Given the amount of time that I have spent in the academy, it isn’t often that I’ve been called on to preach about tithing. But I did recently, and it occurred to me that laypeople probably find the attitude of clergy toward giving something of a mystery:
- One: “Apart from making people feel that they should give, do clergy ever preach that message to themselves?”
- Two: “If they do preach those sermons to themselves, do they think, “Hey, I work for the church. Why should I give a portion of my salary back to my employer?”
- Three: “Aren’t they really representatives of the denomination anyway?”
- Four: “Why would they care about the parish since they are either going to move on one day or retire?”
- Five: “Maybe less delicately, still others probably think: “Aren’t they just trying to get their salary covered?”
- And six: Some probably wonder, “If that’s not why they preach about stewardship, what does motivate them?”
Those are all fair questions, and I want to take this opportunity to answer them. An important caveat: I am sure that other clergy might answer these questions differently.
So, first question: Do clergy preach stewardship sermons to themselves?
The short answer is, “yes”. In fact, that is true of pretty much every sermon any priest preaches, and stewardship sermons are no exception. One of the things that I have learned down through the years – no matter how much money I did or did not have – is that our relationship with money stays the same in important ways.
It is – as one Jacob Needleman puts it – “minted personality”. Money says something about what we value, how we see the world, and what we feel our obligations are.
Those convictions are hammered out in a complex environment. We need to be responsible. We need to pay our bills. We all try to find ways to provide for our children, if we have them. And we try just as hard as we can to ensure that we are not dependent upon them in retirement.
Anyone who has ever done even basic financial planning knows that accomplishing those goals is a complex business and involves asking ourselves questions that most of us would rather not contemplate:
- How long can I reasonably expect to live?
- How much money do I need to save, in order to cover my expenses after I retire?
- What do I need to do to address the possibility of short-term and long-term disability?
- If I’m married, what happens if I die first?
But there are perennial questions that have nothing to do with retirement. I’ve discovered that regardless of how much money I have, the question of how much I “need” (which is the slipperiest word in the dictionary) is in constant tension with my obligation to both God and my neighbor.
So, yes, I am alive to those questions. We never approach the stewardship season without asking them. I always end up preaching those sermons to myself, first and foremost. And I suspect that a lot of clergy do, too.
Let me take the second and third questions together: “Do clergy think, ‘Hey, we work for the church. Why should we give a portion of our salaries back to our employer?’ And, besides, aren’t they employees of the denomination, not the parish?”
Now, if I worked for Tesla, Microsoft, or Apple, you bet that would be my reaction would be, “No way am I giving money back to the company.” For-profit companies are exactly that. They make a profit and that’s fair enough. That’s how they survive. That’s how they produce the products that they offer. And a big part of their inherent value to society and the individual is that they create jobs and employ people. But I see no reason to put money back into an enterprise of that kind unless it is in the form of a stock purchase.
But I don’t think that way about giving money to the ministry of the parish that I serve. This may sound strange, but this is how I think about it:
- I don’t work for the parish.
- I am under the Bishop’s authority and our ministries are an extension of his ministry, but I don’t work for him, either.
- And I don’t work for the denomination.
Although there are lines of accountability and responsibility at each of those levels – parish, diocese, denomination – clergy are called by and ultimately responsible to God. And the churches that we serve are the places where – in the moment – we live out our calling and are woven into the body of Christ.
So, the spiritual discipline of giving or tithing makes the same claim upon me as it does on any of the laypeople alongside whom I serve.
Let’s take the fourth and fifth questions together: “Why do we as clergy care, since one of these days we will retire?” And “Aren’t we just trying to ensure that our salaries are paid?”
Now, to some extent, I’ve just answered the first question. Clergy care because we believe we are not saved simply for our own sake. We are healed, saved, and grow spiritually as members of Christ’s body and this is, for us, Christ’s body right now.
So, we care because we believe in the power of Christ to heal our relationship with God and with one another. We care because we believe that it is only in Christ that our lives find meaning and purpose. And we care because in our little part of the world, the churches we serve are God’s instrument in the world.
We also care because we long to see our congregations fulfill their place in God’s will for the world and not just while we serve there but for years upon years to come. And that begins to explain why – from our point of view – our salaries are not what concerns us.
In order to be effective servants to Christ’s body, our concern is and must be the strength of the communities we serve. When the parish I serve entered into a process of prayerful discernment three years ago, their goal was to ask what God longs to do through the parish and then to ask what it would take to provide leadership for our shared effort to fulfill that vision. That mission, not the staff salaries, are what drives the church’s budget. And our longing – our prayer – is that, together, we will live into that vision and that the parish will continue to listen for God’s call on her gifts and graces.
One of the poignant truths about life as clergy is that there will come a day when we will retire, and – when we do – we will need to worship elsewhere. The clergy who take our place must have the space to continue that process of prayerful listening. But that does not mean that there will be a day when the people of those churches are ever far from our hearts. Our prayers and our love will always belong to them, to those places, and to those who follow us. And that prayer will be that in whatever way God has been able to use us, that his work, his promise will continue to be thread through the life and ministry of this community.
So, question six, “What does motivate clergy to care about stewardship?” And, let me broaden and ask, “what should motivate any of us?”
Growing up, I was, I suppose, something of an old soul or maybe I was just reared to be one. My parents cared for us, but being a child was never treated as a place to camp out. Chores at home, preparing for life as an adult were priorities for both of my parents. And my father regularly referred to what he called “the home you boys will make for yourselves one day.” So, I intuitively wondered what life was about and what kind of over-arching goal ought to shape it. You could say, to use Paul’s words to Timothy, I was looking for something to “pour my life” into (I Timothy 3:4-6).
For a long time, I tried to answer that question by thinking about life’s work, and there was a certain legitimacy to that version of the question. I am convinced that work – whether it is the work we would prefer to do or not – is a laboratory for giving expression to our faith and commitments – both in terms of what we do and, especially, in the way that we do it.
But two car accidents and three years in back braces brought home two truths about that way of finding “a life poured out”: one was fact that we are mortal and our lives are fragile. The other was the realization that if that life poured out doesn’t somehow claim the whole of who we are – body, mind, soul, and heart – thoughts, feelings, and actions – our work, our recreation, our friendships and families – then whatever that vision might be, it is not enough.
It became clear to me that getting an education, a job, a career, was not going to be enough. And it was in Christ, in my baptism, in a lifelong journey that I found that one commitment that gives everything else its deep and abiding meaning. It is only in Christ that there is something worth pouring out our lives and it is only life in Christ that gives meaning to everything else.
How is tithing related to a life poured out? It suffices to make four brief, but important points:
One, Christian spirituality is incarnational and until it is expressed in all that we do and say, it has yet to find full expression in the lives we live.
Two, in a culture where money so deeply shapes our lives, we can ill afford the failure to explore its power and the hold that it has over us.
Three, if we hold some part of our lives in reserve then it is not yet a life poured out.
Four, if – as I have said – money is minted personality, then our use of it will reflect the depth of our commitment to Christ and his work in the world.
Tithing is that act which gives lived, concrete expression to the prayer, “All things come from you, O Lord, and of your own have we given you.” May that longing take a deep hold on us as we discern God’s will.