The Poison Chicken

During my early training I spent a Friday doing new business and renewal appointments with one of the senior people from the office. We had been out on appointments all morning and into the afternoon and were getting hungry. The area we were in didn't have much in the way of fast food, but we managed to find a Church's Chicken store. The senior guy decided to hit the drive-through.

Now I expected that he'd order a chicken sandwich or something relatively portable that we could eat easily in the car, but to my shock, he order a full-on bucket dinner, including two or three sides. We had enough food to feed a who car full of people. He also expected us to eat it in the car, which really complicated matters. There was just no easy way to do it, but he drove with one greasy hand on the wheel and a piece of chicken in the other.

It was hardly the best fried chicken I've ever had, and at one point he commented that the piece he'd just eaten "tasted funny". More about that later.

Our next appointment was a new business meeting with a start-up church. We were going to meet the pastor at his apartment. We still had a car load of chicken and fixin's and the senior guy decided to give the rest of it to the pastor for his family to finish. It seemed like a nice gesture at the time.

We headed home for the weekend, and on Monday the senior guy told me he'd been sick with food poisoning all weekend. That "funny tasting" chicken had been rotten. Fortunately, I didn't have any problem, but I couldn't help but wonder what we did to that nice pastor and his family.

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26 Miles Across the Sea

In February of 1999 the company got a request to bid on a group of camps, including one on Catalina Island, 26 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. We didn't have a full-time agent assigned to that area, so they asked me to go and do the work for the camp bid. There are only a couple of churches on the island, so I made a couple of calls and lined up another appointment while I was over there.

To get to the island you have to take a ferry from Long Beach, and I was on a very early boat - 7:00 am. It takes about 90 minutes to make the channel crossing, and when I got to Avalon (the main city on the island), I was met by someone from the camp who had come to pick me up in the camp's little Boston Whaler boat. We set out at high speed for the run around the island to the camp in very cold weather. There wasn't any cover on the boat, so I had a very windy welcome to Catalina.

I spent most of the morning at the camp, measuring and photographing their tent-like buildings. At that time we used Polaroid cameras which were really a pain when you had lots of buildings. The cameras spit out the picture after each shot, and the cartridges only hold 10 photos. Consequently, I had to drag around my file case with extra film and my measuring tools. It was a pain in the rear for a group deal that we probably weren't going to get (and we didn't).

About 1pm I had the camp guy run me back around to Avalon where I was met by a board member from one of the local churches. In Avalon few people own cars - most of the locals travel around the city in golf carts, and that's what the guy drove when he showed up at the dock. I spent the afternoon measuring and inspecting his church building in downtown Avalon, and fortunately, that effort wasn't wasted. I was able to write several policies for the church and we had them for a client for a couple of years before another agent lost the renewal. No big deal, because under the commission schedule in effect at the time I only got paid for the initial sale so what happened after that didn't really matter.

I did have a couple of hours to kill after the appointment to look around Avalon before catching the boat home. It made for a very long day since the boat didn't leave until about 5:30, but as working days went, it was certainly more interesting than most of them. A once-a-year trip over there wouldn't have been too bad.

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The Crazy Guy

This story isn't about an insurance situation, but a guy I encountered one day while on the road in my territory. I had an appointment near downtown San Diego and for lunch decided to run by the U.S.S. Midway, an aircraft carrier which is now a floating museum. I wanted to pick up a brochure for a future trip with my family to visit the big ship.

While walking from the ship back to my car a very agitated black guy came across busy Harbor Drive pulling a large rolling suitcase...against the light. Cars were having to brake to avoid hitting him. As he passed me he walked out onto the boat dock, picked up the large and obviously full suitcase, and threw it as hard as he could into the bay. He then muttered various obscenities, crossed Harbor again against the light (I thought for sure he was going to get hit) and headed back up Broadway. Somebody wasn't going to have their favorite traveling jammies that night.

My best guess, based on what I could made out from his muttering, is that somebody mistook him for a bellboy at one of the nearby hotels (the U.S. Grant is just up the street). Insulted, he took the suitcase from the person and once they were out of sight chucked it into the bay.

Very entertaining. Insurance work wasn't all boredom and idiot managers.

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The Entrepreneur in the Middle of Nowhere

Almost every year I would get a card or a call from a pastor whose church was located about as far away from my office as you could get and still be in my territory. In fact, it was just a few miles from Yuma, AZ. I had traveled to that community before to take photos of an existing client out there, and I was all set to go visit this guy's church until I spent a little time with him on the phone and discovered some interesting things about his operation.

Yes, he had a religious nonprofit church out there, but as it turned out the corporation that owned the church also owned a truck stop, a motel, some office buildings, and various other things around that tiny town. Given that the insurance company had no experience or desire to insure those kinds of risks I cancelled my trip out there and told the guy I couldn't help him. That didn't stop him from not only sending in marketing mailers from the company every year, but calling the main office and complaining that I wouldn't help him. The home office would call my boss demanding an explanation, my boss would talk to me, I would explain the situation...again, and the round-robin would head back to the the desert entrepreneur.

This probably happened five times in nine years. I was getting pretty sick of the guy, and pretty sick of the company's inability to take him off the mailing list. I'm sure my replacement is still getting calls from the guy and the company is still demanding why we won't insure him. Neither were very bright sometimes.

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The Environmentalist Preacher

I was having lunch with the pastor of a church and we were talking about his plans for a new church complex on some raw land they owned. We got into the environmental impact issues he was fighting and he told me a couple of stories.

One day some enviroweenie showed up at the property to inspect it to see if there might be some sort of special habitat there that couldn't be disturbed. According to the enviroweenie the property "looked like it could be habitat for an endangered butterfly". The pastor asked if any such butterflies had been found and was told no, but they could be there. The pastor then asked "what kind of birds eat those butterflies?" The enviroweenie demanded to know why the pastor needed that information, and he told them that he was going to "buy a couple boxes of them and turn them loose on the property". The enviroweenie was aghast.

He also told me of another church in San Marcos that had bought some raw land for a new church complex and were advised by their attorney that the moment the sale was complete to take a grader and scrape every living thing off the land. Every bush, every tree, every gopher hole. Don't get a permit or ask anyone for permission - just do it. The attorney told them that if they didn't clear the property immediately some enviroweenie would try and claim that the land was habitat for some critter or another and they'd end up in court for years trying to fix it. It was better to risk a small fine from the city for grading without a permit. And that's what they did.

Sometimes it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

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The Arrogant Preacher

I've spent 35 years dealing with pastors as a member of a traveling music ministry, and nine years in the church insurance business. Most of the men I've dealt with have been great guys, dedicated to their churches and their ministries, humble and full of God's love. However, every now and then I've run into some guys who clearly were unsuited for the job. God must not have been paying attention if in fact he called these guys into ministry.

Such was the case with a pastor I dealt with in a Baptist church south of San Diego. I'll call him Pastor Arrogant.

We had had this church as a client for awhile under a different pastor, but sadly that pastor died suddenly and the church had the misfortune to hire Pastor Arrogant to replace him. When the church's policy came up for renewal, I had my first meeting with Pastor Arrogant both to introduce myself and explain the church's policies.

When I was ushered into his office I noticed an immediate change from the previous pastor. Instead of pictures of family and church activities, the walls were covered with various diplomas, certificates, and pictures of Pastor Arrogant doing different things. I immediately thought "this guy is pretty proud of himself". As soon as the conversation started it became clear that my first reaction was correct. Pomposity oozed out of the guy. He was the smartest guy in town and he wanted to make sure you knew it.

A few minutes into our rather one-sided conversation his cellphone rang and his wife was calling. I don't mind those kinds of interruptions, but he seemed to take great offense. He spoke to his wife in the most rude, condescending and disrespectful manner I've ever witnessed. I immediately developed a visceral dislike for Pastor Arrogant.

When I left the church I had already decided that I wouldn't make any special effort to retain the account. If he got a competitive quote, instead of pulling strings to try and get him a better deal, I'd let him go. That's exactly what happened. He called to tell me he had another quote, and I told him I couldn't improve our offer. He left and became somebody else's problem.

Over the next three years or so I got a couple of notes from marketing saying he wanted another quote, but I ignored them. After a few years he called in and I was kind of stuck. I set an appointment and went to meet him. When we first met he was fairly new in that church. The buildings were older and in need of upgrades and the crowd was dwindling. I figured as smart as he was that three years later he'd have a going operation down there and it might be worth taking another look at.

Wrong. He hadn't lost any of his arrogance, but he had lost something....half his congregation. The buildings weren't in any better shape, but his ego was doing just fine. To make ends meet he had taken his educational building and basically turned it into an office park for itinerant ministries. There were five other churches meeting in there including a Japanese church, an Hispanic church, a Filipino Church, a home school organization, and a church that specializes in bikers and former dopers.

I made a show of walking around and pretending to inspect the building, but I had no intention of providing a new quote for the guy. I never got back to him and he never called to check on a quote. A win-win.

I fully expect to read someday that Pastor Arrogant has lost his job due to a sex scandal. He's a textbook example of the kind of guy who ends up in those messes. If that doesn't get him his church will finally just disappear, and given that they had him for a pastor, it's probably just as well.

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Loss Run Surprise

Loss runs are documents prepared by insurance companies to show the claims experience of a particular client. They're often required as part of the underwriting process to make sure the prospect you're quoting isn't a complete slug. The quotes are often well underway, and sometimes the policies have already been bound before the loss runs are finally received.

We had a competitor who was well known for dragging out the process of providing loss runs to his clients. The State has a 15 business day requirement, but they often played games with those things in an effort to screw up our deal.

When I was newly licensed and undergoing my first day of cold-calling with one of the veterans we got a call from a church and school that had discovered that their insurance had cancelled weeks earlier and wouldn't be reinstated. That should have been a warning that all was not well with the account, but we dropped what we were doing and drove 45 minutes to the church to meet with the administrator.

He was fairly new on the job and when we asked about the church's loss history he said he wasn't aware of any claims. He probably wasn't, but we asked him to request a loss run from his old company and we quickly put the quote together. Within a couple of days I picked up the down payment for my very first decent sized account. I was feeling pretty lucky.

A few days later the loss run came in the mail. Unlike what the administrator had told us, there was a claim...a big one: $220,000 for an old lady who had tripped over a sprinkler head and suffered extensive injuries. I thought for sure the whole deal was going to go up in smoke.

The underwriter was not happy, but agreed to keep the account provided but take all the credits off and pile on some extra charges. The church's premium jumped something like $2,500 a year, which turned out to be a blessing - not for them, but for me. More commission. They had to have insurance and we were willing to provide it at a healthy price. Not exactly a win-win, but not bad.

Advice to churches: Order a loss run before you start shopping for bids, and don't forget to get bids every year.

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Stupid Agent Tricks

Well, they're not really stupid. I just wanted to borrow the title from Letterman's Stupid Pet Tricks.

Training (sort of)

I did not enter the church insurance field with any previous insurance or construction experience. I had been a banker, running the branch division for a small savings and loan that was gobbled up in bank consolidation frenzy of the mid-90's. With precious little training I was expected to inspect buildings, determine their overall condition, and rank them according to the complexity of their construction and cost of the materials used. Although I had had many hours of training in the nuances of various policies, there was very little actual hands-on work with buildings, construction methods, or other things that would be needed to provide an accurate cost estimate. It was pretty much on-the-job training and hope you get it right for the first year. It's a good thing nothing I insured that first year burned down.

They did send me to a two week training course at the home office after about a year on the job, and the last two days of that course were the most useful because we spent it with the loss control people who did a nice job of explaining things about building construction and quality that I hadn't gotten from the agency I worked for. I felt somewhat more prepared after that.

There was one clear lowpoint in the training I had at the home office. One afternoon we were going to have a presentation from the camp underwriter and his assistant. I had several camps in my territory so I was looking forward to hearing what the camp guy had to say, hoping I could pick up some valuable information. The camp guy and his toady showed up and for 90 minutes read us word-for-word everything that was in the camp chapter in our training manuals. No stories, special insights, or anything at all that would have made that 90 minutes interesting or worthwhile. I could have gotten just as much out of it if I had stayed at the Super 8 and read it myself. What a waste of time.

Cost Guessing

Over time agents develop various shortcuts in the process of cost estimating buildings that really save time, but they may cause some fluctuations in the calculations. You may think the process of determining replacement costs for your buildings is an exact science, but it's far from it. For instance, in the ideal world you'd measure a church building down to the inch and if there were little outcroppings or support structures that stuck out from the side, you'd measure around them and draw the diagrams accordingly. In real world all the agents I knew rounded everything up to the nearest foot and small outcroppings were ignored in favor of long straight lines. It might result in slightly more square footage and slightly higher liability costs and building value, but it made the process go much faster.

The software we had for drawing diagrams was okay for straight lines and 90 degree corners, but angles were a nightmare. I doubt if any buildings with angles other than 90 degrees were ever drawn right. In some cases the diagrams would have been unrecognizable if you were looking at the actual building, but that's what we had to use to calculate the square footage. I remember one church that had so many angles even after careful measurements I couldn't get the building to come out right in the diagram. I went out and bought a protracter to get the angles right, measured everything again and still couldn't get it right. The diagram was a mess. Lord help 'em if they had to build that place again based on my drawing.

Homes were another story. For the first several years we used a cost estimating method for dwellings that was pretty primitive. You added up the "units", each unit being a room or feature (like a porch), and then based on the zip code, came up with an estimated construction cost. It was way off from what it actually cost to build a home in Southern California and it's a wonder we didn't have more problems than we did with underinsured buildings.

The method was pretty haphazard at times as well. I was sent out with one of the long-time agents to a church in L.A. that had six homes they owned down the street from the church. I followed the agent as he walked down the street, glanced at the homes, and quickly scratched out what he thought each of them had in terms of bedrooms, living rooms, etc. He did all six homes in about 5 minutes without ever setting foot in or even walking around them. That was my training in cost estimating houses. (I also watched the same guy give an incredibly detailed presentation, recounting every story and example recommended by the boss, to the church secretary who couldn't have cared less. Her eyes kept crossing because she was so bored and completely uninterested. She acted like she had drawn the short straw because she got stuck listening to this guy. Advice to agents: Never present to anyone who can't make the decision.)

Some months before I left they came out with a new system that was probably much more accurate, but definitely much more of a pain in the butt because the new system required the agent to actually measure the house and include various details about the interior, such as the percentage of area carpeted, tiled or other types of flooring. Most of the agents had never even set foot in the houses they had insured in the past, and measuring houses can be especially difficult because you have to get in back yards and deal with dogs and landscaping and such.

One day an agent called me into his office to show me a little trick he'd figured out. Google Earth had recently come out and he discovered that by putting the address of the house in Google Earth he could pull up a satellite shot of the property. Using the scale on Google Earth he could come up with a rough diagram of the house and save himself a trip. I'm sure it wasn't completely accurate, but it was probably better than just walking down the street and guessing.

Photo Follies

Photos of houses could also be a pain. Oftentimes the homes were located well away from the church and I can remember a couple of churches that owned multiple homes in different cities. It took forever to run around and get the photos. The agent with the Google Earth trick told me that he had a solution for that, as well. He kept on his computer various pictures of homes he had taken at random over the years, and if he needed a photo of a home and didn't want to make the drive out there, he'd just use one of those. He figured the underwriters never spent much time really looking at photos of houses, and he was probably right. They apparently never noticed.

Speaking of photos, we were required to provide photos of church buildings showing all sides. In some areas, that could be a problem. What if one part of the building had graffiti on it, security bars on the windows, or a toxic waste dump next door? Underwriters didn't like that kind of stuff and could give you a lot of grief about it. An older agent told me when I first started that he had learned to be a little choosy with his photos, making sure that nothing objectionable might end up in them and ruin his deal. With the pressure to produce more and more sales, no agent was going to let a little graffiti knock his numbers down.

And then, there was the "drive by shooting". I'm sure that the underwriters wondered why some photos were a little blurred. It was probably because the agent stuck the camera out the window as he drove by without stopping. Hey, they wanted a picture so we gave them a picture (the secret was making sure to keep the rear view mirror out of the shot).

More stories later....

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The Lady Preacher

I didn't run into too many lady preachers in my nine years of church insurance work. If I did they were usually pastoring some new age gay church, but I did have one memorable experience with a lady preacher at a black church in San Diego County.

I first met her and her husband when they called in needing insurance for their church. Their policy had lapsed with another company and their mortgage loan company was demanding a new policy. They had a clean loss history and I got underwriting approval to write the account. They paid us 25% down and we put them on a quarter payment plan.

I never had any problems with her except for one annoying thing. She decided the appropriate use of her church answering machine was to put a 3-4 minute sermon on there that you had to listen to in order to leave a message. It was incredibly annoying. Here's a little advice for churches: Nobody is going to get "saved" or dedicate themselves to your God based on your answering machine message. Keep it simple, and for Pete's sake, short.

Many months had gone by without claims or other contact when I got word from our accounting people that a "Notice of Cancellation" had been sent to the church because of non-payment. The account was way overdue and by the date they actually cancelled it the church owed over $1,000 in earned premium. We had a rule on our commission plan that any funds written off during the first year of a policy came out of the pocket of the agent, so I was looking at a $1,000 loss because of these idiots. The collection efforts carried over into the Christmas season and fortunately, the account wasn't written off right before the holidays.

Then, we had a little stroke of providence. While I was on my Christmas vacation I got a call from the lady preacher. She apologized for the problems and said she wanted to get her policy reinstated. I made a few calls and we agreed to rewrite her package provided that she pay us the full amount of earned premium owed on the previous policy, plus 25% down on the new one. She sent a check in right away and I thanked my lucky stars. Not only did it save me $1,000, but it gave me a new business at the start of the year and more commission on a future check.

A few days into the year I had to go to Texas for a quick personal trip, and on my last day there I got a phone message from the office that the lady preacher had called in and changed her mind. She no longer wanted the new policy from us (she had gone back to her previous company since they had a better offer) and she wanted her money back...not just the down payment, but all the money including the $1,000 we had applied to her debt. That got a good laugh.

I went straight to the office from the airport and huddled with the powers-that-be and we decided that we were fully in our rights to retain the amount owed on the debt, but would cancel the new policy without charge and refund the down payment.

That didn't sit well with Ms. Lady Preacher. She called up and got all over me, claiming we were stealing her money and she had a right to have it back. When that approach didn't work she tried a new tack - she promised that if we sent all her money back she'd pay off that amount that was due as soon as she could. I told her that wouldn't be necessary because she no longer owed us anything. She had paid it off. *CLICK!*

The next day I got an email from some guy who claimed to represent the church and he reiterated her demand for payment of all her funds. He obviously wasn't an attorney since no attorney would send a demand letter by email, and it certainly wasn't written that well. I politely told him to go pound sand.

That was end of my experience with that lady preacher, and that church went on our "do not write" list forever.

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Liars and Cheats

One of the frustrating things about working in the church insurance business was dealing with liars and cheats. You wouldn't expect that from a group that is allegedly working for the good of the church, but every industry has its black sheep. Sadly, some of those dealings involved people I worked with or for, but most had to do with a particular competitor. I've already detailed some of his antics in the Mr. Big Bible the Dumpster Diver post.

For those who are not familiar with the insurance business, there are different ways to rate different risks. A building will fall into one of a number of categories depending on the age, construction type, condition, presence of sprinklers, etc. In the same way liability rates for a particular building are determined by usage and are rated using different factors. Church classrooms, offices, sanctuaries, etc. are considered "Church" and the rating basis used is square footage regardless of membership or attendance. Schools and preschool are rated according to the number of students, regardless of square footage. A large church building with only a few members can really get hit for liability because of the square footage while a large school building with only a few students can make out like a bandit. It's a far from perfect system.

Mixed use buildings are supposed to be rated according to the percentage of each risk present, and that method is ripe for abuse. I'll give you a real life example.

I was quoting a large synagogue in San Diego that had multiple fire-resistive masonry sprinkled buildings - the absolute best kind of buildings to insure because of the low risk of fire. They were very large which meant the liability charges were going to be pretty steep, but the construction allowed me to pile on the credits (an explanation of credits can be found in this post) and dramatically reduce the premium. The largest of the buildings was about 18,000 square feet - 17,000 of which were classrooms and offices, and the remaining 1,000 square feet a small preschool with 30 students. According to underwriting rules the liability would be calculated using 17,000 square feet at the "Church" rate and 30 students at the "Preschool" rate (there are other liability charges that apply, but those are the big ones).

When I met with the church to present the proposal they brought out their existing policy and I was shocked to see that despite the huge credits I was still thousands of dollars over their pricing. I started digging into their existing policy to look at see how the charges were calculated and quickly discovered the pricing shenanigans that Mr. Big Bible was using to keep this policy's pricing so low. On the building I described above, he had rated (for liability) the entire building as "Preschool", using only the small student count, totally ignoring the 17,000 square feet that was not used for the preschool. His liability charge was a tiny fraction of mine. Bottom line - he was cheating.

He was cheating not only his competitors, but his own company. By under reporting the liability for that building he lowered his premium and denied his company the funds they should have collected for the liability issues they faced at that property. Had that policy been audited by his company or the State, he would have been facing big problems.

Oh, except for one thing. Mr. Big Bible had been doing this kind of stuff for years with the company's blessing. We had seen numerous examples over the years where square footages or student counts were under reported. Some were absolutely laughable, but Mr. Big Bible was pretty much bulletproof because he had a good relationship with the company's bigwigs and produced so much business that they were willing to look the other way when he cheated. Keep in mind, this was one of the nation's largest church insurers that was condoning this unethical activity.

I had an early run-in with Mr. Big Bible during my first year or so in the business. We saw a quote he had done for one of our clients, and in this quote he had understated student counts at their large Christian school to lower the premium. My boss decided to call him on it and drafted a harsh letter to the church detailing what he was doing. The boss asked me to review the letter and make any revisions I might think are necessary.

The letter was poorly written, angry, and very likely actionable in the accusations it made. I took his poor start, rewrote it to tone it down a bit, and with his approval, sent it to the customer. The customer passed it on to Mr. Big Bible who promptly demanded an apology or else legal action would be taken. Of course, Mr. Leave Alone Slap (the boss) immediately jumped all over me, even though I probably saved him a sure lawsuit had that first draft of the letter been sent. I should have seen that coming, but I was still fairly new to the agency and hadn't had the opportunity to see what a poor manager he really was.

To our credit, we refused to play the pricing games that Mr. Big Bible played, but that decision cost us a lot of money over the years. Meanwhile, his company turned a blind eye to clearly unethical and possibly illegal behavior, and his clients stuck with him thinking him to be an honorable Christian businessman.

He was just another liar and cheat.

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The Cults and the Weirdos

Part of being in the church insurance business was dealing with every kind of church, including many which were pretty much cults. There are a lot of strange beliefs out there and we insured them all. As an evangelical Christian I always felt a little weird going into those places, and one thing that surprised me was the way the company handled group insurance programs for those churches.

In Southern California we did not have group discount programs, voluntary or mandatory, for most of the mainstream denominations. We didn't have a Southern Baptist program, a Nazarene program, a Methodist program, an Evangelical Lutheran program, a Presbyterian program, etc. However, we did have discount programs for Unitarian Universalists, Unity Churches, Religious Science, Christian Science, Apostolic Assembly, and a number of other offbeat denominations. If you ran a cult, we probably had a discount program for you that would save you money on your insurance, but if you had a mainstream church, good luck.

I remember going to a Unity Church one time and the administrator gave me his card. I wish I still had it because it pretty much demonstrated what's wrong with most of these churches. The church's motto was "One God, Many Paths", and the logo looked like they'd taken the symbols for all the major world religions and had thrown them in a blender. It had a Christian cross, a Jewish Star of David, a Muslim Crescent, and several other symbols of world religions. I can't tell you how many times I wanted to look him right in the eye and ask him how he explains John 14:6-
Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. (KJV)
I never did since insurance is a business and not a ministry, but it was tempting.

I only insured two Muslim groups during my years in the business, and one of them was a large mosque in San Diego that left our company the year before the 9/11 attacks. It was reported later that some of the 9/11 attackers had attended that mosque for awhile, and following the attacks I read about reports of vandalism at that mosque.

I remember having meetings at the mosque a couple of times, and I've never felt more out-of-place than I did in those mosques. The men glared at me like the infidel I was, and entering through their doors was like taking a time machine back hundreds of years and half a world away. It wasn't a pleasant experience.

I also handled several Buddhist temples. Nice people, but way out there in their beliefs. One of the churches had over $1.5 million in gold statues and icons in their sanctuary area. The building itself was old and pretty dumpy but when you walked into that sanctuary you thought you'd entered the vault at Fort Knox. That valuation was made several years ago when gold was around $350 an ounce. I'd hate to think what all that would be worth today.

My favorite (with tongue firmly in cheek) group program was for a Hispanic denomination based in Southern California that was granted a 7.5% discount for all their member churches. Most of the churches were in bad shape (the congregants were often low income), they rarely remembered to pay their premiums and many of them were canceled for non-payment time and again, and yet we gave them a discount that the nice Southern Baptist church down the street couldn't have. It never made sense to me. Without that group program many of their churches probably wouldn't have met the underwriting requirements due to the condition of their buildings or their history of non-payment problems.

The topper was when the District Superintendent in San Diego County decided to ignore his denominational headquarters and struck his own insurance deal with a competitor of ours. He then encouraged his churches to leave our company for the competitor as soon as their next premium was due. What a nice payback for the big group discount program. That was money well spent.

The Religious Science, Christian Science, and many of the Unitarian or Unity churches all had one thing in common (besides a nutty theology) - they're dying. The membership of most of those churches that I dealt with was made up of people with an average age of 75. Members in their 60's (if they had any) were part of the youth group. These churches are barely hanging on and since they seem to be unable to attract the young families needed to sustain a church, many of them will disappear in the next 10 years or so.

However, even meeting in a mainstream church could be a weird experience. I had a meeting one day at a very conservative Baptist church in San Diego. The pastor was wearing a black suit, white shirt, and had a very short haircut. After our meeting he asked me if I was a Christian. I told him I was and he asked what church I attended. When I told him I attended Saddleback Church he turned a little whiter (if that was possible) and started grabbing for gospel tracts. Saddleback clearly didn't meet with his requirements for Christianity and he was determined to get me "saved". I'm not sure how I made it out of there without being dunked in his baptistry.

Bottom line - if you want to get to heaven, embrace the faith of an evangelical Christian church. If you want a discount on your church insurance (at least from my old company), join a cult.

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Mr. Big Bible the Dumpster Diver

Now, before I go any further, let me just say that I’m not trying to imply here that the church insurance business is more unsavory than any other insurance business. You’ll find these same things going on with any insurance company. However, churches tend to put more trust than they should in church insurance companies just because they work primarily with churches. That trust will cost you a lot of money.

And some agents understand all too well that they can take advantage of that trust. While most of people who work in that business are probably fine, upstanding citizens, there are also some problem children out there. I’ll give you an example – we’ll call him Mr. Big Bible. Mr. Big Bible worked for a competitor and was known to show up for his appointments with pastors and church boards with a big bible under his arm, even though there was no business purpose whatsoever to have a bible in an insurance meetings. From some of the stories I heard he put on a pretty good show, praying before the meeting and working in the appropriate Godly language. He probably would have preached the Sunday service if they asked him.

Unfortunately, his customers and potential customers didn’t have the whole picture of Mr. Big Bible. You see, at the same time he was leading board members in prayer he was also secretly hiring people to come to our office after hours and dig through our dumpster to find reports and other paperwork with information about our clients. Unfortunately, it hadn’t ever occurred to anyone that paperwork like that should be shredded, so Mr. Big Bible was able over a period of time to amass quite a library of important information. He not only had names and addresses of church clients, but he had their policy expiration dates, premiums, and even specific coverages.

He would then send his agents to those churches to offer quotes, and of course they’d come in like the insurance version of King Solomon, wise in the ways of insurance. They’d try not to be completely obvious by saying things like “normally when we see a policy from that company it has A, B & C at these limits (that are lower than ours), and doesn’t have X, Y and Z that we include”. Sure enough, the customer would pull out their policy and everything the agent said was right on the money. They were freaking geniuses! An awful lot of business was lost to Mr. Big Bible before one of his minions tipped off the program and a lawsuit and big dollar settlement (not to mention a contract with a shredding company) brought it all to a close. Of course, all the money went to the agency owners and not a dime trickled down to the agents who had lost hundreds or thousands of dollars in commissions due to the agency's failure to protect important customer information.

My advice, if an agent walks into your office carrying a big Bible, throw him out. He’s just using it to gain your trust and get your money. And even if he doesn’t walk in carrying a big bible, remember why he’s there. He doesn’t work for a charity.

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From School Cafeteria to the Theater

Here's a rare success story involving a start-up church. Back in about 1999 I got a call from a lady who was the treasurer for a brand new start-up church in South San Diego County that needed insurance in order to rent a school for their Sunday services. I drove to her home and sat at the kitchen table to fill out the paperwork with her and her pastor. I probably did 20 of these a year and most of them never got beyond the struggling congregation stage where they started.
A year or so later she called again, this time to tell me that they had decided to lease some office space for the church staff because the church was growing and they couldn't run it out of her kitchen anymore. Something was going right down there.

Another two or three years passed and she called again. A multi-plex theater building in her city had come available and the church had grown so much they wanted to buy it. It had formerly housed eight theaters and was a very large building valued at more than $2 million dollars. They bought that building, gutted and rebuilt it for the use of their church and the people continued to come in droves. Another building came available next to the former theater, so they bought that. They brought in portable classrooms to handle the overflow. The church now had an attendance of more than 1,500.

About a year before I left the business I had my annual meeting with the pastor and the treasurer, and during the meeting I mentioned how proud I was of the success the church had achieved and how rare it was for a start-up to grow into a megachurch as they had done. He was so thrilled with my comments that he asked me to stay a few minutes longer and speak to the entire church staff at their scheduled staff meeting. I repeated my praise for the staff and could tell they genuinely appreciated the comments.

During my nine years I can only remember four churches that went from a start-up to owning their own church property. Most just struggled along or disappeared. If you're thinking of starting up a new church, it is possible to build it into something amazing, but the odds are against you. Maybe this story will be an encouragement.

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More Ego Than Evangelism

I'm not sure there's a school in Orange County that doesn't have a church in it on Sunday. When I was writing church insurance I probably wrote 20-25 policies a year for churches renting school space. Why? Does the world really need another struggling church meeting in a building they don't own and with little chance of every growing out of that situation?

Certainly there are many people who have no church affiliation and might benefit from all these dinky congregations, but at the same time there are many church properties sitting idle much of the week, and sitting nearly empty on the weekend, that could be used much more efficiently and to better effect. Are all these pastors of start-up churches called to start a new ministry, or perhaps is it an effort based more on ego than evangelism?

I remember getting a call to quote a large Southern Baptist church in San Diego - large in buildings, anyway. I met with the administrator who told me the church, with an 800 seat auditorium and a nice 2-story educational building, hadn't had a pastor for some time and was now down to about 10 members with an average age of about 75. The church at one time was a thriving community, but cutbacks in the military and changes in the neighborhood had taken their congregation away. The only thing keeping this church afloat was the Christian school that leased their property during the week. The old folks didn't want to change anything they did to attract younger members. They had become a "holy huddle".

Not far from there was a start-up church that had grown very well and was running about 250 in rented school facilities. I half-jokingly told the pastor that he should take all of his people and go join that Southern Baptist church. Once they were members they could vote the old farts off the board and take over the church and it's property. They'd certainly make better use of it than the old people were. I guess you could call that a "holy hostile takeover".

He didn't do it, but he should have. Wasting a church property in the way those old Southern Bapists did is almost blasphemy.

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The Mexican Baptist Church

Another story from my early days as a church insurance agent. Part of my territory was Imperial County, CA. The county was kind of an afterthought. Somebody had to cover it, but it was not a desirable area. Imperial County is a very large area geographically that is either farmland (where they have water), desert (where they don't), and a sprinkling of cities, the largest of which is El Centro.

An unfortunately large number of churches in Imperial County are in sad shape. They have older buildings that have spent years subjected to bitter cold in the winter, blazing heat in the summer, and high winds year around. With small congregations there's little money for regular repairs. They're not all that way, but there seems to be a higher percentage of churches like that in Imperial County than other areas I'm familiar with.

I had a call from a Mexican Baptist church in Imperial County just a stone's throw from the Mexican border. The pastor didn't speak any English, but somehow I was able to communicate with him that I needed to tour the building. From the outside it wasn't a bad looking place. It was probably built in the 30's or 40's and had ornate architecture with a big dome.

We made our way into the sanctuary, and although the building was dated, it didn't look too bad. I noticed a section of the rear of the sanctuary was draped off, so I went over to see what was behind the curtain. I figured it was a classroom or meeting area that they want to keep separate from the auditorium. Not quite.

When I pulled back the curtain I found an area where the entire plaster ceiling had fallen in, probably due to a bad roof and water leaks. Plaster was hanging loose on the ceiling, and pieces were on the pews and seats below. I immediately knew that I had wasted an entire day and about 300 miles of driving to come to this church. There's no way we could touch it.

Since I couldn't speak Spanish I couldn't tell the pastor the tour was over, and I didn't want to hurt his feelings, so we continued. The church had a large basement, and as we were walking down the stairs the hand rail pulled out of the wall and the pastor fell down the stairs. It was everything I could do to keep from laughing. Fortunately, he wasn't hurt and as soon as I could I said my goodbyes and began the long drive home.

Needless to say, I didn't extend them an offer.

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The White Mercedes

When I was first starting out as a church insurance agent and doing renewals on my own, one of the first churches I went to was an African-American church in San Diego. It was kind of a run down building in a run down neighborhood, and the church had a history of claims for all kinds of issues, some of which the company probably shouldn't have paid because they were caused by lack of maintenance. Because of the claims history the company had decided to raise the church's deductible from $250 to $2,500 to try and stop the pattern of church repairs paid at insurance company expense.

I met the pastor in his office and for the next hour he gave me one sob story after another about how poor the church was, how he needed a break on his premium, and how they'd try not to file any more claims. I told him that the higher deductible would lower his premium somewhat, but if he had another claim, the church would end up paying a lot more of the costs and could possibly lose their coverage.

He then took me on a tour of the church, the whole time regaling me with more sob stories about the financial condition of the church. The building was insurable, but not by much, but I figured the company would be protected by the higher deductible if anything else happened.

At the conclusion of the meeting I was sitting in my car in front of the building filling in some paperwork, and in my mirror, I saw a nearly new white Mercedes sedan pull out from behind the church. The driver: Mr. "Poor, Poor Me" Pastor. The church couldn't pay their insurance bill, but they had enough money to buy the pastor a new Mercedes.

Some months later there was another claim for something else that shouldn't have been covered. When told that he had to pay the first $2,500, the pastor freaked and immediately starting making racial threats against the company. If the company didn't reduce his deductible AND his premium AND pay the claim as he demanded, he would go to other churches in his association and tell them that the company was racist against black churches. The company folded like a cheap suit.

Sure enough, other claims followed and somebody in the company finally had the guts to cancel the guy. He screamed at me on the phone and in nine years was the only client I ever hung up on. We refused to take him back then, and in later years when he came back begging for reinstatement because nobody else would touch him.

I politely suggested he take his Mercedes and drive it somewhere where they cared.

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Leave Alone Slap

This is the first of the people management posts I promised in the blog's Purpose Statement. When I was in banking in the 80's all of us in the management team were required to go through Ken Blanchard's One Minute Manager training. I've long forgotten most of what we spent days learning (the training course is not one minute long), but I do remember Blanchard's description of certain nightmare managers. The one that has stuck with me the longest was called "Leave Alone Slap" (LAS).

LAS managers are the guys who, when things are going well, say nothing. No congratulations, no encouragement, no "attaboys", nothing. You have no idea whether the boss is happy, sad, or insane...until something goes wrong or the boss feels it's time for some new "motivation", and then the boss jumps on you with both feet. Suddenly you're the worst salesman in history, and not only a bad insurance agent but a bad person as well. That's the kind of boss I had in the church insurance agency I worked for. A classic LAS.

I can remember landing a big deal and upon returning to the office with the checks in hand, told the boss about the deal. His response: "That's what you're supposed to do" and he walked off. Real motivating. He doesn't know how close he came to having those checks surgically removed.

I can remember more than once finishing up the year with goals made, trips won, etc., and being called into his office on the first business day of the new year and blasted for some perceived slight. He thought that's how you motivated employees to perform - terror and bullying. In fact, all he did was engender eternal hatred from me and from others treated the same way. Almost to a person his employees hated him, and if he knew it, he didn't care. He was Mr. Christian away from the office and the boss from hell when there.

When friends who had previously worked for him heard I was accepting the job there they warned me not to take the position, and that the boss wasn't what he appeared to be outside of the office. They were more correct than I could have imagined. Surely nobody could be that different in his personal and business life. To paraphrase Barack Obama, yes they can.

Advice to those of you who manage people, whether in business, a church, or anywhere else. Let them know how they're doing. Be encouraging every chance you get. As Blanchard put it, try to catch them doing something right. Sitting in the weeds during the good times and leaping out to terrorize and bully them when things get rough (or just for the fun of it as I suspect my boss did) is not the way people are to be treated if you really want them to perform for you.

And please, if you choose to continue as a Leave Alone Slap, don't call yourself a Christian while you do it.

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