Tithing, Generosity and the Church

How much should you give to the church? Why give anything at all? You can give 10% of your income and still act like the world/church/God owes you something. Is that pleasing to God? What if you gave 5% with great appreciation and joy? Would God not accept that? It’s not as if God needs money anyway.

GIVE FOR PASTORAL SERVICES AND SUPPORT

As a pastor, I need an income just like you. I need to insure my children and provide for their education. I need transportation and basic shelter. I’d like to have a bit more to take my wife out for an evening every now and then. Let me tell you what you get in return:
  • When your brother puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger, call me and I’ll come and be with you. I’ll pray over him. I’ll provide ongoing assistance as you grieve. I have experience and training in these matters. Most of the time, when you just need space, you won’t even have to tell me. I’m good at reading the signs.
  • When your smart, pretty daughter suddenly drops out of school, call me. I can’t fix the problem, per se. But I am well connected to those who can. I spend a considerable amount of time connecting with people in helping professions for just such a moment. I can help you understand root causes and I can be your friend while your family works out the problems. I have training and experience on this matter.
  • Later this week, I will attend a service and march to persuade local police to stop brutalizing unarmed black men and call them to better accountability. I’ll do so respectfully because, as a clergyperson, I have ridden along with police and seen the and heard the difficulty of their job.
  • On more than one occasion, I have preached on white privilege to an all-white crowd, once in a church whose cornerstone was laid by the KKK. I have preached on bullying and LGBT issues. I have led healing services and I have washed feet in the mall.

There is an old joke (really old to most clergy) about preachers only working 1 hour a week. Behind the scenes there is a lot of preparation and ongoing training that, in theory at least, ought to increase the effectiveness of the clergyperson’s effect on their congregants and their community. I’ve begun recording all the things I do in a week as a pastor. From reading up on incarceration rates, to planning a drama for children, to discerning how to address gun violence; to answering random questions about everything from abortion to the apocalypse, to overseeing improvements to our facility…well, it’s just a fascinating and multifaceted job. And I think, ultimately, the value clergy add to communities as a whole is worth the compensation we receive.

GIVE TO SUPPORT THE LOGISTICS OF THE CONGREGATION

Additionally, many congregations provide meals for the homeless, even if it means struggling with snotty neighbors as a result. Churches provide shelter for homeless families throughout the winter. Churches house below cost low-income child care centers because it is desperately needed and the people running it are awesome. There are multiple funding sources for church ministries, and we need to learn to diversify our income sources, but donations from church members and worshippers remains the foundational source. Those shelters need heat: those childcare centers need wifi; those meals require a stove and water. They all need janitorial services.
Furthermore, my congregation pays into a denominational fund which pays for our episcopal leaders and for ministries around the world. I always tell my congregation that they own a share of a water buffalo in the Philippines that helps carry medical supplies to remote villages. We developed a theology that says those people all the way across the globe matter to us. And we have built a system by which we can care for them. My denomination also owns the only non-governmental building on Capitol Hill and our women’s division owns a building across the street from the UN (with a big eyeball on the building). You want a voice than can be heard on Capitol Hill and the UN? It takes money.

FIRST FRUITS, TITHING AND GENEROSITY

The idea of tithing actually predates the idea of currency. The idea of tithing comes from the idea of ‘first fruits’. You gave first fruits (or livestock, etc.) to God as a thanksgiving for all that God hase given and will give to you. This later became the source of goods for the Levites. This pre-currency idea of first fruits was respectful of the poor in the sense that people without fruitful land weren’t expected to give anything. This is forgotten when currency enters the scene. But Jesus alludes to it when he observes the widow giving her last coin to the Temple. The apparatus that expects the poor to give a blind 10% (and condemns those who don’t) are like those who “devour the houses of widows”.
Tithing, while it sounds equitable, is easier for the wealthy. This is why we don’t have a flat tax. A family making $1000/month can’t afford to give up $100 in the same way a family making $1,000,000/month CAN afford to give up $100,000.
Tithing was replaced in the New Testament by generosity. This is the spiritual quality of giving out of gratitude, humility and support.
  • Gratitude to God for all that God gives without cost: creation, love, grace, etc.
  • Humility when we come to understand just how much we need others: for love, basic needs, etc.
  • Support meaning that, despite our neediness of others, we have things that others need.

REALITY CHECKS

The caveat is that there are always people who need more than they can pay: they are poor, they possess physical/emotional difficulties, they are very old or very young. Those with means give for the sake of the whole. If Mr. Richards gives out of his wealth, Mrs. Jones can receive the services of the church she needs without the church ‘devouring her house’.
Nevertheless, find me a church where the richest congregant was also the biggest donor. In my experience, the biggest donors are those most connected to the services of the church, either as a user of services (for example, using pastoral services) or as a ministry participant (they help in the shelter, etc.).

ETHICAL CONCERNS

I am glad to live in an era of increased scrutiny of the church. We need the accountability. For too long we have operated with impunity and with a blank check of trust. While I mourn the incidences that have wrought us of our assumed innocence, I think it is good for the church to get back to being intentional and clear about our purpose and our process.
When it comes to church finances, the church has to be accountable. And we can’t be accountable if we’re not transparent. So records of church finances (including pastor’s income) should be more readily available. Leaders should do a better job of connecting church donors to the services for which they are paying.

BACK TO GENEROSITY

I believe that once the church gets to increased accountaility and can more clearly articulate what the church does and why it does it, the common donor will be appreciative. If they wind up giving 10%, great! If they give 5%, thank you for your generosity! I would hope at any level, the giver would give out of their connection to God and their appreciation for the role of the church in their lives and communities.

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