Declining Churches Searching for the Silver Bullet Pastor

  The problem of declining churches in America was nothing new when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck in March 2020. I tend to ignore 2020 through 2022 when measuring whether a church has declined. But let’s be honest: if you look back to March 2020 and compare your attendance and financial giving back then to that of today, in March 2024, and both are lower, on average, by more than a few percent, your church has declined. If you had a children’s ministry before the pandemic, and you now struggle to wrangle up more than a few kids on a typical Sunday, you have declined. Your church needs revitalization. Sure, there are other, less tangible measures of health. How are you doing evangelistically? Are you reaching your neighborhood with the gospel? Are you making disciples? Maybe your church has already taken proactive steps in the direction of revitalization. Perhaps you’ve already decided to make some hard decisions rather than kicking the can down the road. If so, good on you! Sadl

Sea Stories: Seaman Recruit Flannagan

by Bart L. Denny, Ph.D., Th.M.

I suppose my old basic training stories are like anyone else’s, but I have many. I’m a glutton for punishment, you see. I went through Navy boot camp in Orlando, Florida, in 1987, and that was the first, but not last, initial training program I went through in the Navy. Maybe someday I'll tell you all the stories of being screamed at by a wide variety of Navy and Marine Corps personnel in various training roles.

Meet Flanagan

But for now, I’ll introduce you to my first bunkmate in recruit training (aka “boot camp”), Seaman Recruit Flannagan (not his real name, and I don’t remember his first name to give him a pseudonym for that). More than any of the red-rope-wearing recruit company commanders—Chief Copenhaver, Petty Officer Miller, and their many colleagues who assisted them occasionally—Flannagan was the bane of my existence in the opening weeks of boot camp. In the weeks after I graduated from recruit training, Stanley Kubrick’s movie, Full Metal Jacket, arrived in theaters. In watching that film, I immediately recognized that Flannagan was Private Leonard Lawrence (aka “Gomer Pyle,” Vincent D’Onofrio) to my Private James Davis (aka “Joker,” Matthew Modine). Like in Full Metal Jacket, and probably every basic training set up in the U.S. military, Navy boot camp involved maybe 60 to 80 guys living in open-bay barracks with two long rows of bunk beds with small clothing lockers sitting in front of them. As Private Pyle was assigned to bunk on the top bunk with his bunkmate, Private Joker, on the bottom bunk, Flannagan bunked on the top bunk to my bottom bunk.

Just as Pyle was overweight, Flannagan was at least a little chubby and out of shape. Moreover, like Pyle, Flannagan could do almost nothing right. He couldn’t fold his clothes correctly, couldn’t make a bunk the way they taught us, couldn’t salute right. Anything they threw at us, Flannagan couldn’t do without messing it up. And at the same time, he seemed entirely oblivious to his failings. The one thing Flannagan could do well was shine shoes to a mirror-like sheen. And the little bastard charged guys five bucks for it (a pretty healthy sum in 1987). Flannagan got into a lot of trouble with the company commanders—and, as they expected bunkmates to work as a team, I got into trouble with him. In the evenings, recruits who seemed to have a little problem with motivation got sent to the base gym for an extra workout—and yelling at—called “Intensive Training,” or in a Navy world filled with acronyms, simply “I.T.” (these were the days before computers, primitive as they were, earned the I.T. moniker as “information technology”). Like Private Joker with his bunkmate Pyle, I tried to help Flannagan and got punished with him, as well. Thanks to one of Flannagan’s myriad screw-ups, I got my turn at I.T., an unpleasant experience not surpassed before my Plebe Summer.

Mercifully, the company commanders clearly recognized, I think, that I was trying hard and Flannagan wasn’t getting it. So, while my trips to I.T. were limited to a single evening, Flannagan became a frequent flyer. However, the hoped-for result of I.T. didn’t seem to materialize in Flannagan. Instead, he kept charging guys to shine their shoes while whining about his shin splints and begging me to make his “rack” (Navy parlance for a bunk) in the morning and to help him fold his skivvies according to the exacting standards of recruit training. As my resentment for him grew, I did my best to help Flannagan while trying hard to keep my own proverbial “s--t in one sock,” avoiding the ire of our company commanders, or "C.C.'s"--Chief Copenhaver and Petty Officer Miller.

No, we, the recruits of company C091, did not give Flannagan a “blanket party”—a beating with bars of soap wrapped in towels as the victim is held down to his bunk with his own blanket. Indeed, I never saw or even heard of a real blanket party in the Navy—not that I have any doubt they may once have been common before my day. But certainly, the day came, several weeks in, when the company commanders had had enough. Thirty-six years later, I don’t remember Flannagan’s final infraction. Still, I remember the horror on his face as Petty Officer Miller pointed at him and, disgustedly, declared, “You’re going to Mini-Mo, Flannagan.”

It’s at this point that I owe you another bit of explanation. Recruits that still hadn’t gotten the picture after several sessions of I.T. were deemed to need a different means of motivation, a “Motivational Tour,” or “Mo-Tor,” as it was called. As we young recruits understood it, a “Mo-Tor” was a long workout with one of the disabled M1 rifles we marched with and a personal motivator—a recruit company commander—who devoted a hundred percent of their attention to the individual recruit undergoing the Mo-Tor. The “Mini-Mo,” which Flannagan was to attend, was shorter—about three hours, or so the “scuttlebutt” (rumors) had it.

I still chuckle (perhaps perversely, I admit) when I think of Flannagan whinily asking Petty Officer Miller, “Ma’am, if I pass Mini-Mo, can I come back to the company?” To which Miller laughed and replied, “Sure, Flannagan, if you survive Mini-Mo, you can come back.” When Chief Copenhaver and Petty Officer Miller left for the evening, several guys put a comforting arm around Flannagan. They said they were rooting for him or praying for him. Not me. My fellow recruits were probably better human beings than I was—but they didn’t have to bunk with Flannagan. Today, I can look back with pity that Flannagan couldn’t get through the program, that he couldn’t adapt to what was, in retrospect, a fairly easy introduction to the military for anyone with a modicum of self-discipline. However, at the time, my thoughts were not that I was praying for Flanagan to pass the Mini-Mo. Rather, I hoped they killed him there—though I was willing to settle for him not passing.

So, in any case, that’s the story’s end. I never saw Flannagan again, and I did better in boot camp without a bunkmate. A week or so later, they rolled another recruit, “Smitty,” back from another training company, and he became my bunkmate. I worried that someone who’d been set back in training would be another Flannagan. Still, although Smitty was, as I recall, a pretty simple kid, I liked his laid-back manner and his willingness to pitch in and work as a team. I never asked him what he got set back for—realistically, most anyone could have gotten set back in training for something dumb. Smitty and I got along great; boot camp was smooth sailing from then on. I heard that the Navy put Flannagan out—an entry-level separation, they call it. I hope he found a place to excel and feel valued, and I’m glad it didn’t end for Flannagan the way it did for Private Pyle of Full Metal Jacket.

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