When pastors don't give

January 26th, 2015

“Right now, I don't think I can really give anything to the church.”

“I'd love to give to the church, really, but I still have so much student loans to pay off.”

“My kids are attending private school, and we just can't scrape extra cash to give to my church.”

I was getting upset.

“What the heck is going on here?” I thought to myself. Only I didn't think it. I blurted it out. And everyone around the table looked at me, shocked that I'd dare to call them out.

I was annoyed and angry. Normally I tried to be more understanding and compassionate. But I couldn't that day.

“This is ridiculous! We should really be ashamed of what we're sharing here!” Harsh, I know. But I was already in and might as well make my point.

The reason I was so angry and upset was that this discussion wasn't taking place with average churchgoers. No, this conversation was taking place with my fellow candidates for ordination. Yes, fellow pastors and pastors-to-be. We were learning about covenant discipleship and the facilitators thought that it would a good exercise for us to create a covenant among ourselves. We listed things that we felt were important to our calling: daily devotionals, meditating on Scripture, praying daily, engaging in fasting, and of course, giving, among other things. Most of my colleagues were hesitant to agree to the giving and they definitely had a problem with my suggestion of tithing our salary. I would've reluctantly understood if they'd balked at tithing but they were balking at giving.

Needless to say, six years after this conversation I'm not popular among that group of colleagues. And rightfully so. On one hand, I do wish I'd handled the situation better, with more grace. My intent wasn't to shame them or embarrass them (which I ultimately did). I just assumed that giving was going to be a natural part of our discipline. I even assumed that 10% was a given. But you know what they say about assuming … On the other hand, I don't know (nor do I really care) what they thought/think about me. To me, it was an asinine conversation. It made it even more ridiculous when a few of them shared that their church was struggling financially.

How can we expect our parishioners to give when we aren't willing to give?

I certainly didn't mean to come off as holier-than-thou back then and I don't have the intention to come come across that way today. My parents (my father is a pastor) instilled within my brother and me early on the importance of giving and tithing. They modeled it to us faithfully. And whatever money we received (for birthdays, Christmas, special occasions) my parents would make us give 10 percent of it in the offering. I was thoroughly annoyed as a kid and it never made sense to me. And for a good chunk of my life, it was more of a habit than a discipline. But as I matured in my faith, I realized how important tithing is to my faith and my life. It helps me to focus on the fact that God comes first.

It continually reminds me that all I have is a blessing from God and that I should be a faithful steward of the things I'm entrusted with. It also helps to keep me from being owned by the things I own. What I wrestle with is that I know that 10 percent is just a starting point, not the max. And I get the same fears and reservations that my colleagues had about giving six years ago. Which is why looking back, I wish I'd handled the situation more gracefully. Which is also why I'm far more understanding of people and their hesitation to be generous today.

As clergy, it's important that we model the type of faith we want our parishioners to have. As Paul says, “Follow my example, just like I follow Christ's” (1 Cor. 11:1). And we need to depend less on the old adage “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Money is usually a touchy subject that offends many. But we can't ignore the things that Jesus said about money. Someone once told me that the biggest barrier between us and God is our wallets. Jim Wallis wrote that our budget is a moral document as it shows what's really important in our lives. If we, as clergy, find that giving is only an occasional act, perhaps we need to do some wrestling with ourselves and re-evaluate our priorities.

At the very least, we should give up the right to complain about how our parishioners give so little.

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