Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Traditional Tithing

Recently, I read an email from a church staff member in some far off land that was concerned about financial participation of the church's patrons.  It would seem that there are tithing members, but they also have many "friends" of the church, who are not officially members - and possibly due to the fact that as such they are not obligated to contribute financially to the church.

I'm not sure if we have that problem in our church.  Our congregation is small, but I'm not sure if we have any "friends" of the church or not.  Our church allows members to give financially or through service commitments (greeters, landscaping, webmastering, coffee making, clean-up crews, etc).

So this guy offered up a question asking his peers what "benefits" or perks do churches offer members, that "friends" of the church do not receive.  I was a bit dumbfounded at the question at first.

I replied to him that the 'benefit' or 'perk' is that this place of worship & community will continue to exist.  That giving financially brings hope that its services & buildings will continue to grow.  It never really occurred to me to ask "what's in it for me?" because I thought that just went without saying.  Obviously not.

He writes back and asks what if that is not enough for people.  I wanted to say to him then maybe those aren't the right people to have in your church...but I don't know this guy from Adam, so I didn't take that path.  

Instead, I pointed out that probably the best route would be to better encourage membership  as opposed to just watching those faces of "friends" come in and out without having a conversation with them about what is holding them back from becoming members.  It may not even be a financial issue.  It may be some deeper spiritual reason that they could work out together.  Even if it is a financial issue, maybe by approaching these "friends" more often, they can let them know of the various contribution options available which may ease them into membership.  

This may be a bit more difficult task for our religion:  Unitarian Universalist.  For many of us, this may be the first time we're attending church as adult, contributing members.  Many of us grew up in Christian churches, but strayed from them as we entered adulthood - for whatever reason.  Now we've found a very accepting church, but we're just not sure about membership etiquette & that can be intimidating to some.  It was somewhat for my husband & I, but luckily there was a New Member official who was there to answer all our questions and put us at ease.

Do parents teach their kids about church membership etiquette?  I don't know.  There is a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that I never knew about.  Until a few years back, I had no idea that there was this concept of 10% tithing in most churches.  All I ever saw regarding finances was the collection plate passed around, and you never wanted to be the kid who let it pass by them, so you always had 50cents or a dollar to throw in.  But as far as making regular contributions beyond the plate - who knew?  Not me.  

I really had to work through this tithing notion in my head when I first learned about it.  I just couldn't believe you had to pay to go to church!  But I'm one of those thinkers, who has to take something into my brain, let it swirl and settle, before it all makes sense.  

Churches need much more than the collection plate to make ends meet - just like any other business.  Looking at it from a business model, you work in the church or give money to the church in exchange for the worship services they provide.  We don't generally like to think of church in that way because this is our spiritual place, where we can escape such things.  But that doesn't mean the church administration can run away from bills.

Well beyond the issue of church staff compensation, there are many expenses that we take for granted that the church has the burden to bare:  building/land mortgage, electricity, water, sewer, trash collection, phone service, internet service, building maintenance, ink/paper supplies, furniture R&M, Bibles/Books/Hymnals, etc.  This can add up quickly & those few dollars we throw in the collection plate is really just bonus.  Let's not forget all those members clammoring for new services and new buildings which require fundraisers that even regular contributions can't always make a dent in financially.

It takes not only faith & humanity to make a church work - it takes money.  That's just a fact, and we have to deal with it.  So whether you're a member or a "friend" of a church, don't take it for granted that all these expenses are taken care of - share in the financial responsibility of this place which brings you comfort.  

I guarantee you that giving will bring you even more joy than taking ever did!

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