On Selling our Inheritance

Last June, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the organizing body of the esteemed institution that I serve, decided to sell its property on Second Avenue in NYC.  It’s where our Presiding Bishop resides and the central office is located.

Certainly there are some good reasons.  After all, our church is declining and we have little money.  And what do they do there in NY, anyway?  NYC is such an elitist, expensive place, with their snobbish restaurants, cultural activities with foreign artists, and expensive hotels.   They have theater.  An entire theater district.   And we’ve got enough of that, thank you very much.

Couldn’t we sell the building and give all the money to the poor?  To the Sudan.  Just wire transfer it there.  If not the Sudan, then Mali or Honduras.   Just give it away.

I appreciate the sentiment.  It won’t create the changes we seek.

Well meaning people suffer from a few common errors.  The first is from the belief that if we sell our wealth and give it away, we will be doing some good to ourselves and to others.  Perhaps we think that with a little money, the poor would suddenly become the middle class with jobs and houses – in control of their lives.  More likely, we’d merely lose our inheritance, the hard work of our previous generations, and still have lots of poor people.  In addition, we’d also have lost an effective staging area, the organization that can help us transform the relationship of donor to client; giver to receiver.   It takes long term work.  It takes training, advocacy and time.  It means building up relationships and institutions.  Certainly we should reinvent our own organization; but selling our property may only diminish our strength rather than invite us to a shared struggle.

The second is a corollary:  a suspicion of any sort of extravagance.  I respect this – while people are skiing in Vail, others are dying in Syria.  How can anyone have a good time?  Yet, the poor woman generously pours out abundance over Jesus; and then the apostles complain, that money could have been given away.  How can we celebrate the resurrection when there are so many people who are dying needlessly?   We just feted our bishop in NY, and I could hear the occasional people complain about the cost.   We couldn’t even appreciate the party that he was throwing for us.  He’d already become a target.

We are eager to sacrifice, but especially when it’s with money we don’t earn ourselves.  We give the money away, cheaply.   For we aren’t actually making the sacrifices that will ensure our institutions can do effective work; we sell for a song the contributions that previous generations made.  We feel righteous for giving our wealth away; when we are meant to be stewards of wealth we inherited.  Our first step should be to give more; not to buy into financial austerity.

What’s disturbing is the number of many Episcopalians who are also instinctively anti-institutional.  I think this reflects our cultural antagonism toward “institutional” religion.  But this is misplaced:  strong institutions create sustained change.  They represent groups of people of a common mind.    We may identify changes in our culture with individuals or movements; but we forget that there were always organizations that made such work possible.    As our market system becomes more sophisticated, the institutions that make that work possible become invisible.  But they are there.  Social media may make us think  individuals are more effective, but Google, Facebook and Twitter are institutions, not merely platforms.  We are ill served when we forget that.

Certainly the institution of the central office should be held accountable; its administration should be staffed with people who are competent and energetic, who understand that good business practices and institutional power are not, in themselves, bad.  They probably should not be priests, aside from those individuals who must perform the church’s role in public.  But such leadership concerns are altogether of a different sort than the magic we expect from releasing the investments we make.

Our institution does need intentional disorganization and thoughtful reorganization.  But while we are certainly eager to do the former, we have little idea how to do the latter.  And selling prime real estate does not give me confidence in our ability to do so.  To some, the selling signifies prophetic action and deliverance.  But it also reflects our miserliness and desperation.

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2 comments on “On Selling our Inheritance

  1. Wow–this is a good article, very articulate and thoughtful. While I cannot speak to the issue of selling the NYC property, as the head of Spring Grass Book’Em, an All Saints Brighton Heights Episcopal books-to-prisoners ministry which is unable to serve 2/3 of the inmates who write to us for books and help, I often notice the contradiction of expensive churches and buildings that are like palaces, while so many of us little people and ministries suffer for lack of money.

    And doesn’t the Bible say, Sell all you have and follow Jesus? It even says to leave your families, I think, and it doesn’t mean to leave your amassed wealth and property to your children, grandchildren and greatgrandchildren in order to keep other people from getting it. But perhaps this is sour grapes, as I have always lacked relatives to give me anything, and life has been a terrible struggle. Even the Quakers (Religous Society of Friends) here in Pittsburgh meet in a grand mansion although their beliefs used to dictate “a plain and simple building.” Much money is tied up maintaining these mansions and architectural wonders…while Jesus Christ made a point of being homeless with next to no possessions, and we are commanded to be Christ-like.

    Again, I am just musing here, as an outsider and one of the have-nots. I work all the time with inadequate technology and supplies and postage, and never get a vacation, yet I truly care about the prisoners and don’t want to abandon them when they are so desperate for books and so very grateful–when they receive a book package, they feel loved and visited…and we are supposed to visit those in prison, but sometimes books and letters are the only way.

  2. padremambo says:

    thank you for your musing!

    Scripture offers a few different messages. Certainly God promises his people abundance; he did not begrudge Job his mansions and wealth, but merely wanted to test his faith. Being rich does not inhibit you from finding God. It just makes it a little harder.

    Maintaining and building a cathedral is not just for the Glory of God; they also provide meaningful work. It would be better to actually build more cathedrals – but employ those prisoners who are recently freed so they can have a life of dignity. Cathedrals are monuments built by hardworking people; let them be seen as such.

    But my suspicion? We’d sell our inheritance, and get shopping malls and the Trump Towers.

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