Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Most Difficult Subject of All

Doxy’s note: I’ve been mulling this post for a long time. Although it is a subject about which I am passionate, I have hesitated to write about it, because the subject of money gets people hot under the collar.

I think, in some ways, money is an even more polarizing issue than homosexuality. But MadPriest’s comments on this post tipped my resolve to talk about it. Here goes nothing!


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I was brought up in a family where talking about money was considered low-class. Well-bred people simply never acknowledged that money existed---much less that they ever needed it for anything.

As you can imagine, pledge drives at church (or on public radio, for that matter) used to give me the hives. Like most of the rest of the church, I would squirm in my seat, read the bulletin, or make my mental grocery list when someone got up to give their speech about why pledging was important.

Like most of the rest of the church, I would complain about how often the issue of money came up---never really asking myself just who I thought paid the bills. After all, God will provide. Right?

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I encounter that attitude a lot---both IRL and online. Most people I know are naturally skeptical about the church’s claims on their wallets. And who can blame them? The news is full of stories about preachers who bilk their congregations in order to pay for their multimillion dollar mansions and their personal jets.

Over the last few years, however, I’ve had a change of heart about the whole subject of money and church, because I’ve had some personal experiences that radically changed my thoughts about giving.

My first radicalizing experience came in my beloved parish in Maryland---a beautiful, turn-of-the-century, stone church with tons of stained glass and a gorgeous slate roof. On the first Sunday I visited there, I sat in the pew and wept, because I knew instinctively that I had come "home."

Unfortunately, the aging building was in constant need of repair. Every year, we could count on the beautiful slate roof springing a leak, or the boiler giving up the ghost---or something else terribly expensive going wrong. This place that I loved---that felt like home to me---was ailing and there was simply never enough money to fix it properly.

Every year, the budget came up short.

And every year, Mary, our rector, would offer to balance the budget by taking a pay cut.

For several years running, we did just that---we balanced the budget on her back. This bothered me immensely, because it seemed to belittle Mary’s hard work and dedication to the church---and I knew that no one would have ever expected a male rector to do such a thing. I wanted her to be compensated fairly for the fact that she was giving her life to help me experience God in mine.

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My second radicalizing experience came when I read a piece by the Reverend Peter Gomes, chaplain of the Memorial Church at Harvard, on the African American church he attended as a child. During the offertory, they didn’t pass a collection plate---all the members got up and took their gifts to the altar. The stewards would count the money right then and there, and announce the total to the assembly.

If the day’s financial goal wasn’t met the first go-round, the congregation would be asked to keep going up and giving until it was. The minister would say, “We need only fifteen more dollars. Who will stand up for Jesus and give him fifteen dollars?” The offertory didn’t end until the target was reached.

Now I guess you could consider that approach manipulative---and in many contexts, it would be.

But that story affected my attitude about giving because I was stunned by two things: First, it was $15 that made the difference. I had comforted myself with the notion that, because I couldn’t pledge megabucks, I needn’t bother pledging at all. That story showed my rationalizations for exactly what they were.

Second, I was stunned by the commitment that these largely poor and working-class Christians showed to their church. They gave until the church’s needs were met---and you can bet that they went wanting in other areas of their lives to do it.

I was both humbled and shamed by the fact that they were more generous with their money than I was.

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Finally, my friend Buck, who was the Senior Warden at my church in Maryland, gave his own stewardship talk. Now Buck is the kind of Christian I aspire to be---and he rocked my world the Sunday he said “If you spend more on your cable television service, or your gym membership each month than you give to the church, I suggest that your priorities might be misplaced. If you spend more at McDonald’s or at Starbucks each week than you give to the church, I suggest your priorities might be misplaced.”

Now I didn’t have a gym membership, and I hate television and McDonald’s with the white-hot passion of a thousand blazing suns---but I have a wicked Starbucks habit. I was busted...

I knew Buck was right---so I reordered my priorities. And I became that oxymoron---a radical Episcopalian who isn’t afraid to talk about money. Here’s why:

I am radical about giving to my church because it is my spiritual home---and God doesn’t write the check for the mortgage or the light bill.

I am radical about giving to my church because I value the people who work there. I want them to be fairly compensated for the 24/7 job that they are called to do---and God doesn’t write their paychecks.

I am radical about giving to my church because I know that it is MY pledge---small though it may be---that can be “the difference that makes a difference.”

I am radical about giving to my church because I believe that, if people who have next to nothing can afford to be generous, I---who have everything I need and most of what I want---have no excuse not to be.

Finally, I am radical about giving to my church because my priorities are so often in the wrong place---and this is one area where someone I loved and admired showed me how I could set them straight.

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Tithing is the biblical norm (search here if you don’t believe me)---and there’s something wonderfully easy about doing it. Math was my weakest subject in school---but even *I* can figure out 10%.

That’s not to say that I always hit that mark---but it’s my goal.

I do appreciate MadPriest’s comments about the relative impact of tithing on those who are poor and those who are wealthy. I agree with him that those living on the edge shouldn’t feel guilty about an inability to tithe.

But I point out to my richer brothers and sisters (and that would include just about everyone in my parish and probably most of you reading this blog) that tithing is the minimum that God expects. Ten percent should be our starting point, not the ceiling. If you really want to stick to the Gospel, you should sell everything you own and give it to the poor.

The irony is that studies show that the working poor in America are the most generous with their money. Rich people give the most in absolute dollars, but the working poor give a much higher percentage of their annual incomes. Middle class folks (which means us) give the least.

That link shows that there is controversy over how to interpret data regarding the relative generosity of conservatives and liberals---but apparently no one disputes that poorer people tend to be more generous than their wealthier counterparts.

So who should be feeling guilty now?

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Without a doubt, there are churches and pastors who are abusive in their approach to money. Without a doubt, there are churches and pastors who spend the money they are given inappropriately. (Don’t even get me started on the new $300K organ we recently installed in our church!)

Each of us bears some responsibility for ensuring that the money we give to the church is well-spent. If you don’t like the way your church is doing that, the responsible reaction is to challenge the way things are done---not to refuse to give at all.

Make your case to the appropriate people. Or, better yet—get revenge! Join the group that makes the funding decisions.

(I confess that even my dismay over the organ could not induce me to run for the Vestry, but YMMV.)

If none of that works, most of us can usually find another faith community more in line with our values. Vote with your feet.

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I recognize that there are plenty of ways to give that do not involve church. A couple that I support include the Interfaith Food Shuttle, which was started (and is still run by) a member of my parish, Episcopal Relief and Development, and the Heifer Project.

I also recognize that faith communities need the talents of their members---their time and willingness to be involved in teaching, service, and hospitality. As someone who teaches Sunday School, mentors an Education for Ministry class, and works on faith-based community projects like Habitat for Humanity, I am every bit as passionate about that issue as I am about money.

But the bottom line is that churches---at least those with buildings and staffs---cannot run without money.

If you are one of those people who believes churches should meet in homes, and that priests aren’t necessary, I’m clearly not talking to you. But as one who believes that what a priest does in the Eucharist is both vitally important and different than what I could do at my dinner table, I believe I have a responsibility to support that ministry.

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The interesting thing about tithing is that I have found that paying God first doesn’t pinch nearly as much as I thought it would---because I get things in my community of faith that I can’t buy in any store. Because the Episcopal Church is home for me. Because I encounter the love, and the mystery, and the grace of God there---in the Eucharist, in the things I learn, and in the faces and lives of those who kneel at the altar with me every Sunday.

For me---and I am the only person I can speak for---those things are worth giving for.

But in some sense, it’s only minimally about money. As my friend Buck said...it’s about your priorities. What do you get from your church? How much do you value it? What are you willing to give in return?

You are the only person who can speak to those questions. But I would gently suggest to you that, if you take advantage of the spiritual support of a church, they are questions you need to ask yourself.