Help-Mating: Are We Good Stewards?

When God gave Adam a help mate in Eve, that act established the division of labor as normative for human productivity. It allowed Adam to prosper beyond the limitations of his individual capacity. The division of labor fosters key outcomes – exchanges, collaboration, specialization, and innovation – all of which contribute to an upward spiral of prosperity materially, intellectually, and, by the practice of righteousness (holiness) in exchange, spiritually.

The marketplace has prospered through time, especially in league with the scientific and sociological development of products, manufacturing and distribution processes, and managerial practices over the past several hundred years. What Adam Smith could not specifically identify, but labeled the “invisible hand,” is nothing less than the design of increase within God’s ordered creation, the “multiply” commands of Genesis 1:22 and 28.

While the marketplace has embraced the increase mandate, though too often sadly as self-serving profit mongering, the world has fared increasingly well in the last century as globalization has brought trade to higher levels of complexity and connectedness. [Lest I be called out on this, I do not believe that profit is bad . . . just too often sought for the wrong purposes.] Unfortunately, much of the wisdom for producing increase has been lost on the evangelistic and charitable efforts of the church and the pursuit of social causes by other not-for-profits.

I often meet operators of not-for-profit agencies interested in engaging in the current movement of social enterprise or, in church parlance, marketplace ministries. And often they relate that though they would like to help their organization move in that direction to enhance their effectiveness and sustainability, they simultaneously confess their ministry or social services training has left them bereft of business knowledge or experience. They do not realize the organizations they run operate on the same business model as commercial enterprises. It is simply the language of the business, church, and charity cultures that differs.

One of the keys to modern market proliferation is the complex organization of organizations, a meta-level application of the division of labor. Where a shoemaker and a baker may trade goods on a personal level, corporations exchange value on an institutional level. Hence, the business world language calls those we buy from vendors, those businesses we sell to customers, those we work with partners or joint ventures or even subsidiaries. The level of relationship is simply taken to a corporate from an individual level as we transcend the low level trade of local markets, barter systems, and such on a personal level.

The reason businesses act this way is the same principle of trade that fosters worker specialization and the comparative advantage of corporations, nations, and even regional trading blocs, like the Eurozone, which trade effectively within while leveraging the economic advantages of unity in the broader, global market. Gained efficiency is the only source of newly created wealth. That is, on the income statement, even while increasing revenues, operators must control expenses to increase profitability. Such principles are standard fare of business classes and corporate offices but not so in churches and not for profits.

Churches and not-for-profits are not looking to make a profit. But they are looking to make a difference. Unfortunately, since 2000, the number of not-for-profits in the United States has more than doubled. Churches and not-for-profits operate on donated funds (including grants) but those clamoring for the pool of available funds has grown while the pool of donors and funds has not kept pace.

The point is, churches and other not-for-profits need to realize and live into the reality of their business model, especially on the front of forming strategic alliances for cooperation, collaboration, and leveraging each one’s comparative advantage. But, alas, the blinders of busyness more often than not disallow the forethought required to carry this off.

This last point is a critical needs gap that coalescing agencies can fill by building communities of not-for-profit agencies and help guide them through the processes of increasing their collective effectiveness. Such an agency may well be an outside force or can be constructed “from within” by leaders of the various agencies coming together on their own. Very often it appears, however, this catalytic energy must come from outside, applying light (rather than heat), to raise the bar of cooperative vision across a coalition of mission statements, skills, capacities, programs, and workers.

Perhaps a few illustrative thoughts will help. I lived for many years in Montgomery County, Indiana. At the time, there were about 125 churches in the countywide community of 34,000 people, or one church for each 272 people. Significant research has shown that only about twenty percent of U.S. residents attend church weekly. Being generous, let’s say that is twenty five percent. Those 125 churches in Montgomery County averaged weekly attendance of just 68 people. Census data tells us that about twenty five percent of the population is under the age of eighteen so each church hosts just 51 adults. In Indiana, the average household is 2.6 people with a median household income of nearly $53,000. Dividing the 68 attendees by households means that if every household tithes ten percent of their gross income, the church will see annual donations of about $138,000. Unfortunately, U.S. church members only give three percent so the annual donations drop to a reasonably sustainable annual budget of a bit over $41,000, less than the median income of a single household! That $41,000 pays facilities costs (including rents or mortgages, utilities, insurance, etc.), supplies, and in many cases multiple salaries. Obviously, there cannot be much left for actual charitable work, whether in giving financial support or investing in ministering programs.

Let’s look at the labor impact of each church. In volunteerism, Indiana ranks 24th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Let’s allow that Indiana is very close to the national averages finding itself near the midpoint of the rankings. Nationally, each resident volunteers 29 hours per year. For each of those 125 churches in Montgomery County that multiplies out to be 1972 hours per year, or 37.9 weekly (less than one hour per week per adult attendee), less than one fulltime employee’s expected work schedule. That means the equivalent of less than 120 people are carrying out the annual ministry (including teaching Sunday school classes, conducting outreach programs, etc.) to the whole community of 34,000, or just one person for each 283 people, trying to know them, understand their needs (material and spiritual), formulating a plan for ministering to them, and executing that ministry. Each “active” participant has (using the forty hour week model) a little under nine minutes and three dollars ((($41,000 church income x 125)/34000), as if all of the budget of each church could be dedicated to ministry programming) a week to minister to each of their constituents. Nine minutes and three dollars a week for each man, woman, and child in the community. (This looks to be a good takeoff point for stewardship training!)

But let’s put those numbers into a collective view of the 125 churches: 6375 adults; 3269 households; 246,500 annual work hours; church giving (staying with the three percent) of $5.2 million. It is easy to imagine how impact could be increased if the efforts of all those churches and adults were coalesced and organized. Admittedly, it is an uphill battle but we must keep in mind that Jesus’ cross had to be carried up a hill to Golgotha.

There is no endeavor in the history or breadth of human experience more critical to this world than the cause of Christ, advancing God’s Kingdom. There is likely no worthwhile endeavor in that same experience more disjointed and disorganized as that same cause. God gave Adam a co-worker and a wife in the person of Eve. The role of wife, as co-creator of progeny, is a future, productive, hopeful role. The role of co-worker is for advancement in the present . . . today.

The church needs its leaders to step up, to lay down their agendas and egos and to embrace the cooperation, collaboration, and specialization God designed into creation if we are, as the church, to become the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We must remove our blinders and join forces and much of the organizational skill set needed is already in the church but relegated to pew sitting and check writing.

The army of God is in disarray and, on some fronts, even in retreat. Today, as on every day in history, there is a clarion call to pursue the unity of the church, to be one as Christ and his heavenly Father are one . . . unified in thought and deed, leveraging the wisdom available on humbled, bended knees, and rising that the world would see the church and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deuteronomy 4:6).

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