Eerdmans, 239 pages.
Reviewed by Philip J. Reed
Mark Elsdon shows us the money. Before COVID-19, many of our congregations and institutions struggled with the realities of fewer people — and dollars. As the pandemic winds down and we return to our usual worship, programs and mission, we ask, “Where we will find the resources to go forward?” Elsdon poignantly responds, “We aren’t broke.”
Our money is hiding in plain sight in endowments, property and the retirement savings accounts of our members and friends. But there’s a problem: We practice a two-pocket investment and giving strategy. “Money is invested out of one pocket to make more money. Then the earnings from that investment are used for operating the church or given away for mission.” This is such a long-held strategy that we rarely question it.
When we hand our investment dollars over to the market, we help companies like Amazon, Apple and Facebook grow their businesses in exchange for a (small) portion of the returns. Elsdon wonders if we can invest our money to grow our own institutions instead. “What is the purpose of our capital?” he asks. Is it to simply make more money, or is it something more?
Elsdon answers this question in an insightful, extended exegesis of Jesus’ parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-21), which is at the heart of his book. The answer is two-fold: Everything we have is on loan from God, and we need to control the money rather than let it control us.
Elsdon advocates strongly for redemptive entrepreneurship and impact investing as ways of not allowing the money to control us. Redemptive entrepreneurs address major culture and justice issues of our day, while impact investing capitalizes organizations that have generative impact on people’s lives. They are, however, not charity — both expect a return on capital invested, and they require those receiving the investment to demonstrate a capability to give something back.
“We Aren’t Broke” begins with Elsdon’s turnaround story. Mark and his wife, Erica Liu, accepted a call to be co-pastors at Pres House on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Pres House had been a successful Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) campus ministry, but the couple arrived to a run-down property with no activity. With traditional funding exhausted, they sought and received a large investment from the Synod of Lakes and Prairies of the PC(USA). It was not a grant; it was an investment of capital, precisely what Pres House needed to repair its leaky roof and make the necessary improvements to convert their old building into attractive housing for students and space for programming. Their now-thriving campus ministry can be attributed, in part, to their creative funding model.
You’ll have many questions about redemptive entrepreneurship and impact investing, and Elsdon seeks to answer many of them, with varying success. “We Aren’t Broke” is not a how-to manual, but instead makes a compelling case that we should use all the assets God has given us for higher and better purposes than purely for financial returns. Thank you, Mark Elsdon, for showing us the money!
Philip J. Reed is pastor/head of staff of Grosse Ile Presbyterian Church in Grosse Ile, Michigan.