Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Contrarian View From the Pew: Church Ownership

Most people tend to take very good care of the things they own and tend to be less concerned about the things that are shared or belong to someone else. When I worked as a Real Estate appraiser back in the early 90’s, I would occasionally appraise a house that was in South Central Los Angeles, close to where the Rodney King riots broke out. The owner occupied houses were smaller but not much different from the houses I appraised in the better parts of LA or Orange County; the lawns were mowed, the gardens had flowers, the houses were painted, and the owners were proud of their homes. At first, I was surprised to see such nice houses in such bad neighborhoods, but the more I appraised, the more I realized well maintained owner occupied houses were the norm, not the exception. However, the rented houses in the same neighborhood were such a mess it was hard to imagine anyone actually living in them.

Private amusement parks tend to be maintained better than public parks. Private golf courses are usually in much better shape than public golf courses. Rental vehicles never accumulate as many miles as leased vehicles which don’t last as long as vehicles that are bought outright.

One of my biggest challenges as a parent is trying to get my girls to treat everything in our home as if it was their very own possession. One of the biggest challenges constantly facing large corporations is getting employees at all levels to take ownership of a problem. Corporate leaders know that when a problem is “owned”, it is usually solved, and when the problem is not “owned”, it is rarely solved.

Christian Churches have a similar challenge to the challenge faced by parents and corporations. The leaders of a Church come up with ideas for ministry and then depend on the members of the Church to fund and execute the ministries. In my last post, I wrote about what happens to the funding when members don’t agree with the ideas of the leaders. Execution is just as big of a problem as funding in most Churches. Members who try to execute the ideas of the leaders fail to meet the leaders expectations most of the time. But sometimes, the members even do harm to the ministry by not executing properly. I can’t even count the number of Churches I’ve visited where some of the Child Care staff had no business working with children or parents. The leaders may have had a great idea, but the idea never got executed properly because the leader didn’t own the ministry and the Child Care staff member did not own the ministry.

The solution to the ownership problem in Church is for Churches to abandon the big pot model. Throwing money into a big pot and then allowing a group of leaders to decide how to spend the money is inefficient at best, and sometimes even very harmful. A better model for Church would be for the leaders to be shepherds and the members to fund and execute their own ministries. For the most part, there is no reason why contributions need to pass through the fingers of the Pastor or other leaders.

Some ministries and projects would require the funding and participation of more than one member and some ministries and projects would require only one member. If someone wants to provide coffee on Sunday morning, just let that person buy the supplies and coffee and be the one who serves the coffee instead of having that person put money in a basket and then beg the leaders for money to buy coffee and supplies. If a group of members want to build a new building, let that group of members sign promissory notes to acquire the funding. The group of members who want a new building will end up doing more of the manual labor themselves if the funds are coming out of their pocket than if the funds are coming out of the big pot.

Under an ownership model, Churches will still need Pastors and Elders to: occasionally veto an idea that isn’t a good fit for the Church; coordinate activities between ministries; oversee some ministries; sometimes help with recruiting members for ministries; and sometimes help with getting commitments for funding ministries. However, Pastors and Elders will no longer have to make members execute the ideas of the leaders, and they will no longer be responsible for creating a budget and hoping everything gets funded through donations. Also under this ownership model, members will put their time, effort, and tithe, into a ministry that matches the desire God has laid on their heart instead of the ministry God has laid on the heart of the Pastor or Elder.

For the ownership model to work, Pastors and Elders will need to relinquish some control. I know the members are ready for a new model. I’m not sure the leaders are.


Jennifer said...

Nodded my head the whole way through. Great job! I can totally see this working in my church, because the people who are "do-ers", the ones who roll up their sleeves and jump in when they see a need, are all on the same page with our pastor and our trustees, and our church's ministry. For example, if I spend $100 buying school supplies for our Back to School Carnival, which will be handed out to the needy kids in our area, then that's $100 that has supported my church's ministry, but more importantly, it's $100 that has been spent showing Jesus to those kids. So if I deducted $100 from my tithe check that week, it's not like I haven't tithed! This is a very important concept for churches to grasp.

The area where I can see trouble brewing is that I don't think it's healthy for a bunch of individuals in the church to be out doing their own thing, you know? For one, someone may jump into starting a ministry which they really aren't knowledgeable about, even though they think they are. They can do more harm than good, and if it's done under the auspices of the church, the church leaders would be liable for problems that arise.

Anyway, I definitely agree with your premise here. My childhood church lost an average of one pastor a year, not to mention a revolving door of membership, and I can tell you unequivocally it was due to the handling of money each and every time.

Derek Simmons said...


I grant you this: an "ownership model" is definitely "contrarian." But is it Biblical?

My secular self is small "l" libertarian; but not my sacred self. My secular self is anti-statist, but my sacred self tries to bow to His Authority. I say this as prologue to the following observation because I read and re-read your post with a growing dis-ease and no satisfactory answer for it.

I then "googled" "God as|is owner" and found many "hits" that helped calm my gut. I think--at least until a cogent David Smith reply sends me back to my mental blackboard to work out the responding idea--that the "ownership" model fails as solution because the "big pot" model fails as an explanation for the failure of the institutional church to do God's Will.

If I were to use your "ownership" model I think I would say that the problem is that we Christians fail to "own" The Message; fail to see our selves, our tasks, our lives, our world through the eyes He Gives us: the Gospel lens.

If I join a bunch of brothers and decide to raise funds for a new children's facility--something that the whole of our congregation through their tithes and offerings and our church leadership have not seen fit to fund--I (and my brothers who pony-up) clearly "own" that project or that ministry; but have we done God's Will rather than our own? Why do we "owners" have faith that our understanding of what God Wants at this place and time is a better, clearer than what the Elders and Pastors have concluded in their rejection of this project or ministry?

My "local" pitch has been and continues to be that the pastors in today's church--at least as practiced in the PCUSA--have become CEO/CFO/COO's because the church model is the "American Corporation", not His Church in America.

In my denomination pastors are ordained as "Ministers of Word and Sacrament." Yet the accretions of our institutional church in our denomination's constitution make it effectively impossible for these men--and in our denomination, women--to place their calling first,and so far in front of what is second as to be not just a different order of magniture but qualitatively distinct. What happens in our PCUSA way of "doing church" is that the ordination call as "Minister of Word and Sacrement" becomes just first among equal callings--their other "calling" being CEO/CFO/COO and a litany of other roles spelled out in our Book of Order.

I do think that the "ownership" model can be a good analogy to use, but not in the way you used it. We the pews do "own" our church not in the way a homeowner shows pride of ownership in a regularly paint house and a regularly clipped lawn, but in the same manner as small shareholders "own" the corporations in which the hold stock. [Unfortunately the analogy sticks across the board: big "shareholders" have bigger says in corporate governanace and in running the church.]

Too many small shareholders hold their "certificates" out of sentimentality. Mom and Dad always owned GM and ATT so we'll stick it out too even when thereis no pay out and no capital appreciation. There are, of course, those who see (or feel) there is no payout --and they shop their shares to another corporation.

While I think this is a good analogy, I think it is bad Christianity. We the pews should not be viewing ourselves either as proud homeowners or savvy shareholders but as members--"members of One Body."

It seems to me that pastors should be "in the business" of training elders and teaching us all The Word[theology, not therapy]and teaching so that we pews under the guidance of elders are more frequently found in "one accord" and less likely to "do our own thing" instead of HIS.

Yours in Him,