Episcopalians and The Tithe

Recently, a parishioner in one of our churches asked me an honest question. “Why don’t many Episcopalians tithe?” Good question. He went on: “In the church I grew up in,  we learned to give 10% of our allowance to God in the offering at church on Sunday. But I don’t see that kind of teaching going on in many Episcopal churches. Why is that? Why don’t Episcopalians tithe?” One could tell by the look in his eyes that this person was serious. He wanted an honest answer to what seemed so basic, so logical to him.

Like many congregations, his church was struggling to raise adequate financial resources. Yet, if more people gave generously, like he learned as a child, the church would have enough money and then some. What’s up with Episcopalians and the tithe?

I understand where this question is coming from. I grew up in a similar church. Whenever I tell my journey to tithing story, I share that I was fortunate to have parents who “tithed out loud.” They didn’t necessarily tell me to tithe — especially after I was a teen or older. They just talked a lot about the fact that they tithed and had tithed for years.

My parents had five sons. I guess they wanted us to know who got top billing with the family finances: the church where we belonged. We lived on the balance after what they gave to God through the ministry of their church. Every month; no questions asked. By the way: We never lacked for anything we ever needed.

“Resolved: We Believe in Tithing”

In answer to my friend’s question, I said “Well, the Episcopal Church does believe in tithing.  Many General Conventions have passed resolutions affirming tithing as the minimum standard of giving. By ‘tithing’ we mean ten percent is the level at which we begin to give back to God. But few Episcopalians know that, or get taught that.”

While we Episcopalians may believe in tithing, not many practice it. Not many, indeed.

Most clergy would not know where to begin in teaching the tithe to their people.  Nor would they know why to do so. Clergy do know that tithing is giving 10% of one’s total household income to God through the church. Few clergy might even say we give to God out of gratitude for all that God has given–and continues to give–to us.  Actually, I added that last phrase about gratitude to soften the blow. Most clergy would not say that at the same time as ‘tithing is giving ten percent of your total income.’ Few, if any, clergy learned about stewardship in seminary. A tragic oversight, don’t you think?

Some people quibble over giving “ten percent net income or ten percent gross income.” If that’s a serious concern, then whoever is asking doesn’t ‘get’ tithing–not yet, anyway. Others might nit pick and say that the ten percent doesn’t all have to go to our church.  We can give a part of our money to any charitable cause and have it count as a tithe to God. Again, such “deals” miss the real deal about tithing.

Money Speaks Louder Than Words

In our Western, free market, capitalist culture, money speaks with a clear loud voice. We, the people of this culture, use our money to say what matters to us, what is important to us. With money, we build things: hospitals, schools and universities. We construct residences, homes, vacation getaways and other structures for our pleasure. Communities erect sports arenas, theaters for film and the arts, casinos and dance halls. We ‘invest’ in electronic playthings that pass the time, keep us in touch, and endlessly inform or entertain us, day in, day out.

Often we invest money in and build things that outlast us. We invest in our children and their education; our legacies; our reputations. Most of the time though, we consume our money by acquiring things. We most often spend money on ourselves. Money is ultra-powerful, and how we invest it, spend it, or give it speaks volumes about what we value. It shows the world what we believe and where we think we belong in the order of the universe. Without fail.

So, too, the money we give to church. Our giving to church also speaks volumes about how we view money in our lives, how we think of it. Our generous giving also reveals what we think God thinks about it–if God thinks of money at all.

It strikes me as ironic that since the nineteenth century our money in the U.S. has said, “In God We Trust” on it. I often wonder: is this a confession or a reminder? Does putting “In God We Trust” on our money help keep the creator God in front of us? Does it remind us of God’s true reign over the world and all that is within it, including us and our money?  Or are we admitting that money (currency) is “the god in whom we trust”?  Money can become a god in people’s lives.

What does your relationship with money say to you? Say about you? Say to the world about you? Whether you like it or not, the way you use money speaks about you. Without words it tells the world what you value, what you believe in and wish to invest in, what you hold dear.

Tithing Heals Like Nothing Else Can

Nothing heals one’s relationship with the world and money like generous giving to God.  Nothing rewards in life like tithing to your church. Nothing compares to making an estimate (pledge) and giving the money as promised. We human beings love to make and keep our promises, especially big promises.  Sometimes we even deceive ourselves to keep our promises. Think of the “diet bargaining” we use to rationalize an indulgence.  “One bite won’t hurt/kill me/spoil my appetite/add too many calories.” Whatever you say.

Jesus never mentions tithing, except how religious leaders abuse it to avoid spiritual wholeness. Jesus and his disciples knew that the holy men and women in the Hebrew scriptures tithed.  It’s what faithful people did. So Jesus’ not mentioning the tithe, per se, does not excuse us from practicing it. Tithing is good for the soul. Here’s how.

Tithing reminds us of the true source of all that we have. Recall what Jesus said to his disciples, 

“Do not ask anxiously, ‘What are we to eat? What are we to drink What shall we wear?’ These are the things that occupy the minds of the heathen, and your heavenly Father knows you need them all. Set your mind on God’s kingdom and his justice before everything else, and all the rest will come to you as well.” (Matt. 6:31-33, REB)

Think of it. God gives us everything we need. Our lives, our bodies, our families, our innate talents, skills, abilities, and our work. God gave us that. I know homeless people who live with great courage, because they know God will provide. Do I have faith like that? Not sure. I hope so.

When we practice generous giving, growing into giving a tithe, it does our souls and bodies good. How? In returning a tiny portion of all God gives us for our use and pleasure, we acknowledge God’s provision. It lifts our souls. We find release from money worries. And it’s plain fun!

“Let’s Spend Someone Else’s Money!”

Put it this way. We already are spending someone else’s resources, someone else’s capital: God’s resources, God’s capital. It’s fun to spend someone else’s money! God simply asks, “Use the first ten percent to further the work of the Kingdom. You can make an offering above that, too, if you’d like. The rest, live on as you choose. But choose wisely. Don’t worship it, or serve it, over me.” Remember: Money can become a god in people’s lives.

In fact, people discover that tithing in a sense “forces” them to use their money more wisely. Generous givers make better decisions with finances and spending, saving, acquiring debt–all of it. So, when you tithe you tend to become a better money manager for yourself. Now you have better finances, and you gave more money to your church to achieve its mission. Well done!  Thank you for furthering the work of God’s kingdom through your generosity.

Now just imagine. Imagine if more people practiced the tithe. Imagine our churches having all the money they needed. And imagine they had to deal with the issue of having thousands of dollars extra to give away.  Imagine the lives they could transform in their local community.  Imagine the hungry people they could feed. Imagine providing shelter and clothing for those who cannot provide for themselves or their family. Imagine giving help and hope to the needy and homeless. What a reputation THAT church would have—“The church that gave away all its extra money!”

Guess what? If more Episcopalians practiced tithing, that’s a headline that could come true.  Now wouldn’t THAT be news?

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