Cash 22

A parishioner handed me an insert from one of the local newspapers this past Sunday.  The insert was a partial reprint from the Wall Street Journal, and was dominated by a front page article proclaiming “Trust in the Lord…But Check Out the Church“.

The headline and the early gist of the article are pretty common sense.  If you think that churches are free of sinful people who might be tempted to exploit you for your resources, don’t be naive.  Congregations are filled with sinful people, because there aren’t any other kinds of people.  Smart congregations recognize this and ought to see it as part of their duty to protect the organization against potential abuse (to the best of their ability), but also to protect their members from gross temptation to sin by not providing proper checks & balances, or ceding too much power to any given person.  I don’t think congregations who fail to do this are taking very seriously the Lord’s Prayer temptation “and lead us not into temptation”.  
So yes, be smart about who it is that you’re giving money to.  Part of this issue is solved if people commit to a congregation.  Get to know a congregation, both the congregants as well as pastoral and lay leadership.  Know what the congregation is doing.  Understand their mission and the means by which they seek to achieve it.  While I believe firmly in financial transparency in all aspects of a congregation’s finances, I have met plenty of very faithful and honest folks who dislike this approach because of worries that if people know the finances, they’ll alter their giving.  A congregation that is doing well financially might send the subliminal message to members that they need to contribute less.  A congregation that is doing poorly financially may scare off new members.
Proper understanding of the Christian tradition (as opposed to law) of tithing is helpful.  We tithe out of gratitude to God, in an acknowledgement that all that we have is his, and that whatever we have we should be grateful for.  It stems out of the Old Testament Hebrew notion of firstfruits – bringing to God the first and best of what we have as a way of reminding ourselves (and others) that it isn’t ours in the worldly sense of the word.  
As such, tithing is something that most Christian communities encourage their members to do, to a large extent because the tithing concept has allowed Christian churches to evolve as organizations and denominations.  You can’t usually purchase land or build a building or pay a pastor and other staff unless you have the capital to do so.  Once upon a time, land may have been donated by individuals, and church buildings may have been built by a combination of hired skilled professionals as well as the voluntary efforts of members.  Pastors and staff were sometimes compensated less in money and more in daily bread sorts of gifts – literally.  In our highly regulated culture, these things have become more and more impractical.  Money has always spoken, but it has reached a point where there are fewer other voices in the room to compete with it.
If you have questions about tithing – why, how much, what it’s used for, etc. – sit down and talk with your pastor.  Your pastor shouldn’t be the financial officer of the congregation, ideally, but he or she should be able to speak reasonably knowledgeably on the topic.  Most of the time, I’m willing to bet that they’ll encourage you to take tithing seriously, though how they phrase it will differ.
The article points out that there are scammers outside of congregations as well who prey on folks that they know are already conditioned to give money to good causes, and will troll membership directories looking for easy targets.  Whether you’re religious or otherwise, I encourage people not to give money to soliciting organizations until you’ve done your homework on them – and that homework should involve other people and more than just a Google search.  
But the article goes on into some other interesting and not directly related tangents.  Rather than limiting itself to the discussion at hand – ensuring that your donations to a religious institution are being used properly (where ‘properly’ is a term that is likely to have a broad latitude by definition), it takes it upon itself to provide financial advising as to the proper place and role of tithing.  That’s where things get a little trickier.
First off, it counsels people to avoid going into debt to tithe.  On the surface, this seems to make a lot of sense, and as a rule of thumb, I’m willing to go with it.  The problem is that the goal behind this recommendation is personal financial solvency.  While that’s a fine and laudable goal that I embrace for myself and my family, it isn’t the defining nature of the tithe.  The tithe is not about personal financial solvency.  It is about a response to God.  While Scripturally and traditionally this response has had some very specific numerics attached to it, ideally the response should be motivated from the heart.  The goal of the tithe is not fiscal solvency.  The goal of the tithe is a response to God.  
I’m only being critical of the underlying premises of the author here.  I will be the first to counsel a parishioner to reconsider their tithe or a large special offering if I’m unsure they’re in a position to do it wisely.  That presumes I know what ‘wise’ is for them, and that’s why I would want to talk with them.  As with so many things, relationship is a far better mechanism than regulation.  I want my parishioners to make good decisions for themselves as well as for their Christian community.  Sometimes that means stepping out in faith a little more.  Sometimes that means scaling back.  But for me to say that maintaining a particular tithe regardless of fluctuating circumstances, or for someone else to mandate basing the tithe around financial solvency are both overgeneralizations. 
The last portion of the article asserts that there are many ways to give.  Writing a check is a traditional way, but it’s not the only way.  Volunteering is another good option.  Again, I agree with the overall idea.  Working for nearly 20 years in a campus ministry environment, I’m well aware that it’s often easier for someone to donate their time than it is to donate money.  But as with above, that’s a relationship issue as well – a discussion that can and should be had between a congregation’s leadership and membership.  As a pastor I’m very quick to admit that there are lots of ways to give and to encourage people to explore multiple options.  But in some cases I might find myself questioning a person’s decision to volunteer for an hour a month instead of providing any financial support.  Sometimes solvency isn’t the issue, and there are other issues that need to be explored and considered.  
The author then stresses various ways of giving to a congregation (it’s interesting that the author refers exclusively to churches, because these exact same thoughts apply to any organization – religious or otherwise) that provide the giver with the most advantages.  Again, this isn’t entirely bad.  I’m a proponent of utilizing the system to obtain whatever benefits and advantages are legally to be had.  But this isn’t the purpose of tithing again, either.  I don’t tithe to reduce my estate taxes, a suggestion the author ends her article with.  In gratitude to God, I don’t necessarily first and foremost plan out my tax advantages. &n
Once you’ve decided that you want to give a special gift, or as you’re determining what your regular tithe should be, be aware that there may be tax advantages (at least for the time being) in how you make your contributions.  Avail yourself of these.  But if your goal is to reduce your estate taxes or to otherwise benefit yourself financially, you need to examine your motivations.  Be honest with yourself (and God) about what you’re doing, and don’t pretend to be tithing solely out of the goodness of your heart when you really have other goals.  I have no problem with a member who tells me that they want to make a special donation at the end of the year.  I assume that in part this is because they see the ministry as a worthy recipient of the donation (because there are certainly no lack of other places that could use the money!).  I don’t think any less of the gift or the giver knowing that it’s based in part on financial planning considerations.  There’s no need for either of us to pretend that there aren’t other elements at play, but rather we can both give thanks to God that those elements are even a possible or necessary consideration.  
One of the most challenging stories in the New Testament occurs early on in the life of the rapidly growing Church.  This Church was characterized by its love and care for the poor and marginalized, such as widows.  People were moved to sell off possessions and give the proceeds to the Church to foster this work.  
But in Acts 5:1-11 we’re presented with the cautionary tale of Ananias and Sapphira, members of the Church who sold some property and gave the proceeds to the Church, but also kept back some of the money for themselves.  Many people have been critical of this passage, citing it as an example of the Church’s greed and unreasonable demands on members that they give everything.  But that’s not what is going on here.  The problem for Ananias and Sapphira isn’t that they decided not to give all the proceeds to the Church.  The problem is that they wanted it to look like they had.  They wanted the glory of being generous people (which they no doubt were), and were more than happy to lie about the extent of their generosity.  In verses 3-4 Peter makes it clear that they were free to do what they wanted with their own property, but what they weren’t free to do was to lie to not only their fellow members, but to God himself.  In their particular situation, using the Church as a means to make themselves look good was fatal.  
If a member wants to make a special donation because it’s advantageous to them to do so, then praise God and thank you.  But if a person’s entire giving is dictated not by a desire to honor and serve their Lord and Savior, but by the dictates of the tax code, then it’s probably good to discuss this.  
In short, your financial planner or tax adviser or CPA shouldn’t be the one dictating how and what you give.  Bring your pastor (and others) into the conversation as well, and at the end of the day, do what you honestly feel is right and good to do.
What are your thoughts and experiences and practices of tithing?  

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