a little r & r

If you haven’t already sent in your “investment card” for Shawnee Community’s “Where Love Grows…Investing in Our Church’s Future” Over & Above Campaign, here are some thoughts about giving in general and why it is important to be generous whether to our church or a favorite charity or non-profit philanthropic organization.

If you are like I was when I started out in ministry, I didn’t have a clue about generosity and what many churches and church members call “stewardship,” meaning management of all our resources, including our treasure.

The reason I didn’t have a clue is that I didn’t grow up in the church and my folks never really talked to me about giving or generosity, though I knew Dad contributed to Boys Town in Omaha. Furthermore, seminary rarely, if ever brought up the issue of financial stewardship. So here I was at 25 years of age encountering for the first time in my life what churches call their “annual stewardship campaign” along with special offerings for disaster relief (Week of Compassion) among many other offerings. What to do?

I greeted the news that I would likely be fund-raising in churches with both fear and trepidation. I had no idea that churches relied on financial contributions to make ends meet or even that my own salary came by way of the church’s coffers. I was like a babe in the woods.

I was smart enough to realize I couldn’t ask other people to give without also giving. But that raised the issue of “How Much?” At the time—this was nearly 50 years ago—my entire financial package was—are you ready–$10,000/year, which included everything: salary, housing, pension, insurance, continuing education, and some business expenses. It did help that René, not in ministry yet, held a minimum wage job, but that paid only about $3.00/hour.

Complicating matters is that someone—I don’t remember who—sprang on me that there is this thing called “a tithe,” or 10 percent of our gross income. Some denominations fudge on this and refer to the “modern tithe,” which is 10 percent of a household’s net (after tax) income.

More sobering yet was hearing one of our global partners, the then president of the Christian Women’s Fellowship in Thailand say that in their churches the word “offering” refers to any gift which exceeds the tithe! Meaning that anything under a 10% tithe doesn’t have a name at all!

Hearing this I felt humbled and scared: Humbled because I never thought of generosity in this way. Scared because I was intimidated by the idea that if I gave too generously René and I might not be able to pay our bills—our rent along with the then typical 3-year car note on our new car! To be honest, it was a kind of “Oh, God!” moment. What were we going to do? And we hadn’t started our family yet!

On the upside, those memories helped me feel some sympathy for today’s young couples and families, who are burdened more than René and I ever were with draconian-level college loans and for the cost of childcare, which exorbitant as it is pays the lowest wages for childcare workers of possibly any industry except maybe servers and dishwashers in restaurants! Those days of scrimping to get by—which lasted more like decades—have given me at least an inkling of what poor people working several jobs to make ends meet have to go through. Still not the same!

But here’s the real irony. Studies on church contributors indicate that in general the most generous folks in America are the poor, not in terms of real dollars BUT in the percentage of their gross income they give to their church and favorite charities. The explanation often given for this is that poor people’s constant battle with poverty makes them more compassionate toward others fighting indigence. These same studies show that across the United States, the average percentage of income people contribute to all charities runs between 1.4-1.8%. More generous givers contribute on average 2 to 2-1/2%. Really generous folks give around 2.5-3.0%.

Among the largest ten mainline denominations in the U.S., our denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is next to last in average contributions of households and what we pay pastors. Only the Church of the Brethren gives and pays pastors less. The most generous givers come from the much more theologically, politically, and culturally conservative churches like the Mormons and Southern Baptists. It’s been a while since I’ve seen these statistics, though I doubt much of this has changed over the years.

But back to my original narrative, I slowly learned to be more generous. Two key turning points occurred to help me overcome my fear. First was a conversation I had with my mentor Dr. Forrest Haggard, founding pastor of Overland Park Christian Church, when, noting how green I was as a Christian and as a pastor, he said with a laugh, “You ought to be paying the church for all it is teaching you!”

The other is when I heard the redoubtable great preacher and former Deputy President of our denomination Dr. George Earle Owen say, “The word and practice of the tithe ought to be in everyone’s vocabulary and in everyone’s budget.”

From there, René and I began to look at how deeply blessed we were with our first beautiful child, the education we had received, the great families we had grown up in along with, our first mortgage, our first car payment, and of course, the good health we enjoyed. We both began to acknowledge that our lives were and still are far more blessed than we could have ever deserved, hoped or imagined.

It took us a while to reach 10% of our gross income, but we made it, at least for a time. Today, I am at least partly ashamed to say, we contribute to the church and to various church units and other charities around 8% of our gross income. I understand to this day the ambivalence most people feel about giving more than we think we can.

What sweetens this thought, though again not at the full 10%, is that we were audited in 2013 by IRS for our 2011 income for two reasons. The first was because we deducted the allowable, then, 7%, of our income for health due to a stroke I had in October 2011, which made those out-of-pocket expenses skyrocket.

The other was because IRS decided we gave too much money away in 2011!!! That also flagged our tax return for audit. Because I color-coded with highlighter all our receipts and statements to justify all the deductions we reported for that year, we got a kind letter back from IRS indicating that we not only didn’t owe them any money, but that they owed us!

I said last Sunday, the 22nd, that “Money may make the world go round, but it’s love that makes it worth the turning.” Knowing that we are loved by God, by our family, our friends, and enjoy lives that likely are the envy of many, ought to fill us with the deepest spiritual gratitude.

We don’t have to look or listen very far to recognize how blessed we are each day to be alive. This October 22nd I will have lived 10 years beyond my stroke. I was told by a physician then that if I hadn’t exercised as rigorously as I have over the years, I’d be dead.

So, we give to the church, not because we have to, but because we want to, not because we must, but because w may. We don’t give to earn God’s favor. God always loves us. And even if all we can give is the widow’s mite, Jesus spoke of her giving from all her heart, not from any riches, which she didn’t have, anyway!

So, Jesus says: “Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, running over, will be poured into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” We give because God first gave. And what are our gifts, anyhow, but our “Thank you” notes to God?

Blessings! Rick