When Church and Family Finances Conflict

April 30th, 2013
This article is featured in the Families in the Family of God (May/June/July 2013) issue of Circuit Rider

In early February, my husband and I prepared to visit the Taxman, spending a lunch hour gathering W-2s and mortgage statements and all the other official documents we had spent the month of January collecting. As I filled water glasses and made quesadillas, Josh called out: “Hey! Guess what we spent on childcare last year!”

I mentally tallied the numbers. Roughly $1100 for each kid, each month from January to June. Summers off, ’cause Josh is a teacher. Fiona started kindergarten in the fall, but our town doesn’t have “full-day” until first grade; so while our childcare costs dropped then, we still shelled out around $500 a month for her. “$15,000?” I guessed.

“More. Just about 23.”

We enjoy the benefits of being a dual-income household, but the cost of childcare is steep. Some of our friends with kids under six years old save on childcare costs by  having only one parent work outside the home, but they’re then living on just one income, and things are tight.

Single parents often have the worst of both worlds: one income, and, frequently, the need for paid childcare.

It’s personal, this math.

The Pressure to Give

We are not good at talking about money in the church; this is what the stewardship experts tell us. Yes, we carry the cultural weight of constant appeals to the building fund, of passed offering plates with their accompanying guilt trips. Yes, we compete with other ministries and non-profits for people’s dollars. But, Christians are instructed that giving is a spiritual discipline, an act of gratitude, and a necessity. If we want to pay the staff, if we want to fund the programs we value, if we want to pay our apportionments, we need people in the pews to pledge substantial dollars to support the life of the church.

Are you giving ten percent? Are you giving one? Every three years, the Revised Common Lectionary gifts preachers who run stewardship campaigns in the fall with texts like “the widow’s mite,” which are then used to remind us that, no matter how tight things are, it’s a blessing to give. In a popular example used in stewardship campaigns, preachers divide our incomes symbolically into 10 apples and then keep stealing bites out of the tenth, ostensibly set aside for God. “Vacation? [Bite] Bigger TV? [Bite]. Oh, I didn’t set anything aside for Christmas. God likes Christmas [Bite]. At the end of the illustration, all that is left for God is a crummy apple core.

We visited the Taxman and were asked about our charitable contributions in the past year, the category which normally includes our pledges to the church. The number we gave him was awfully small, the smallest it’s been in years. I was out of work, we were underwater on our home, our toddler got a second set of ear tubes, and then there was the aforementioned twenty-three grand on childcare.

I’ve been on both sides of church budget discussions: as a pastor concerned with the financial health and viability of congregations, and as a young adult wanting to support the church with my peers, but bearing the significant expenses that accompany the raising of a family. We need to give more than the dollar a week we remember to put in our daughter’s purse for the Sunday school offering, but we’re cutting it too close each month to commit to the prearranged EFT transfer favored by the finance committee.

Resentment toward Young Families

I have sat in those committee meetings as members bemoan the projected shortfalls, the rising costs of staff and building management, the lack of church growth. Things can get negative quickly. Young families use church as “babysitting”; they show up en masse for baptisms, but they never give. We can’t afford to pay for babysitters for people to participate in our programs. They can pay for their own babysitter.

With all due respect, as an ordained Elder, if I weren’t required to be at church meetings, but were instead a parishioner attempting to share my time and talent, I would never shell out money for a babysitter to attend a contentious, overlong committee meeting that kept me out past bedtime.

The ways the church talks about and understands ministries with families with young children is a conflicted and, often, self-defeating one, particularly in this economic moment. Parents feel guilty, but hard-pressed, as they pass the plate without contributing; older adults, single people, and those without children may resent the pervasive notion that “young families” are the ecclesiastical goose that lays the golden egg. Especially because children’s ministries are expensive to staff and run, requiring curriculum, endless supplies, space, and the commitment of multiple volunteers. In a congregation I visited this morning, the children’s choir sang two lovely pieces, directed by two different members of the staff, and then a host of parents and children vacated the sanctuary for their large and well-attended Sunday school ministry after the musical offering.

When the offering plate came around later, I passed the plate, as did the other folks in the row where I was sitting. The people who placed envelopes in the plates were in their fifties and sixties. Most of the couples in their thirties and early forties dutifully moved the plate along, as if the ushers on either end of the pew simply needed assistance getting the little wooden disc from one side to the other in a ritual gesture. (Maybe they’re giving online instead, to their credit, but that doesn’t mitigate the perception of stinginess.)

It’s a scene I see repeated all the time. And at times I want to roll my eyes at these folks learning to do church as adults, who seem not to have done the math, who seem not to realize what it costs to run a church, what it costs to pay the children’s choir directors and the Christian education person. I may not give, but at least I have the decency to feel really bad about it.

Valuing Different Gifts

But if the Church is going to get past this impasse, if the stewardship committee is going to stop banging its head against the proverbial table when giving among young families doesn’t increase in a direct relation to their increased participation, if I’m going to stop feeling guilty, we need to take seriously the notion that at different moments of our lives, we give differently. We need to take seriously the musical contribution of the children’s choir as an offering, one that the children’s music director is helping them make, and one that is equally valued in the life of the church. We need to understand that for some families, just showing up and participating in the communal sacrifice of praise is the only one they can afford to make for the church right now, and that is good enough.

Leaders in the church also need to take seriously the numbers that define people’s lives. While our finance committees are often overrun with the rhetoric of economics 101, we ought to respect the arithmetic by which many households are run. That apple example, which is so popular, and which makes me so crazy, is right when it suggests that it is easy to justify eating into our tithe. But the speaker tends to designate just one apple, just a symbolic 10 percent of earnings and income, as encompassing the cost of both housing and food. You have nine apples to spend on yourselves, it is implied; you are selfish for refusing to protect just one for the Lord God, the Source of all you have. But it’s not really fair or accurate to say that we have nine apples to spend on ourselves.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends over a third of our income – 3 ½ apples! – on housing alone. The average American family spends more than 20 percent of its income on healthcare costs, and some spend up to 50 percent. Student loan repayment is another 10 percent for many households.

The structure of our economy and household economics in the U.S. has shifted dramatically over the last thirty years, and though churches are experiencing extreme stress over decreased giving, we need to pay close attention to the causes of that decrease.  Many of these forces are beyond the control of individual families, and even individual congregations.  Churches need to be realistic but they also need to be grace-filled and empathetic with parishioners who are more than likely already overburdened by financial stress.

We may require a shift in the understanding of our mission in serving young families, and in the way we think and talk about money and its relation to our larger economy.

Adjusting any stewardship program that relies too mightily on the infamous apple illustration would be a sufficient start, but we also need a more concerted effort on the part of pastors, preachers, and church finance and stewardship committees to narrate an honest and fulsome story about the economic realities facing the church and its members.  Those in leadership need to grow in their understanding of how and why the economy has shifted over the past fifty years, and must refuse to accept the unexamined assumption that “people just aren’t faithful givers anymore.”  Church finance experts are right about one thing, though: We need to be talking economics throughout the year, honestly addressing this powerful, and stress-inducing, force in congregants’ lives as a part of how we proclaim the gospel and reflect on the needs and health of our community.  

Preachers, God help us, need to start learning some math.    

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