The Builder-Developer as a Steward of God’s Resources

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Perry Bigelow - Spirituality of Sustainability Bringing God's Kingdom To the Marketplace and Inner City

My Basic Criterion -
How Would Jesus Thing and What Would Jesus Do?

I continuously ask the question: What kind of a homebuilding company would Jesus establish and own?

I believe Jesus would build homes that satisfy a family's needs, not its luxuries. The homes would be of durable quality; they would have natural beauty, not status beauty; they would be resource-efficient to build and maintain; they would be designed to enhance family life; and they would provide the opportunity to develop interdependent, neighborly relationships.

I believe Jesus would appeal to good, human qualities in His marketing; He would not appeal to greed, covetousness, status, pride, etc. He would honestly state the advantages of His homes. By the way, our commitment to be honest is advertising has consistently driven us to build better homes than our competition-nobody wants to advertise that his home is average.

I believe Jesus, as the owner of the business, would pray the only prayer about wealth in the Bible: "Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?'" (Pr. 30:8-9). A shortened version of this prayer is included in the prayer Jesus taught His disciples: "Give us today our daily bread" (Mt. 6:11).

He would certainly follow His own advice about not storing up treasure for ourselves on earth but in haven (Mt. 6:25-34), and not building bigger barns in which to hoard His Father's resources (Lk.12:16-210.

I believe Jesus would capitalize His business responsibly so that His employees could have steady employment. Following God's concern for more equal distribution of resources (2 Cor. 8:13-14), the balance of His profits would be invested in helping the poor and spreading the Gospel (1 Tim. 6:17-19). He probably would not hoard, save or invest profits outside the capital needs of the business (Lk. 12:16-21). He would practice justice and equality in paying wages and sharing profit with employees (Col. 4:1)

I am an entrepreneur, and I am a homebuilder. I own and lead a suburban homebuilding company, and I am an entrepreneur in inner city activities involving housing as well as economic and human development activities in the inner city. By nature, I am an entrepreneur, as was my father. I love to start things; I love to innovate. I am good at analyzing risk and future potential; I can handle the stress of risk-taking.

I am not, by nature, a good manager or organizer, so we have highly skilled leaders in each functional business area (marketing, design, construction, finance, purchasing) who are responsible to the day-to-day activities of the company. We meet weekly and make planning, personnel, policy and procedural decisions by consensus. There is a high degree of camaraderie and mutual respect and, except for issues involving Christian ethics, I submit myself to the consensual process as do all the others. This consensual approach to leadership is partly a result of my understanding of my responsibility to be just and to foster equality. Even though some of the leaders are not believers, this group has been able to provide mutual accountability. This consensual approach provides what Max DePree calls the "space…to exercise out gifts and diversity." (8)

The biblical model for co-participation and fellowship is the body (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-29). So long as people are committed to a common goal, the body is a better metaphor for business organization that the typical hierarchical chart. There is still hierarchy but interdependence, collaboration, and consensus are emphasized. This body metaphor and consensual interdependence pervades the relationships within each operating area and across all areas of the company. There are no private kingdoms in our company; no one builds moats or gates, and no one is a gatekeeper. Each person's work is integrated and interrelated with the work of others, and there is a high level of respect for each person's contribution.

A person's dignity and self-esteem will not be enhanced by their work unless they can see how their work either directly or indirectly results in the production and distribution of a quality product or service. Therefore there must be a highly visible trail between an employee's work, the home we build, and the purchaser of that home. This trail is made visible through the human interrelationships involved in each person's contribution. Our broad-based mutual accountability and interrelatedness results in a culture that develops strong, independent people with a high level of mutual self-respect. It is a satisfying culture within which to work. One our leader often says he has the best of all worlds: he loves to come to work in the morning, and he loves to go home at night. It is not unusual to have a firs-time visitor to our office say something like "It's so peaceful here; everyone is so content."

We fell that we have a responsibility to provide steady employment. This is very difficult to do since the homebuilding industry is extremely cyclical. It is not unusual for housing starts in a given market to drop by sixty to eighty percent in a short time. We have a threefold strategy to stabilize employment. First, we invest heavily in information systems that result in very high individual productivity. Second, in good times we do not expand as rapidly as we could. Third, we have do goal to be big for the sake of being big. We aim for careful, sustainable growth. This combination allowed us to go through the last Chicago housing cycle without laying off anyone, while many homebuilders were reducing their staffs by fifty to seventy percent.

Because we recognize that a person who joins our firm must operate within the business culture we have created, we take the employment interviewing process very seriously. We want to make sure that new employees will fit well with our group and have full knowledge of our approach to business, so that they can make good decisions as to whether they will enjoy working with us. This interview process involves several meeting and usually stretches over several weeks. By the time they are hired, new employees feel like they are known, that they are respected for their skills, that both strengths and weaknesses have been acknowledged, and that they will be treated with dignity and respect. All full time employees go through the same interview process, whether they will be a vice president or a receptionist.

Our people are so important to us that no personnel decision is made until there is full consensus by the leadership group. Every employee is told that the owner of the company operates the company on basic biblical principles, which means that the truth will always be spoken in love (Eph. 4:15) and that we shall never knowingly lie to each other, a home purchaser, a supplier or subcontractor, or government official. We place a high premium on personal integrity, and we want potential employees to know that they will not enjoy working with us if they do not have what Covey calls the character ethic of integrity and principle-centered leadership. (9) One of the results of this fastidious honest is that over time people outside our company have come to trust our employees implicitly.

We use the biblical principals of body interdependence and koinonia (fellowship and co-participation) in the design of our communities. In his book Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah has observed that there must be a careful balance between individualism and interdependence to maintain democratic, neighborly-oriented lifestyles. (10)

We have received a national reputation for building innovative, highly energy-efficient homes with a guarantee that the heating bills will not exceed $200 per year in Chicago. Our innovation in energy efficiency is a direct result of our great respect for God's creation and a belief that we should preserve as much of it as we can for our children's children. We strive to preserve the natural beauty of the land as we plan and develop it. I do not see how a believer can be anything other than an environmentalist; it is only responsible stewardship to cherish and respect what God graciously has given us.

In the Inner City

I enjoy my work in the inner city as much as my work in the suburbs. You could say that we make money in the suburbs and spend it in the inner city, I became deeply involved in working with economically poor people in the inner city by asking these questions: What would Jesus do? Where would Jesus invest or spend His Father's resources? How would Jesus practice equality? Where would Jesus live?

I now live in an African-American community in Chicago's inner city, and the church I now call home is predominately African American. Originally I became involved because Jesus called me, not because "I" wanted to. In hindsight, as a result of the joy of the work I do and the joy of where I live and worship, I'd do it now for the joy because of the rich relationships I have. I am loved, nurtured, and cared about there. I am not saying that all believers should live among the economically poor, however, it does seem odd that he vast preponderance of those who have an economic choice and who have Jesus in their hearts ask only the question; "Where amongst the rich should I live?" instead of "Where amongst all of God's people does He want me to live?"

There is not enough space here to develop fully the biblical presuppositions surrounding my work and life in the inner city, however, I shall explain briefly the principles and the work I do.

Continued on next page


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