Cultivation and the General Contractor
The following is a final paper written by New City Cleveland director Justin Ross. Enjoy! :
The general contractor is a vocation that permeates all of our cultural life. As you sit, reading this paper, you are directly benefiting from a multitude of contractors whom you've never met or seen. This building, the building where your clothes were made, where you bought your coffee this morning, all where the direct fruit of the cultivate work of general contractors. Such a massive vocation needs to be reduced to a more manageable job or set of jobs for the purpose of the paper. Indeed, the very language of "contractor" has nothing to do with the vocation itself but indicates the way in which the work is acquired. Someone has need of building and creates a contract with a builder, and voila a general contractor is made.
I will narrow the scope of the vocation to primarily references to interior remodeling construction. Some refer to this as "finish carpentry" but a true general contractor is a jack of many trades including plumbing, flooring, framing, electrical, HVAC. The contracting industry is tending to move in the direction of increased specialization, however, general contractors remain as the primary manager of the overall project. My own role in this vocation is varied. Starting in the summer of 2014, I worked for a general contractor for 9 months and learned much of the various trades involved. We worked together on kitchen and bathroom remodels around the region. I was blessed to work with both a true master of his craft as well as a devout and vocal Christian. At the end of 2014, I transferred to a more administrative role coordinating contractors for a retail based kitchen and bath design company Signature Kitchen and Bath. As such, I am not a general contractor, but I manage, coordinate, administrate and pay them. My role gives me a unique view of the entire remodeling process from design to sales to construction. While my particular focus is on one type of general contracting the principles are meant to be widely applicable to any renovation or construction vocation.
General Contracting: Designed for Good
You may not know it, but there is a renovation boom going on in the United States right now. After the housing crash of 2007-2008, the industry imploded but has been slowing rebounding. As the NPR article title states, "There's a home renovation boom, but good luck finding a contractor." After the crash, 2 million construction workers left the industry to never return. They switched careers, went back to school, or left the country and now there aren't enough skilled workers for all the work. It's kind of a good problem to have, but it reveals something huge, we love to build. We love to build new things, but we also love to change and make better what is already there.
This insatiable human need to create, build, and make beauty is apparent even in the type of construction people value. Why do people always remodel the kitchen? It's the place in the home where creation is built into the very building. The kitchen is where food is created. We all place incredible value on the place where we create the food in our lives. People will spend years dreaming of a kitchen, months designing, weeks with their homes torn to pieces and tens of thousands of dollars to replace their kitchen. Why? One reason among others is the insatiable desire to create beauty in the place people value, in the heart of their home.
This creative and re-creative impulse is connected intangibly to our being made in the image of God. Andy Crouch writes, "After contemplation, the artist and the gardener both adopt a posture of purposeful work. They are acting in the image of One who spoke a world into being and stooped down to form creatures from the dust. They are creaturely creators, tending and shaping the world that the original Creator made." The work or remodeling is especially powerful in demonstrating the creative and redemptive impulse of God, as it is a re-working of that which has decayed or that which has been broken or corrupted. Remodeling involves a phase of destruction and removal for the purpose of creating, restoring, and repairing. When I did the physical work of remodeling, I began to let each job remind me of the cycle of restoration that the whole creation engages in under the Kingship of Jesus.
General Contracting: Damaged by Evil
The problems of construction and remodeling lie not in the vocation itself, for we've seen that the creative impulse is from God and cannot be removed from the image of God. The ways in which damage has occurred is through the evil embraced by those in the industry. This embracing of evil creates complex systems of sin that create channels of injustice and erode the very foundation of God's creative impulse expressed through the vocation.
The first area of damage is in the realm of money. With the fall from Eden, all work was cursed and threatened with lack and insufficient provision. Being a remodeling general contractor is a tricky position, financially. The contractor is highly dependent on the designer/sales person to set the price of the job fairly. Not only this, but a contractors schedule of payment is typically 50% of the job price at the start and 50% at the completion of the job, however, it is a regular occurrence in my job to see the final payment delayed due to a design problem. Most remodeling contractors aren't massive organizations like other commercial construction firms. Much of the time the situation is a 1-2 man contracting crew working for a larger design and sales firm. Interestingly, my current role is being in between the two and has allowed me to advocate for fairness in the payment process. For example, when a design error delays payment from the customer, I issue the contractor a 40% draw. A delay in payment can be very damaging to a contractor, however, for a larger company like Signature, its toll is far less. This is one way that I've been able to advocate for fairness and equity in my workplace.
Another area of damage is what I will call "the damage of consumption". Much of the work that is done in kitchen and bath remodeling is simply unnecessary. My first few weeks on the job were amazing to go into a bathroom and destroy a diagonally laid marble tub deck and replace it with an Onyx shower. Why would anyone ever do this? Because cultured marble is becoming "dated". Here we see a problem of balance. Artistic improvement is good, but too much becomes damaging. Updating cabinets is a fine thing to do. But should you spend $50,000 on cabinets alone? Is that excess? This creates a blurring of the creational good of contracting. Is it good to tear out a perfectly functioning kitchen and replace it with a different style of kitchen? What exactly is being restored? It is good to build something beautiful, but is it good to destroy something functional?
The final area of damage is corruption. This is a fairly broad category, but I am using it here as the process when the boundaries, limits, and guidelines of an industry begin to break down. Another way of describing this could be "cutting corners". Some real life examples would be: rearranging the pricing structure of a job to give a customer the impression you are giving them a deal while increasing the price in another area or violating lead paint health regulations to reduce the cost and meet marketing goals. These are all areas where the boundaries, limits, or guidelines of the industry were violated. These forms of damage make contracting part of the fallen creation and exploit those who serve in the vocation. I have seen people leave the industryas well as become disillusioned over these kinds of evil.
A Redemptive Ministry-Business Model: New City Restoration and Repair
How is one to move forward in showing the essential goodness of contracting as well as redeeming both the industry and the world around contracting? A practical plan for spreading the good of contracting starts with a powerful vision of the earthly reality of the Kingdom of God. In many ways, the good news of the gospel is a place to be built, more than just a message to be told (though it is certainly that!). A contracting business would serve three vital and redeeming roles in a community: 1) meeting needs, 2) creating jobs, and 3) restoring dignity.
Meeting Needs. Every community has needs. The needs of the buildings and developments of a community are called infrastructure. These infrastructure needs can be overwhelming in a community of economic poverty. However, these needs exist in any community. The "need" for new kitchen cabinets creates the job opportunity for a general contractor. Needs and jobs in God's kingdom are meant to supply and feed one another in a sustainable pattern. However, in our fallen world we have an exhausting amount of needs along with men and women without jobs. One of the key roles of general contracting's redemptive kingdom work is to restore the balance between need and job. How can contractors work to actually connect true infrastructure needs with true job needs? This is the redemptive ecosystem of grace that we have been placed here to enact. It is a redemptive ministry-business model.
The concept of meeting infrastructure needs in an economically poor area is complicated. Meetings needs requires materials and trained workers, both of which require financial resources. The solution may be in the redemption of the "consumer" culture referred to earlier. Could overhead and profit from "high-end" jobs be used to balance out the "sliding scale" reduced price jobs in an economically poor area? A sustainable general contracting business would need to have business with both the rich and the poor. The role of the church in giving sacrificially and supporting the business in helping the poor and disenfranchised could also play a critical role. Truly meeting needs in the most Kingdom oriented way would be in pulling all these different relationships together in the work of the gospel of the Kingdom.
Creating Jobs. The next challenge for the general contracting business is to create jobs for people in the community. We've already discussed how meeting needs is a way of creating jobs, but meeting needs is not so simple. General contracting is a particular skill, that means this would require skills training. Who in the church community has these skills? Connecting the assets of skilled workers to those needing jobs is another redemption step in the redemptive ministry-business model. What if I told you, you could make the money of a lawyer and not require a college degree? With the right skills training, this is possible in general contracting. A big part of a redemptive ministry-business model would be connecting those needing jobs with skilled craftsmen through apprenticeships. Why would a skilled contractor do this? Two reasons, 1) easy assistance on the job, 2) a skilled worker at the conclusion of the training. These apprenticeships could be subsidized by the church or other organizations during its low production training time.
Restoring Dignity. This final, critical role of the redemptive contracting business is the restoration of human dignity. The customer who over consumes on their own desires is in need of restoration. There is more to life than granite counter tops. The unemployed teen dabbling in drug trafficking is in need of restoration. There is more to life than survival. The contractor trapped in the endless rat race of an industry that worships the bottom line is in need of restoration. There is more to life than the grind. What if all these people could restore one another's dignity? What if the meeting of needs and the creating of jobs in a redemptive ecosystem actually restored both party's true dignity as the image of God? This restoration of humanness is the "goal beneath the goal" of meeting physical needs or creating jobs. The redemptive ministry-business is the reconciliation of that which been estranged and in so doing we discover one another as complete humans.
Non-Profit vs. For-Profit. One of the main challenges in regard to general contracting as a redemptive ministry-business is the cultural notion of profit. Profit defined is, "a financial benefit that is realized when the amount of revenue gained from a business activity exceeds the expenses, costs and taxes needed to sustain the activity. Any profit that is gained goes to the business's owners, who may or may not decide to spend it on the business." Here we see a great deal of freedom for business owners in what revenue gained from services is utilized towards. In my own work, I have agreed to a particular wage for my job. Any profit beyond that wage may or may not find its way into my hands. This depends almost entirely upon the will of the company owner. Indeed, revenue that is mandated to be recycled back into the sustainability of the business causes that business to be defined as "non-profit".
This all plays around the question, is redemptive general contracting a "non-profit" or "for profit" endeavor? As we have seen, profit (being the amount of revenue that exceeds expenses) is required to have a successful business. However, non-profit in the vocabulary of our culture is typically taken as "charity" which is not the redemptive ministry-business model being proposed. Non-profit has less to do with the actual revenue of an organization and more to do with its mission. "For-profit companies are generally founded to generate income for entrepreneurs and their employees, while nonprofits are generally founded to serve a humanitarian or environmental need." Here in this definition, we see the damning division of meeting needs and creating jobs. For profit companies exist to create employees, while non-profits exist to meet humanitarian needs. The redemptive ministry-business model is one that meets needs while creating jobs and together these restore the dignity of both parties.
Throughout this essay, we've examined the nature of general contracting both good and bad. It is a valuable vocation rooted in the very nature of the image of God. God is a creator who both builds and cultivates. Yet, this creative impulse has been deeply corrupted by our own selfish desires which draw us away from the sustainable balance of God's creative intent. This sustainable balance is restored and redeemed in the redemptive ministry-business model. A proposal of an example ministry-business in general contracting. The specifics of such a model need more fleshing out, but such a balanced model of meeting needs, creating jobs, and restoring dignity is one desperately needed in a world searching for meaning and ultimately restoration.
"Meeting Needs, Creating Jobs, Restoring Dignity."
"Workday CLE equips, encourages, and engages individuals in practical vocational training, meeting the needs of vulnerable community members, and learning how to walk with one another in peace and compassion. We form teams of volunteers regularly for work projects and provide extended vocational training for committed community members."
 Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovery Our Creative Calling, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 97