Tuesday, May 27, 2008

the economics of it all...

The people have spoken. I think it's safe to say I have never received so many responses to a post (some in the "Comments" section below, many more by direct e-mail) as I did from that last one, where I invited feedback on the idea of a new category of membership in SmallTall Music called "extra composting members." Thank you, one and all.

What I discovered:

- I seem to be way farther out of the "mainstream" of people's thinking than even I realized (...GRIN...)
- rather few (OK, one, maybe two) seemed to share my immediate, instinctive, and viscerally POSITIVE response to the term (and substance) "compost"... in fact, one person called it "shocking" and another person (already in that "extra composting member" category) felt it necessary to reassure me that he wasn't "upset" by my suggestion, but is thinking about it...
- a few people said they liked the idea, and rather more found it in their hearts to sympathize and humour my rather unorthodox and perhaps a bit quirky "take" on this, some saying they can see what I'm getting at and a few even saying the idea was "growing" on them (I'm not sure if the pun was intended).
- the overwhelming majority politely urge me to consider somewhat more "ordinary" terms (donor, associate, supporter, contributor, benefactor) or perhaps more musical metaphors, rather than such an "earthy" one to describe an additional category of membership.
- a couple of folks questioned whether different "categories of membership" are necessary at all, with one person astutely suggesting that - all my various explanations aside - "extra composting member" is still just a cute name for a "major donor" and that this metaphor too "breaks down" (!!) beyond a certain point...

My thinking after all of this? I am inclined to agree with the couple of comments posted below, suggesting that SmallTall Music "membership" continue to have a standard fee (including, of course, the "barter" option), and that anyone who wants to contribute further "compost" - in whatever form - for the nurture of this ministry, are very welcome to do so.

Actually, this whole process raises a set of fundamental issues that I have debated ever since launching this little venture nearly 5 years ago. From the start some have asked me why I don't set up SmallTall Music as a not-for-profit charitable organization, which would be in keeping with its character as a form of "ministry" and which would make it easier to do "fundraising" as contributors could receive income tax receipts for making "charitable donations."

This is an option that I have considered, and continue to take seriously, and may well consider seriously again. However, it's an option I have not pursued largely because of my desire - again, following the model and experience of Community Supported Agriculture - to develop a "business model" for this ministry that is viable and sustainable (in personal, relational, spiritual, ecological, and economic terms) AS A BUSINESS... That is, as a way of participating in the structuring of economic relationships that represents an intentional alternative (small-scale, community-based, with a sense of "enough") to the kinds of mainstream economic assumptions and practices that have proven (and are proving) to be so damaging to the planet.

Another reason why I have not chosen the "charitable status" route is that, in pursuing the mission of "building up the body of Christ by creating and sharing songs of faith for small and tall," my hope and intention is for SmallTall Music to also be a financial CONTRIBUTOR to the work of the church. In other words, rather than structuring SmallTall Music as a charitable organization whose economic model depends on soliciting charitable donations, I have sought to structure SmallTall Music as a business that can represent not only a humble-but-sustainable income for our family, but can also be a humble-but-generous contributor - financially - to "building up the body of Christ." (Maybe I'll blog more at some point about how I've been structuring that into the DNA of this ministry/business through what I call the "SmallTall Music Global Gift-Sharing Policy"...)

None of this is to disparage people's generosity or help freely offered, by any means. Nor is it some kind of attempt at a macho, rugged individualism (go ahead... try to picture me as a macho, rugged individual... GRIN...). It is instead - again, very much in the spirit of the Community Supported Agriculture - aspiring to a way of "doing business" and living out a vocation with humility and dignity and competence as an integral part of the life (including, unapologetically, the economic life) of a community that sees value and worth in one's work.

I have any number of friends who are doing just that with their own businesses - running a bakery, a farm, a store, an auto-mechanics shop, accountancy work, a masonry/renovation business, etc, etc, etc... Each of these is a business and a form of "ministry," and all are part of a network of relationships that can - one trusts - be counted on to be supportive in various ways when times are tough. (This, of course, includes a readiness to acknowledge when times are tough, and to be willing to invite and accept, as well as give, support.)

Or to put it another way, structuring SmallTall Music as a business has forced me to think more clearly about how I too function in "The Great Economy" (thank you, Wendell Berry)...

I offer these thoughts by way of explanation, and in a further attempt to define and refine and evaluate my own thinking... Further response and conversation about any of this is more than welcome... in fact, it is another form of "compost" that this garden needs in order to thrive...

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At 9:24 AM, Anonymous Jonathan Reuel said...

To me this is one of the most insightful and heartfelt expressions of your heart and the vision you are pursuing, Bryan.

Choosing to structure the CSM as a business rather than a non-profit makes a lot of sense to me with regards to a wider sense I'm getting across the church that the "spiritual-secular" divide must and is breaking down. Most of us spend most of our lives at work -- this must be a place to live out and invite in the Kingdom of God. So I see you embodying an ideological theme that I believe God is highlighting among the straggling, awkward followers of Jesus.

That being said, there are times to build prophetically to embody an important and relevant concept -- and there are times to use the tool that is most efficient and effective. It's good to see you wrestling with which time this is.

It seems that your community is giving you strong feedback towards the latter option. This doesn't necessarily mean it's the best direction to take (Jesus often took the misunderstood path, knowing that things he saw and knew others would pick up on later). We each have our areas of Kingdom insight -- don't trade in the piece that you uniquely know because others don't see it yet --- AND don't be afraid to use tested common language if it is appropriate.

The community supported agriculture metaphor and model is close to your heart for a number of reasons -- partly because it was and is the first picture you had for what you were called to plant. You put those seeds in the ground. The rain came, and the sun and lo and behold something grew up. Something a bit like a CSA, a bit like a parachurch ministry, a bit like something else. Don't hold on too tightly to the original picture -- forms do and must change -- but guard the heart of it with you whole being!

We appreciate your pioneering thinking and service. Carry on!


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