Sep  2016 13
Clean-enough Money

When I left Phillips Theological Seminary in 2000, I was serving as the dean. After spending five years at a Chicago-area seminary doing faculty-related work, I returned to Phillips in 2005 to be the vice president of development.

When I told a Chicago church friend, who was a university professor of labor relations, about the move, he retorted, “Why do you want to be the bagman?” That was my first clue that my relationship with erstwhile colleagues might change because my job involved asking people for money.

Among the churches and Christians I know best, no matter how many times we hear the Bible verse, “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10), what folks seem to take away is “Money is the root of all evil.” This misstatement of the text sets up three splittings that need attention.

First, the denial of our relationship with money.

Unless you’ve found a way to live completely off the grid (in the sense of dropping out of society), you have a relationship with money. It is an unavoidable relationship. [One of the best explorations of that relationship I’ve read is and Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez’s Your Money or Your Life.] The denial of the relationship between a person and money or a congregation and money starves the lives of thousands of congregations and divorces spirituality from everyday life.

Second, the splitting of money from mission.

In organizational life, yes, mission needs to lead. Staying in business is not a mission. But, an organization can’t fulfill a vital mission without staying in business!

Mission and money are inseparably paired. A mission that no one wants to fund is a fantasy. In doctrinal controversies there is a heresy called Docetism: according to Docetics, Jesus only seemed to be human but was actually only divine. Some religious folks unconsciously espouse a kind of institutional Docetism: “my institution should make decisions based only on mission, never money.”

Seminaries are among the organizations today trying all kinds of innovations because the traditional constituencies for our education are, in many places, shrinking, and the educational demands for changing congregations must change, too.

In some schools, I’ve heard a criticism that “Well, we are only making this change because we need more students and their tuition dollars.” I’d argue back that the impetus for a change may come from any direction, including when the business model that formerly supported a mission no longer works.

Regardless of how worthy a mission is, at the end of the day, everyone wants to be paid.

Third, the splitting that produces the fantasy of “clean money.”

Once again, examples from the seminary world. Seminaries across the country located on highly-valued properties are selling assets in order to fund millions of dollars in deferred maintenance on remaining buildings, build endowments, or move to a financially sustainable building and location.

There are the expected complaints about “lack of vision” and “leadership failure” by presidents and boards among those who oppose the asset sales. But sometimes there are bitter complaints about the school’s loss of its soul in a business deal, charges that the deal is immoral, unethical, and otherwise misaligned with the seminary’s values because the sale is to a developer, or the move is from an urban to a suburban location.

In the comments of critics, we see the association of money with dirt. The deals are dirty. More than one voice has declared, “If that is the only way to save the school, then the school is not worth saving.”

I don’t know enough about any deal to comment on any specifics, and as a sitting president in my own glass house, I’m not going to throw rocks. But there is a perception in the seminaries I know that there is money out there somewhere that is clean: money that will pass whatever ethical tests we filter it through. Clean from fossil fuels, clean from capitalists, clean in the way it was earned, clean in the ways it is invested.

I am not unsympathetic to the concern for the ethics of making and using money. Jesus had much, much more to say about money, property, earning, and spending than the stuff most congregations fight over.

There are gifts I would turn down, either because of the way the money was made or because of what the donor wants to control, and ways to invest that should be rejected. But I cannot imagine any chain of making and giving money that would pass all the dirt tests a seminary’s supporters have.

Garrison Keillor on the A Prairie Home Companion radio show did a fake ad for a fake product, PowderMilk Biscuits. He claims the wheat is raised by “Norwegian bachelor farmers, so you know (the biscuits) are pure, mostly.”

Pure, mostly. Clean-enough.

That is a better test for the relationship between religion and money than pure or clean, period. Better because “clean-enough” is closer to a real-world, non-split relationship with money—with which we have a relationship, which is inseparable from mission, and which is never purely pure.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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