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The Bible and Giving Money to the Church

Chapter 13: The Bible and Giving Money to the Church (Scriptural Considerations for Financial Stewardship)

    The maple leaves have turned red: ah, there must be a pledge card in the mail this week. As the sun falls toward the horizon the ecclesiastical pitch for funds rises.  Been there, done that for fifty years.  A couple of inquiries in recent weeks have put me to searching my book (which see on this website, under Features on the Home Page, under, obviously, Book) for the residue of my experience as a beggar for Jesus.  Hints abound, but no thorough discussion of the subject (financial stewardship) is offered in my Minimum Opus.  I propose now to correct that deficiency... by way of select Bible verses I and others have leaned on to make our "ecclesiastical pitches" as far back as almost anyone of us can remember.

    Beginning with the bedrock assumption, in red letter words, about me and you and our money.  From Jesus' lips to our ears, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Among the several verses evidencing Jesus' realism about humanity, this one belongs near the top.  Notice that, according to the Galilean preacher, the heart follows the money, not the other way around. The measure of our commitment to the church (or, for that matter, to any cause or institution) can be read on our itemized IRS return, Schedule C.  Praying is beautiful, angelic, glorious; but putting your money where your faith is is evidence of allegiance to the kingdom of heaven. The faithful need to hear that red letter observation often, and not just in the fall each year.

    During my time as pastor of souls I made sure, therefore, I was privy to the records of contribution kept by the financial secretary.  Many of my colleagues in ministry insist they don't want to know who gives what.  The kindest explanation for this willful ignorance is that they fear such knowledge would prejudice them in personal counseling and public controversy.  Less generous explanations exist, but I'll not repeat them here.  I have found, however, such personal financial information strangely mitigating, helping me to understand and accept from whence contrary and complimentary opinions originate.  People discuss how they spend their money as reluctantly as they divulge their sexual practices.  Most churches (but not Methodist ones!), for instance, hide the salary paid their pastor under a general category in the budget like "professional expense," because they fear parishioners making less can't handle it.  Often they can't.  Not that clergy or anyone else should boast about the size of a salary or a pledge; just that Jesus, ever the realist, tells us that money, contrary to being only an antagonist to the soul is also a window onto it (the soul).    

    My first advice to church fund-raisers is simple: get real.  Leave the idealism to dreamers.

    The second bit of advice follows quickly: be generous-minded.  Publicly, at least.  What the preacher says (concerning personal information about parishioners) to the spouse in the intimacy of their own living room should not be repeated from the pulpit.  About everything, especially money.  The relevant verse here is Leviticus 19:18, which in the estimation of the Galilean preacher, is the second greatest commandment: "love your neighbor as yourself."  The Apostle Paul, in everyone's favorite Scripture for weddings, I Corinthians 13, provides detail for this neighborly love, explaining that it is patient and kind. Accordingly, when faced with reluctance to pledge (i.e., systematic giving), accept the excuse, however lame, for the pledger who complains that "it's been a hard year and I don't see anything better on the horizon": agree that times are tough.  Never presume to read another's motives.  I, for instance, had harbored unkind thoughts about a prosperous churchman with a meager pledge, only to find out he was paying college tuition for the grandchild his son refused to acknowledge.  Remember in public utterances, if not always in private thoughts, these other red letter words to "judge not, lest you be judged."  My younger colleague and late associate pastor taught me his generation's phrase, unrepeatable here, for this tendency to think one knows what another is thinking. The phrase, cleaned up, comes out as "mind-messing."  I certainly wouldn't like a neighbor doing that to me.  Therefore, it behooves me, in compliance with the second greatest commandment, not to do it to others.

    Only when the opportunity arises, as with the question, "Well, what should I give?", should a full opinion be voiced, and even then voiced gently. 

    Think kindly of the miserly.  Before you know it, it will be your turn to be thought of kindly by them.  Besides, the church has another budget next year and you will be going to the same wallet again.  And again and again and again.  Righteous indignation at another's inadequate contribution may do wonders for bolstering your own ego, but it won't help the other guy get with the program.

    And that, getting with the program, is, thirdly, the primary reason contributors to a church's budget increase their pledge. Oh, I know, I know, there are plenty of other arguments for giving.  That it is a spiritual discipline, and we are, after all, disciples.  That giving will make you feel good.  That the Bible requires it.  All of which may be true. But I can offer evidence from my pastoral experience that a positive view of the local church's program correlates directly with increased giving.  When the church does what the church is supposed to do - preach the gospel, offer the sacraments, tend the flock, and minister to the world (I'm quoting, more or less, the ordination document on my study wall) - and does it with some panache and intensity, the money will flow in.  Don't bees flock to honey? The latest and snazziest strategy for a church financial campaign will fall flat on its angelic face if the church program it promotes languishes from pastoral incompetence, congregational frigidity, and doors closed to the surrounding community.  If, on the other hand, a church pursues its mission in the world with the aforementioned "panache and intensity," adding plenty of intelligence and competence, money will never be a problem.  As my late seminary professor, himself a pastor for many years, opined, God rewards the doer of a good job with more work to do.  Yes, bees flock to honey. And in the economy of salvation that church prevails which does its job effectively.      

    Finally let's consider that ancient rule for giving, the tithe. In fact, the tithe though ancient is not one of the 613 laws in the Torah.  Various Old Testament passages are cited in support of the tithe.  See Deuteronomy 26:2-4: "You shall take some of the first fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling in his name."  Literalists would be faith-bound to bundle up a tenth of the zucchinis harvested from their gardens and lay them on the communion table. That is, the tithe originated in an agrarian society, a practice readily adaptable to the rural American scene in the days of the old time religion.  Pounding the pastor (no, not beating up on him: giving him a pound of this and a pound of that) was common practice as late as the mid-20th century.  Accordingly, the tithe has persisted in Protestant American church lore until it has almost sacred status. 

    Not withstanding the fact that 90% (probably closer to 99%, but I'm trying to practice what I have already preached in the second bit of advice) of all Protestant churchgoers fail to measure up to a tithing standard. Even a "modern" tithe, which has been formulated as one-tenth of one's taxable income.  A far less strict standard, such as one dollar for every hundred dollars in a weekly paycheck, were it to be adhered to would green the offering plate to overflowing and fill in all of the empty places in the budget... which is clearly not the case on most Sundays. 

    From experience personal and pastoral I deem the tithing standard insufficient.  At best it's a utilitarian target, not a goal; a guide, not a destination.  Jesus provides the goal: the widow's mite.  About that woman's gift of two copper coins, my favorite rabbi observes, as he watches her and rich people putting their gifts in the temple treasury: "Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on."  From which incident I take the overarching rule for giving: live a life of generosity.  A tithe, when following that rule, will be inadequate.  It was for my late father-in-law, Lewis H. Davis, who never met a good cause he couldn't contribute to.  After his passing his widow, in reduced financial circumstances, had to paddle her way trough a veritable ocean of written appeals that flooded her mail box week in and out. The Rev. Mr. Davis' son-in-law, keeper of the Howard finances, reports that holding to a tithe would seriously crimp the family's eleemosynary impulses. 

    (On rereading several times the foregoing counsel, it occurs to me that it may read as a put-down of systematic giving.  That conclusion is antithetical to my intent and practice.  The Howards pledge, boy do we pledge, to three different churches.  When setting up a schedule of payments for the monthly online banking, those churches get the first-fruits.  I need reminders.  I need the sense that what I am giving is being looked for.  I need order to my virtue.  Perhaps it's just a quirk of my temperament, one that Freud has a name for.  But please don't quote me on behalf of that old dodge: "I'll do it when the spirit moves me."  Pick up that pledge card, fill it out - generously! - and send it to the church's financial secretary.)

    It probably could go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: the life of generosity, just as it is not limited to money, is not limited to religious purposes.  I would include the whole panoply of IRS-sanctioned institutions.  And grandchildren!  Like the Psalmist sings, Happy are those who consider the poor!  As shadows of the Great Depression creep across our land, I remember my mother, how she always in the 1930's had a plate of hot food to offer those men who appeared at our doorstep asking for a meal.  When World War II was the shadow over our land, mom volunteered as a cook for Bundles for Britain and fund-raisers for First Methodist Church. Few have lived a life of greater generosity than she did, and I would include Mother Theresa and Albert Schweitzer in that comparison.  She was generous to a fault, not the least with her own son who never fully appreciated it in his growing years.  But her unfailing kindness and generosity have been a guiding star for that son through fifty years of trying to be a good beggar for Jesus.

    Jesus' last word on giving? Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.  He should know, said here in the shadow of his cross, over which could be written John 3:16, which begins, "God so loved the world, that he gave..."  Giving is God's vocation.  Ours too.

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