Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What are your assets?

Today’s post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott. It is the second of a four-part series on money and relationships in the global church. Dr. Scott is Director of Mission Theology for the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not represent official positions of Global Ministries.

Last week, I raised the question of how United Methodists can face the problem of vast economic inequality in the church in a way that preserves relationship between rich and poor without turning those relationships into ones of dependence solidifying inequalities of power. I noted the importance of the rich sharing with the poor, for not to do so would destroy relationship by implying that the rich did not care for the poor. If the rich must share, then, how can they share without creating dependency?

One approach to sharing without creating dependency is asset-based partnerships. Asset-based partnerships can involve partners with varying levels of financial resources working together to address issues in the church and the world, but in a way that is intended to create more equal partnership between all participants, regardless of their level of financial resources.

The key to asset-based approaches is realizing that money is only one form of asset. While Americans are socialized to understand assets in economic terms, an asset can be defined as anything of value, or anything that is helpful for accomplishing work. In Christian theological language, an asset is any gift or grace given us by God.

Certainly, money is an asset, and most undertakings require a certain amount of money. But the important insight of asset-based approaches is that money is far from the only asset. Other assets include knowledge, skills, abilities, relationships, networks, authority, physical resources, and even prayer and spirituality. All of these assets can be necessary to accomplish a project, and thus all of them have value. Therefore, all of them should be recognized as valuable. If we think of assets as treasure, then they should not be understood only as economic riches, but as anything which we actively treasure, which we hold in high value.

The other important tenet of asset-based approaches to partnership is that not only is there a wide variety of assets, but all people and groups have some assets. Not all individuals may have the same level of financial assets, but the poor have other assets along with whatever meager amount of financial assets they do have. They also have knowledge, skills, abilities, relationships, networks, and spirituality. Asset-based partnerships recognize the assets that are contributed by all who participate.

Asset-based partnerships thus shift the mentality of partnership from “We, the rich, have the money; therefore, we will make the decisions,” to “We are all contributing necessary assets to this project; therefore, we all have a say in how the project will go, since it would not work without all of us.” Asset-based partnerships thus require give and take, listening, and mutual understanding.

Such an approach requires some spiritual effort and humility on the part of the rich. One of the ways in which wealth negatively affects the rich is that it distorts their views of themselves, creating the conditions for pride from assuming that their wealth means that they also have more of other assets than other people – knowledge, skills, networks, and even spirituality. The rich must be willing to not only give up their riches but give up their sense of superiority.

For the rich to open themselves up to recognize and receive the assets of the poor requires some kenosis – some self-emptying. Yet, as Christians, we have the greatest example of self-emptying in Jesus who, “though he was in the form of God, did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8) Rich Western United Methodists must ask ourselves how we can empty ourselves and become obedient, both to God and to the poor. To do so will require vulnerability, which may run counter to American culture, but it is a direct response to the gospel call.

Despite the spiritual and psychological challenges to the rich in adopting this model, it has been an important one promoted by Global Ministries, the World Council of Churches, and secular development organizations. One expression of such an approach is mission roundtables, which seek to bring together partners around an issue on a relatively equal footing that recognizes the assets of all.

Asset-based approaches do not remove all inequalities. Asset-based partnerships still usually involve rich Christians and poor Christians working together in poor Christians’ countries, not rich Christians’ countries. Rich Christians have by and large not yet recognized that poor Christians may have something to contribute to the ministry of rich Christians in their own home contexts, perhaps an inevitable reflection of a world in which not only wealth, but health, peace, education, and well-being are inequitably distributed.

Persistent inequalities in wealth and well-being that create rich and poor are not God’s desire for the world. Yet, while inequalities do persist, asset-based partnerships address the important and biblical injunction for the rich to share of their wealth with the poor. They are an important part of the solution, especially when combined with other partial solutions, such as my post next week will explore.


  1. Again - these are concepts we need to not merely ponder but put into play. As pointed out in the final paragraphs, too often the partnership is located in the "poor Christian's countries." There is a chance to overcome this in some areas by placing the partnership in a digital space that is equally accessible to all. Theological Education is the most obvious example that comes to mind, but all kinds of educational resources, preaching resources, and liturgical resources can be de-centralized to the web. What we need are collaborative spaces neither located in nor managed by any particular social location. AND there is a technology for doing this: what is called block-chain.

    I'm presently experimenting with this technology as one means of creating open-source materials for theological education that draw from the church worldwide for the church worldwide.

    1. I agree that there are important theological resources from financially poor countries that Christians in financially rich countries could benefit tremendously from. I'm curious about the potential for block-chain (or other technologies) to allow for the sharing of these resources in a way that's not hosted in any particular location.

  2. In the decade of the 1990's the World Council of Churches established a consultative process aimed at bringing together project partners and member communions around the task of eliminating the power imbalance between those seated around the table. The project known by its title Ecumenical Sharing of Resources defined sharing as the realization that there is no such thing as absolute donors or absolute recipients. All are participants in God's grace which enables members to experience full community (oikos - the root of ecumenicity or living as members of one family or household). Maintaining the conversation at this high level proved difficult when the emerging global market economy was quickly rewarding rich nations at the expense of the poor and the one way transfer of wealth, not sharing, prevailed as the modus operandi for churches engaged in development. The WCC soon found itself suffering from diminished financial resources and no longer capable of shaping alternative economic realities. Like it or not, we play by the cruel rules of the binary world of economics in which available assets must match deficits and human assets are exploited as human capital. In the global missionary enterprise auditors often dominate partnerships and sensitivities to differing cultural patterns of accounting for and multiplying the stewardship of God's gifts are too easily ignored. Of the many challenges facing a global church, conversations about managing financial resources in a respectful manner that benefits all members cannot be avoided. I am not sanguine about proposing alternative systems or arbitrary prescriptions lest we are consumed by raging economic realities. More immediate and critical steps might be practicing the art of listening, building trust, and seeking kinder and gentler relationships through financial transactions. Then the church's ongoing witness on correcting injustices in the global economy might ring with authenticity.
    Robert J. Harman