Monday, October 05, 2015

What Churches and Time Shares Have in Common

Last week my husband Jim and I spent a week with friends at a resort in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It's a pretty nice place, perfect if you want to stay in a perfectly groomed white bread version of a tropical resort, minus the ocean but plus a pile of fancy swimming pools. It's wonderful for what it is. But it's not 'paradise'.

It's not a time share, nor do you actually own a week or a certain suite there. It's a vacation ownership organization that works on the points system called Wyndham Resorts. The Palm Aire Wyndham Resort.

We were down there with friends of ours from our old church. They were given their membership by a widow from our old mutual church who could no longer afford to keep paying the monthly maintenance fees. They took over her eighty dollar a month payment and paid to have the entire thing transferred into their names.

Through the years we've been down to this particular resort with this other couple a few times. This time was different. It was different in the fact that the resort offered Jim and I a certificate good for a free week's stay at one of the Wyndham Resorts if we'd sit down with them for a 90 minute sales presentation.

Sounds good, right? We would be out nothing but our time, but get out of the meeting in plenty of time to swim and hit the hot tub before dinner. This would allow us to score a free week to use when traveling down to Texas see my in laws in December. We'd be able to get a suite big enough to bring adult children and their significant others with us. Being that my husband is an economist and I am impervious to sales presentations after working in high end sales a few years it wasn't likely we'd ever be tempted to buy. We'd both seen many Wyndham Vacation accounts for sale for almost nothing on Ebay, no way we'd pay retail for this. We went into it agreeing there would be no buying of any vacation plan, no matter how they diced the payments.

Five hours later we emerged from the extremely high pressure sales meeting, both of us mentally exhausted. I turned to my husband and said, “Why do I feel like we just came from a 'Come to Jesus' meeting? What was that all about?”

As we walked back to our suite we talked, both realizing there was much that the sales process had in common with how cultesque Evangelical or Fundamentalist churches go about recruiting new members.

How is that, you ask? In a very few simple ways.

1 – They try to woo you by showing you a perfect facade, a fantasy-like perfect world that you too can join.

From the moment we entered the sales center on the grounds of Palm Aire everything, and I mean everything, was perfect, perfectly manicured, perfectly decorated, perfectly maintained. Everyone connected to the sales facility was smiling, well-groomed and obsequious. They couldn't be helpful enough, pressing us to partake in sodas and snacks as we settled in. Even the showcase suite they showed us was like something out of Better Homes and Gardens magazine, much nicer than any suite we'd already stayed in at that same place.

This was also how it went when we first joined our old church. The pastor and others were falling all over themselves to compliment us, show us around, fawning over us while pointing out all the perfect families and perfect people, saying if we joined we could have that same level of perfection. What the church was selling wasn't a vacation in a resort, but more the promise of a Christian elitism with claims of perfection.

Why are appearances so revered and guarded in Christian Fundamentalist culture? To quote NLQ's Aletha “ In Fundamentalist culture, appearances are more important than facts. Even in Mormonism, how you really are doing means less than pasting on a smile and pretending everything is perfect.” Part of the polished facade is the way it is used to recruit new members. Doesn't everyone want perfection?

2 – They check your credit or your credentials. Sometimes very subtlety, sometimes not bothering to hide that they are summing up your net worth.

One of the things that the sales support team at Wyndham did when we first arrived was have us fill out a form and insist we allow them to photocopy our drivers licenses. When I questioned the need to copy my drivers license I was told that it was to make sure we were who we said we were so that we could receive our gifts for attending. Turned out to be a disingenuous attempt to information gather.

What they didn't state was that while we were talking to a sales agent was that someone in the back of the building was contacting the credit bureau and running a hard inquiry on our credit score. We found out that they'd run our credit report only when someone came from the back with a printed out offer of what we qualified for. The finance agent was crowing about our A-1 credit rating while letting us know we qualified without writing a large down payment check on the vacation. Keep in mind we'd not said yes to anything and had already told several folks working there that we were only interested in information on how their points system worked, we weren't ready to buy anything. No prices of anything had been stated until they had our credit history in their hands. That alone made me suspicious we were about to receive the full court press.

I was rather angry when I discovered they're run a hard inquiry as you are only allowed so many per quarter before it negatively impacts your credit score. We are in the middle of planning a home remodel and we knew we were going to open a line of credit, possibly a store credit or small loan to do this. Wanted to keep the hard inquiries down because of the upcoming expenses.

But, Suzanne, I hear you asking, I never had any church run my credit score before I joined or even as a member. But of course they do, not through the credit bureau, but in a thousand small ways beginning when you join.

When we first joined our old church one of the things the elders seemed the most interested in were things such as what subdivision our home was in, were we buying or renting, and what we did for a living. I chalked it up to natural curiosity until a couple of things happened that indicated that the church leadership was well aware of who had what money. When my father died and I inherited lands and money our pastor mentioned more than once to both my husband and myself that I was supposed to immediately tithe 10% of the inheritance to the church. I heard later through someone that worked at the church office that someone had looked up the court papers online to figure out if I had received anything after the death.

Later when church giving was way down the pastor held a meeting and sent out a letter indicating that he knew what everyone in the church was worth, what their homes were worth and what their salaries were before angrily demanding everyone pull their weight and tithe a minimum of that 10% again. He was also outraged about lavish vacations and trips to conferences, saying that anyone that could afford to conference-hop or go on a fancy trip should be tithing well past the 10% mark.

3 – They don't take 'No' for an answer.

Once the finance guy and our sales agent heard the first, second and third 'nos' from us they just doubled down, coming back with different price points and programs. The two of them were claiming again and again that if we didn't buy one of their packages we weren't committed to vacationing and would not vacation every year. Of course that's with them conveniently ignoring that I'd already told them that in the last six months we'd gone on a two week luxury vacation of Costa Rica and Florida and gone for a week to Michigan to visit friends plus this little jaunt to their resort. Our vacation time for 2015 was at that point a total of four weeks. I'd say that is a significant commitment to vacationing.

Eventually it dawned on them that we were not going to buy. I was asked why and I told the salesman that a) we do not make major purchases in the course of a few hours without researching our options and discussing it away from the salesman. b) memberships to their resorts come up all the time on Ebay for a tiny fraction of what they were trying to retail it to us and lastly, c) If one simply put their monthly payment and monthly maintenance fees into a vacation account at a local bank that by the end of the year you'd have enough money put aside to buy a vacation much like our Costa Rican one without being tied to a lifetime financial obligation that buying their package would entail.

We were handed off to a different fellow at that moment, supposedly a guy that was going to give us our week's free stay certificate. But the only thing that happened was that this third man came in with a different program to pitch with completely different figures. His approach was strong arm and we were completely over the idea of ever buying a vacation from this company. Mr. Number Three only reinforced the desire to never buy a vacation from this company. Eventually we were given what was promised and allowed to go.

Once we got home we received a letter from the company, having hard pinged our credit report again with another offer with completely different figures.

While I never experienced the whole never taking no for an answer from my old church since we did go and join quickly, I have had this treatment when I've visited similar churches after leaving and looking for a new church home. I've had church staff blow up my phone with messages, had long letters, tons of emails and had members showing up on my doorstep to visit out of the blue insisting we give Church X a chance. Some have become rather hatefully rude when I've said a polite no and stated that their place is not right for me.

4 – Both types of organizations are actually selling fear. They aren't afraid to lie to you to get you to buy into that particular fear.

Within the first five minutes of our sales presentation I caught out one of the presenters telling a whopper of a fib. It was a lie designed to make people fearful that if they didn't lock into this vacation plan that very day that they'd never be able to afford to keep taking vacations. The presenter stood at the white board and stated that it's a proven fact that hotel prices go up every year between 7 and 8 percent so buy your vacations now and the rooms would never go up at their locations.

Unfortunately for him I was armed with my Iphone and an insane desire to research random things told me by strangers. Looking at the US Dept. of Labor's consumer price index I was able to see that the official numbers for the last ten years were closer to 2 to 3.5 percent, not what he was stating. Once someone lies to me in a sales presentation there's no way I would ever trust them enough to purchase anything.

The cult churches do this too, in fact, they have it down to an art form, much better than any slick Harold Hill type salesman. They are selling insurance, divine insurance for the afterlife and aren't shy about promoting the idea of an eternity of torment if you don't sign up for their own brand of faith. They'll even go as far as tell you that everyone else's version of faith will sent you to hell. They use fears of all sorts to get you to join. The sad thing is that there is no logical way to research all of what they are pushing and debunk it.

So what can churches and vacation salesmen do to make what they do a little less toxic and damaging?

It's simple.

Don't lie to people.
Don't fear monger.
Don't try to take away anyone's free will.
Don't try to make it all about money.
Don't try to speculate on someone elses money because it doesn't belong to you.
Be real, be genuine and be truthful.
Finally, to quote Joan Harris of the AMC television show “Mad Men' - always be a supplicant.

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