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Thursday, February 02, 2012

Tough talk about tithing

I've been intrigued by the reports of the "dueling budgets" at the recent meeting of Executive Council.

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.

The bishop, in his State of the Diocese address, said that the majority of congregations in our diocese pledge 10% of their congregational income. He said that wasn't enough and we had to improve.

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?"

Someone else says, "I understand the scriptural thing, but that was when the church was the only social service agency in town. Now, there are organizations that do things and care for people in ways that the church can't. And, they do it better. So, is it reasonable to give the church the entire 10%? Why not give 5% to the church and 5% to some of these organizations? Or 6% and 4%? Or........But, 19%? What's up with that?"

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."

Look, I always thought Herman Cain's "9-9-9" tax plan was seriously flawed but at least it did have its own logic. It was consistent. Apparently, it made a lot of sense to a lot of people.

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.


Wormwood's Doxy said...

*Applauds wildly*

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I know, right? I mean, enough is enough and I. Have. Had. Enough.

susankay said...

I had written a long rant and then Google made me sign in again and it was lost. No doubt God works in mysterious ways but who would have thought S/He would use Google?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, susankay, your rants are usually so good. Do try again. I think we need to hear more about this from lots of different people.

it's margaret said...

I am now in a Diocese which is considered a missionary Diocese and receives funding from 815; my job on the Reservation is funded from those funds. I have 11 churches in an area the size of Connecticut... in a very different culture which is event-centered, not Sunday centered --so ASA doesn't mean squat.... Besides, with the weather.... and cost of gas...

Last Easter, 17 folks were baptized in just one of those small churches.

Last week, I got to see the offering in the plate in one of these churches. Here, among the poorest of the poor in our nation, 45 folks gave $70 --folks who live on less than $10,000 a year.

There are no stewardship ideas or pledges or anything of the like here. The needs are so very great --overwhelming. And yet, this same church feeds 70+ people twice a week in a hot soup/bread feast in the parish hall, and provides a place for anyone to buried....

I am seeing the work of 815 in a whole new light --because of the relationship of the people to their churches --people who bear the historical burden of our nation presently. At least some portion of the $$ given to 815 is being employed to keep hope alive in a place where hope is sometimes nothing but a sheen on thin ice.

susankay said...

OK -- here goes: Our Diocese asks 15% -- in theory 10% to Diocese and 5% goes to our isolated Region of the Diocese. We really are isolated and don't enjoy the good shit that those in the more populated parts do.

We have "always" given 11% which I have understood puts us ahead of many parishes. This last year, we have been a parish in "transition" from one priest to (we hope this year) another. The Diocese warned us that this would result in financial disaster but that we needed to keep staff happy. Both happened. We were flat out of money. So we didn't meet our obligation to Diocese. Other options would have been to not pay staff, not pay utilites, meet committments to soup kitchen, womens shelter, etc, etc. We did cut donations to seminary, ERD. (Altho my husband and I more than made up for the ERD miss).

We have a problem with an over-funded music program -- that is the fault of the parish as a whole and may or may not be addressed by the new Rector.

We have parishoners who make in the high six figures who pledge 1,000. We also have unemployed who also pledge $1,000. I pledge about 6% of our income and give about an equal amount to non church NGO's.

I am really tired of funding hierarchy upon hierarchy. We keep bleeding money into the layers. Our Interim says that since we are an EPISCOPAL Church that our first loyalty should be to the Diocese. I do not find that in the Gospels.

In the interest of disclosure: I just escaped from Vestry -- I am still Treasurer


Brat I (am)

susankay said...

I guess I should summarize my rant: what do you give when you REALLY have no more to give.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Margaret - please hear that I am not saying that we shouldn't support the work of 815. What I'm saying is, let's get clear about Stewardship. Let's be consistent in our Stewardship. I'm convinced that if we got 10% from more people, we'd have more than enough money to do the work of mission rather than spending $7.7 million on 815, let's spend it where it needs to be.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Susankay - thanks so much for writing that again. You know, if the guy who makes six figures gave at least a tithe - and encouraged to give more because he can, and the person who is unemployed strives to tithe, there would be enough money for some good mission.

I'm convinced that we have enough money. It's that we don't have enough imagination. Or, courage.

Anonymous said...

I have only been in TEC for a few years. But I am already very tired of hearing about the loss of people, how the church is dwindling, and oh yes we need more money. Every year the rector has said, "increase your pledge by x% and we will be ok." I feel like I am watching the movie "Blazing Saddles" and the sherriff has the gun to his head and is threatening to kill the only minority. I mean really....
Of course this is all a fecious cycle. The rector asks for more money, more people leave thinking that is all the church wants is an increased pledge....
Here is a thought from the pew, what would happen if the rectors stopped asked for increases in the pledges, the diocess stopped asking for a higher percentage, and well we got back to focusing on the mission of the church-to bring people closer to God-to proclaim the Good News-Jesus came for all of us-to serve God and our neighbor. Would that bring in more people? Don't actions speak louder than words? Maybe just maybe the answer is increase the people in the pews and they in turn will feel grateful and give more like the widow.
A seat warmer in the pew

it's margaret said...

--I understand, Elizabeth. Truly, I do.

What I'm trying to say is that some of the hidden work of 815 needs more highlighting. The survival line of the church here is what keeps people literally alive. If it weren't for 815, who would be supporting this work here?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Yes, Margaret. I understand. And, you're right. And, so am I.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dear seat warmer - Yes. Yes. And, yes. Thank you. I'm very grateful for your comments.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Dear Seat Warmer:

I, too, am tired of all the hand-wringing about the church's decline and the worries about money.

But I have to ask you: Who do you think pays for the church to be there on Sundays?

God doesn't pay the clergy. God doesn't pay the mortgage on the building. God doesn't pay the light bills.

If people want a church building and clergy to do the services--if they want clergy to visit them when they are sick, marry them, bury their loved ones, and baptize their babies--somebody has to pay to make those things available. (And don't we have an obligation to support ministries like Margaret's? Even if they do not directly benefit us?)

I hear people complain all the time about being asked to pledge--and I always wonder if they DO pledge? And do they spend more money on their gym membership, their cable TV connection, or their Starbucks habit than they give to the church?

You may not be one of those people. You may be a regular pledger, and--if you are--I am grateful to you. When you hear people complaining about being asked for money, I encourage you to ask them this question: If you are getting something from this church, what is it worth to you?

We don't require anyone to give money to the church to receive the benefits of it--but I get a bit tired of hearing the complaints of people who want the benefits, but don't want to contribute, or to be reminded that "being church" takes money.

Elizabeth--I think it is important for us to engage in continual re-evaluation of how we approach stewardship. You have focused on that issue at the diocesan level and the national level, and I agree with you--but I think it is also important to hold the laity to account on this one. People pay for what they value--so if they aren't pledging, they either don't value what they are getting (which is fodder for another discussion), or they are being free-riders and I find that spiritually problematic. (Of course, I add all the caveats about people giving what they can afford. But, as you noted, I often find the poorest people give the most as a percentage of their income.)


Paul said...

When I think back on my giving to the church, my proportional giving hit a max during graduate school. I was a part of a campus ministry which placed a very high priority on outreach. I personally delivered a lot of food to the poor during those years. I didn't mind giving money since I knew that money was being put to very good use.

The people in the pews aren't stupid. We get appeals for funds all year long, and we have to decide where the money is best put to use. Instead of appealing to obligation, perhaps the church should engage in a little healthy competition for our money. Treat stewardship like a grant application. Tell us to what uses the money will be put, and brag about reducing administrative costs. Then provide transparency on how the money is used. When 815 starts to compete on that basis, things may start to turn around.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Doxy - In fairness, I don't think Seat Warmer is unaware of the cost of upkeep in the church. We all know buildings cost money. I think what SW is saying is that when this becomes the focus of Stewardship Appeals, we are no different than NPR or United Way or the literally hundreds of organizations that appeal to our money.

They are usually successful because they have a "product" they are marketing. Somewhere, long ago, I read that the best attended services, and the ones where the collection plate was highest, were Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday - because people left church with a tangible, outward and visible sign, that they had been to church.

Unless one is deeply involved in one's membership in the church, one does not always see the effect of one's contribution - except that the lights are on and the building is warm.

I think was SW is saying is that, if we put less - or at least the same amount of - $ into the mission as we do the building, we'd have more money for both.

Seat Warmer? Care to speak for yourself?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Paul - I agree with your point but I think you overstated it by analogy to treating a pledge /tithe like a grant. I think your point is that we need increased transparency and evidence of transformation. We need better accountability from the institution. We don't get that from 815 and we sure don't get it from many dioceses. So, we are less inclined to give.

When are church leaders going to *get* this? When the last one out turns off the lights?

Matthew said...

The asking in my diocese is 25% to the diocese. This in a diocese where the vast majority of clergy don't get paid a dime. I have had enough too.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

The only mystery to me, Matt, is how some of these guys can wake up in the morning and look themselves in the mirror.

Paul said...

I agree: I went a little overboard with that. I do think that the church needs to adjust to a new world in which it competes for attention and donations freely offered, rather than expecting it as a "right" or an "obligation". Telling the story of the impact those funds is part of the solution.

For all I know, 815 does wonderful things with its money. I just have no idea, and no one there feels compelled to communicate.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Margaret offers testimony to the fact that 815 does a good job with some of the money but even she didn't know that until she interviewed for the position there. And, I suspect it doesn't come anywhere near the $7.7 Million it spends on the building at 815 alone.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to respond to Doxy, if i may. Yes, I am a regular giver. In fact, I am in the top quarter in my church. But sometimes I question why I am. In fact my friends question why I give or even go to church. The rector refused to bless my relationship of over 20 years with my partner. I was asked to remove my child from the church school because his disabilities were more than they could accomodate, despite the fact that I paid the tuition in advance and headed up fund raisers.
My parents were in an inter-faith marriage. When my mother was dying with cancer we had trouble finding a cemetary that would take one RC and more protestant and bury them together. On my mother's deathbed she converted to RC in order that when my father died he would be able to be buried with her.
And yes, I know buildings cost money. But the buildings are not the church. The church consists of the followers of Christ. The church needs to take care of Christ's followers be they disabled, gay, or in inter-faith marriages, or divorced.
Wherever two are gathered there is God. we could use a tents.
Seat Warmer

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Seat Warmer. I think you made a point many are feeling.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

I appreciate your comments, Seat Warmer--and I'm angry that the church has treated you that way.

I hope you, your partner, and your son can find a place where you feel wanted and welcomed. That, to me, is what "being church" is all about.


Bateau Master said...

Much of my parish's problem and tension is a result of actuarial realities. We have a near 4 to 1 - death to new member ratio. Our age skew (72+ average age - more members between 80 & death than 20 to 50) makes this a dreadful reality. Burying friends and active members and the loss of their support has us on edge and looking for solutions.

The Reaper will be our (my parish's) downfall and sadly so.

Lindy said...

I think a lot of people give the most they can, and getting hammered every single Sunday with the message that it's not enough gets pretty old. I'll tell you something else, getting money from people that way takes the joy out of it for the giver, and you don't really want unjoyful money. Trust me, you just don't.

The church is in a transitional period, and it will include a transition in the financial structure too. I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet so I can't say much more than that, but as the church finds its way it will find new ways of financing itself too. I know the way is not yet clear, but I believe it will happen.