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Caring for church's property
By Orson Scott Card January 6, 2011

My wife was preparing for a stake women's event, and we needed cloths for the round banquet tables that had replaced the long rectangular ones in a recent remodeling of our aging stake center.

We were at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and were disappointed that they didn't have enough cloths of any color in the right size.

"These orange, brown, gold, and green ones looks great together," I pointed out. "Who says they have to be uniform?"

She liked that idea, and we proceeded to load our selections into the cart.

She didn't like my next suggestion, though. "I assume we're donating these tablecloths to the stake," I said.

"Not a chance," she answered.

"You don't have a budget for this, do you?"

"There's a budget, all right," she said. "What I mean is, we'll lend these tablecloths for any stake function that needs them, but they will remain our personal property."

"Oh," I said. "Why?"

"If they belong to the Church, they'll be in a Relief Society closet where anyone can use them whenever they want."

"Isn't that a good thing?" I asked.

"It would be, except that within a year some or all of them would be missing when I need them. There'll be holes and stains. Or they'll be dirty from the last usage and I'll have to wash them before I can use them."

"Really?" This was as much a surprise to me as when I learned, years before, than women's public restrooms were not always cleaner than men's. I guess I imagined that women always behaved responsibly, because all the women I knew well behaved that way.

But my wife's rather pessimistic attitude about how church property would be treated was born of long experience. The data were on her side.

My own experience supported her view. Our stake center has a nonstandard, super-cushioned wooden basketball floor. (This is North Carolina; that's what we do instead of putting in a pipe organ.) To protect it when metal folding chair were being put out, we have two huge plastic tarpaulins that, when folded, weigh so much and are so awkward to handle that it takes four men to lift them.

Every time we put on a play, we had to lay out the "green monster," as we called it. And every time, we found that it had been folded up and put away after the last conference without sweeping it. Dead Cheerios, candy wrappers, chewed gum, spilled sugary drinks that made the tarp stick together -- these items had to be clearly visible to the people who were folding it up.

Each time, I marveled that members of the Church had treated the tarp so carelessly and had not cleaned up their own messes. But even more astonishing was the fact that the priesthood members charged with putting it away had not picked up, mopped up, and swept up before proceeding. Did they think it was somehow the job of the next group to clean up?

I think they didn't think at all.

My wife and I were both raised in families where the ethos was that when we used property that didn't belong to us, we returned it in better condition than we received it. Before making permanent alterations, we got permission. This seemed to us to be the minimum condition for civilized sharing of property.

The idea of property is a social convention. Every human society that advanced and thrived had the social contract that a person's property remained his even when he wasn't actually using it. Part of civilizing our children is teaching them to respect the property of others.

I was taught that taking without permission was stealing, even if I meant to return it. If I damaged something, it was my responsibility to repair or replace it; certainly I always owned up to the fact that the damage happened on my watch, even if I didn't actively cause it. I was taught to make a full accounting of my stewardship, even if -- especially if -- I did not do well with it.

The women to whom my wife has lent those tablecloths over the past decade knew that they were accountable to her for their return, complete and clean and undamaged. In all these years, no one has "forgotten" to return them or given them back in less-than-excellent condition.

But there have been people who seemed angry when they found out that the tablecloths belonged to us personally. Apparently they assumed they had a right to the cloths, if they belonged to the stake; but when they found out that they had to borrow them from an individual, they didn't even ask us -- we only heard about their interest from others.

Apparently they only wanted to use the cloths if they belonged to the stake -- which in their minds apparently meant they belonged to nobody. They did not want to be accountable.

The Law of Consecration depends on the same principle of borrowed property, except it goes further. We should regard all our possessions, even the ones we made ourselves, as the property of our Father.

All is lent to us; certainly we will take none of it with us, not even our physical skills, when we leave our bodies behind in death.

And we are accountable to God for how we used all these things he lent to us, even if it's only the section of green tarpaulin covering the floor around the folding chairs where our family is sitting during stake conference.

Until we understand that, we are not yet capable of living the Law of Consecration, no matter that we have solemnly promised to do so.

Copyright © 2011 by Orson Scott Card

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