Is it possible to seek the Shalom—peace and prosperity—in the people with whom you are negotiating a lease and still achieve the results you need for your church or organization? That is the big question. Should we negotiate hard—pushing hard to maximize what we get (being good stewards of our finances)—or should we negotiate soft—avoiding conflict and getting happy agreement quickly (caring about people)? Or is there another way?

When I joined IBM right out of college, we were assigned to read Getting to Yes by Fisher and Ury. In this book, they discuss a third way of negotiation called principled negotiation, developed at the Harvard Negotiation Project. As I look back over the last thirty years, I see how much this method influenced and shaped me as I brought these principles into my personal and non-profit leadership roles—without even thinking about it. At the same time, my interest in intentionally seeking the Shalom of the city has matured. But how do these principles play out when one is faced with working with a large school district, community center, or movie chain to negotiate a lease for your church?

According to Fisher and Ury, negotiations should: 1) produce a wise agreement, 2) be efficient, and 3) improve or at least not damage the relationship between the parties. The problem with “hard” and “soft” negotiation is that it is focused on positions, not interests. As more attention is paid to positions, regardless of hard or soft styles, the underlying concerns are missed or ignored. Negotiation focused on the merits: 1) separates the people from the problem, 2) focuses on interests, not positions, 3) generates a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do, and 4) insists the result be based on some objective standard. After using this approach, I find it much more effective in producing results and a much better gospel witness in the workplace. I commend their book to you if you are interested in exploring this in more detail.

How these principles play out in your talks and relationship with your landlord will shape and define the world you live in. And when that world is your portable church, the stakes are high. When I was an Executive Pastor of a church in Los Angeles, we only had portable sites. They had to work and work well. The strength of our relationship with the landlord (a large school district, in our case) would impact how well we could “do church” week in and week out. Our lives could be miserable or our lives could be rich.  I wanted rich. Life didn’t end when the lease was signed, it began.

From my experiences and from discussions with many other portable church leaders, I see huge differences in the operational and relational experiences churches have with their landlords when they use principled negotiation, actively seeking the Shalom of their location and city.

Hard Positional Approach Results

Interestingly, in the process of working with large school districts, most of my stressors were internal to our church, not with the landlord. My natural approach after years of experience achieving strong results was principled negotiation.  But my lead pastor’s natural style was a strong, hard positional approach. Often, to get the immediate result he wanted, he would demand his position by reminding the site how much we spent with them every year.

He and I agreed to objectively focus on results, thus giving me the opportunity to use my principled approach. Once, one of my team was pressured to hard position negotiate with the school regarding heat in the auditorium. It did not go well. The heat got fixed in normal time; however, three years into our agreement with the school, the district facility superintendant pulled me aside, saying he did not appreciate being “yelled at” and strong-armed. He was surprised that we were resulting to this method after all we had gone through together. It hurt our relationship. The irony is that even from a pure hard positional negation approach, we had the weaker position. There was no other auditorium in our community big enough to hold us. We already had the best.

Principled, Shalom Approach Results

The benefits of building a strong relationship with the site landlord, based upon merit and mutual benefit, generates more possibilities and allows for creative solutions to operational problems. I have found that storage is a major issue in negotiating facility use and operations with portable churches. Storing all of your equipment in cases in a tow-behind trailer each week works, but is not as ideal as having cases in local storage at the rented site. However, in my experience, most sites do not have enough storage space for their own stuff, so the facility liaisons were quick to tell us “no storage” each time. I have a few examples of creative solutions to share with you.

After establishing a strong working relationship with their high school site, Austin Stone Church in Austin, Texas approached the school and offered to build large storage units on campus—one for the school and one for Austin Stone. This created storage space that the school never could have obtained through the district otherwise. The school was thrilled.

The Action Church in Winter Springs, Florida wanted nicer audio equipment in the high school auditorium they were renting each week.  Rather than remind the school of the large amounts of money they would spend and demand landlord improvements, Action Church asked if the school would benefit from the advanced audio systems as well. They would. Then Action Church suggested the idea that they would donate the equipment to the school if the school would contribute 50% of the cost by discounting the rent over the first year to “recover” the cost of the new equipment. Win-Win.

The next two examples I was a part of personally. After one year of meeting in a new school district in West Los Angeles—seeking the Shalom of the school and focusing on interests instead of positions—two very cool events occurred. The first involved an angry schoolteacher, complaining to the administration that her desks were not returned to their exact original locations. She demanded the school to kick “that church out.”  The administrator smiled and asked the teacher to take a walk with her. They walked to the computer lab filled with all new iMacs; the administrator said, “Because of ‘that church,’ our kids have the most advanced computer lab in the district. I will speak to the church to do better with your desks.”

The second event came when the district notified me that the middle school auditorium we were using needed state-mandated updates over the summer and, therefore, would not be available to us. I asked to be moved to the high school site permanently. This request had been denied multiple times before my arrival, partly because the high school had a state-of-the-art, 1,250 seat auditorium, overlooking the ocean. However, after a year of working with us at the middle school, a relationship had been developed based upon mutual interests, not positions. The school trusted us enough to work with us, even in the much more visible high school space.

All of my examples have been practical and facility oriented. However, due to strong relationships—built over time through principled negotiation and care—I have personally seen maintenance staff, teachers, students, and administrators begin attending the portable church at their site, become Christians, and actively participate in the life of the church.

In summary, when working with rented sites, I am convinced that taking a principled approach to your negotiations, while simultaneously and sincerely seeking the Shalom of the site, will deliver the best results to your church—as well as result in some amazing life changes among the people with whom you interact.