Thursday, February 02, 2012
Tough talk about tithing
At least at one point, part of the discussion was whether or not the "asking" from the folks at 815 (As in "Second Ave., NYC, NY", The National/International headquarters of The Episcopal Church) to the dioceses ought to be 19% or 15%.
Which is interesting because, at least at one point and in my diocese, we subscribed to "50/50 Giving". The scheme was that every church give 50% of its operational budget away - 25% to the diocese and 25% to mission. In turn, the diocese would do the same: 25% to "headquarters" at 815 and 25% to mission.
I never understood it. I mean "50/50 Giving" sounds more like a raffle than a Stewardship Plan.
In my diocese, we've reduced our giving to the National/International Church (815) from 25% to 19%. We still owe a couple hundred thousand dollars from one year when - oops! - we somehow didn't pay our pledge, so we're paying that back $10,000 a year until we're solvent again.
I have a few questions about this whole 10%, 15%, 19%, 25%, and "50/50 Giving" thing.
First of all, what is the scriptural basis for anything other than 10%? I've been asking that question for almost 25 years and I've never been given an answer.
Yes, 10% is the "minimum standard requirement" we find in scripture. We give more when we can.
St. Paul told the church at Corinth that if you 'sow sparingly, you will reap sparingly", but if you 'sow generously, you will reap generously'. (2 Corinthians 9:6)
Indeed, Jesus said to the rich young man / ruler, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me". (Matthew 19:16–30, Mark 10:17–31 and Luke 18:18–30.).
In Luke, it is reported in this way, "When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
And, he applauded and gave as an example to his disciples the widow's mite who gave everything she had to her name (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4).
So it's pretty clear that tithing is a spiritual discipline. It's the habit of a generous heart.
It's also pretty clear that it's 10% or everything.
So, where, exactly, did we get these other percentages?
Beyond the math and theology, there's an issue of leadership. One of the most important lessons I've learned as a leader - besides having authenticity and integrity and honesty - is that consistency is incredibly important if you want to get your "message" across.
One of our daughters reminds me that people in the business of marketing report that a person needs to hear a message seven (7) times before they really "hear" it.
The consistent message of "striving to tithe" is 10%. That's scriptural. We teach people to "strive to tithe". And to "live into the tithe" as a spiritual discipline vs. simply "giving to the church".
Clergy are to model that behavior. We reinforce it every year from the pulpit and in Adult Forums and during Stewardship Season.
And then, without fail, clergy find ourselves sitting around the finance committee - some of us with smart, experienced business people - formulating the budget for the next year, or trying to figure out how to balance the budget we developed, when someone says, "Tell me again about the 10% tithe and why we need to give 19% to the diocese?"
So, we launch into the fact that the 10% is a minimum standard and that "to whom much is given, much is expected" and that this is part of living into the words of the Nicene Creed when we say, "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church".
Someone else says, "I get that, but who decided that 19% was 'beyond minimum' when 19% is actually almost twice the minimum? Why can't we give 11% or 12%?"
Insert awkward smile here which accompanies the awkward response, "Erm....the bishop?"
Awkward silence fills the room.
"So," another member pipes up, "Where does this 19% go anyway?"
"To support the diocese," we say, relieved to have a concrete answer.
"And, what does the diocese do with it? I mean, what comes back to us? To put it another way, what 'bang' to we get for our 'buck'?"
"Well," we say, "that's the way the world may think of it, but this is not "trickle down Regeanomics" The church is a community. That's the 'catholic' part of what we say in the Nicene Creed. We give so that the diocese can help other churches. And, in turn, the diocese gives to the church at the national (and international) level, which, in turn, supports the Anglican Communion."
"Okay," says someone else, "So, it's like a 'membership fee', but what do we get from the national and international church and the Anglican Communion, except grief about how we do things at the local level? I mean, haven't you been teaching about this nasty thing called 'The Anglican Covenant'? Is this what we get for our 'membership dues'?"
The priest responds by placing a hand on the forehead and silently curses because this was never covered in any of the seminary courses she took.
You see where I'm going with this.
The thing of it is is that people have been listening and they ARE taking tithing and pledging seriously. This is why people are asking such difficult questions. They want to know. They are confused. Because the message has not been consistent.
Frankly, I've never had an answer that met with anyone's satisfaction. Including my own.
I've actually been part of a family conversation about stewardship where the single mom in a scruffy urban congregation handed me her pledge card and said, "I was only able to increase my pledge by $50 this year. I figure that new winter coat I need can wait until next year."
When the total pledges for that congregation didn't reach the amount required by the diocese, the chief financial officer at the time actually said to me, "I don't think you are teaching your congregation about Stewardship."
"Oh,", I said, "actually, they are teaching me. You should come and listen to them. You'd be amazed at what you could learn."
I'm not proposing that there is a simple answer to the problem of financial support for the church. I'm certainly not espousing simplistic solutions to a complex situation.
I simply think it's time that the church developed a consistent message about Stewardship.
The 'old' system isn't working. You can ask people to "do better" than 10%. You can also expect to get blood out of a turnip but don't be too surprised if all you get it red colored water.
If we ask people to "strive to tithe" and "live into the tithe", then why don't we ask churches and dioceses and The Episcopal Church to do the same? Make the same sacrifices we make? Reduce some diocesan staff? Do without some travel and entertainment expenses? Move diocesan offices out of costly, energy-deficient old buildings and share some space with some inner city churches who'd love the company and benefit some financially?
Why can't we expect dioceses - and, indeed, The Episcopal Church - to "live into the tithe"?
That's a serious question.
I'll expect your answers on my desk - single page, type written, double spaced - by 10 AM tomorrow morning.
Because, I, for one, really need to know.