wife and another couple with whom they were friends. The friends (who were able to afford passage to America) boarded a steam ship bound for America. On a summer evening in 1767 in Rotterdam, my great7-grandparents went to visit them to say goodbye before departure. The captain invited them to spend the night with their friends, and they accepted. When they awoke the following morning, they were out to sea. On October 29, they arrived in Philadelphia and the ship’s captain (who had orchestrated this scenario intentionally) demanded their fee for passage across the Atlantic.  Since they could not pay, they were forced to remain at the port until they could be purchased as indentured servants and their fare paid. They waited at the docks until November 27 before a buyer came.  My non-English-speaking ancestor, the illiterate Johan Melchior Blanckenberg signed his name with an “X,” which got shortened to John Melchior Plank.

Renamed. Resituated. Sold. They had dreamed of coming to America, but this was not the beginning they had imagined. After 5 years of work for a Pennsylvania family, a group of Mennonite friends at a local church purchased their freedom, and the Planks were finally able to begin a new life as American citizens.

Learning that this is how my family began its journey in the United States has reframed my personal story. And knowing now what the 20th century would entail, especially for Germany, I’m very thankful they weren’t sent back.

Before I say any more about where we currently are in our own American story, let me say this. I’m not a Republican. I’m not a Democrat. I’m actually not completely sure what I am. I’m left-ish about some things. I’m right-ish about some things. I long for Kingdom politics. Like many, I usually steer clear of the word “politics” because so much ire gets attached to the word. I think we’ve lost the concept of what politics is. This is a good definition:

Politics (n.), the art of recognizing that resources are limited and working together to distribute and replenish those resources in the best ways possible for the good of all.

But we certainly do get bent out of shape because we have so many opinions about how to accomplish the art of politics. This word is VERY closely related to a word used prolifically in the Church. The word is liturgy. If you are a Christian, you may likely immediately think of the “order of worship” in your church bulletin. But this is not what it is. Liturgy comes from the Greek word leitourgia, and literally means “the effective and prosaic work of the people.” It was a governmental and military term used in the Hellenistic world that the earliest Christians decided was the best term to describe how the people of God should live and move in the world. We ripped it off from the Romans! The second half of Acts 2 gives us a remarkable picture of how the earliest Christians were acting politically in their societies, caring for the needs of those around them—a picture of a radically different community compared to the world. Incidentally, leitourgia is the word translated as “worship” in our English Bibles in every instance except one from Acts 1 until Jesus returns in Revelation. The politics that I am for are Kingdom politics. I’m still learning them. They are hard and uncomfortable. They are sometimes risky and costly. They involve a lot of attention to the least of these. They are the way of Jesus.

As one who is responsible for teaching the Word, here is something that has been stalking me lately…

In Matthew 22, Jesus is asked by an expert of the law what the most important commandment it. He responds, “love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” I imagine he paused as they all nodded in agreement. But then in classic Jesus fashion, he reaches back into the Jewish scriptures, into the middle of Leviticus 19 and says, “and the second it like it, love your neighbor as yourself.” This was a jaw-dropping moment for the crowd. Jesus has done something very deliberate called a remez. He knows that this audience has the Torah scriptures memorized and that they understand this in context.  Look at the context:

18 “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

Footnote: We are to take care of our own, even the ones who have wronged us. (Our own is also our veterans, our homeless, and any “least of these” among us).

33 “‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

Footnote: We are to care for and treat as family those among us from other nations, because we were once aliens, estranged from God and he has done this for us.

Christians like to say we are “a New Testament church,” but that does not mean the Old Testament has no bearing upon us, especially when the Savior of the world reaches back into history and elevates this specific text to secondary priority status. The politic of the Christ-follower is to do everything possible to obey this and to extend enormous grace in order to assimilate into our community those who want to be with us. From a biblical and theological perspective, there is absolutely no way to apologize our way around this. To do so is picking and choosing which parts of the Bible we want to obey. By the way, this is also a large part of the context of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. If you are unfamiliar with this, please read Luke 10:25-37. Note how Jesus frames the priest and the Levite. Ask yourself how it would be possible for a “religious” person to become so focused upon one’s self and to step over the least of these. The great irony for all of us wanting to follow Christ is how great a temptation this is. Brennan Manning once said, “to deny the Pharisee within is lethal.”

Enter where we find ourselves now with the proposed repeal of DACA. I know we need immigration reform. I know that we cannot have people streaming across our borders. We need to work together to fix this and not make it so hard for the many, many people who legitimately want to be here, work hard, pay taxes, worship and participate as full citizens. Using these people to run restaurants, clean hotels, landscape and work construction while dangling a carrot out front and continuing to move it is detestable when many are working so hard to do the right thing. I realize that DACA was a temporary step, but a step toward creating a legitimate path to citizenship. Nearly 800,000 who did not choose to cross the border illegally, but were babes-in-arms, holding their mother’s hand or who were born here voluntarily signed on to this offer. How can we possibly allow the rug to be pulled out from under them? It is unethical. It is disloyal. It is immoral. It is oath-breaking. We do not want this to become a part of our story. Or theirs.

When we open our doors, for any reason, do we risk something? Of course we do. But what do we risk in slamming the door? To the dreamer who is deported, what do we risk changing in their attitude toward a country who said “we know you’ve been here 15-20 years trying to work it out, but we don’t want you?” How will that story play out with their children and grandchildren? Do we want to produce more people with ill feelings towards our country? The biblical principle is this: with the measure you use, it will be measured unto you. The world states it this way: what goes around, comes around.

I was reminded of a couple of history lessons this morning when my 5th grader brought me his notes for me to quiz him before his test today. The topic? Native American history, their cultures, how Americans drove them all out to make space for ourselves, and how we began allowing them to have some land back in the 20th century.

Here is another interesting piece from the 20th century story: 29 million of my generation (Gen X) were deported aborted. This may appear like a tangential subject, but is it any wonder that a population has swelled to fill positions that 1/3 of my generation should have been here to assist with? Human beings who would have been paying taxes and supporting the American story?

There are many more examples, but I share these to point out that we have many stories from our own history of getting rid of people whom we perceive make things inconvenient for us.

In contrast, when the Church has engaged well in Kingdom politics, when we have tilted headlong into the fray to be a voice for the least of these, we have always grown and thrived. The Church has also been purged of those who were along for a pleasant ride. For one of many examples, I’d encourage the reading of Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity. I can promise you will be stunned by the Kingdom politics of the earliest followers of Christ. https://www.amazon.com/Rise-Christianity-Marginal-Religious-Centuries/dp/0060677015/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1504889584&sr=8-1&keywords=rise+of+christianity.

I understand that these words are challenging for some believers, but here’s the thing about Jesus: he calls us to hard things. For all who follow him, at some point, we are asked to surrender things that matter more than they ought to.

In the meantime…

  • Call your Congressman and ask them to refuse the repeal of DACA, and to please work across party lines toward immigration reform, a clear, understandable and manageable path for those who desire citizenship. Remind them of what we promised.
  • Find Dreamers and listen to their stories. Most of them are astounding human beings with so much to contribute to the American story. They would be very fine citizens. Let them know you care. They are afraid.
  • Dear Church, let’s walk alongside these and help them in their quest for citizenship. Help them figure out how to proceed. What if we helped them pay their fees, assisted with their paperwork, re-learn the American history they will be tested on? If you’ve ever been to a foreign country and tried to figure out how to do something, take that feeling and magnify it by 1000. Now imagine no one wants to help you. If your faith is only about your personal relationship with Jesus, you are missing most of the gospel. Shame on us if we are silent.

Each semester in my college class, I have my students write their names on a card and then write something they think I should know about them. This helps me get to know them and also to remember their names. One young lady wrote on her card, “when I was 8 years old, I walked with my uncle from Honduras to California.” This kind of tenacity became evident as I observed her as a student and watched her achieve a near perfect score by the end. She is one of several Dreamers I know. She is trying hard to do the right thing and to go through the correct processes. I will not sit idly by and watch her work and sacrifices (I’ll pick a different vocabulary term as a pastor) be defecated on. My dream is to see her, and all the rest who deserve citizenship so much, be able to realize it without so many obstacles.

I’m very thankful my ancestors weren’t shipped back to Germany. If they had, I would not have had the privilege of being a pastor here these past 25 years. Thousands of people would not have been touched by the gospel in my parent’s 50+ years of ministry in Northeast Georgia. Part of my dream is that you would imagine our great future possibilities by reaching out to the Dreamers, rather than retreating into fear, self-protection and deportation.

This is an emotional issue for sure; but if you are a Christian, it’s also a theological one that cannot be ignored.

As a semi-public figure, I generally try to follow the way of Tina Fey and eat my cake. But not this time. I have put my fork down.




10 Observations While My Wife Was Out of Town


Well deserved, my beautiful wife had the opportunity to spend a few magical days in NY with a girlfriend, seeing the sights, experiencing culture and without anyone making any domestic demands whatsoever. So, dad was in charge of the 3-boy-bachelor-pad and had the opportunity to expand his worldview. Here are some highlights:

  1. An exorbitant amount of time is spent preparing to eat food, eating the food, cleaning up from eating the food and planning what food to eat next.
  2. Warm clothes from the dryer freshly laid out on the bed can double as a comforter. This is temporarily acceptable.
  3. Without a plan, adolescent boys will put on headphones and literally vanish into a black hole of digital media. Until they realize they are starving.
  4. I love disposable plates and cups.
  5. The North Pacific Gyre may have circulated into our living room. This might be in part because of my new found love of disposable plates and cups.
  6. Like coming up for air in the pool, little boys have liminal moments when they realize how much they love their mama. This is a wonderful thing to see emerge out of the subconscious.
  7. There will always be something you forgot at the grocery store. Every. Single. Time.
  8. There appears to actually be less gas when mom is gone…leading me toward the development of a theory that they are simply trying to get a reaction.
  9. Our 2 teen boys are growing in laundry self-sufficiency, but still have a way to go. For example, it is possible to place more items that 1 shirt (that one wants to wear to school tomorrow) in the washer. The washing machine will also not automatically place the clean, wet shirt in the dryer. Perhaps this epiphany will occur corresponding to our current liturgical season?
  10. Even the dog and cat miss her.

Babe, we’ll clean it all up before you get here. I’m going to go pull them out of the black hole and have actual human interaction in a moment, and eat food that is not pizza. We love you. Come home.


Imagination, Not Resolution


We are not what we do. We are what we love. We become what we love because we are shaped by the narrative we imagine. This force is powerful because we each live into the story we imagine…even if we are doing it unconsciously.

I have made no “resolutions” to do anything; but rather have chosen to regularly rehearse my imagined hope for myself and for my congregation.

So this year, in my role as a pastor, I have made no “resolutions” to do anything; but rather have chosen to regularly rehearse my imagined hope for myself and for my congregation. How powerful might it be if I purposefully and regularly imagine that…

  • The stories of God I share, teach, and preach will be more inspiring and overwhelming than the stories our culture tells?
  • I thoughtfully receive and respond to criticism, even when it is not intended to be constructive?
  • I receive a compliment with soul-refreshing gratitude rather than ego-boosting pride?
  • I am quick to pray for and with specific people for specific circumstances rather than telling them I will?
  • I am appropriately transparent so that my congregation will know I am an equal sojourner as much in need of a Savior as they are?
  • I am not in a hurry?
  • I am not afraid to apologize and to ask forgiveness?
  • I am fully present in the moment?
  • I genuinely listen to people without formulating a response while they are talking?
  • The Word of God is woven into my normal, everyday conversations in a relevant, eloquent, life-giving, non-preachy manner?
  • My iPhone is a useful tool for me, but not Lord over me?
  • I trust God, in regular practice of Sabbath, that He has given me enough time to accomplish what He has ordained for me to do?
  • I practice missional things in secret, not always as a public example to the Church?
  • I enjoy the constant presence of Christ in each task of ministry rather than practicing a morning invocation for Him to bless all my plans today?
  • I courageously live into the anointing of my ordination as a minister of the Gospel?

We become what we love because we are shaped by the narrative we imagine.

And for my congregation, how powerful might it be if I purposefully and regularly imagine that…

  • They are growing in their understanding of the priesthood of all believers?
  • The service of worship is becoming more important than the worship service?
  • Skipping participating in the church weekly is as unimaginable as skipping meals daily?
  • They are grasping that being a kingdom-minded Christ-follower is about so much more than basking in the wonder of what Jesus did for me personally?
  • The rhythm of the Christian calendar has become standard operating procedure?
  • They know I love/agape them, and that they are not a bother to me in the busyness business of ministry?
  • They see in me an authentic, joyful, peace-filled enthusiasm for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
  • My family, my most important small group, is woven into the fabric of my church family; and neither receives my leftovers?

I won’t resolve to do these things because if I do, I will fail. So I will imagine these things and will pray for these things, that God may accomplish them in me and in us.

Glory for Berries


burning-bush-done Last night, our newly renovated local community theater hosted a combined orchestra and wind ensemble and opened the performance free to the public.  This was an extraordinary cultural treat for our little town.  We wanted our boys to experience it–(plus selfishly desired a break from all the ballgames they are immersed in!)  They were enamored by the variety of instruments, inspired by the melodies of John Phillip Sousa and full of questions about the tiny girl playing the giant harp 3 times her size on stage left.

I love that feeling of being swept up in something beautiful.  Several pieces had an alluring quality embedded in the melody.  As a musician, I’m amazed at the infinite combination of chord structures that can create an emotional response of “hold on, something even better is about to happen.” But something occurred that kept jerking me out of this euphoria…

2 rows in front of me, a young man–probably college age–was playing Mortal Kombat on his Samsung Galaxy phone. There was no effort to be subtle with it…in fact, it was as if he hoped the entire audience might join him!  Held high, inches away from his face, the flickering glow of gunfire and explosions lit my view of the stage. And it went on and on. Even my boys were astounded. At least he had turned the volume off.

Held high, inches away from his face, the flickering glow of gunfire and explosions lit my view of the stage.

I wondered who he was?  Perhaps a son or boyfriend of someone in the orchestra?  Maybe a kid from a local college receiving some extra credit for attending? Regardless, in the midst of what I perceived as rudeness, I remembered a few lines from Elizabeth Barrett-Browning:

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries,                        And daub their natural faces unaware.”

I sort of felt sad for him. Whether he didn’t want to be there or thought he was accomplishing 2 things at once, he was missing it.  He wasn’t present.  He was trading a holy moment for berries.

Yet as is His custom, the Lord turned my critical spirit back on me. How often do I do the same thing…multitasking my physical presence while my mind works out a dozen other projects? I think this is what Jesus meant when he said “with the measure you use, it will be measured unto you.”

Lord, help us realize the richness of your presence today in the midst of a doctor’s appointment, lunch with our family, our children’s homework, yard work, grocery shopping, a conversation with a neighbor, practicing an instrument and folding laundry.

May we never, ever be satisfied with blackberries.

7 Lessons from Lent


I love the Christian Church and feel deeply at home there.  But if you had asked me 20 years ago about my experience of the liturgy and the Church calendar, I would have mainly confirmed THE BIG 2: Christmas and Easter.  I probably also would have added in Mother’s Day and the Patriotic American holidays, because that’s just what good conservative evangelicals do, right? Jesus certainly loved his mom–there is biblical evidence for that! Pentecost?  No, too much Holy Spirit, and people get all weird if we start invoking that.  Ordinary Time–gee that sounds exciting. Lent and Advent? Oh yeah, we had too much lent stuck in the advent on our dryer once and had to call a repairman.

Holy days and seasons of remembering God’s pursuit of and intervention with His creation have historically been a built-in-to-the-year part God’s people.  This is our privilege, not our obligation.

Over the years of ministry, my soul has been drawn deeper into the rhythm of the Christian calendar.  It makes increasing sense why, as an alternative community, the people of God draw strength from segueing off of the civic calendar.  In particular, the days leading up to the Incarnation (Advent) and to the Resurrection (Lent) have become a meaningful discipline in my life and family.  It seems everything–shopping, food, information, sex, books, gaming, entertainment, and more–has become so available for instantaneous gratification.  Spiritual formation as a disciple takes time.  And it’s messy.  Jesus didn’t microwave 12 guys into apostles.  And they weren’t done growing when he ascended either.

I really do think most believers want to grow in Christ, but I’m also convinced that if we could find sanctification on Amazon Prime we’d pay extra for overnight shipping and check that goal off of our list.

I wonder if we are losing the ability to long for something hopeful. There is beauty that arises in waiting. It’s in the waiting where Christ reveals to us the things He is asking us to surrender in our hearts.

This was no elaborate journaling exercise, but over the season of Lent, in a phone App, I kept track of my discoveries:

1. The things that irritate me about others are reflections of related issues He needs to carve out of my own heart.

2. If I didn’t invest in younger believers, my spiritual growth would be stagnant at best and moving backwards at worst.

3. I want so much more than I need.

4. I need extended solitude to be restored. I’m talking utter silence, without the possibility of my phone dinging or the temptation to check social media. The sound of the breeze or chirping of a bird is acceptable noise.  Anything other than that and I cannot hear Him.

5. I have a hard time savoring the wonder of a common moment–like doing homework with one of my children–without experiencing a sense of urgency over what I need to do next.  Why would I be irritated by a blessing?

6. Fasting teaches me about “enough.” This lesson spills over into multiple areas of life. This is not about strength building, but about Christ’s power mysteriously changing selfishness into contentment.

7. Relationships do not thrive amidst multi-tasking. Just like my marriage needs intentionally planned times for reconnection, I take the presence of Jesus for granted without deliberately orchestrating sabbath experiences to enjoy Him.

I would love to hear what you learned!

We Fired Our Health Insurance Company


So many friends—and friends of friends—have contacted us about our choice for health care that we decided it might be easier to write out our story. Hopefully our experience will assist you in making the wisest choice for your family. This will be lengthy but worth it. I promise.


Emily & I have been blessed by churches who provided a medical insurance plan for us. My salary has been structured so that the medical insurance payment was held out of my paycheck for the pre-tax benefit. But if I received a cost-of-living raise in January, it was undone in July because the existing policy would adjust upwards somewhere between 13-20% annually. Year after year, I was actually making less money.

About 7 years ago, we began noticing that BCBS paid for less and less while our copays kept increasing. When we questioned them, the answer was always that it was being applied to our deductible. There were multiple conversations with many agents to attempt to fully understand what our deductible truly was, because we never seemed to fully reach it. The bottom line was that our “family aggregate” deductible was several thousand dollars. This fact was hard to digest knowing that we were already paying close to $14,000 annually just to have insurance.

3 years ago, our monthly premium hit $1250. We began to realize that the Plank’s were on a completely unsustainable path, and we began investigating other options. Various Christian Health Sharing programs were being advertised on radio and in magazines. We decided it was time to make a change.

We were most attracted to Samaritan Ministries Health Sharing (www.samaritanministries.org).   Their deal sounded too good to be true, so I spent an entire month researching them. Honestly, I tried to find a single negative thing about the organization and found nothing. I made several phone calls to the company, always spoke to a live person, got courteous answers and plenty of helpful info in the mail. I read every word…even the fine print. They even offered to give me phone numbers of people who have been long time customers so that we could question them about their experience. I took them up on their offer, and requested numbers of people in our area. I wanted to know if this was really working where we lived.

It would take too long to share their testimonies, but I was sold after the second conversation.

In February 2012, we fired BCBS and began a brand new thing with Samaritan Ministries. We paid an initial, one-time $200 administrative/membership fee. Our “family share” (not a premium), is currently $495 monthly. The home office tells us who to send the check directly to, and the medical reason, so that we can pray for the patient. In other words, we write our check to a different person or family every month.

For us, this meant that all those pre-tax dollars would now land in my paycheck as income earned. Our taxes increased; yet this paled in comparison to what we were literally throwing out the window. It also meant we needed to be wise savers to be prepared to cover some medical costs for which we were used to making copays.

One of my hesitations in making the transition was that we became responsible for the total cost of our doctor office visits and prescriptions. Before making the change, we spoke with all our doctors to tell them what we were going to do, and asked what we would be charged as “cash-pay” patients. None of our doctors knew. They had to go ask someone in their administrative office. Here is something amazing: the “cash pay” price for people without insurance was almost exactly the same as what our co-pays had been!  Now that our doctors understand what we are part of, they are wonderful about sharing medicine samples that they have in stock and are careful to write prescriptions for generic medications.

We also went to our pharmacy in advance. I wrote down every single prescription we currently take AND had ever taken and inquired what the cash price would be. Most were affordable. We do have 1 that is expensive. But Samaritan pointed us toward www.rxdrugcard.com. We pay an annual $45 subscription to this. Our policy number stays on file at CVS and discounts most of our drugs to a similar level to what we were paying on insurance. A couple of prescriptions actually ended up costing less with this than we paid with insurance.  We discovered that we had been paying a $35-40 copay, for example, for a $12 bottle of Amoxicillan.  (If you don’t have children yet, brace yourself.  It will always be in your refrigerator.  Sam’s Club should sell it by the gallon.)  Another option is mail order Canadian pharmacies like www.northwestpharmacy.com. There appears to be some debate about the legality of ordering medication from Canadian pharmacies. Until it’s clearer, this will be my civil disobedience. For the 1 prescription that is very expensive for us, I can purchase 3 months of it for what 1 month costs here. The generic is not yet allowed in the U.S. because of its patent.

(Editing our story now in 2016, we have continued to learn the drastic difference in drug prices if you are willing to shop around. Pharmacies use various wholesale providers to purchase the drugs we buy. A few months ago, my wife’s prescription was changed to a new drug. Although we asked for the generic, this particular drug was $273 for 1 month’s supply at CVS. We found the same drug at a local family-owned pharmacy for $27 monthly. We then compared all our prescription prices and moved our business to the small family pharmacy.)

We were with Samaritan for about 6 months when our youngest son developed a golf-ball-sized bump on his chest. It was discovered that he had a benign cyst which would require surgery to remove. This would be our test to see how well the Health Sharing deal worked.

We called Samaritan and spoke to a live person, who coached us through the process of submitting receipts for reimbursement. He explained that we would be responsible for the first $300, but that everything over that would be published for the Health Sharing organization, and that we would receive the reimbursements following that. Then, he prayed for our son with us over the phone.

Samaritan members are responsible for negotiating the medical payments. This was unnerving to me at first; but I soon realized this is exactly what insurance companies do with hospitals and doctor offices. Samaritan also provided a simple 10 point document designed to help us navigate this.

On the day of our sons’ surgery BEFORE he was even taken back, a hospital worker brought us the cash pay triplicate agreement form to sign. If we could pay the full bill within 30 days, they would discount it 40%. If we could pay in full in 1 payment within the year, they would still discount 30%. We learned quickly that hospitals have the largest negotiating room in billing. The hospital is basically billing a rental charge for the use of their facility, surgical suite and equipment for the surgeon to use.

We received a second bill from the surgeon’s office for the work of the surgery and his pre-op assessment. They discounted us 30%. A third bill came from the anesthesiologist. They discounted 0%. A small fourth bill came from pathology to confirm the cyst was benign. Also discounted 20%.

At the end of the day, the total which would have been billed to an insurance company was nearly $9000. We negotiated the total cost to approximately $5200. We submitted all the bills to Samaritan in July—the original totals and what we had negotiated. We were published to the Health Sharing Group in September. In October, we received personal checks from 26 individuals from across the country, in “get well/praying for you” cards, totaling $5200. Samaritan counted our $300 responsibility into the cost of what we negotiated, so we were reimbursed the entire cost of the surgery!

1 additional fact about Samaritan, members agree to refrain from tobacco use, to completely abstain or use alcohol in moderation, and to the biblical mandate of sex within monogamous, heterosexual marriage only. We all agree to attend church at least 3 times per month. We sign a covenant agreeing to this lifestyle, and it is also signed by our pastor affirming that the information we are providing is truthful. It is the belief of Samaritan Ministries’ members that living in the way of Christ affects every level of our souls, including our physical well-being. Living healthy lives as a group holds health costs down for all.

We have learned through our experience that there is a MUCH BETTER WAY to handle health care. There are bills that I groan over when I write the monthly check. But I can say with complete integrity it brings me joy to send my share to a specific individual or family and pray for them each month.

We have since been through an additional small surgery. We had the same experience as before. It amazes me how quickly and easily the billing can be taken care of, for so much less money than we were paying. It makes me wonder if the entire for-profit medical insurance industry is consumed with greed and dishonesty.

Members of approved Health Sharing Ministries meet the federal mandate for having health insurance and are exempt from the tax penalty. For more information, click here: https://www.healthcare.gov/fees-exemptions/exemptions-from-the-fee/.

When government health insurance became available this year (2014), we went to the healthcare.gov website and filled in our information to see what would be offered if we went that direction. In Alabama, we have 5 opportunities ranging from $700 to $1250, ALL with BCBS and all with massive deductible levels. No thank you.

In October 2014, we received a notification from Samaritan that they had fewer needs to publish this month, and that there had been plenty of funds to cover all needs through November, AND that they were lowering our payment for this month as a result. (Since the original posting of this blog, this happened AGAIN in November and December of 2014!)

Are you kidding me!? Who does that!?

If you are with traditional health insurance, do you believe your company would lower your monthly payment if they “took in too much money” this month?

Above all, I am thrilled to see believers coming together to accomplish the biblical mandate to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). When we joined, there were 17,000 households in Samaritan Ministries.  As of today, that has increased to 61,000 households!  I would encourage you to investigate this for yourself at http://samaritanministries.org. If you have any questions, please post them to this blog site so that the conversation will continue to provide necessary info and FAQ’s to others.