How should Churches/Clergy participate in the Share Economy?

Ethics of Etsy, Sidecar, AirBNB and others...

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What is the Share Economy?

Via Consumerist, I read an article about the new “Share Economy” of regular folks who earn supplemental income by renting rooms by the night on AirBNB, selling handmade crafts on Etsy, and carpooling for cash on Sidecar. There’s some controversy as to whether such a “share economy” negatively effects the “buy/sell economy” of hotels, stores, and car rentals/sales.

Quote:

Back in August, Business Insider published a story warning that the sharing economy and the rise of renters could have “catastrophic ripple effects.” A market strategy firm called the ConvergEX Group had been circulating a memo outlining how demand for new cars and houses would drop, with a potential effect on the consumer psyche “similar to that of the Depression.”…

The innovation behind many sharing economy companies, however, is that they are making it more efficient to hail a cab, or rent a hotel, or order a wedding cake topper. On the supply side, they’re making it more efficient to provide these services or sell these products. And an increase in efficiency generally leads to an increase in economic productivity, which, generally speaking, translates to economic growth.

While questions of justice remain (such an economy will never replace full-time employment and profits being earned by workers instead of going to the 1%’s savings), there’s a growing “share” economy that helps people get by and supplement their income.

So my question is twofold:

  1. How can churches respond to this share economy?
  2. Should full-time clergy participate in the economy?

Churches: The Original Share Economy?

To the first question, I would argue that churches were the originators of this share economy.

Churches hold bake sales, rummage sales, garage sales and youth service sales (where youth are “auctioned” to do some task, usually yard work or organizing skills to benefit senior citizens). Holiday markets at the church yielded handmade cozies long before Etsy. Riding alongside another parishioner to a doctor’s appointment was the norm long before Sidecar. Tutoring, offering after-school help or ESL education…these were all sharing points in an economy that didn’t charge money (or not much money) but trafficked in good will and mutual benefit.

I occasionally wonder what might have happened if church people were less territorial and more entrepreneurial. All it would have taken was a network of churches across a region to start to share handmade items, set up a registry for couches or bedroom availabilities, or a website where church members could upload documents for editing or review. Alas, because of denominations, ministry areas, and just a lack of entrepreneurial zeal, we now participate in secular adaptions of church economies on a massive scale.

So in short, yes, churches should participate in this share economy as another resource to help people in their congregation–who are more mobile than ever–to better connect needs with services.

Clergy: Ends Justify the Means?

To the second question, it’s a bit harder to define not IF clergy should participate but HOW they participate.

Scrolling through my friends list, the invisible “share economy” is alive and well, and not necessarily among those who are finding it hard to get by in the traditional economic downturn. One of my well-employed friends made enough money renting her spare bedroom on AirBNB that she was able to take an international vacation. Another unemployed friend knows a niche market and makes promotes people on The Grommet. My semi-retired Dad sells stuff on Etsy.  So participation in the share economy is not an outlier, but it is not commonplace yet either.

Perhaps the question isn’t if clergy should participate but how. Clergy in ministry settings are not selling anything (well, some mega-churches are) so when they particpate in a semi-selling economy like a share economy, it is important to bring those values to the table.

For example, I have a full-time clergy colleague who participates in this share economy by selling a discontinued (but still popular) kind of baby pacifier on Ebay and Craisglist. He buys low (usually taking advantage of misspelled entries or ones where the seller is ignorant of what they have) and sells high. His latest update is that in 2013, he netted over $6,000 from the amateur effort and gave away over $1,000 to charities, in addition to donations of pacifiers to some needy folks. While I personally think such a practice is preying on both ignorant/uneducated sellers and sleep-deprived parents looking desperately for any solution to a crying child, giving away over 1/6th of your profits is commendable.

But I do wonder: What if my colleague above contacted those sellers with the misspelled entries or the ignorant entries and informed them of what they had and what they should do to make it a better entry/future effort? Would that sort of betterment of another person do more good than giving away a percentage of the profits from that person? Or is that stupid advice when there’s no control over whether that person will do good with their benefit, whereas a clergy can give directly of the profits to a good cause?

Regardless, it is important for clergy to think through whether the ends of their  participation in the share economy (giving away a portion of profits or materials) justify the means (buying low from someone else).

Closing: Wesleyan Wisdom

The Invisible Economy shows the conflict between the lines in John Wesley’s sermon The Use Of Money:

Gain all you can…
save all you can…
and give all you can

When it comes to a share economy, the advice is not clear. Yes, we can personally gain much through shrewd business practices on those websites and communities. But we can also gain much for the entire community by helping other sellers with their marketing, pointing out errors, letting people know when they are underselling their AirBNB rooms, and other ways to benefit others. While our personal profit margins may become smaller (and thus we are not gaining all we can) we are giving advice and support in ways that benefit the whole (thus we are giving more than just a portion of our profits). And perhaps some relationships will be formed as well–ones that already know the value of sharing and can find parallels to the Christian message of “holding all things in one accord” as well.

Clergy and churches should be very aware of if they are “giving all they can” through their online actions.

  • Perhaps by hosting seminars to help people understand how to use these share economy websites.
  • Perhaps by lurking on those websites and contacting people to let them know of ways they can better share their property or items more effectively
  • Perhaps by reminding parishioners (and some clergy) that participation in the share economy is a collaborative, not exploitive, exercise.

My hope is that churches and clergy alike embrace this share economy and think through critically and theologically how they participate for the betterment of the whole global community that now shares everything…for a price.

Thoughts?

(Image Credit: Google Image Search)
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Comments

  1. says

    I’d love to see more local churches get creative on how they could participate in community building through share economy practices. I know of a church in North Carolina that started a Farmer’s Market, which has become a weekly community gathering hub.

    Although this is a bit outside of the share economy, I’m curious what you think of the new church funding options like UMCMarket.org. Should the church draw a line on what for-profit entities it can partner with?

    • says

      That’s a good question, JB. I don’t know how I feel about UMCMarket. It seems as simple as a commission via Amazon Associates (which this blog uses), but I’m not certain I want percentages of non-social-principles stuff to go to the UMC.

  2. says

    The Early Church as described in Acts 2 & 4 was the original Burning Man.
    A way that I’ve tried to implement this was having a congregation that I served in Minnesota list their gifts, talents, and resources, and created a booklet for them to refer to when they faced needs in their lives. One thing that worked was having people share their snow-blowers instead of everyone buying one for themselves.

  3. Paul Anthony Preussler says

    After some abuses in the early church, the Ecumenical Councils and other local councils enacted canon law restricting the economic activity of clergy. In particular, the Council of Chalcedon prohibted clergy from acting as financial advisors, trustees, or other persons in care of the finances of laity, after a string of abuses. Other councils adopted other regulations, some of them bizarre and no longer appropriate (even the Eastern Orthodox do not regard the individual canons as necessarily binding in their entirety), such as a prohibition on clergy dining in taverns.

    The share economy is in many respects subject to the same considerations of ethical behavior as the monetary economy. Thus in my mind, more important than saying how clergy might participate in the share economy, is saying how they must not. Exploiting laity, promoting their economic interests from the pulpit, or abusing their status as clergy should be absolutely prohibited; in many contexts in the share economy, it might make sense for the church to prohibit the use of clerical credentials, as there are many more possible avenues for fraud and bad publicity in this realm.

    In my opinion, monasteries have historically been models of the share economy at work; I bitterly regret that in the middle ages, many monasteries such as Oxford degenerated into secular universities, and for that matter, I think the biggest mistake the old Methodist Episcopal church ever made was in wasting funds on the creation of universities, rather than a church-supported system of free education. The church ought to pay for seminaries and use an approach for them modeled on the share economy, with seminarians getting their education paid for as long as they worked for the church that sponsored them; going forward, theological works ought to be licensed using the GFDL, or better yet, be in the public domain. In this manner, the economic barriers to entry that limit the diversity of clergy, that are responsible for the excess of privileged, left-wing Caucasian clergy in the mainline churches, for example, could be avoided, through the judicious use of open source documentation. Also kudos to David Winfrey for the scriptural check; I deplore Roger Wolsey’s suggestion that the early church was in any way like Burning Man (some Gnostics aside).

  4. Paul Anthony Preussler says

    I should add, one thing churches should prioritize is online liturgical manuals and lectionary software. Most churches already have their basic liturgy online, but the specific rubrics for individual occasions are not well published. This results in pastors either doing their own thing (typically in Protestant churches, often with the help of non-ordained staff), or alternately, in the Orthodox churches, massive reference to a complex set of printed manuals and in some cases, oral tradition. Either way, you get unpleasant amounts of liturgical innovation that are disruptive for parishioners.

    For that matter, I would like to see more public domain sermons. It would be ideal if more pastors used the pre-existing homilies of the Church Fathers instead of writing their own often horribly flawed sermons. The metrical homilies of Ephraim the Syrian, the voluminous homilies of John Chrysostom, and so forth, provide enough material so that they could be quoted from exclusively much of the time, without any need for original preaching on the part of the pastor. Throw in the materiel of John Wesley, and you in theory should never have to preach again, except on rare occasions to address specific contemporary delusions and heresies. Even many of these can be dealt with using historical material; if concerned about neo-Gnosticism, read Irenaeus. All of this material already exists and is public domain, all that is needed is the pervasive use of open source lectionary software to prescribe specific existing sermons for specific occasions (and ideally, in this manner, episcopal approval would be required to deviate from this programmed material). Having this material also be open sourced would avoid adding an unpleasant intellectual property element to the battles resulting from schisms. I am of the opinion that in the modern world, individual congregations ought to be able to switch denominations at will without penalty, yet while within a specific denomination, they should be provided with clergy under the supervision of an established episcopal hierarchy. Imagine the joy of a world in which different hierarchies compete with one another, using a public domain knowledgebase, on the basis of their orthodoxy, yet with parishioners and congregations free to move between said hierarchies at will. That would be true open source Christianity.

    One other thing that might assist in this manner would be to defy RMS’s proscription of restrictions on freedom of endeavour, and have an open source license that allows free commercial use, but prohibits heresy, defined as deviating from the theological opinions of the first seven ecumenical councils and the historic practice of the church. In this manner, any new material in the form of music, lectionary software, vestment designs, building architecture, books; any new IP used by churches in any respect, would be available only to those churches adhering to the orthodox faith of the church catholic, as was practiced by the Methodist Episcopal church prior to the beginning of the current apostate era in the 1950s.

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