by Archdeacon Howard Stringfellow
8 December 2011
What plan do you have, or does your parish have, for beginning to tithe? By its nature, because of its costliness, tithing cannot begin accidentally. You begin intentionally if you begin.
Dan Charney, the Stewardship Missioner of the Diocese, preaches passionately and eloquently about the tithe, or the practice of giving ten percent of one’s income or produce to the Lord. Since I came to this Diocese in 1993, I have heard more here about tithing than I had heard altogether before or since from other people including clergy. Tithing enjoys a long and widespread history. Religions of people other than the Israelites refer to it and expect it. Dan’s ministry stakes the claim that tithing is expected here also, and I admire him for it. He witnesses no failure of nerve on this subject, and he is the better leader for taking a stand.
He is of age; we can ask him, of course, but his stewardship talks have emphasized three reasons to tithe that I list in the priority he gives them.
Two: tithing is scriptural; it is found in the Bible. The key instance for Christians, I believe, is found in Matthew 23:23, where the Lord dresses down the usual suspects: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others” (nrsv; my italics for emphasis). The pronouncement concerns, really, justice, mercy, and faith, of course, but the usual suspects, apparently, already are tithers. Their tithing is assumed to be in place well before the Lord’s instruction. The usual suspects have a lot to answer for, but not tithing is not one of them. Many other passages from the scriptures could be cited additionally, and I shall guide you to them if you need it.
Three: tithing by all parishioners solves the financial problems of our parishes. Though absolutely true, as any parish treasurer can tell you, this, to me, is the weakest of the three reasons to tithe. Solving financial problems of parishes is a worthy goal, but it comes after in priority our relationship with God (number one above) and fulfilling a dominical (the Lord’s) injunction (number two above). Tithing to solve financial problems probably fails to be any kind of inducement to give. It’s but a step away from giving so that the parish can pay the electric bill, the notorious example of a discouragement and non-starter as far as encouraging giving is concerned though probably it is a stronger reason than encouragement to give to the rector’s Better Lunch Fund.
My own giving I kept within the bounds of generosity, for the acknowledgements and treasurers used that word repeatedly until the New Hope Campaign. Bishop Paul had determined that those making “the ask” for New Hope should have their commitment to New Hope on record. He said also to all of us before and after the campaign went public that giving would change our lives. Certainly, they were the right things to do and to say, but for reasons I did not at the time understand. All of what he said and all of what we did, I believe, were the right things though I did not understand how right they were.
I substantially increased my giving, but I was not aware then of why I did it. As I said, the words and the method were right, and I had heard them before, but before they did not increase my giving. Hearing “the ask” for New Hope, however, did increase my giving. The right things hit me at the right time. And responding to New Hope did more than that. It limbered up my spiritual joints and sinews so that I could do more “faith work” as well as “church work.” The distinction is telling, and it is an important matter in the Epistle of James that I now read with a better understanding of my relationship with God that has been strengthened by increased giving—reason number one above.
Again, what plan do we have to become tithers?
I rely on you to correct me if I am wrong. Parishioners will not tithe unless the vestry tithes, and the vestry will not tithe unless the rector tithes. Parochial life being what it is, almost no idea, no vision, no opportunity gets off the ground unless the clergy genuinely support it.
Parishioners, vestries, and clergy can (and do) pledge themselves to move toward a tithe or to increase their giving, accepting the tithe as the minimum standard of giving. These move in the right direction and are generous and sacrificial efforts, but for tithing to begin, someone has to tithe. Someone actually has to do it for it to begin.
How can tithing be begun most effectively, with the greatest possible effect on a parish’s vestry and parishioners? This was the question before me as I hurtled down the turnpike a few weeks ago, and something like a vision began to develop while I watched the speedometer and for deer straying onto the highway.
The rector sits at the head of the table before the regular vestry meeting on the first Monday of the month. Everyone is quiet as she reaches into her pocket to remove a pledge (or estimate of giving) card. She studies the card a moment, fills it in, signs it, and looks up, calm and determined. Everyone is looking at her. “This should go to the chair of the stewardship committee,” but the rector passes it to the person on her right who looks at it carefully before passing it down the line. And so it goes around the table until it reaches the person on the rector’s left, the chair of the stewardship committee. The card is a tithe; everyone has understood this, because everyone at the table knows what the rector’s salary is.
“Mortal, what do you see?” “I see the power of God coming like a cloud covering the whole earth and the hearts of people melting at the presence of the Lord,” very well it may be said by less than a prophet.
But something else is going on as well. The rector is freeing herself from one of the most powerful and stymieing triangles of parish life, as soul-grinding and soul-cremating as can be featured: the triangle in which she has asked (and had guest preachers ask on her behalf) parishioners to do what she was unwilling to do herself. And that sorry way to live is now behind her forever.