Open the barn doors

In this excerpt from Mark Elsdon’s book We Aren’t Broke, he encourages a move from the fear and greed of scarcity to a recognition of God’s abundance.

Photo by Aubrey Odom-Mabey on Unsplash

What is our money for?

When I was called as co-pastor for Pres House, the PC(USA) campus ministry center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 18 years ago, I had a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master of divinity degree. I had learned how to read Greek and Hebrew (sort of!), how to think theologically and how to deliver a passable sermon. But much of my actual day-to-day work involved managing employees, understanding complex financing arrangements, reading and signing contracts, developing a marketing strategy and other aspects of launching a multimillion-dollar-per-year social business. Thankfully I love to learn new things. And I was good at asking for help from people who know more than me. So for 12 years I learned the business on the job. But eventually I decided I needed a deeper knowledge of business practices and to think not only theologically but also with business in mind. While many of my seminary classmates were getting Ph.D. and D.Min degrees, I went back to school for an MBA (master of business administration).

I loved it. I loved learning and talking about running a business well. Don’t be mistaken — I also have a healthy skepticism of business. I do not believe in unfettered capital markets. But I am also not afraid of business. Running the business of mission well can have a profound positive impact. It is not enough for me to dream and vision, or to write and preach. For change to happen in lives and communities, action must also be taken. And business done right can lead to transformative action.

I am also not opposed to organizations seeking to make money. I resonate with Gilbert Monks, who a century ago lamented that clergy had too little interest in money and the business affairs of the world. According to James Hudnut-Beumler’s In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism, Monks encouraged clergy to try new things and engage in their work in a businesslike fashion. My experience developing student housing at Pres House has shown me that effectively leveraging financial resources can have a profound positive effect on mission and ministry. And yet the church has at times adopted the worst practices of business without critique while ignoring some of the best practices of business that would help us serve our communities.

One of the underlying concepts that comes up in business school is that the purpose of capital is to seek its “highest and best use.” Traditionally, this has meant finding the highest rate of return with the lowest risk and putting our money there so it can grow as rapidly and as risk-free as possible. In other words — we’ve come to believe the purpose of money is to make more money.

But is that really the purpose of capital? Is it actually the highest and best use for our money? Is growth for growth’s sake good? Not always. As Jed Emerson notes in The Purpose of Capital, cancer grows just to grow — and then kills us. Growth is not the same as creating value. Is the capital in the church truly creating value? “We do not have to accept the definition of capital’s purpose as developed in the last four centuries and which we have enthusiastically bought from Wall Street’s firms of finance…. At its core the notion of capital is itself a social construct, and not an objective rule of law operating beyond our societal bounds,” writes Emerson. It is our money. We can handle it however we want to.

No, that is not accurate. It is not our money. It is God’s money. And therefore, we should think carefully about how we put God’s money to work. Growing the money by whatever means possible may not be the best way to use what God has given us. Here I am drawn to Scripture, and particularly the parable of the rich fool, for, as Walter Brueggemann affirms in Money and Possessions, “Economics is a core preoccupation of the biblical tradition.”

Rich fools?

The parable of the rich fool found in Luke 12 was prompted by a question. Jesus is talking to a crowd when someone calls out, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me” (v.13). According to Judaic inheritance practices, an older brother would receive two-thirds of an inheritance while the younger would receive one-third, writes Richard P. Carlson in Feasting on the Word. This younger brother sees Jesus as a potential advocate who will help him get more from his brother. He probably doesn’t expect to hear the answer Jesus then gives.

“Take care!” Jesus says. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (v.15). According to Brueggemann, the word “greed” in the original Greek could also be translated “yearning for increase.” Instead of addressing the question of the man’s claim on his father’s wealth, Jesus uses the opportunity to teach the crowd about money. And he begins by warning the crowd to be wary of continually yearning for increase. Jesus then tells a story that speaks to those of us who have resources today just as powerfully as it did to those who heard it originally.

There is a rich man. His wealth is measured in land and the quantity of crops that land produces. And this man’s land produces abundantly. In fact, it produces so much that he can’t find anywhere to store all the grain. The language Jesus uses here is instructive — the land produces abundantly. Not “the man works hard” or the “man is brilliant and got rich” or “the man pulls himself up by his bootstraps.” No, the land produces abundantly. He does not simply fill his barns by himself. He is helped into his wealth.

Furthermore, when God comes to the rich man at the end of the story to demand his life back, the language God uses is that of a person recalling a loan. Even the man’s very life is a loan from God. Everything the man has, including his very life, is given or loaned to him by God. For Brueggemann, this suggests that “Money and possessions belong to God and are held in trust by human persons in community.”

But does the rich man acknowledge this? Is he grateful to God for his life and all he has been entrusted with? Does he recognize he is simply a steward of land and resources that are not his to own? No. He doesn’t. The land produced abundantly in verse 16, but by verse 17 those riches have become “my crops.” The man immediately starts making plans to store “my grain” and “my goods.” The rich man takes full ownership of what is not his to own.

“You fool,” God says to him. “I am going to recall the loan that is your life tonight” (v.20).

Suddenly the man is left with nothing: no goods, no grain, no barns, not even his life. There are no barns – and no banks – in heaven. The plush life he had tried to secure for himself vanishes. What appeared to be wise stewardship of his surplus turned out to be foolish. Jesus closes the story with a simple statement: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (v.21).

The rich fool in Jesus’s parable lost himself because he missed two key principles about interacting with money that would serve us well in both our personal and church finances:
(1) everything we have is on loan to us from God, and (2) we need to control money rather than let it control us. These two principles are an invitation to live differently and not repeat the mistakes of our barn-building ancestor.

Everything we have is a loan from God

The rich fool failed to see all that he had was on loan to him from God. Even his very life. As the psalmist sings, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (24:1). The resources we have, as individuals and institutions, are loaned to us by God for us to put to good use while we have the opportunity. They are not “ours.” God owns. Humans just possess for the time being. The vital truth that everything we have is on loan from God is bedrock to living a life rich toward God and not constantly yearning for increase.

Shifting our mindset from a view that our resources and capital are ours and ours alone to an understanding that all we have is on loan from God opens up many new opportunities and possibilities for how to use our capital. If the property of the church is God’s, what would God want us to do with it? If the endowment of a church is God’s, how would God want that capital to be put to work? If the money invested in denominational pension funds is God’s and not ours, how might that impact the way we invest those funds? Perhaps instead of building larger and larger barns to hold more of “our” assets, we could open up those barns and put God’s resources to work in the world.

Control money — don’t let money control us

The rich fool lived his life in fear of not having enough even though he had plenty. Instead of sharing from his abundance, he tried to gather it all up for the future. A future that would never come. This mind-set of scarcity has infected American people and churches. In The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist calls out this scarcity mind-set as a dangerous and life-draining lie built upon the pervasive myths that (1) There is not enough and (2) More is better. Put another way, these are the traps of fear and greed. Fear and greed have made their way into our personal psyche, and I believe they have replicated like a virus in the church.

First, we think that no matter how much we have, there is still never enough. We operate out of fear for the future. That there will not be enough. So we store up whatever we can in the biggest barns we can find. There are certainly many individual churches that have very little to work with. But in the mainline church ecosystem, and in many parts of the wider big C “Church,” we have a lot of assets. A lot of capital. Incredibly valuable property in A-plus locations. Buildings. And massive endowments. We are not broke. In fact, the member organizations of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) have more than $4 trillion of invested assets under management. When I hear folks in the church say there isn’t enough money to do x, y, or z, I want to say (in the kindest way possible), “That is a lie.” It is a perpetuation of the lie of scarcity. We aren’t broke. We just need to think differently about how we use what we do have. Instead of making money with our money by investing it in Facebook and Amazon we could open the barns and put it to work through impact investing and social entrepreneurship.

Second, we are drawn to the myth that more is always better. And we get greedy — always seeking more. More people. More pledges. More buildings. More programs. Striving to be relevant, to connect and serve people meaningfully, and to grow in breadth and depth are not bad things, but if more becomes the primary goal, there will never be enough.

When we step back from this myth, we know instinctively that more is not always better and that constantly seeking more leaves us, our communities, and our environment exhausted and pillaged. A well-known study by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton at Princeton University found people were no happier making $10 million than they were making $75,000. In fact, making anything above $75,000 provided no increase in happiness. More is not always better. There is a point of enough.

There is a way in which we simultaneously don’t take money seriously enough as a force in our world, as a driver of our faith, and give it too much control in our lives and don’t keep it in its place. We have let money, our worries about it, our desire to increase it or retain it, control us — our decisions, our plans, our future, our identity. It is time for us to uproot “the sacred character” of money and “bring money back to its role as a material instrument,” as Jacques Ellul writes. It is just a tool. Let us put money back in its rightful place, as a tool for us to control and not a force exerting control over us.

The challenge for all of us and our organizations is to set aside fear and greed and live differently. Even though it is difficult, we can live differently. It is my hope for my life, and for the church, to live in such a way that we control money rather than let it control us. We can wrestle that lie to the ground and live differently. Immediately after telling the story of the rich fool, Jesus invites the disciples in Luke 12:22-32 to “withdraw from the world of fear,” as Brueggemann translates, and not be anxious about their lives. Jesus reminds them that, like the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, they have enough. They are “not to be preoccupied with scarcity, and are not to be propelled by worry” (Brueggemann’s translation). I still think we need to aim for the highest and best use of capital. We just need to expand the definition of what that means. It is up to us to define the purpose of our capital — our own personal assets and the assets of our churches and institutions. Let us not allow that purpose to be defined by Wall Street and investment advisers. Let us not let fear of scarcity drive our decision making, or simply fall back into the way it has always been done. We do not need to continue to build bigger barns as a way to manage our anxiety about the future, or invest for the highest financial return because that is what investing is supposed to be. We can do something different with our assets. Let’s open the barn doors and put our money to work for good.

Adapted from We Aren’t Broke: Uncovering Hidden Resources for Mission and Ministry by Mark Elsdon. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Published in 2021, We Aren’t Broke explores how faith-based organizations can use investment assets and property for mission impact and financial resiliency.