We Are Being Reborn (+more rad graphs)

On December 16, 2004, a NorthHaven Church Task Force met at the Presbyterian church to present the findings of their visioning study. Long before NorthHaven owned any property, designed a building, or moved into its own space, it took steps to discern who she wanted to become. 

The task force began by acknowledging a few things about who the church was before describing who it wanted to be. The church was made up of moderate and progressive Baptists who wanted something different in their church life. They started NorthHaven for that particular purpose. Most of the members at that time came from a church split and were still going through the healing process. Most were lower and middle class persons who would be classified as intellectuals. 

The presentation also acknowledged that NorthHaven was a regional church not confined to any one geographical area. It drew members from Lexington, Midwest City, OKC, Moore, Ada, and even Ardmore. Today, we still draw members from many of those places as well as Blanchard and other, new locations. 

Then, in Part II of the task force presentation, it sought to answer the question: “Who do we want to be?” 

  1. We want to be different, and we know if we are going to achieve this, then we are going to have to be very intentional. 
  2. We want to be a church that is more ministry minded, not a church based on programs. 
  3. We want to be a church that ministers outside the walls of its building. 
  4. We want to be qualitative not quantitative. 
  5. We want to be challenged intellectually, seeking a good balance of head and heart. 
  6. We want to reach out to the community. 

To support these goals, the church voted to give 15% of every dollar to missions outside the walls of the church and in the community. It also hired an educated, full-time pastor even before having a building. 

NorthHaven was never a large church, and from our earliest days, we made a conscious choice to prize quality over quantity. We’ve always been a quirky church who was self-aware and content with the strange place that we inhabit in the religious landscape of Oklahoma- even taking steps to protect that uniqueness. 

Today, 17 years after NorthHaven’s task force gave its report, we have the opportunity to look back and see both how far we’ve come and where we were pulled off course. 

We remain a moderate and progressive Baptist church at no small cost and despite forces trying to pull us in other directions. Members who joined because we affirm women, left because they didn’t like how we talk about racism or Christian Nationalism. Yet through it all, we’ve maintained and reaffirmed our identity, even explicitly extending the hand of fellowship to our LGBTQ family members. 

Today, imagining 15% of our budget going to missions seems like a dream. Since you brought me on staff in 2018, we’ve given only 4% and 5% to missions annually. Those of you on committees know how rarely our conversations are able to focus on anything outside the building and in the community. 

Church consultants say that a church needs to reassess and reaffirm its mission and vision every 5 years or so. 

Have we become who we aimed to be? Do those goals still apply to us? Where have we fallen short, where have we outgrown them, and where can we improve in the next 5 years? 

Consultants also observe that around the 20 year mark is where churches tend to either veer off course or come into adulthood, so to speak. That’s where we are today. Standing at a crossroads and once again asking ourselves, “who do we want to become?” 

Do we still hold the values that we asserted 17 years ago? 

On top of everything else, we are in a season of decline and depression as a church- just like nearly every other religious congregation in America. These last two years have been hard. And harder on us than many others. But this is actually really good news in the grand scheme of things. It gives us the opportunity and the crisis necessary to reimagine who we are as a congregation and recommit to our core values. 

Here’s a graph I really like about the life cycle of  congregations:

In the life of a church, the point of decline is also the very same point where rebirth is possible. (Is it an accident that we’re talking about Nicodemus being born again in worship this week!?) It’s a profoundly spiritual and Christian truth. Death leads to resurrection and new life. It is in dying that the Christian lives. So it is with churches. 

We are in a moment of death and rebirth.

Here’s the graph showing our current giving data that Ginger Elliot Teague created for church conference in January:

We have a disturbing disparity in our giving data. That little blue line on the faaarrr right of the graph is 90+ years old. Add to it the fact that an even larger contributor died in 2020. 

Here’s another graph Ginger put together of our budget from 2018, when both of those givers were still actively contributing, alongside our 2021 budget. 

As you can see, our missions giving was already 10% lower by 2018 than our 2004 commitment of 15%. And that 2018 budget included over $100,000 more than our 2021 budget. Since 2018 we’ve decreased staff by more than $60,000 and slashed church ministries and programs by nearly $20,000. We increased missions giving from $17,000 in 2018 & 2019 to $22,000 in 2020, but very quickly reduced it again in 2021. 

To give a little perspective, our median giver donated $2000 in 2021. That means half our givers donate more and half give less. In order to replace the two largest givers that I described, NorthHaven needs 105 new givers (or new families). That’s simply to return to a budget that looks more like the 2018 budget that gave 5% to missions. 

NorthHaven has never been that large, and because of the choices we’ve made, we’re unlikely to ever be that large.

17 years ago, we chose quality over quantity. We chose to be our unique selves knowing that would make us a niche church. We choose to remain moderate and progressive in Oklahoma knowing it isn’t the most popular option. 

Today, we’re faced again with the opportunity to reaffirm these commitments (both their privileges and their liabilities) or to re-envision who we are and who we want to be.

I think we are still that same church who met 17 years ago and dreamed of a different kind of community in Norman. Who we are hasn’t died. Who we are as a congregation is stronger and more alive than ever before. 

What’s passing away is the how. 

How we are able to be an “inclusive family of Christ followers” is dying away very quickly, but God is providing new ways for us to be faithful witnesses in our time and place even now. And we get to partner with God in the creation of this new thing that God is doing with NorthHaven Church. 

Our rebirth is just on the horizon, and somedays I can see it. I can see artists gathered showcasing their paintings at the art-walk. I can see homeless people at our door received bags of groceries and clean clothes. I can see politicians and religious leaders sharing a meal and dreaming about a more just city. I can see college students who hear an inclusive gospel articulated for the very first time that is both biblical and Christ-like. 

We’re right in the middle of rebirth. Right now. And anyone who has given birth or witnessed that miracle knows it is a painful process. Sometimes slow. Sometimes twinged with grief or even remorse. Always significant. Never to be taken lightly. 

Our rebirth won’t be without pain. It won’t happen quickly. We have to push. It won’t be easy. But NorthHaven, there is no one else I want to share this moment with. No one else I want beside me in times as difficult and special as these. 

What is being born in us and through us during these difficult days is going to be something truly remarkable. I believe.  

Jakob Topper, Senior Pastor

Why I Didn’t Do a Stewardship Series This Year

2021 was the first year since you called me to NorthHaven Church as your pastor that we didn’t have a stewardship sermon series in the Fall. In the year when our financial challenges are the most severe, you may want to know why.

There’s a story in the Gospel of Luke (21:1-4) we call The Widow’s Mite. Jesus and his disciples are in the temple watching rich people dump bucket loads of coins into the collection pots. Then, a widow comes forward and puts her last two coins into the collection. Jesus tells his disciples, “this poor widow put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

Often, this story is told as a way to inspire people to give sacrificially. It’s true, Jesus honors the woman, and it’s also true that we are commanded to give sacrificially. It’s not a suggestion. That’s an interpretation not to overlook. What is frequently overlooked is the context in which this story is told. Luke gives us some heavy handed clues on another compelling way to interpret it.

Immediately before the widow’s story, Jesus warns about the teachers of the law in the temple and synagogues whose religion is for show since they devour widow’s houses. The temple in that day was not only the religious center of the Jewish world but also the economic center. Women were forbidden property ownership except on very rare occasions. If a man died without a son to inherit his property, then instead of passing to the wife, the property went to the temple. The temple got rich this way, and the teachers of the law provided the theological justification for this ungodly practice. 

After Jesus warns of this temple system and its leaders who rob widows, the very next story is about our poor widow giving away her last two coins. It’s an illustration of exactly what Jesus just warned about! This widow is being manipulated out of her last penny by an unjust religious system.

In case Luke’s interpretation isn’t clear enough, he follows the widow’s story with another telling story. While still in the temple, the disciples comment on how lavish and luxurious the temple building is. Jesus responds by proclaiming condemnation on the temple- the system and the building itself. He goes so far as to say that no two bricks will be left on top of one another. Utter destruction. It comes to pass in 70 A.D.

The interpretation Luke suggests is perfectly clear: religious systems that take from those who don’t have it to give are robbers, opposed by God, and they have no future. 

I didn’t do a stewardship campaign this year because I take seriously this warning in the widow’s story. 

If you read the State of Our Church Address, then you see how NorthHaven is financially overextended and the steps we’re taking to correct it. Our primary problem isn’t a giving problem. For the most part, NorthHaven is filled with faithful givers. What we have is a spending problem, and I have a righteous fear of God that we will be judged for how we talk about money during this time.

When organizations struggle, it’s a temptation for anxious leaders to become manipulative about money. To badger and pressure or coerce people into giving more and more and more. NorthHaven’s leadership is committed to a different path. 

We’re committed to open and honest conversations about money and about our financial situation, because we know that we will be held accountable. 

Are we still an organization worth giving toward sacrificially? 

More than ever before. 

The way our leadership is handling these conversations and the transparency with which they operate convinces me that NorthHaven Church is more in line with my values than even I knew.

What our church stands for and the work we do matters. You know that or you wouldn’t be getting this letter. Our mission to create an inclusive community is more prophetic now than any other time in my life. And despite all the challenges, I’m more optimistic about our ability to be that prophetic witness than I’ve ever been. NorthHaven’s brightest days are ahead of us. I believe. 

That’s why my household is increasing our planned giving for the 2022 year. It won’t be by much, but it will be sustainable. I hope you will join me by using this as an opportunity to make a tangible recommitment to the mission of our church. 

If you can’t- if what you’re already giving is all you can give, then please do not increase giving even a dime. Remember the widow. While others gave out of their wealth, she gave out of her poverty. In the eyes of the kingdom, she gave more than anyone else. 

Jakob Topper 

Senior Pastor

State of the Church Address 12.31.2021

Nearly two decades ago a group of moderate and progressive Baptist dreamers gathered to pray about the future of the Church in Norman, Oklahoma. They dared to let themselves envision a church without divided loyalties, who didn’t have to cow-toe around the Southern Baptists, but could live fully into who God was calling them to be. 

In the years to come, that dream materialized. NorthHaven Church was birthed as a Cooperative Baptist church not fighting to preserve a misremembered past but living into God’s future. A future where all of God’s children are welcomed and included with love and mercy for one another without any caveats or asterisks. 

Nearly 20 years later, we’re still working to materialize that dream each day. This year, our executive committee voted to clarify that when our mission statement says “NorthHaven is an inclusive community” we really mean it. Male or female, gay or straight, all are children of God, and by God’s grace, all are equally deserving of all the rights and responsibilities of the NorthHaven Church family.

For the third year in a row, we’ve set a new record high for how much money we’ve raised and given away in benevolence funds to those lacking basic necessities. 

Today, we have the healthiest church staff I’ve ever been apart of in my 15 years on church staffs. All of us are united in mission and purpose and are working toward the same goals. 

Pamela and Kaitlyn just celebrated their second anniversary leading our children. We’ve lost too many members over the last two years, but we’ve lost very few families with children in comparison. It’s been our least affected area and is even growing! I’m convinced that the great work Pamela and Kaitlyn are doing is a huge factor contributing to the spiritual health of our church as a whole, not to mention the spiritual formation of our children. 

The inclusive love and kindness that NorthHaven preaches, Kayleigh and Jillian modeled in our youth department this year. They’ve created a community that is open to all and celebrates all of our gifts and quirks.

It is with great joy that we welcomed Patti Drennan on staff this Fall. Patti has so many talents and treasures that we are only just beginning to learn how to utilize her best. With Patti, the future of worship is only limited by our ability to dream it. 

Sheri continues to be the glue holding all things together and ensuring that the ship is always sea ready. I’ve taken to introducing her as the Chief Operating Officer, and it’s true. Sheri does the lion’s share of building management and administrative work on top of keeping our books and finances in line- freeing me up to do what I do best. 

NorthHaven’s staff is an embarrassment of riches, and I am convinced that our staff is our most valuable asset. It’s not often first time pastors as young as I am are surrounded by staffs as powerful and purposeful as mine is. I am a lucky pastor, and I know it. Whatever God’s future for NHC is, I believe these people are key.

Despite all the challenges of 2019, 2020, and 2021, God continues to create something beautiful at NorthHaven. That we are still here and even thriving in all the ways that count the most is a testimony to God’s grace and NHC’s faithfulness. 

One day we will stand before God and give an account for our work here at NorthHaven during this time, and I believe with full assurance of faith, that in all the ways that matter the most to the kingdom of heaven, we will be found faithful. 

When I do a baby dedication I always pray that God would give the child a good life, not an easy one. That prayer is being answered at NHC. We are doing good, good work, but it has not been easy, and it may not get easier for awhile still.

In early 2020 we buried our dear friend and founding member, Bob Stephenson, who was the benefactor who bought the land and paid for the vast majority of the buildings NHC now inhabits. His annual contributions made it possible for NorthHaven to accomplish things in its first 15 years that no teenage church should have any right to accomplish. There’s no end to our gratitude for Bob, and we miss his wisdom and insight now more than ever. 

When Bob died, the financial profile of our church changed. Bob didn’t believe in giving to endowments, because he’d been burned in the past. He believed in buildings because he said a building appreciates and can always be turned into a liquid asset if needed. Instead of leaving us an endowment after he died, he built us buildings while he was alive and left us with an incredible resource to steward. 

A convergence of factors like Bob’s passing, the pandemic, and others have made meeting our budget goals difficult. We cut our budget by 25% from 2020 to 2021, but have bottomed out on what we can cut without losing staff or removing what little is left of our missions and ministries. 

The Center for Healthy Churches published a rough outline for what a healthy church budget might look like: 

Personnel        50-60%
Facilities          15-25%
Programs         10-15%
Missions         10-20%
Debt                0-5%

 

NorthHaven’s 2022 Budget looks like this: 

Personnel 51%

Facilities 38%

Programs 3%

Missions 4%

Debt 4%

Not only is our budget unbalanced, but at our December Church Conference, we passed a budget for 2022 that spends $44,000 more than we expect in contributions. We have money in the bank to cover this shortfall next year, but obviously this is no way to run a church long term. 

To exacerbate our financial challenges, our largest giver right now gives $90,000 per year and is over 90 years old. Conceivably, we could be looking at a $134,000 per year deficit in the future if we don’t making large changes. The reality is disquieting, but after all that we’ve been through in the last few years and since NorthHaven’s founding, I believe that God still has a purpose for NorthHaven to live into. God is not finished with us yet. 

That’s why we’ve assembled a building use task force to explore three goals: 

  1. Short-range goal of using our  building to generate income in the amount of $44,000 per year. 
  2. Mid-range goal of using our building to generate income in the amount of $134,000 per year. 
  3. Explore other option in regards to our assets and liabilities. 

More directly, the third goal means that if we cannot find a sustainable way to raise our annual income $44k in the short term and $134k soon after, then what other options are left to us?

Coincidentally, in early December another church here in town approached us and expressed their interest in purchasing our building. They sold their building to the state as a part of the highway expansion and need somewhere else to go. Our executive committee made no commitment whatsoever, but they did decide to get an appraisal on our property so that we will at least know what kind of finances are on the table. 

The last time a valuation of our property was done, it was valued at $8.5 million. Hypothetically, if we sold the building and put that 8.5 million in an endowment that draws 5% interest each year, then we would make $425,000 per year. That’s about $100,000 more per year than our an entire 2022 budget without even considering tithes from members on top of that. 

That doesn’t address any of the challenges of moving or where we would go, but with $425,000 per year, every year, NorthHaven’s existence could be ensured into the distant future. What dreams might God have for us if we had that kind of money to promote God’s inclusive love in Oklahoma? What might our leadership and staff be able to accomplish when we can focus our energies outward instead of inward? 

My goal in saying this isn’t to convince anyone we should sell our building. Maybe we should or maybe we shouldn’t. I’m not quite sure yet. My goal is to articulate that we have a bright future ahead of us no matter what the future holds. NorthHaven isn’t done dreaming. God isn’t finished with us yet. 

I believe the promise God spoke to the Hebrew people in exile is the same one God is speaking to NorthHaven today in our own exilic moment: 

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

Whatever may come, I give thanks that we’re meeting these challenges together, church. No one wants to walk through fire, but if we have to do it, then we do it together. 

Jakob Topper, Senior Pastor

Worth It 11.30.2021

“NOOOO!!!”

Fear rolled over me as I spun my head around and searched the back seat of my car for the source of mortal terror. 

In the back seat, Hadley screamed like a snake crawled into the car seat with her, but there was no snake. No spider. No boogeyman of any kind, as far as I could tell. 

“Hadley, what is wrong?!” 

“That was my faaavooorite song,” she bawled. 

Before parking the car in front of our house, Hadley sat in the back seat singing along to the cd Pamela and Kaitlin made of the upcoming Christmas play songs (12/10). When I killed the car engine, the song died too, and Hadley bellowed her discontent with all the gusto of a threenager, “NOOOO!!!” 

30 minutes later, she sat on my lap in the driver’s seat singing, “Glory to God in the Highest” at the top of her lungs on our second play through of the entire cd…

Five school children (5-10) singing in class, close-up

Each time a new song came on and I reached to turn the car off, she recited the first line of our now familiar call and response litany: “Just one more, Dada. This one is my favorite.”

Then, I read my line for the 15th time, “okay, just one more song.”

Listening to her sing in a voice she inherited from her father, it occurred to me that Hadley will never know a time that she isn’t loved by God. She won’t have so much of the baggage that my childhood Christianity gave me in its attempt to scare me toward God and away from hell.  

Each week Hadley comes to church and learns that God loves her. She isn’t told that she’s inadequate and broken or that there’s something fundamentally wrong with her that justifies her spending eternity in hell unless she’s a good little girl who can pray enough or behave well enough. 

Hadley and all the rest of our children are told that there’s nothing at all that they can do to make God love them any more or any less. They are already loved beyond measure just as they are. 

Hadley sings out of pure delight, not fear. She’s telling the truth; the next song is her favorite.  It’s the song she’s about to sing that is the most important song in the world. 

Sometimes I take what NorthHaven Church is offering to our children and youth for granted. Because it’s how I believe things should be and because it’s the world Hadley is growing up in, I forget that it is far from common. 

NorthHaven’s message as an inclusive community of Christ followers is uncommon in our world, and our kind of church is an endangered species. Conservation efforts are essential, because our children are worth it. Our children deserve a place to live and love and grow without the threat of God’s violence looming over them. 

That’s why on this Giving Tuesday, I’m asking you to join me in giving a special gift to NorthHaven Church above and beyond our regular tithe. Give to protect and preserve the sacred message that our children are inheriting from us. 

There are a lot of really great organizations asking for your charitable gifts today. I know they’re deserving, and I believe in my bones that NorthHaven is worth it too. Ensuring that the Gospel is preached- God loves all, is in all, and overcomes all- is worth investing in. It’s worth it not only because our children are worth it, but because this world needs it now more than ever. 

We’re a small church, and our reach isn’t what I wish it were, but God willing, I believe we’re raising little missionaries filled with light and life and love, who will grow up and carry the inclusive Gospel of Jesus Christ out into the world. What we’re doing right now matters, and it depends on our generosity to keep the good work going and the Good News proclaimed. We can’t afford to do anything less.

https://northhavenchurch.net/give/

Jakob Topper, Senior Pastor

Mission Moment 11.16.2021

Last week I posted on Facebook asking y’all to bring coats for adults in need and to donate money so that we can buy new, modest coats for kids in need. A mother from OKC saw the post and drove down with her 6 kids. Her husband died a few years ago and she was struggling to get by. She’d depended on charity from lots of organizations to get by, but until she saw my post, she’d sworn to never again go to another church for help. 

She told me a story about getting coats from a church once only to find mites and bed bugs in two of the coats her kids. Another time, the church wouldn’t help her family until they came to a worship service, so she agreed. Don’t dress too nice, the minister said. So her family went to the service and the minister stood the whole family up on stage so that the church could ogle their charity case and pate themselves on the back for being such good Christians. This mother said she watched her children choke back tears on that stage, and she swore never again would she go to another church for help. The cost was too high. 

But when she saw that we give new coats to kids, she thought she’d give it one more try. So she drove down with her kids, and we went shopping. We picked out nice, new coats for all of her kids and even her, and when they left, she cried. And I cried. 

Justice rolled out of our eyes and righteousness flowed down our cheeks. 

Each coat we put on cold shoulders, each diaper we put on Afghan refugee bottoms, each clean sock on a tired foot, each tear shed in solidarity with the hurting- all drops of water falling in a dessert land. 

Excerpt from the sermon AMOS: Justice Rolls Down preached by Jakob Topper on 11/14/2021 and shared anonymously with consent. 

Mission Moment/Vulnerability and Grace 10.18.2021

One question I (Jakob) started asking people when they come to NorthHaven for benevolence needs is where they go to church. For a long time I neglected to ask, because I didn’t want to come across judgy. I changed my mind though.

I respect the reasons people do not go to church. I even admire some of them, but I still believe everyone’s lives benefit from a loving, healthy spiritual community. 

If a person tells me they do not go to church, I tell them the same thing I just wrote y’all. I try not to be preachy, but I do believe that in life’s biggest challenges- the challenges that bring people to our door in need- a spiritual community can help us get through them. So I’ve started saying so. 

If a person answers that they do go to church, then I ask if they approached their own church for help. Sometimes they say yes but their own church wouldn’t help them. If the church who knows them the most said no, then that’s a conversation I want to have before handing out money. It doesn’t disqualify anyone, but it is cause to dig deeper. 

A few weeks ago, a woman started crying when I asked her if she’d gone to her own church for help. She hadn’t. Why not? I asked. She was too embarrassed, she said. She didn’t want her church to know that she was one of “those people.” 

The conversation was heartbreaking and made me question the way their church thought about poor people in general if this woman was so afraid to be identified as one. I grieved because she couldn’t be honest with her own church family about one of her greatest struggles- one that was in no way her fault.

I hope that she is wrong about her church. I hope that if she trusts her church with her real self and her real struggles, then she will be surprised by their understanding and grace. Maybe even their generosity. But sadly, she was probably right. I believed her and did everything we could to help her.

For a lot of people church isn’t the place to be vulnerable or poor in body or spirit. But if not here, then where? Where else can we find others committed to living an honest human experience with integrity? Where else can we find fellow travelers on this difficult road who believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that God is the mystery and the beauty at the center of it all?

That’s why I loved Lynndi Cox’s prayer so much this Sunday (10/17) in worship. Worship is a place to sing to God with a joyful heart, of course, but lament and grief have just as much right to that space as anything else. It all belongs in the sanctuary of God and at the foot of the cross. 

Honest church community is work. It requires a lot from us that only God can give us, but as Lynndi articulates so well, it’s worth it to keep pressing in.

Here’s her prayer:

“Lord, last time I was up here praying out loud in our church, sometime in late 2019 or early 2020, I asked you to help us to reflect on the ways in which we relied on and trusted in the broken systems, routines, and structures of this world and to help us to trust more in you. Whoops! So, here we are, still very much in the midst of a global pandemic, with the broken systems fully exposed. Our lives have been dramatically adjusted. Many of us are sitting with a lot of anger, frustration, and anxiety. Our friendships, family relationships, and patience have been tested by the events of the last few years. I can’t speak for everyone, but for some sitting here today (or at home), the experience has been isolating. It has been hard to cling to faith and hope. It has been hard to keep showing up, to keep reaching out to others and to you. So, today, I ask you to help us to find the strength to keep showing up. To keep trying. To keep connecting. To keep listening for your voice calling us in the night. Then, when we hear you, give us the courage to respond and act according to your will. 

Thank you for the gift that is NorthHaven. May we continue to be a community that loves, encourages, and supports each other as we try to follow Christ’s example.

Amen.” 

Mission Moment 8.30.2021

In his ministry, Jesus often acts in such a way to humble the wise while also giving dignity to the lowly. He scolds the Pharisees and the rulers of the day, yet speaks graciously with the woman at the well (John 4) when it was undignified to do so. Jesus sees her as a child of God, not merely a person with a troubled past. 

Jesus’ interactions with children are another place we see this. The disciples, who understood Jesus’ ministry better than most, still reprimanded children for coming to Jesus, but he welcomes them, breaking social norms to do so. It’s hard to wrap my mind around this one, when I’m taught to make my needs secondary to my children’s.The first century world was not this way. Yet, Jesus rebukes the disciples for preventing children from coming to him. Jesus is often painted with children sitting on his lap. 

Throughout the Gospels, from children to divorced women, from those with leprosy to those with bleeding ailments, Jesus gives dignity to those who have been humbled by life. 

I am convinced that a huge aspect of the Church’s work is helping people reclaim the dignity they deserve as children of God. 

NorthHaven had a great opportunity to do just that this summer. Through a NorthHaven member, I connected with a family fostering three siblings in middle and high school. The kids wanted to run cross-country, but the family didn’t have the money to outfit all of them with the appropriate gear. 

The more I got to know this family, the more I thought about another NorthHaven member who I suspected might want to help them out. When I reached out to this person (who asked to remain anonymous, but loves that this story is being told), they were ecstatic to donate money to gear up these kids. They specifically told me to “Go all out. Name brands.” So we did. 

I was lucky enough to be the intermediary who took these three kids shopping for the best running shoes, socks, athletic clothes, water bottles, and sunglasses. Nice things that anyone of us would be proud to own. Nice things that a foster child could wear to cross country practice at a new school and not stand out as a foster child. 

Earlier this month, I reached out to the foster parents to check-in. They told me it looked like the two oldest kids would actually make the cross country team this year. They loved running and found in it a release from the pressure of life. 

The youngest decided that he didn’t love running at all. A child after my own heart. They foster parents told me never owned a pair of sunglasses before, much less a pair of name brand glasses. The one’s we gave him were his most prized possession. He took them everywhere, night or day. They thanked the church for making this possible. For giving this child something to be proud of, no matter how small. 

One of the things our church does well is connect people and resources. Without NorthHaven members, I never would have learned about this foster family or their needs. Without other NorthHaven members, we wouldn’t have met those needs. Even though no budget money went into this mission moment, it is still a great example of the kind of opportunities that NorthHaven creates in our community.

Jakob Topper, Senior Pastor

*You can give to the mission and ministry of NorthHaven Church here. 

Mission Moment 8.23.2021

Foster care is near and dear to our heart at NorthHaven.

Last week I was contacted by a NorthHaven member who knew a foster family struggling to make ends meet at the beginning of the school year. The husband was a postal worker and the wife is disabled. They foster two kids that are their own distant relatives. 

The state supports foster families financially, but it doesn’t help families that are related to the kids they are fostering nearly as much as those who are unrelated. That means if I took in my hypothetical cousin’s kids because my cousin is an addict and unable to care for them, then I wouldn’t receive nearly as much financial support from the state as a complete stranger would if they took in the same kids. 

Not only does this practice de-incentivize keeping children in their families, it also creates added stress for those families fostering their own relatives, no matter how distantly related.

The family brought to our attention was one such family.

It’s important to remember that this family did not ask for help. Someone asked for help on their behalf. That means I needed to 1) learn if they really need the help, 2) not offend or belittle them, and 3) see exactly what kind of help they both need and are willing to accept. 

Everyone falls on hard times. Everyone of us might be in a position where we need benevolence help one day. It isn’t a matter of making wise decisions or not, but about the complications of life. I try to keep that in my mind when meeting with people, and I hope that if the tables are reversed, then someone will show me the same dignity. 

When I drove out to meet the couple, it was immediately obvious they were strong, wise people. They have solid plans to raise their income level beginning in September, but they really could use a little help getting through August. 

I offered to bring them groceries, if they would allow it. They agreed to groceries, but under one condition. The wife would pick them out herself. She is a great cook and wanted to make sure I didn’t buy food that would go to waste or a bunch of “bland white people food.” She was pleased to be quoted on that when I reached back out 🙂 

Last Monday, I was able to spend one of the happiest hours of my week at the grocery store learning how to pick out “real seasoning and spice” so that economical meals taste like a million bucks. 

Sometimes NorthHaven’s benevolence money goes to feed people who are literally starving. Other times it puts food on the table of the working poor. The working poor are families who have jobs and live reasonably but still struggle to make ends meet. These are the kinds of people most resistant to help, but who really do need a little something to keep them above water. 

If you’re a NorthHaven member who gives to the benevolence fund by dropping money in the baskets on Communion Sundays, then $300 of that money was used to put tasty food on the table of a good family with a great sense of humor and a lot of love. 

Jakob Topper, Senior Pastor

If you’d like to give to support the mission and ministry of NorthHaven Church you may do so here. 

Missions Moment 8.19.2021

July-September is always a busy benevolence season. Children go back to school and extra expenses ensue. 

Some people spend all of their flexible income on back to school supplies and clothes for their kids and then need help with necessities at the end of the month. Others are embarrassed to send their kids to school wearing clothes that don’t fit. Since no one wants to draw the ire of ruthless adolescents, they bravely ask churches for help. 

We’ve helped a lot of people this year, and I’m going to write a series of vignettes about the stories I am able to share. 

In July, I received a call from an individual I know through NHC’s partnership with a local nonprofit. Someone we trust, but who asked to remain nameless. He told me the story of a couple here in Central Oklahoma. Unable to conceive children, they’ve decided to foster toward adoption. With only three hours notice, this couple’s first placement was three siblings. 

The state gives some money to help foster families out, but the costs were higher than the couple expected. 

First, the couple didn’t expect to house three kids, but happily obliged in order to keep the siblings together. This meant they needed to purchase an extra bed frame and mattress.

Second, they didn’t plan on fostering older children. The kids came to them with barely any possessions, and only a couple changes of clothes. The couple owned clothes for the youngest child, but would need to purchase clothes for the older two. 

Quickly the couple realized they weren’t able to keep up with the expenses on their own. Help was needed. They requested more assistance from the state, but were denied. Then they reached out to the nonprofit their friend worked at, but since they were both employed teachers, they didn’t qualify for assistance there either. 

That’s when the final ball dropped. The kids needed to take summer school, and they would need tablets for the virtual learning portions of class. Where would the money come from? 

That’s when our mutual acquaintance called me to ask if there was anyway NorthHaven could help. 

I trusted him, and knew our church did, but I met with the couple anyway. They weren’t asking for much at all, but it was clear they needed a lot more than they were asking for.

Immediately, I gave them $1000 from the Pastor’s Discretion account. This account doesn’t come from the operating budget at all, but is 100% funded through specifically designated gifts. It’s there for exactly these kinds of things when quick action is need. I used that money to buy them a mattress, a bed frame, and give them a sizable gift card to the grocery story. 

I was positive they needed more help than this though.

I also contacted our Missions Committee and asked to help the family buy the tablets and nice clothes for the older kids. Not only did the Missions Committee vote to allocate another $1000 from the Other Missions account (funded through your tithes) toward helping this foster family get everything they needed, but one person on the committee took the initiative to raise another few hundred dollars from NorthHaven members not on the committee and even offered to take the children shopping themselves. 

These three foster kids are going through something no child should ever have to go through. We can’t change that for them, but we were able to ease their trauma ever so slightly. NorthHaven put clothes on their backs they aren’t ashamed of, tablets in their hands they can learn from, and a bed beneath them to rest in. 

Every child deserves at least as much. 

Jakob Topper, Senior Pastor

P.S. Because you asked: if you’re non-NorthHavener, I want to give away your money too 😉 I am 100% unashamed to ask for money when I can guarantee it goes to someone in real need. You can write “benevolence” or something like it in the notes section and by law we have to use it for that purpose. You can rest assured that it won’t go to me or toward any of the religious hocus pocus 😂

Giving Link.

Light In Strange Places

On Monday, I wore my NorthHaven t-shirt with a rainbow flag on it to the gym for the first time.

The gym I workout at is more industrial than commercial. It’s an old big rig garage that’s now home to a hodge podge of fitness equipment. No a/c. No heat. The kind of people that workout there aren’t quite like commercial gyms either. For one thing, there aren’t many senior citizens. There is one though.

He’s there every morning at the same time I am. His is the aesthetic of a biker with a shaved head and a handlebar mustache. Our paths cross frequently, but we never said anything more than, “how many more sets do you have on that bench?”

On Monday, he cut straight through the gym to ask me what the rainbow flag on my shirt meant. There goes my workout, I thought, but what I said was, “it means all people are welcome and wanted at my church just the way they are. Gay folks included.”

“Do you have a shirt to tell Black people or brown people they can come too?” he followed up with more than a little bit of antagonism.

“No,” I chuckled. Not an unfair question, I guess. I told him that in Oklahoma, the assumption was that gay people aren’t welcome in most churches. That’s why we wanted to explicitly say otherwise, and we hoped that the rainbow flag was a welcome sign not just to gay folks, but to everyone else too. If it wasn’t, then I’d just have to keep having conversations like this one, I told him.

That seemed to satisfy him. Either that or he wasted as much time between sets as he was willing to lose.

I chalked it up to a strange interaction and didn’t think much more about it.

Today, when I worked out I wasn’t wearing my NorthHaven shirt, but my curious old friend was there again. As soon as he saw me, he darted straight at me once again.

I braced myself. Sometimes this kind of behavior means the person spent their evening googling Bible verses so that they can tell me off. But not this time.

He dug into his pocket, yanked out a $20 bill and thrust it at me.

“Here. This is for your church. Do something good with it.” He spit the words like they were poison and dashed away.

He was back under the barbell before I even put the money in my pocket.

I couldn’t help it. I laughed out loud and shook my head. The interaction was too bizarre. So many questions rolled through my mind, but clearly he didn’t want to engage anymore than that. At least not then.

When he finished his workout I made sure to ease toward him in hopes of satisfying my curiosity.

“Hey, I just want to say thank you, and assure you that we’ll do something good with your money.” I said. “What made you decide to do that?”

And that’s where the story started.

He was a sailor. A career man in the navy, and he loved it. He was also gay. Not married. No desire to marry. He wasn’t religious either. Religion is mostly for the weak minded, he said. He walked out those doors 50 years ago and had no desire to go back. But, he continued, there might be a place in the world for churches to be good to everyone. At least, enough for him to give $20 towards it. He wasn’t giving $50, he reminded me more than once.

Life is strange; we people are stranger, and interactions with strangers are stranger still. Still, I give thanks for a church that even people who don’t believe in church feel inspired to give toward.

He’s right. The world might be a better place because NorthHaven is in it.