The Economy of God

BUMP – Just because I like this one.

Having accepted the challenge to discuss economic theology with a Presbyterian session of a large metropolitan church, and having overheard in conversation the “ideal” minister being described as a “CEO” type, I began with a simple exercise – one I had presented several times before to different audiences. The exercise takes advantage of the preponderance of business language and processes being used by sessions and boards of religious institutions.

Assume this church is a “business” venture. Each business venture has three levels of stakeholders:

§ Stockholder(s) – those that have an equity position in the venture; those that have invested the capital.

§ Secondary stakeholders – those that have a direct material interest in the operations and results of the venture. (For a profit company, these are the customers, suppliers, management, employees, etc.)

§ Tertiary stakeholders – those that benefit indirectly from the operations and results of the venture. (Profit business – retailers, community, charities, etc.)

I then ask the participants to come to consensus and write down who makes up each level of stakeholder in regard to their church.

While the answers have varied each time I have presented this exercise, they have not varied substantially. In this case, the answers were:

§  Stockholder(s) – congregation (after some bickering about whether this included people who didn’t give).

§  Secondary stakeholders – minister, employees, programs that use church facilities.

§  Tertiary stakeholders – the community, missions, the unchurched, and the “least of these my sisters/brothers” (poor, sick, prisoner, etc using Matthew 25 as the basic criteria).

Ample opportunity was given to discuss each category and why the people were chosen that fell within it, and I received some quite extensive explanations – along with some discussion about considerations that were contentious.

I then asked the question, “So, where do God and/or Jesus fall into this structure?”

In the multiple instances I have presented this exercise, God has never been mentioned in any of the stakeholder categories. After the question is asked, there is usually the disclaimer offered that, “Oh, well, we assumed God (or Jesus) was the CEO,” which, of course, conflicts with the pre-session comments about the ideal minister being the CEO, or “God’s ownership was assumed.” Each group insists that they never actually forgot God/Jesus, but it seemed so basic that it wasn’t brought up.

Given that business language has seeped deeply into religious institutions, it is completely understandable that “business” ethics and visioning has accompanied it. The tendency in our culture to separate business and theology has profound implications on how we do church. While God is, hopefully, forefront in worship, ministry, mission and outreach, the door tends to be closed to God with regard to dialogue about the assets of the church. This is not, in my estimation, an intentional effect of adopting the language of business, but is a result nonetheless. We live in a culture in which money and the divine are generally considered mutually exclusive, except for the most notorious instances of TV evangelism (which is another topic entirely).

So, where do God and/or Jesus fall into this structure?

If we take the most basic definitions of the stakeholders, God is the only candidate for stockholder, and the only category within which God fits. To follow this line, both equity and capital have to be discussed economically and theologically.

Equity, in this sense, is relatively easy – it is basically ownership. It can be ownership realized from original formation of the entity, or ownership realized through investment. In either instance, God is the most likely stockholder of the church. While discussion of the reason for the church being formed could develop into a substantial dialogue, I think most Christians would agree that it was formed at the initiative of God (ownership through formation) and through the investment of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (ownership through investment). I can well imagine a present day prophet of God saying, “Equity is mine, sayeth the Lord.”

Capital is not as easily defined. In his 2003 book The Mystery of Capital, Hernando deSoto recounts the answers he received from many economists to the question, “What is capital?” The most common answer, by a large margin, was that capital was the same as assets, which is wrong. Being a classically trained economist, and also one of a growing number of economists seeking a middle way between Western capitalism and socialism for the benefit of the “Third World”, this question – or, rather, the inability of economists to answer this question – was significant to deSoto. To make a long story short, capital does not equate to assets, investment, available funds, equity or any other item that is listed on a financial statement. Capital is that which can be gained and is, by definition, unrealized. Capital is that which can potentially be accrued to equity holder(s) from leveraging or using assets that are owned. While capital is derived from that which exists, it is “not yet.” Capital is potential.

Theologically, I find the most affinity with considering the capital of the church as the Realm (or Kingdom) of God/Reign of God’s Love. The equity holder is the Creator God; the investment is Christ; the registered fiduciary agent is the Holy Spirit; the capital – the unrealized gain – is the “here, but not yet” Realm/Reign of God.

But, what of the assets?

While there are likely to be many more, the primary assets would be those making up the church. In an economy, as in business, assets are those things owned. An “economy”, however, has various meanings. In the strictly financial sector, economy is the transactional movement of goods, services, commodities and currency, with each having monetary value. In the larger, but still business, model of economy, commodities include labor and labor value, goodwill, customer base and many other items. Still more broadly constructed is the economy as a social model, in which all transactions have value, including those in which the transaction has solely intangible individual, social or community benefits.

When considered in the broader context of social economy, which is still likely to be more utilitarian than a “divine” economy, the word “asset” takes on a substantially different meaning. For churches, assets are no longer limited to the hard assets like buildings, endowments and cash, or even the more intangible assets like reputation, goodwill or community standing, but also include the most important of the assets – people. Absent the people, no church exists. And, while all the other assets of the church may be used to raise “capital” – to live into the Realm of God – it is most dependent on the efforts of the human assets.

Envisioning the balance sheet of God this way leads us to plenty of questions, not the least of which is, “So, who are the secondary stakeholders?” The likely assumption that the congregation has been bumped down from stockholder into the number two location, now appears to be in question. Consider the statement attributed to the Anglican Archbishop William Temple, “The church is the only entity that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” Overwhelmingly, the mission of the church has been considered the “least of these my brothers/sisters” – whether they are the poor, oppressed, sick, strangers or the unchurched, the primary focus (theologically) of the church is those outside of church/culture. In regard to the unrealized gain or capital – the Realm of God – scripture tells us, primarily through parable, what it looks like. It looks a great deal like loving our neighbors as ourselves and seeing to the interests of widows, orphans, strangers, etc. That would make the “least of these”, or as I prefer the “most vulnerable”, the secondary stakeholders.

As simply assets of God, the congregation would technically have no stakeholder status. Of course, for the community of faith, it may be uncomfortable to consider itself as having no stake, and to come face to face with the fact that it is simply an asset of God. It is also an impractical concept. “The church is an inn and an infirmary for the sick and for convalescents. Heaven… is the palace where the whole and righteous live,” wrote Martin Luther in his Lectures on Romans. Since we are not perfected as God’s assets, we are at the same time beneficiaries or stakeholders in the ongoing ministries of the church. All within the church are on a journey towards God through Christ and, therefore, have a stake in how ministry and mission are done, and are right to be concerned about how the church’s efforts affect them. By nature, however, as tertiary stakeholders, the benefits accruing to by the congregations are valid only if benefit first accrues to the stockholder, God, and those that make up the second level of stakeholders, the vulnerable.

Until the last few decades, in which stockholders have become the primary and, I dare say in many instances, the only people to profit from business ventures, the long-standing pattern of business was to bring value to all of the categories of stakeholders. Decisions were invalidated, generally, if they did not return gain for the stockholders, but also if they failed to profit the other stakeholders. So, in theological terms, what is gain or profit?

A primary econo-theological question is, “What profits God?” I contend that this may be a rarely asked question in the meetings of finance committees on many levels of the church. Another question develops from it with regard to the next level of stakeholder – a question I suggest could be phrased, “How does this decision affect the most vulnerable among us?” Both of these considerations are usually overlooked in favor of questions like, “What should WE do with …?”, or “Can WE afford to do …?” The questions themselves show the perceived locus of ownership. While a sense of “ownership” of ongoing ministries is a good and right thing, these more common questions can actually serve to undermine the ability of any church or religious body to serve as an asset of God. By entering into a tug of war over how to use assets based on who owns or controls them, the ability to realize the capital can be jeopardized.

If we are to accept that business and economic models are valid for the governance of the church, it is imperative that the language and concepts of business be co-opted and translated theologically. The ownership of God and God’s concept of realizing capital (as best we can understand it) must be our primary considerations. The locus of ownership is God; the capital to be realized is the furtherance of the Realm of God; that capital is realized by living into the desire of God to bring value and worth to the most vulnerable among us; then, and only, then we can ask and comprehend how this affects us.

7 Responses to “The Economy of God”

  1. January 12, 2009 at 7:26 AM

    I don’t think Jesus wanted to build a ‘business venture’ out of what god inspired him …

  2. 2 Rev Andy Little
    January 12, 2009 at 7:50 AM

    I agree wholeheartedly. That’s actually the point of the essay. But, as much as we may disagree, many churches have become businesses in the way the operate and the ethics they use.

  3. January 12, 2009 at 8:12 AM

    But you’re actually leading your ‘flock’ into accepting the idea that churches should be administered as if they were some kind of financial services enterprise …

  4. January 12, 2009 at 8:21 AM

    Maybe something like: “Invest your present assets and re-collect them in your afterlife … with interests and the blessings of the holy spirit amen …”

  5. 5 Rev Andy Little
    January 12, 2009 at 9:04 AM

    I see your point, Gilmour. But, remember, I am talking to churches that now function as corporations, complete with all the secular jargon and ethics that has no place in church.

    I don’t get anywhere telling them they’re just out and wrong – they just stop listening. What I try to do in those cases is get them to start translating their business concepts into theological reflection.

    I have found that, if they take the first step, it can tend to become a snowball. The end result for the church I was talking about, for instance, is that they eventually abandoned their business-like structure and initiated each meeting by discussing what God would find valuable from the meeting they were about to have. This transition took two years, however.

    So, really, I agree with you. And I can tell you that, in my own flock, we never use this kind of approach.

    BTW, thanks for caring about this in the first place. May God continue blessing you, Andy.

  6. 6 Lisa Withrow
    January 17, 2009 at 6:51 PM

    I wonder if there is a central place called “organizational theory” from which non-profits, churches and businesses draw. Because the language from organizational theory has been adopted so well by the business world, we church leaders assume it is busines language that drives operations. Sure, the profit motive differs, but the theory of organizational management is the school of thought (there are several schools), and all of these organizations draw. Now when “stewardship” becomes only about money, then we have a problem.

  7. 7 Rev Andy Little
    January 17, 2009 at 9:34 PM


    I think you are right. My preference is mathematical or computational organizational theory – but then I’ve always had the dysfunction of seeing things as numbers. I like family systems theory as well, except it’s a little touchy feely for me.

    While I can appreciate the issue with language, I also think that most of us conceptualize in terms of language – language sets a stage upon which dynamics are played out, and certain words and phrases elicit almost conditioned responses.

    My point in this exercise was to encourage coneptualizing language familiar to business settings in terms of theology – reclaiming, if you will, the concepts for the church so thay didn’t carry the same triggers, responses and baggage as in business.

    Now, of course, as I’ve written that, I don’t know if it makes sense.

    Good to hear from you, Lisa. You taught me most of what I know, anyway.

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That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

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