Shall we qualify the tithing expectation?

Tom Arthur, pastor of Sycamore Creek United Methodist Church, seeks the advice of elders about the wisdom of telling enquirers classes that tithing is an expectation of members:

Our church has a tradition of expecting its members to tithe or to be working toward tithing. There is no formal process for determining whether someone lives into this commitment or not (we don’t ask to see paycheck stubs or anything like that), but rather in membership classes the commitment is presented, and if someone chooses to be a member the follow-through on this commitment is up to him or her.

This requirement naturally keeps many people from joining as full members. The commitment to tithe is a significant one, and not many people are willing to make that commitment. They do not generally leave the church at this point, but they do not enter into full membership. They continue attending regularly. Many are serving in significant ways.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, this system creates a perception of “pay to play.” I don’t believe that is the intent of the expectation, but that is how it comes across at times. It does also have the tendency to make some people frustrated at the least and angry at the most that they are not granted the privileges of full membership (e.g. voting). On the other hand, our Wesleyan heritage does have a history of setting high standards for membership to societies and classes, and Wesley regularly and forcefully preached about money in such a way that makes the requirement to tithe seem rather small and insignificant, and both he and Asbury’s lifestyle left little to no room for early Methodists to complain that their leaders weren’t living into what they were teaching and requiring of others.

The post is at Faith & Leadership.

Category : The Lead

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13 Comments
  1. Kurt

    I expend at least 10 percent of my real income each year, but not all of that goes to the Church. There are many worthy causes outside of the institutional Church.

    Kurt Hill

    Brooklyn, NY

  2. paigeb

    I agree with Kurt–tithing doesn’t necessarily mean to the institutional church.

    But having said that…

    People who want to take advantage of what the church offers need to understand that it isn’t “free.” God doesn’t pay the mortgage, the clergy salaries, or the light bill.

    My life was forever changed when the senior warden in a former parish got up and said: “If you are spending more on your cable bill than you are giving to the church, I suggest your priorities are misplaced. If you are spending more on your gym membership or your Starbucks habit than you are giving to the church, I suggest your priorities are misplaced.”

    I will be forever grateful to him for being so blunt and honest. That 5-minute speech completely changed my attitude about giving to the church–admittedly because the church had given so much to me.

    I don’t always reach my goal of tithing, but it IS my goal–and most of it goes to my local parish.

    Paige Baker

    P.S. In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that my husband is the rector of my parish. I’m glad that my attitude towards stewardship was formed long before I ever met him!

  3. MarkBrunson

    I would ask your warden:

    Does your church spend more on salaries, mortgage and utilities than you do on the community’s suffering and poor?

    Does your priest live in better conditions than the poorest of your community?

    Do any of your congregation live with more than enough while others live with less than enough?

    If so, I suggest your parish’s priorities are misplaced.

    :)

  4. Bruno

    Like so many situations of support for institutions. We often over simplify or rather reduce to mere formula those things that require work and relationship. Tithe is one of those situations. To claim tithe as a benchmark supports the idea of favor and suffering as a given of god. We use tithe in the simplest of and ugliest of terms referring to currency of cash.

    Should a pensioner who can barely meet her rent with her survivors benefits move out of where she lives to meet the tithe? Should a parent deny a simple pleasure to their child for the sake of tithe? all this while richer (more favored) members sacrifice nothing to tithe or beyond and gain more favor in the parish? These are examples I have seen in the Episcopal church. It is about denying relationship, the rector will not meet with those who do not tithe, he will not visit those who do not tithe, those ‘favors’ of visitation are relegated to staff of lesser rank, sometimes not even clergy. Denying the relationship we are all called to live in allows us to reduce giving to the “church” to monetary value and ingrains in our culture the value of human being reduced to that of what they can produce or earn. Unfortunately we have yet to see the church as a body, one body whose health depends on the health of all parts of its being. Some parts are content to live in excess while others live in bare bones privation.

    Granted it is much more work and harder work to live in relational frameworks, but isn’t that where Jesus succeeded, and where he pointed, and why he was crucified?

    No?

    Bruno – please add your last name next time. eds.

  5. Dä'ved Äyan | David Allen

    I am not aware of where tithing is promoted as the standard to the church in the New Testament. It seems more that folks gave as they were able to give and as they felt called to give. In fact the story of Ananias and Sapphira would offer up the idea that one was in complete control of what one gave, please, just be honest about it.

    I am appalled to hear of congregations which operate in the manner described by Bruno. It would seem that they already have their reward. Unfortunately it is probably not Eternal.

  6. paigeb

    Mark–I totally agree with you that “the church” (by which *I* mean the people gathered together) needs to live out the values it proclaims.

    But I find your questions extremely prejudicial. No one is FORCED to tithe. I try to do it because I think it’s the biblical standard, and it’s a good discipline FOR ME. *I’m* the one who sets my priorities. I can lay out the case for tithing, but no one says you have to do it. If it makes you feel uncomfortable to have someone raise the issue, well…that’s not under my control.

    In our case, the Vestry–which is elected by members of the parish–sets the parish’s priorities, and everyone has the opportunity to discuss those priorities. People can vote with either their pocketbooks or their feet. But they seem to appreciate having a worship space where they can gather to participate in the Eucharist. They also seem to appreciate having a preschool for their children and a community garden that helps supply the local food pantry.

    They also seem to appreciate having clergy they can call at 2:00 a.m. when their loved one is in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. They seem to find comfort in knowing that their priest can and will jump out of bed and be there ASAP–because that is his calling, and he doesn’t have to worry about jeopardizing his “day job” to go and be with them.

    As for your comment about clergy living standards—are clergy required to be homeless to prove to you that they aren’t mercenary? In that case, I suggest that you should require a celibate priesthood. Both my husband and I are committed to living modestly–but I’m not willing to wander the streets with my children to gain your stamp of approval.

    Bruno–I’m sure there *are* clergy who are as venal and mercenary as your examples. The solution to that situation is to find another church.

    Again–tithing is optional. But it *is* the scriptural standard. If you don’t think the church is the right place to put your money, there are plenty of wonderful organizations that could benefit. Of course, many of them are run by people of faith…

    Paige Baker

  7. John B. Chilton

    I’d strongly suspect Bruno’s example is rare.

    But it makes me ask is it ok clergy know what people give? Who should know? Is it ok to report that figures like 80% of giving comes from X% of the members.

  8. Dirk C. Reinken

    I’ve been in parishes where tithing (or at least pledging) does come with privileges. If you signed a pledge card, you get free funerals, reduced rental rates for the parish hall, etc. So, I’m not sure some form of pay to play is all that rare.

    One priest I worked with insisted the parish was due a minimum of 10% and that no one should give to charities until they had already given their church 10%.

    While I believe the tithe is the Biblical standard through which I need to measure my giving, I think that the discussion always has to be framed in terms of grace and thanksgiving rather than law and obligation.

    Once we say things like “If you spend x amount more than you give to the church” we’ve become judgmental and slipped back into law. I think there’s truth in that comment (and I’ve said it in my own times of anxiety and judgment), but I also know some low pledgers (who could afford more) who give tremendously in time and talent, if not treasure.

    In my own case, my pledge is not a tithe and I want do more, but my overall giving probably approaches a tithe. As a Rector, I live about in the upper mid-range of where my parishioners live, and I’m comfortable with that. I also know their bathrooms reflect the ’90s rather than the ’50s, their siding isn’t falling off, and I can’t call them at 2:00 am because I need their support so I have no guilt about living better than some and not as well as others.

    I do know what people pledge and give, but I can honestly say it has zero impact on my relationship with them. I’m well aware of the widow’s mite scenario among some, too.

    Ultimate, if our giving is a reflection of our spiritual lives, I see nothing wrong with a priest knowing that information. How they use it, is a different matter.

    Dirk

  9. paigeb

    But it makes me ask is it ok clergy know what people give? Who should know?

    In our parish, only the Senior Warden and the bookkeeper (who is not a member of the parish) know who has pledged and how much. My husband has no access to that info–and doesn’t want it.

    While I believe the tithe is the Biblical standard through which I need to measure my giving, I think that the discussion always has to be framed in terms of grace and thanksgiving rather than law and obligation.

    I agree. I give to show my gratitude for what God and my parish do for me and for our community.

    Once we say things like “If you spend x amount more than you give to the church” we’ve become judgmental and slipped back into law.

    But in my own case, that statement opened my eyes to the fact that “where you put your treasure, there will your heart be also.” I did not experience that statement as judgmental or legalistic–maybe you had to be there, and know the person involved, but it was done lovingly and with good humor.

    Should we put Starbucks and cable TV ahead of those things we *say* we value? To me, part of stewardship is intentionality. Am I thoughtful about my use of time and resources? Do I fritter away both because I have no appreciation for the larger picture? (I know I fritter too much time away on the Innertubes!)

    That’s how I took his challenge–as a reminder to think about what you value and whether you are truly prepared to walk your talk.

    And that may get back to Bruno’s claim about relationship. I knew him, and knew that he was (and is) a good, kind man who lives what he believes. I could “hear” his challenge because I knew where he was coming from. I also valued the spiritual support I got in the parish.

    Paige Baker

  10. The tithe is the biblical standard in the same way that circumcision and keeping kosher are “biblical standards.” All three standards come from the Old Testament.

    The RSV New Testament mentions the tithe only three times, once in passing in Hebrews, and in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, where Jesus contrasts the tithe with the weightier matters of the law, “justice and mercy and faith” in Matthew and “justice and the love of God” in Luke.

    So clergy that preach tithing better bone up on their Talmud, because tithing is absolutely not required in Christianity.

    Paz a tod@s, Craig

    http://cabernethy.typepad.com/blog/

  11. MarkBrunson

    Paige,

    I did not accuse you or any clergyperson of being “mercenary” – rather, I pointed out the inconsistency of talking about “priorities” where those priorities seem rather flexible and convenient.

    I suspect your warden lived in far better conditions than most of the congregation, and certainly most of the community, and I sense a certain smugness in his speech. A certain amount of projection of my own experiences, I’m sure, but, I suspect, valid nonetheless.

    Finally, my use of “priest” was ill-conceived, as I meant all of us. I refuse, any longer, to see a special onus on the priest other than as symbol of the group, but that’s a personal view. We claim a heritage in which the followers held all in common, confessed a faith in the face of certain torture and death, and we’re talking about how hard it is to get people to give 10% of their income to internal projects!

    Craig Abernathy is correct – the tithe is not the Biblical standard of giving for the Christian – read the parable of the Widow’s Mite for the standard Jesus held us to.

    I find it absurdly funny. It’s almost enough to drive one to nihilism, isn’t it?

  12. (Responding to Mark Brunson’s comments:)

    Oh dear! Now I am going to have to re-read the story of the widow’s mite, in context, to see if I can find an escape clause, because, if I remember correctly, “she gave all that she had.” Anglicanism is such a challenging religion!

    Thanks and paz a tod@s,

    Craig

    http://cabernethy.typepad.com/blog/

  13. Bill Carroll

    I’ve always supported the tithe as a minimum standard, long before I became a priest. I’ve seldom been financially secure enough to pull it off.

    on a board, but the vast majority of our charitable giving should be through the Church. Moreover, giving to the Church is not just for outreach. It is to strengthen the whole community and all its ministries. We aim for an open and transparent budget process with input from the whole parish actively solicited.

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