Friday, October 19, 2007

Church $$$

This post is about money, so I know that I’m going to sound airy-fairy: I have never been able to get well grounded in finance. Like Hauerwas, I think it is hard to have money and be a follower of Jesus. I am critical of the way the term “stewardship” has been co-opted (yes, yes, not in every place) by those whose concerns are money. I think capitalism is as great a challenge to the believer as war – and more seductive and, hence, dangerous. Nevertheless, a few thoughts:

It’s “stewardship” season in our congregation, and we take it pretty seriously. (To be accurate, this is money stewardship month; we have earlier focused on time and talent ministries.) And we do it up right: The pastor wove the lessons into a homily about stewardship and announced how much he had pledged; pledge cards collected near the altar as people left their pews following the mass (at least we didn’t collect them is some sort of special rite); there was a gourmet-quality meal to serve as the setting for announcing how much had been pledged by the congregation (about half of what we budget, by the way), including a very nice South African red wine. (At Mount Olive, we don’t “do” events without wine -- and maybe beer, too. Toto, we’re not in Pietism any more!)

It seems from the pastor’s sermon that a new idea is being promoted in ELCA leadership circles about how to calculate how much one will contribute to the work of the Church. (I recognize that that very phrase is problematic from a theological point of view: If the Church is the Body of Christ, and if Christ is God, and if God is creator and provider of every good, and if I have been provided money, then that money already belongs to God and the larger question is how much I am holding back from God. But I’ll let that slide for now.) I gather from the pastor’s sermon that the idea, which he got at the Bishops theological conference featuring a theologian from one of the ELCA seminaries, is called “fair share” giving, and it is a departure from the “proportionate giving” that has been the only orthodox calculus for decades. The latter concept is illustrated by tithing – where I give 1/10 of my income (net, of course; not gross income!) to the ministries of the Church.

Fair share calculations are determined this way: I take the budget of the congregation (which has been determined by minds much wiser than my own, so I can take their word that the budget is a fair, efficient, and laudable portrait of how much money it takes to run the parish and to provide benevolent support to other ministries – e.g., the synod and national church). Then I divide by the giving units of the congregation (or alternatively, by the number of members in the congregation). The result is my “fair share” of the obligation. That is my pledge amount, and then I will give as I am moved by gratitude and by the availability of other funds. (This does not forestall giving until it hurts – or until it feels good.)

Now the progressive Christian in me sees two problems with this approach. First, it seems legalistic. Second, it is anything but fair, but is instead a regressive tax on poorer members of a congregation.

On the legalism problem, I realize that all kinds of motives accompany pledging money to the ministry of the congregation. Some of those motives are purer than others: If I give out of a sense of eucharist and a desire to serve the purposes of God through the support of a congregation, I am giving for the right reasons – and I probably don’t need a calculus to help me determine how much to give. If I give out of a sense that I have to give something and the fair share (or even proportionate) method for calculating gives me a sense of what I have to give, then I am giving for the wrong reasons. To see benevolence and financial contribution as a requirement of our live together may be the sound basis for a secular tax system, but it’s a lousy justification for financial planning for ministry. (Of course, if my giving is symbolic – say a oner or a fiver a week, just to have something to put in the plate – then nothing much can be said. That is about as effective as a symbolic presence of Jesus in the eucharist – but I digress.)

The fair share posits a kind of “minimum” that is expected of me, and that seems legalistic. It is legalistic in the sense of imposing a duty on me that seems linked with my faith. It is legalistic in positing a calculus for involvement in church at all. And, related to that and to my progressive concerns, it legalistic because it is unfair (contrary to its misnomer).

It is unfair because it imposes a greater burden, proportionately, on the poor and encumbered than it does on the well-off. Whether I calculate it on the basis of “giving units,” which I’ll describe next, or members, it disadvantages those of lesser means, by imposing on them the same absolute burden as that borne by those of substantial means. I imagine that a “giving unit” may be defined in various ways: In my case, my wife and I plus our child might be a giving unit, since we are one family; or we may constitute two giving units in our family – my wife and I as one and our confirmed daughter (who gets her own offering envelopes) as another; or we may constitute three giving units, because we are all confirmed.

Now we are not poor by any stretch of the imagination (regardless of what we moan to our daughter). But if our income is put up against that of some of the other individuals or families, it’s like nothing. So it is “fair” that we and they take on responsibility for equal “shares” of the church’s budget? From the one to whom much is given is much demanded, right? And laying the kind of guilt trip on me that says that I’m not doing my fair share to support the congregation, and doing so in the context of preaching and teaching, is just plain heresy.

The old leftist in me wants to see all kinds of conspiracies and to highlight the consistencies with rapacious capitalism, which always – yes, always – favors the rich. But instead, I want to encourage proponents of “fair share” to think harder about what they are suggesting – and if I have misperceived what their project is all about, to speak more clearly. As I have cruised around the internet looking at various congregations’ attempts to institute or promote “fair share” giving, I have seen no gospel. One Episcopal rector noted that those households in the parish that do not pay their $3700 annual fair share are on “scholarship,” paid for by the giving units that pay more than $3700 per year. Well, the last time I checked, we are all on “scholarship” from our Lord, so to suggest anything less is hogwash.

The church does not know how to deal with money: That, it seems to me, is incontrovertible. Picking up someone else’s bad idea is hardly progress for the Church.

OK, now let me have it.


Chris said...

Don't be too quick to assume that your pastor picked up this (lousy) "fair share" idea from some supposedly overly influential Lutheran hierarchy. P'shaw. At least, I can't find it at the ELCA or Augsburg Fortress websites (in fact, "fair share" giving is criticized in one article on the ELCA website). If your pastor got this junk from his local bishop, the bishop didn't seem to get it from Higgins Road.

I agree with you that this "fair share" plan is lousy. There's a better plan: percentage giving, particularly the tithe, 10%.

When asking members to make the faithful act to give financially, we have to begin with them and what of God's resources they have. We cannot start with what the church needs. No. We have to start with what we've got, acknowledge that it all comes from God, and then begin giving it away - to the church, yes, but also to other useful, servant organizations and causes. The challenge is to give 10%, or at least a larger percentage than we gave last year, last week, yesterday.

But we must be challenged. There IS some law in this. It is not just about what I think makes me a happy giver. There is an expectation, a standard, an example in Jesus Christ and the saints in how we are to live and to give. And we should be challenged - not chastised - but challenged to strive for that high standard.

Dwight P. said...

With respect, Chris, the source of the idea was Mark Allan Powell, who teaches New Testament at the Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, OH. That's a pretty "official" post from which to propose. He has a relatively new book out on the subject, too.

Now, to be fair, I hope it was clear that "fair share" is a starting point in Powell's proposal. But it still seems to me to be downright silly -- even as a starting point, since for most of us caught-in-the-web-of-Satan Christians, beginning points are pretty much "goals" and ending points.