Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Consequences of the "Ownership Society" Considered

Americans don't have to look far to see the how the desire for home ownership led hundreds of thousands of people down a destructive path. Foreclosures, a teetering economy, and bankruptcy have people closely considering their personal, household and even congregational balance sheets.

What are the roots of these economic consequences?

Some people believe that economic unraveling is purely a management issue. People will look to the President, the Chair of the Federal Reserve, the Chief Financial Officer, the Business Manager, the Pastor, the Treasurer, the Family Budget Manager as the source for leadership in managing financial well-being for any nation, organization or family. If the budget is tinkered with just so, if the investments are adjusted and organized properly, all will be well. I'm not so sure.

This reflection is not meant to lift up a particular ideology. I am not espousing communism, socialism or even capitalism. What is a wise understanding of ownership?

Under consideration:

1. I believe that God owns everything. I am a steward of what belongs to God. I truly own nothing. I take care of what belongs to God. This knowledge affects my day to day decisions. This basic premise helps me do generous things, even though I am often selfish. It affects how I live with my wife, how we teach our children, and how we interact with others. Even with a steward mentality, stewards still make decisions about the degree of control they use. This is where management comes in to play.

2. Congregations have an interesting relationship with ownership.
  • Some congregations are mortgaged with their facilities to their eyeballs. 
  • Some congregations have saved and/or used their own sweat and labor, worshiping God in a church building that carries no debt. 
  • Some congregations generously share their facility with the community; many groups from the area meet and gather for serving and being served. 
  • Some congregations lock up their buildings after Sunday mornings and make statements like "we don't want to have too much wear and tear on the building," or "this is God's house" as a means to decide which groups meet in the church building.
  • Some congregations proclaim "the church is not a building, it's people." How this statement is lived out takes on many forms. Sometimes it means rejecting building ownership. Sometimes it means mortgaging a future so the congregation can do ministry for people in their building now.
3.  For the most part, I think we humans have a relationship with property that I'm sure we will never figure out. Each congregational facility scenario carries pitfalls and consequences. Eugene Peterson in his introduction to the Old Testament book Haggai discusses that the argument that the church is not a building, but people is an incomplete argument, because as human beings, we occupy both time and space. There will always be a need for a place to be in relationship with God and with one another. Place matters. How are we to understand place?

4. The challenging aspect of ownership for many households and congregations involves resource allocation in order to be "owners." Even if debt-income ratios are judged as favorable, there is a significant loss of flexibility of both time and cash in many ownership situations. A building takes personal energy for both congregations and families, not only money.  Meetings and labor are needed to maintain the facility, not only income. If a congregation or a household has a great idea or initiative that serves others in a powerful way, that idea is subject to the mortgage and the debt-income equation, and a calling to serve is often compromised.

I've learned a few things from this reflection. "The Ownership Society" was a dangerous proposition on a large scale, possibly because there were ulterior motives or other values were compromised in order achieve ownership.  "Ownership" can be good to a certain extent (though there is no magic line that determines how much ownership is good, and having someone decide is foolish). The shakeout of household and congregational ownership is a matter of values and priorities. What do we value? How will we set our priorities? What resources do we need in order to live faithfully in accordance with our values? For Christians, the stewardship-ownership interface creates many challenges, but articulation of values and priorities create a reference point for daily action.

A few of the recent influences on my thinking:
  • Richard Florida writes, tweets, researches, speaks often on variables related to ownership and creativity. I encourage reading his blog, books and articles. Check him out when he speaks on television.
  • A blog post from a Forbes writer on home ownership.

The who decides question looms in the background, especially for congregations, but that is for a future post.


  1. A thought provoking post on ownership. I think as American individuals and congregations, we tend to associate ownership (particularly of property) with self-reliance, that most important of American virtues.

    I wonder if your position as someone who has a sort of serial short-term ownership in the lives of congregations has affected your views on this and how?

  2. Thanks for your comment, Nate. Views on self-reliance are certainly a variable in the ownership equation.

    Your question is one that I have considered as I move out of interim ministry and consider "settled" calls. I wonder how my ability to lead will change when I am much more invested in a particular community. For example, preaching and leading in Port Orchard, I didn't have to worry as much about how I would encounter people in public; I lived 40 miles away from the church. If we place roots in a community I serve, how will I approach ownership? What I've learned in serial short term ownership is that there are many assumptions about ownership, and questions should be raised. For many congregations, these questions are being asked too late. Their understanding of ownership has crushed them with debt, or their sense of ownership is that they can't see beyond their building, even if they have no debt. However, God does amazing things with what appears to be dead.