Confessions of an Ex-Car Dealer

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Car dealers don't do well on the "most trusted professions" annual survey, rating just above politicians who carry the perennial tag of "least trusted." I've learned to live with the jokes—like this one. How can you tell that a car dealer is lying? Answer: His lips are moving. At times, I've wondered how anyone can profess to follow Christ and also sell cars for a living.

Being a car dealer certainly had its challenges. But God wants (and needs) to transform all business and work—even industries like car dealing.

Through the years, I've wondered, "How can I do business Christianly?" More specifically, I asked myself, "How can I follow Jesus faithfully as a car dealer?"

But I've always had three assumptions behind my question:

  1. Most work is honorable. It is possible to faithfully serve and follow Jesus in almost every avenue of life. Clearly, activities such as prostitution, drug dealing, burglary, etc. are not acceptable for Christians to be engaged in. But there are not many others I can think of that might be out-of-bounds to us.
  2. Serving God is more than integrity, evangelism, and charity. This meant that faithfully serving Jesus through car dealing would involve much more than being honest and acting with integrity, sharing my faith, and giving generously to "Christian causes." It is not that these issues are unimportant or in any way peripheral. They are, however, insufficient in themselves, to faithfully serving Christ through car dealing.
  3. Jesus would not be your average car dealer. Seeking honestly to faithfully serve Christ as a car dealer should, over time, lead to a way of operating business that is radically different from the norm. This is not to suggest that there won't be many points of commonality to some other car dealers, but that overall there will be a distinctiveness in the way a Christian car dealer seeks to do business. This will include motivations, ways of relating, ways of buying and selling, consideration of wider social, environmental, and collective responsibilities.

There's nothing exceptional about the wide range of ethical issues in car dealing. Many industries would no doubt have a similar breadth of challenges. Some ethical issues have to do with the product we are selling, others with the way we sell, and still others with pricing and profit-making.

The Ethics of a Specific Product: Cars

Selling secondhand vehicles presented some fundamental, ongoing questions for me, revolving around the centrality of the car in our society. Cars have the potential to become idols to dictate our sense of personhood unhealthily, to erode relationship and community, and to work against the call to good stewardship. Of course, there is much good that the car brings as well. So how do I determine whether the good outweighs the bad in certain circumstances?

For example, what responsibility, if any, do I have to try to minimize the negative impact of the car on our society? Do I only sell certain types of vehicles—those that are less destructive (like more environmentally friendly cars, or functional rather than fashionable ones)? Or perhaps sell only to certain types of people?

If I believe the car produces more harm than good (environmentally, socially, financially, etc.), then I have to ask if I should be selling cars at all?

The Ethics of the Sales Process

The car selling process is a complex web of relationships, protocols, and ways of relating. Some of my main moral dilemmas occurred within the following parameters:

  • The bargaining process: How do I participate in the established game of negotiating on the price when that game often undermines trust and rewards guile?
  • The disclosure of information: What constitutes honesty?
  • The financing of vehicles: Should I encourage people to borrow in order to buy a heavily depreciating asset?
  • The role of the salesperson: In what ways is it ethically acceptable to influence customers toward or against particular vehicles—particularly if it's an "old-stocker" that you just have to get rid of?
  • The tension between self-interest and service: How far should I go in serving the other person and their needs at the expense of myself? How should I determine the level of responsibility I carry for the breakdown of vehicles I have sold? The legal requirements are minimal, but ethically should I go beyond this, and if so, for how long? Should I determine this by the customer's own financial situation or by some other measure?

The Ethics of Pricing and Profit-Making

There's an ongoing debate about what type of economic system is most consistent with a Christian ethic/worldview, and the associated critique of the free-market/capitalist system we find ourselves in. Most Christian commentators would agree that the Bible doesn't provide any explicit "blueprint" for a biblical economy, though Scripture does have much to say about economic matters. This is generally where the consensus ends! Clearly there are aspects of capitalism which require careful critique. As a car dealer, though, I faced very specific questions:

  • How do I establish what is a "fair" price? Is there such a thing?
  • How do I establish what is "reasonable" profit? Is there such a thing?
  • Should the profit bear some relation to the amount of time, effort, and risk I took in making the sale?
  • How should I utilize the profit?

Most of you reading this probably do not make your living by selling cars. I don't any more either, but I attempted to take my job seriously when I did. The questions that arose about my work will not be exactly the same as the questions that arise about yours. But no matter our profession, we must take time to identify the hard questions. In doing so, we chart a course toward more faithful witness, seeking to be people of integrity and agents of change in our work.

Questions for personal reflection, online discussion, or small groups:

  • What is the primary product or service of your work? How does this product or service help society?
  • How does your product or service impact society negatively? How can you minimize the negative impact?
  • For more about integrity and ethics in the workplace, read Jonathan Dodson's article Working Theologically: What We Do or How We Do It?