(second in the series How it Works)
What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me? Psalm 116:12
The widow gave a penny (Mark 12:42); the Pharisees gave a tenth (Mt. 23:23); Zacchaeus gave half (Luke 19:8); the rich man was asked to give all (Mark 10:21). The early church shared everything in common (Acts 2); Barnabas sold a field (Acts 4); the disciples left their nets (Mark 1). How much will we give?
How much money should we give the church? It’s a question to consider as we prepare our annual appeal for financial pledges. I’ve been asked to write you a letter with my thoughts on this matter.
I took a closer look at tithing in the Bible and in the Jewish community. I’ve mentioned tithing as one of my own spiritual practices but I wanted to take another look—not to “get out of it”—but to see if there was something new to learn. I learned two things!
First, tithing or giving away a tenth of something is a concept found throughout the Bible, but it’s very difficult to apply to our modern circumstances. Many churches promote it in pledge drives as if it is a requirement, but in fact it is not, at least not for Christians. But just when one might feel “off the hook,” along comes a second lesson.
The tithe is sacrificial giving and would not apply toward the basic financial support due to one’s community of faith. In other words, biblical tithing is really over and above what we give as responsible church members to support the life and mission of our local church.
Many churches would do well to observe the way local synagogues approach this. Membership includes a schedule of dues that are appropriate to various household configurations (single, married, etc.) and incomes. Such dues are not considered charitable giving but simply the cost of belonging to a community of faith. Membership dues at the local synagogue cover all the basic costs. Beyond that, much fundraising happens that would be considered charitable and part of the tithe. My friend and colleague Rabbi Susan Harris told me of her membership dues and how the extra giving beyond that is really considered a requirement to help the neighbor in need, near and far.
A 2010 study compared a synagogue and church of similar size and make up. It found that the total giving was about the same, but much more unevenly distributed in the church. Often when there are no dues or requirements to belong, 20% of the members give 80% of the money.
There is a way that we can think of this at St. Paul without requiring membership dues. Let's say our pledge goal for 2015 is $400,000 to carry out our ministry for another year, including giving ten per cent to the wider church. If we divide that by 150 potential pledging households, the average pledge would be $2,666. That is by no means each household’s fair share because there is quite a spread in household income across the congregation. St. Paul is blessed with a fair share of diversity in this regard. This is why it's much more helpful to think about proportionate giving rather than an amount. Not all could give the same amount, but we are much more able to give the same percentage of income to the church. Sadly, the average across our denomination is between 1 and 2 percent.
In November you will be asked to consider how much to pledge to Saint Paul. You might think of your contribution less as an act of generosity and more as fulfillment of a basic commitment to our community of faith.
I hope we can also consider how much might we give in offerings that represent a cheerful sacrifice for God. In all of the Bible passages I mentioned at the beginning of the letter that is what is at stake. Sacrifice and renunciation are countercultural concepts to say the least, but they can have a powerful spiritual affect on our lives. Jesus calls us to give up our material possessions as a cheerful sacrifice to God; it is an act of worship; it is an expression of our love for God and an invitation for God to take deeper hold of us.
The good news is that everyone at Saint Paul can be generous. Everyone can grow in their giving. Indeed generous people know the joy of faithful stewardship. There is the joy of knowing that all that we are and all that we have belong to God. This leads to trust and gratitude and beyond envy, greed and anxiety. There is the joy of giving as a way of loving and serving God. It might seem crass to link love with money, but we demonstrate love by sharing, especially that which is so precious to us. There is the joy of pleasing God and receiving the promised blessings of God. What better words could we hear from God than “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Finally there is the simple joy of benefiting others with our gifts. Generosity has built houses of worship, hospitals, universities and art museums. Through our church, souls are saved, the hungry are fed, the homeless housed, and the naked clothed.
You can be a generous person and live in this joy as one who knows God, loves God, pleases God and benefits others. So I put before you this day both duty and delight: the duty of giving our fair share of support to St. Paul and, beyond that, the delight of making a cheerful sacrifice to the Lord with grateful hearts for all that God has done for us.
Check out the Bishop's video on generosity here