Lessons from a Landlord
My husband and I own a couple of rental houses. We’re very grateful for these properties, in large part because they were our primary source of income during a very difficult four-year period of severe underemployment that our family experienced. So you’d better believe that I thank God regularly for these houses and the people who helped us obtain them so we could have a viable income!
At the same time, though, I contend that there is almost nothing better suited to the task of revealing and developing character than having rental properties (especially fixer uppers like ours) and the renters who go along with them. Parenting probably matches it, but although parenting is often grueling, it at least includes so many moments of delight and love that seem to balance out the challenges a bit better. Not so with renters, as we can readily attest.
We have story after story after story we could tell you. Of course, there are the complications that are annoying but relatively easy to fix: a check that bounces, pipes that get clogged, a roof that needs replacing, and so on. No big deal.
But when people are brought into the mix, well, that’s when things can get very turbulent very quickly. One tenant offers an interminable list of demands for ways they think the property should be upgraded. Another tenant’s friend tears out an AC unit and kicks in a door to recover belongings left behind when her friend was evicted. Still another tenant is three months behind on her rent and yet continues to act abrasively and demandingly toward us despite the ways we have attempted to show grace and generosity to her. All true stories.
People are complex, wounded, and messy! The conflicts and complications that arise with people are not always particularly easy to fix. But they sure can be instructive. Here are some things that my time as a landlord has reminded me. I imagine you might see some parallels in your own life and work, including and especially if you are involved in ministry.
First, a large part of the reason that things can get so difficult when people are brought into the mix is that I’m a “people” too. And I bring to all my interactions every bit of my own complications, messiness, and brokenness. It is incumbent upon me as a follower of Jesus to be aware of this, to be honest about it, and to take whatever steps of humility I can to mitigate the damage I myself might cause to a relationship or a situation. I should not look at the speck in a tenant’s eye without first taking the log out of my own eye.
Second, much of what I could reasonably view as other people’s personal shortcomings or trespasses is often, at least in part, either 1) the result of deeper, hidden areas of woundedness or 2) the result of things beyond their control. Or maybe both. As a follower of Jesus it would behoove me to consider that compassionately. Maybe a tenant is aggressive at the thought of being evicted because they are afraid for their children’s future and feel a sense of shame that they haven’t been able to provide well enough. Maybe a tenant has been in the hospital for weeks due to complications with a miscarriage and she’s dealing with immense financial and emotional burdens. Maybe a single mom cannot pay her rent because she lost her job and now no one will hire her because she is pregnant. Again, all true stories.
Relatedly, I am learning through this venture just how immensely blessed I am and that I should not take that for granted. I don’t struggle with the things that many of my tenants do. I am not in an abusive relationship. I have not had to rely upon a cocaine addict to pay my bills. Even in those years when work was not available and money was tight, my family and I were surrounded by so many loving people who were willing to walk with us, encourage us, and even provide for us. Goodness, that’s how we ended up in the rental property business in the first place! In my life thus far I have been very privileged—white skin, loving parents who were able to provide for me financially, a stellar education, and supportive Christian community around me at every turn. There is little about my situation in life for which I can claim credit, though I do so often take it for granted.
Finally, especially as I find myself in the midst of challenging situations with tenants, I am regularly reminded that it’s important to have wisdom so I can know how best to embody Christlikeness in a particular moment. While most people don’t expect their landlord’s foundational operating principles to be connected to the gospel, as a Christian I expect it of myself. Compassion, forgiveness, second chances, service—these are the kinds of values we set out to embody in our role as Christian landlords. But how does that work itself out in a practical way, particularly in the midst of a very business-like environment? Boundaries are important, but it’s hard to know how to set them well, especially as a follower of Jesus who’s passionate about being good news. And what do I do when issues of immaturity, dishonesty, and even systemic injustice repeatedly present themselves? How can I—how should I—embody Christlikeness in these situations? We find ourselves blundering through this question regularly, seeking the Spirit’s guidance (at least in our better moments) as each new issue arises.
Of course, owning rental properties is not a direct parallel to all other aspects of life and ministry. But people are people, and I’ve seen these kinds of challenges are at the heart of so many difficult situations. Forgetting or denying that I bring my own baggage and brokenness to the table … looking only at the surface-level explanation for others’ faults … assuming everyone has had the benefit of the same kinds of experiences and opportunities I have … relying on anything other than Spirit-led wisdom and a desire for Christlikeness as I make decisions and engage people … we can get ourselves into major trouble in these ways, can’t we? I know I can. If you can too, I’d like to invite you to contemplate what lessons you might also learn from my time as a landlord.