This post is part of the series Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).
For reference, here’s the version of the book I’m using.
The problem here is one of language. But let’s begin with the story.
Billy Mitchell was an Atlanta real-estate developer who wanted to give back to the community. He chose to invest in the Summerhill neighborhood of Atlanta on the eve of the Olympic Summer Games, a once in a lifetime opportunity to turn the neighborhood around. To do this, he founded a community-development corporation and, in order to make sure this didn’t turn into a group of outsiders making a land grab in a poor neighborhood, made it a subsidiary of a neighborhood association. The community-development corporation made a variety of deals, large and small, to benefit the community.
However, in assembling these deals – including multi-million dollar real estate deals – the business leaders in charge of the community-development corporation failed to secure their risks. They entered into agreements, as Lupton puts it, “based upon goodwill rather than good business sense. (p. 24) When an attorney “got upset when another legal firm scooped up some fees he was entitled to,” (p. 24) it all unraveled. The attorney launched attacks on the community-development corporation and turned community leaders against it. There were firings and resignations and lawsuits. The corporation collapsed. Summerhill “remains a rudderless neighborhood that no one in the city wants to touch.” (p. 25)
Without more details – such as how the neighborhood leaders turned against the community-development corporation – it’s difficult to interpret this story, but there seem to be two important points: first, the business leaders involved in the community-development approach failed to manage their risks appropriately; second, a business problem seems to be the core of the collapse. By this second part I mean simply this: it is that someone knew they were owed something that led to the dismantling of the community. Attacks were launched, the community was turned against the community-development corporation, etc. I’m not sure that business wasn’t the root of the problem and that if no one had gone in with the expectation that they would be entitled to any fees the problem would not have ever occurred.
Of course, as an aside, I may even be painting too rosy a picture. Exactly how much the community-development corporation “would serve at the pleasure of the community” (p. 23) or whether it had “subordinate[d] its control to the political whims of the community” (p. 25) is up for debate.
That said, let me return to language: In what sense is business ministry?
That’s not to say that business cannot be ministry or that ministry in this day and age requires no business skill.
But read the first paragraph of this section:
Powerful people offering selfless support to the powerless. No thought of repayment. No ulterior motive. Charity work with no strings attached. Seems so noble, so Christian.
Now read the last bit of advice:
Unselfish self-investment may be freely offered with no expectation of repayment. It may not seek credit. It may even be anonymous. But unselfish investment should:
- never be mindless
- never be irresponsible
- always calculate the cost
- always consider the outcome
- always be a partnership
Where, exactly, does business come into it?
Nothing in the first paragraph seems compatible with business and, while the five bullet points are all compatible with business, they are also compatible with ministry. Business as a concept seems completely superfluous to these two paragraphs. Where it is necessary, of course, is in the story. However, as already pointed out, it does not there serve as the path to success – neighborhood development can be accomplished without thought of repayment, without seeking credit, with no strings attached, etc. – but as the path to failure.
Lupton here appears to be smuggling in a pro-business ideology and attempting to disguise it by declaring bad business to be bad ministry and showing us an example of a business solution to a community problem that failed while counting on us to think of it primarily in terms of ministry. Bad business is bad business. Bad ministry is bad ministry. But it is worth noting that good ministry – selfless investment offered without expectation of repayment, to paraphrase Lupton’s description of noble, Christian service - is bad business. And it is also worth noting that good business – the offering of services for the sake of profit – is generally bad ministry.
Or, to put it more simply: ‘Bad business equals bad ministry’ is simply wrong.