Meet Gretchen: Our New Office Manager

Born and raised in Texas, Gretchen is a lifelong Lutheran.  She studied business administration at Post University and has enjoyed working as an administrator since 1997.  Gretchen has been blessed with multiple opportunities to serve in various youth ministry programs in the past.  She is passionate about the work she does with organizations that fight food insecurity and hunger. Outside the office, Gretchen enjoys being mom to her son, Ayden, and reading mystery novels.

10 Financial Tips for Young Leaders

Bishop Mike Rinehart

Let’s face it; most of us didn’t get very good advice from our parents about money. After all, money is taboo in our culture. It feels awkward asking anyone. So before you put any of these recommendations into practice, it’s probably a good idea to find a financial planner that will help you think through things. Here are some things that will save your bacon and help you be a good steward of your God-given resources.

  1. Tithe

We know. You’re dirt poor and have no accumulated assets. In fact, you’re in debt up to your eyeballs with school loans and a couple of nasty credit cards that got the better of you because you had no other options. You are now, however, in the generosity business. It will be very hard to preach generosity if you don’t practice it, and it could lead to hypocrisy. Starting salary and housing for a pastor in the Gulf Coast Synod is around $64K, not including the $5K Social Security offset for pastors, who are considered self-employed by the IRS. Given the fact that half the world lives on two dollars a day or less, this is a lot of money. Give away $6400. Plan it at the beginning of the year. If you’re married, talk about it with your spouse. Set it up on an automatic withdrawal so you’re not tempted to dip into it. Practice what you preach: first fruits giving. As an added bonus, you’ll feel good too. Nothing wrong with that.

  1. Draw up a budget

Failing to plan is planning to fail. No one builds a tower without first counting the cost, Jesus said. If you don’t make a plan for your money, it will slip through your fingers before you notice. If you’re married, sit down with your spouse and work this out together. Two days before every payday, decide where every single dollar is going to go. At the bottom of this article is a sample budget.

  1. Attack your debt

Most of us had to borrow for our education. If you didn’t, congratulations; you’re in the minority. School loans are usually low interest. Your house will be 3-5% in this economy, if you have good interest. Cars can range from 5% to 12%. Consumer/credit card can sock you 18-21% or even more. If you’re in debt up to your eyeballs, that will cut into your cash flow, create a lot of frustration, and put stress on your relationship, if you happen to be married. A huge percentage of divorced couples cited finances as one of their top conflicts. Dave Ramsey suggests the debt snowball. Line up your debt payments from smallest monthly payment to largest monthly payment. Forget about your mortgage or rent for now. Don’t consolidate. Instead, cut back on everything except the bare necessities, and make your minimum payments on everything, except the smallest payment. Pay as much extra on that as you possibly can every month. Don’t worry about whether it’s the highest or lowest interest rate. This is about emotions. It will be motivating when you pay off the first loan. Go after that small loan like a cheetah goes after the gazelle. Never borrow from your church, church members, or your family, if you want to keep those relationships in tact. Cut up your credit cards.

  1. Create an emergency fund of $1,000

More if you’re not in debt. Cars break. Kids get sick. Washers and dryers give out. If you don’t have an emergency fund, you will put it on a credit card, increasing your debt. Put as much as you can into an emergency fund until it’s up to $1000. When you dip into it, pay it back as soon as possible. If you don’t have debt, keep putting money into the emergency fund until you have 3 to 6 months of assets. If you get hurt or lose your job, you’ll be thankful.

  1. If you buy a house, get a 15-year fixed-rate mortgage

Banks invented a 30 year mortgage, because they want to get paid for 30 years instead of less. A 30-year mortgage is around 4% at the time of this writing in 2017. A 15-year mortgage, however is only 3%. The average price of a home in Houston is still under $200,000. We’ll go with $180K for this example. Let’s say two 30-year-old couples each buy a home, putting down 20% and borrowing $144K. The first couple gets a 30-year mortgage at 4%. The payment is $687/month (plus tax and insurance) until they turn 60. The total cost will be $247,492. The second couple gets a 15-year mortgage at 3%, $994/month until they turn 45. The total cost is $178,999. The first couple will pay $70,000 more for their home. When their friends have paid off their home, they will still be making payments for 15 more years – 15 more years. Now, I know that extra $300/month cuts into cash flow, but consider the cost of 15 years of $1,000 payments. Make sure your housing payment is no more than 30% of your monthly income, and don’t buy a house that costs any more than three times your annual income. Don’t buy a big house for ego. The average size of a home in the US is 2500 ft.², but that’s a lot of house. The more house you have, the more house you have to clean, the more house you have to fix when it breaks, the more grass you have to mow, and so on. Live simply. (If the church supplies you with a parsonage, negotiate a 5% equity allowance and don’t touch it. Someday you’re going to need a house.)

  1. Get a used car

We know, the gleam of a new vehicle can be irresistible. If you’re independently wealthy, then tithe and go get whatever car you want. But the rest of us have to think carefully about how we steward our resources. The average cost of a new car is a little over $30,000. The car will lose 10% of its value the moment you drive it off the lot, and 10% more off the original price each year. If you finance the car, you will likely be upside down the minute you drive off the lot. That is, you will owe more than the car is worth. This means the value of your car will be about:

  • After the first year: $24,000
  • After the second year: $21,000
  • After the third year: $18,000
  • After the fourth year: $15,000

Buy a car that is two or three years old. Let someone else pay the $9,000-$12,000 of depreciation. Remember, a car is a depreciating asset; less is more. It is always cheaper to fix the car you already own. It may be a hassle, but it’s less expensive. Even a $2000 transmission cost less than a $20,000 vehicle. Drive your car ten years or until it is no longer safe to do so. Change the oil regularly, and balance and rotate the tires. Deferred maintenance will cost you more in the long run. Care for your car so that it takes care of you. [video]

  1. Make an additional contribution to your retirement fund

You’re a part of a rare program. Your employer contributes 10% of your defined compensation into your retirement fund. Add an additional 1% of your own. As the years go by, increase the percentage. If you get a raise, split the difference. This will lower your taxes and set aside for that rainy day when you can no longer work. Save as Joseph did for the seven years of famine. Talk with someone at Portico, or a financial advisor of your own, to get advice on how you allocate the dollars in your retirement account. How much will you put in stocks, global funds, bonds? These decisions can make a big difference over the years, so pay attention, and rebalance every few years.

Investment Summary

  1. Budget for your maximum out-of-pocket health expenses, or at the very least, for your deductibles

If you’re on Portico’s plan, you have an individual deductible is $1200 and a family deductible of $2400 for in-network health costs. You will then pay 20% co-pay until you reach your maximum out-of-pocket: $3800 for an individual and $7600 for a family. Budget for this. $350 a month. You’ll spend some of it, and if not, then you’ll have Christmas money at the end of the year and can put the rest in savings of your emergency fund. If that is high and finances are too tight, at least budget for your deductibles, at $100-$200 a month. If you have large medical bills, make regular small payments. You’ll be okay as long as you continue making payments.

  1. Set aside money each year in your Flexible Spending Account

If you’re young, you probably don’t have a lot of medical expenses or prescriptions. You will get sick at some point and have to see the doctor. Kids get sick too. Keep track of these expenses. Each year, at the beginning of the year, decide to set aside some money into a Portico Flexible Spending Account. These funds are sheltered from taxes and will save you money in the long run.

  1. Consult a financial planner

Choose wisely. There are plenty of people out there who will help you with your finances for just the possibility of your future business when you’re ready to invest. Portico can help. Thrivent can help. Ask around.

All this may seem like a lot to think about, but if you carefully plan, it will pay off in the long run. Compound interest can either be your friend or your enemy. No matter how much money we make, we Americans always seem to spend 105% of what we have. Break the mold. Set yourself free. Discipline yourself to give and save, then live off 80% of your income. It’s a challenge, but it can be done. You will find joy in your living and a freedom from materialism. There’s nothing magical about this. It’s just a few things we wish we had been told when we started out. As Jesus said, be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.

Sample Monthly Budget

Families come in different sizes and shapes. The housing market is different in various cities and small towns. But here is a budget for a family of two people with one income. A second income of any size will help this out, but let’s imagine there’s only one income at the starting salary of a pastor just out of seminary. Let’s say $60,000 or $5,000/month. The median income in the US in 2015 was $56,516. We will assume some educational and consumer debt. Obviously this pinches the budget. If there is no debt, those resources can go into the rest of the budget or savings. This is just a sample, different people will set different priorities.

Tithe                $500 (10%)
Savings            $500 (10%. Goes for emergency fund, Christmas, vacation, retirement, future car)
Debt                $500 (10%. If debt repayment is higher, use savings above. If it is still not enough, then choices will be made to cut back on expenses below.)
Housing           $1,250 (25%)
Cars                 $700 (14%. Including gasoline and maintenance.)
Utilities            $250 (5%. Electricity, water, trash, phone, internet, cable.)
Food                $400 (8%. Obviously, you need to avoid eating out on a tight budget.)
Clothing           $250 (5%. If this seems like a lot, put some of it into food.)
Medical           $200 (4%. In this budget we have saved just for deductibles.)
Insurance        $200 (4%. Auto and life.)
Personal          $200 (4%. Cosmetics, childcare, gifts, hobbies, pets.)
Total               $5,000

Falling and Not Afraid

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton

Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

Our living and our dying are great mysteries.

Not long ago a young reporter contacted me wanting to talk about death. She had suddenly come to the realization that she would one day die. She wanted to know what happens to us when we die, was there life after death and what did Scripture say about heaven? These are meta-questions.

I know how I felt when I was 28. I didn’t want to die. My whole life was ahead of me. I couldn’t accept that there was a limit to my time on earth. And there was a bit of a fear factor. What would happen to me? What if there was not a resurrection? Would death be painful? Did my life have meaning? I felt a little guilty about these doubts and fears because I was already ordained—I should be steadfast in my faith and have no doubts about my ultimate future. But I did.

Here is what I learned from my experience at that time in my life: Life is precious and beautiful and, even in its painfulness, something to be fiercely protected. Also, doubt is not the opposite of faith but is part of faith. Doubt and questions can lead us to clearer understanding and deeper faith.

Based on our tradition’s conviction that it is God’s gracious will to be merciful, that God intends good for all people and all creation, that no amount of good deeds or of bad will determine God’s relationship with us, or our eternal future—this is God’s work, God’s grace—I tried to answer the reporter’s questions.

Lutheran Christians do believe in life after this earthly one. Paul wrote: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his (Romans 6:3-5).

There are many passages in Scripture that speak about heaven—beautiful descriptions of reconciled humanity singing praises to God, the end of mourning and crying and pain and death, and the beauty of the heavenly city. And we hear God’s fulfilled promise: “See, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5).

Our living and our dying are great mysteries. The images of heaven we read in Scripture are the best and inspired efforts of the finite to describe the infinite. Human language and understanding are too small. But I am sure of this: God is love. God’s love is infinite and complete. In this life we only get a foretaste of that. When our earthly life is done we will be enfolded in that love and loved completely by the one who knows us completely.

Paul put it this way: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

My spiritual director told me this story. There was a woman who missed her footing in the dark and fell out of an open hotel room window. She clung desperately to the ledge all night, only to see at sunrise that she was 6 inches from the ground the whole time.

Our lives are like that—trying to hold on no matter what, not believing that God is there ready to receive us.

I thought about that for a while and only later came to realize that I am falling and not afraid. I don’t know what will come next in this life. I can’t definitively describe heaven. But I do know my life is in God’s hands.


A monthly message from the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This column first appeared in Living Lutheran’s April issue. Reprinted with permission.

Living Simply as an Act of Resistance

Pastor Chris Markert

Living Simply

One of the original vows of the Franciscan Order is the Vow of Poverty. For those in the first and second Franciscan orders (the original friars and sisters), this meant giving up personal ownership of material possessions and wealth, sharing everything within community. For those in the third order of Franciscans, originally known as the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, this meant striving to live a life of simplicity.

In our North American context, we see a culture of excess, expediency, and individualism. We hear of “keeping up with the Joneses,” McMansions, and a never-ending thirst for more – more money, more oil, more things to acquire.

Perhaps the Franciscan way of simplicity has something to teach us in the midst of such a culture:

  • Pure holy simplicity confounds all the wisdom of this world and the wisdom of the flesh.”  -St. Francis of Assisi
  • We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become. If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing.” -St. Clare of Assisi

Even our Lutheran lens can be a witness to living a Gospel life of simplicity:

  • Ive read enough. Ive heard enough. I know enough. Would to God I lived it.” –Katie Luther to Martin Luther, after he kept exhorting her to read the Bible from cover to cover.
  • Therefore, we should be guided in all our works by this one thought alonethat we may serve and benefit others in everything that is done, having nothing before our eyes except the need and advantage of the neighbor.” – Martin Luther

Jesus himself reminds us, No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”  (Matthew 6:24 CEB)

So, as we engage in a world that is often caught up in wealth and possessions, in individual rights, and the pursuit of personal success at the expense of communal responsibility and care for our neighbor, how can choosing to live simply become an act of resistance?

Assembly Churchwide Representative: Judith Roberts

Judith Roberts
Judith Roberts

Judith Roberts serves as ELCA Program Director for Racial Justice. The work of the ELCA Racial Justice ministries educates, equips and engages leaders to analyze the systems of racism and identify solutions that create equitable outcomes within and outside of the ELCA. The Racial Justice ministries of the ELCA serves as catalyst and bridge builder committed to the work of equipping leaders to recognize and understand the complexity and implications of racism and racial issues. Through partnerships with synods, congregations, associations and agencies, Racial Justice supports training and education in the areas of anti-racism and racial justice.

Judith is the former Director of Adult Programs for the National Conference for Community and Justice of Connecticut and Western Massachusetts; a human relations organization dedicated to fighting bias, bigotry, and racism in America by promoting respect and understanding for all races, religions, and cultures through advocacy, conflict resolution, and education. She has also worked for the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. The Winter Institute fosters reconciliation and civic renewal wherever people suffer as a result of racial discrimination or alienation, and promotes scholarly research, study, and teaching on the impact of race and racism.

She received a B.S. in Human Services from Springfield College, Springfield, and M.A. in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi. She enjoys movies, cooking for friends, and spending time with family.

Getting to Know Our Interim Synod Assembly Planner

Sara 1
Sara Ray

Sara Ray grew up in Colorado and went to college at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She earned a BS in Architectural Engineering and a BA in music. Somehow those degrees led her to Lutherhill to serve as the Program Director for four years. She serves at Kinsmen Lutheran as the Director of Children’s Ministry and Outreach.

Sara 2Sara and her spouse Chris enjoy raising their spunky 19-month-old child who spends most of her days at Advent Lutheran with her dad or at Kinsmen Lutheran with her mom. Adelyn loves to share the peace of Christ with everyone and has been known to pound on the back doors of the sanctuary during the sermon and yell “all done!”

Fun facts about Sara:

  • she earned her Amateur Radio License when she was 13 years old
  • she plays the clarinet, but also played baritone saxophone in jazz band
  • in her first 9 months in Texas she hit 2 deer with two different cars
  • she’s run 1 marathon and 7 half marathons

Rejoicing Spirits

MOSAICRejoicing Spirits is an innovative ministry that works to enrich the faith lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, their families and friends, and other supportive community members.

Unfortunately, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are often overlooked when it comes to inclusion and leadership in our faith communities. Most churches have done significant work in adapting buildings to accommodate physical needs, but unseen barriers often prevent people with disabilities from becoming active members in a faith community that they choose.

This innovative ministry works with congregations to provide a meaningful, inclusive worship service in a loving and supportive community for people with intellectual disabilities and the people who love and support them. People are free to be themselves while actively participating as contributing members in an inclusive faith community.

ShushFree Worship

A Rejoicing Spirits worship service includes lots of music and joyous singing, along with brief, meaningful messages. Worshippers are invited to come as they are: people are encouraged to be themselves without fear of being “shushed.” There are lots of opportunities for worshippers to serve, lead, learn and participate.

The Rejoicing Spirits worship service can meet people’s needs in various ways:

  • Serves as a stepping stone for those wanting to take the first step into a faith community.
  • Offers complementary worship and fellowship opportunities for those who already belong to a faith community.
  • Provides an inclusive faith community that may fully meet their current needs and desires.

Prospective Congregations

Rejoining Spirits congregations share the goal of ensuring that all people, especially people with disabilities, are able to explore and express their faith in an inclusive worship community of their choice. Supported by the national support office of Mosaic, a faith-based nonprofit dedicated to providing “a life of possibilities for people with intellectual disabilities,” Rejoicing Spirits provides resources, support and coaching to help congregations to include people with disabilities as active and valued participants using the Rejoicing Spirits model.

Refugee Sunday

refugee sundayIn 1939, Lutherans all across the United States banded together to reach out to assist Lutheran refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Creating Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) to organize their efforts, they welcomed these new Americans and walked with them as they began their new lives in the United States.

Today, LIRS has directly resettled over 500,000 migrants and refugees in the U.S., extending the love and hospitality of this great nation.

June 20 is World Refugee Day, and we invite you to celebrate it in your communities. Participate by:

  • Lifting up refugees in your prayers
  • Telling stories
  • Having a learning event
  • Taking an offering for LIRS


Help equip your congregation to take part in this celebration using LIRS’ resources, which include:

  • Bulletin insert
  • Sermon notes
  • Refugee quiz
  • Refugee simulation game
  • Refugee fact sheet

For the past few years our companion synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Central African Republic, has suffered much. There are many refugees as we speak. Let’s take time to pray and act.

We are Gods hands at work in the worldoffering healing, hospitality, and hope.

Creation Care Tips from the Synod Lutherans Restoring Creation Team

Lisa Brenskelle

Lutherans Restoring Creation

The mission of Lutherans Restoring Creation is to promote incorporation of care for creation into the full life and mission of the church, working in five areas: worship, education, discipleship, building and grounds, and public ministry/advocacy. For some timely tips in these areas, see below:

To contact the synod Lutherans Restoring Creation Team for creation care assistance/information, please contact Lisa Brenskelle. The team is seeking additional members.  If you would be willing to serve, please contact us.

Healing the World God Loves

Bishop Mike Rinehart

People of faith care about the world that God so loves (John 3:16). Jesus offered a way of justice and peace, calling us to love and pray for our enemies, while teaching his followers to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and visit those who are sick or in prison. This is “The Way,” described in the New Testament.

Jesus traveled the countryside healing people who were sick with leprosy, fevers, blindness, and more. He taught his disciples a kinder engagement of the occupying Roman armies.

So where is God calling us today? Where are the leper colonies and prisons we need to visit? Who are the strangers in need of welcome?

The World Health Organization offers an interesting perspective. Here are the top ten threats to human life.

top ten causes of death

This information comes from the World Health Organization. Ischemic heart disease and stroke are the top causes of death. Contagious lower respiratory infections accounted for 3.2 million deaths. HIV/AIDS is falling off the top 10 list, but diabetes has come up. Road injury and tuberculosis figure large. Diarrhea, caused most often by a lack of clean water, is an epidemic. Many of the top killers are hunger and poverty related. Too many African countries have an average life expectancy in the 40s. We have work to do.

While armed conflict has been on the rise the last 2-3 years, it still does not come close to making the top ten. You are still four times as likely to die of road injury in this world than in an armed conflict. I haven’t seen rock solid numbers for 2016, but the Armed Conflict Database reported 167,000 deaths in 40 known armed conflicts in 2015, down 13,000 from 2014. With the devastating death toll in Syria, I’m sure that number will be up for 2016, when they publish the numbers. Even so, it will be far from the greatest threats to life in this world. In 2015, there were 429,000 malaria deaths. Malaria is a bigger threat than armed conflict.

Certainly, defeating ISIS is a priority. The horrific nature of their inhumane taking to life is pure evil. They have killed more Muslims than any other religious group. The question becomes, how? The Syrian Civil War is complex, spurred by Assad’s regime. The players are many: Assad’s forces, the resistance, ISIS, Russia, Turkey, Iraq, and the U.S.

What is proposed? Boots on the ground? A devastating attack on Syria, which will ultimately be a recruiting win for ISIS and other extremist groups?

The moral question is much larger than armed conflict. People of good will want less armed conflicts, not more. Battling malaria and HIV/AIDS is as important as battling ISIS, which, by the way, has been losing ground steadily for two years. Note the recent absence of media output from ISIS? The world sees ISIS for what it is. Its days are numbered. Hunger and poverty, though, are here to stay. And one can make a strong case that a considerable amount of global conflict would be averted if people were fed and housed adequately. Warm people with health care and full stomachs don’t want the chaos of war.

War breeds war. Violence breeds violence. Jesus’ message is one of transformation by love. Transform your enemy. Our best plan for this is by showering the world with food, water, medicine, health care, and good will. We dare not cut back on these things. Food, not bombs, will change the game.

Want to make a difference? This year we are raising half a million dollars for ELCA World Hunger. The best thing you can do, to make the world a better place, is serve those in need. The surest way to follow Jesus’ command to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome he stranger, is to get out of our personal bubble, bringing our wealth, time, and influence to bear on the world’s problems.

I invite you to serve those in need here and abroad. Most of you already are. Lent is a great time to recommit to acts of mercy. This year set a goal. Make a commitment. Be a part of our efforts to give $500,000 for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.



As of January 31, 2017, our total individual and congregational support for our hunger appeal is at $249,165, which is 49.8% of our goal.