A Contemplative Perspective on Tithing (At Church… and Beyond)

A Contemplative Perspective on Tithing (At Church… and Beyond) January 30, 2019
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

A friend on Facebook named Stephanie posed this question to me:

Hello Carl, I am wondering if you’ve ever written anything on the subject of tithing in the church, and what that looks like in regards to a contemplative practice? I am a member of an Anglican church and participate in the weekly mass and liturgy, but there is not a “community” there for me, as there are very few folks interested in a contemplative practice or silence, and there are few women in my age group. Tithing starts to feel as though I am “paying” to receive mass. I know that sounds awful, but it is the reality for me right now. I appreciate any words you can offer, or have offered on this subject before.

There are actually two questions here. The explicitly-stated request is for me to comment on a contemplative perspective on tithing. The second, “between the lines” question involves how to feel at home in a parish community where few people are interested in contemplation (or are even in our age group).

They are both great questions. Let’s take them one at a time.

How to Feel At Home in a Church (That Doesn’t Feel Like Home)

So many people — not just contemplatives — find it difficult to feel at home in a church. We might feel out of step with a church’s cultural center of gravity — we dress differently, we vote differently, we have different taste in music or worship styles. Our experience of God may not mesh well with the prevailing ways that God is talked about in the church. Or perhaps we’ve been abused in a church setting (or someone we love has been), and so church simply feels unsafe.

For contemplatives, add yet another wrinkle: we are drawn to the deep mystical teachings of the church (and, often, the contemplative teachings of other traditions as well), and it seems that no one else in our congregation or parish shares a similar interest. And it’s not just our imagination. When I first was thinking about becoming a Catholic, I talked to a priest and mentioned my interest in mysticism. He smiled ruefully. “We have over 2000 families in this parish,” he said, “and I can count on one hand the number of people who are interested in the mystics.”

So what do we do? I have suggested that contemplatives should try to take a leadership role in a church community, in order to advocate for contemplative programming. But that’s not always possible, and it can be disheartening when you put hours of energy into a project and on the big night only three people show up (and one of them is your significant other!).

I’ve also suggested that sometimes you need to find your contemplative tribe in an alternative setting — by joining an online community, or participating in a monastic oblate program or a centering prayer group, for example. Finally, there’s always the option of forming some sort of alternative church community — a house church, an independent sacramental church, or some other creative way of finding other people to pray and to learn with.

Some people will opt to drop out of church altogether, preferring to be spiritually independent to the cognitive dissonance of a church that doesn’t feel like home. Each of us has to follow our own conscience, but I tend to agree with St. Basil: If I try to be a Christian all by myself, whose feet shall I wash? From the beginning, there has been an essentially social dimension to following Christ. It’s not easy — especially for an introvert like me — but I believe my faith is stronger and more meaningful because I remain involved in a parish.

Sometimes, though, after we’ve explored all our options, we’re left with the situation that Stephanie describes. We have a church where we can worship, and we do that because worship matters to us. But the church simply doesn’t feel like home.

I think the best path forward in a situation like that is to see the church as a place where we go to be of service. Sometimes, we “serve” only by showing up: by participating in Sunday worship. At other times, our service might extend to teaching a faith formation class, to showing up on cleaning days, or to joining in with building a Habitat house or cleaning clothes for homeless persons. In other words, let the church be the imperfect organization it is, and try to find limited ways to love it — just as it, warts and all. In situations like this, we might have to be clear that we turn to other parts of our lives to get nurtured in other ways (even spiritual nurture).

It’s an imperfect solution, but we live in an imperfect world. If a church meets at least one need I have — the need to worship — and it gives me one or two opportunities to serve, well, then it doesn’t have to be perfect. Maybe a year or a decade from now, things will be different. But for now, I can best find peace by simply accepting it (and taking responsibility to find friends or even a sense of belonging in other settings).

This, of course, leads directly to Stephanie’s second question. What are our obligations to a church where our membership is so tenuous?

A Contemplative Perspective on Tithing

I agree with Stephanie, that it doesn’t feel good to give in a transactional way — “I put five dollars in the plate, and then I get communion.” Ick.

So I think the first and most important principle of tithing — of giving a percentage of our resources to God — is that there are many ways to give beyond making a pledge to the local parish.

To begin with, tithing involves more than just money. Some people live on fixed incomes, or are between jobs, or are reeling from an illness or other life-setback. Sometimes, making a financial gift to the church (or any other organization) is simply not possible, even in the most limited of ways. In circumstances like that, I think it’s important to consider other ways to give. Donating time, or skills, or even non-monetary gifts (clothing, works of art, an old car) can be just as important — both for the giver and the recipient — as a weekly or monthly pledge.

I also think we should be careful about the 10% rule. Yes, the word tithe means “one tenth.” But I’ve known people who make large pledges motivated by feelings of guilt or pride rather than a genuine desire to give — and then it backfires. Giving God (or the church) ten percent while your credit card balance keeps going up is unsustainable and unwise — and may be a symptom of a deeper issue that needs compassionate attention.

Finally, I think we can give to God in many ways beyond donating to the neighborhood church. I think making a pledge to a church where we worship is the right thing to do, just like making an annual gift to your favorite PBS station is the right thing to do. But often we need to balance giving to the neighborhood church with supporting other worthwhile organizations (service organizations, monasteries and retreat centers, safe houses,  homeless shelters, etc.). I support a number of creative professionals through Patreon, and I consider that part of my tithe. (likewise, others support my work through Patreon as well, and I hope they have a sense that this is part of their tithe).

What all of this ultimately points to is the need to be mindful with how we share our resources. That’s where the contemplative piece comes in to play. Generosity helps us to be spiritually happy. We need to share with one another, in the same way that we need sunlight and exercise and a good night’s sleep. So it’s an important part of any contemplative practice to reflect on what is the best way to express generosity. And that includes taking the time to think of all the ways we can give (time, money, skills, etc.) and all the channels where our giving can make a difference (church, non-profits, and so on). Take the time to reflect carefully on all the ways we can give, and then make a plan that is balanced, but meaningful. Don’t over-give, but don’t under-give either. For most of us, that requires discernment (another reason why an arbitrary rule like 10% simply isn’t adequate. Some people ought to only be giving a small portion of their limited income; while others probably should consider being generous even beyond the tithe).

Back to Stephanie’s question. I know the feeling of “transactional” giving is unpleasant, and can be a symptom of feeling not-very-connected to a church. My advice would be to make a small pledge to honor the simple fact that everyone needs to pitch in to keep the lights on and to pay the mortgage. But I think in a situation like Stephanie’s, being proactive about giving generously in other ways will take the edge off of the transactional feeling she has on Sunday mornings. I think there’s nothing wrong with offering “my fair share” in some settings and giving generously in others. In fact, I think that might be a way of finding real joy in the spirituality of giving.

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