Tuesday, May 22, 2007

An Obvious Point, but needs to be said

UU's should encourage tithing.

UU leaders, ministers, staff, and lay, all agree that it is crucial to build "a culture of generosity" among Unitarian Universalists if we are ever going to do any of the things to which we aspire. In fact, it is the one thing that we agree on. Everyone from the flattest of the flat earth Humanists, to the most crusty nostalgic Christian, to the grooviest New Age hipster, to the UU comrade fresh from the barricades, all decry our legendary cheapness.

So why doesn't someone start thinking about how to encourage and recognize those who tithe? After all, we have national programs designed to encourage all sorts of other good behaviors, and to recognize those who are good examples. One gets all sorts of ribbons to wear on one's name badge, and one's congregation can be listed in lists in the UU World for all sorts of good things. One can even have little icons next to your congregations link if you are welcoming, or accessible. So, we are not afraid to make distinctions. So why are individual tithing not encouraged or recognized. Why isn't anybody thinking about this.

OK, I will.

1. We should define a suitable level of tithing. I think that the formula of 10% of income going to charity, and half of that going to the local church, and other UU institutions and organizations is a good measure. I think tithing should be definable by looking at the relationships between certain numbered lines on one's income tax return.

2. There should be national definition of tithing and national emphasis on tithing. So, it is not just old Rev. So and So trying to get a raise.

3. And there should be some way that tithers can be, at their own voluntary choice, be recognized as tithers. ANd we ought to encourage people to seek that recognition. Every person who tithes publicly helps set a new higher expectation for others.

When I consider my own congregation -- I think that the main effect of having tithing recognized as a general category -- even if no one was actually identified as a tither -- would be to turn our thoughts away from the "angels" as being the financial backbone of the church to the tithers.

We have people who I suspect are tithers in my congregation. I am close, but not yet. But I know that our largest givers are not anywhere close to being tithers -- they are just very wealthy people. We, of course, do not do anything to honor these large givers and do not recognize them, but just talk about them all the time, either in gratitude or envious resentment. We would be healthier if the financial contribution that was the projected ideal was the tither -- who might not be wealthy, but was just generous. The message of tithing is that anyone can do it; the message of angels is that only a tiny few can do it, and they better not expect anything in return.


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5 comments:

Anonymous said...

A few thoughts about this, speaking as a relatively well-off UU lay person:

1) A very respectable principle of equity suggests that the wealthier members of a congregation ought to give at least as much of their income on a percentage basis as others. At the same time, there are other kinds of equity at stake here. In particular, once a household starts contributing a double-digit percentage of a congregation's annual budget, that might well distort that household's relationship with the congregation. That doesn't mean that a particular individual runs around saying, "Do things my way! I keep the lights on around here!" Even if the household tries to keep its giving very quiet, a UU congregation is not a branch of the CIA -- people are going to know what's up and feel pressure to defer to larger givers, which is unpleasant for everyone and perhaps the givers most of all. Other issues arise as well: is it fair that one household is worried that if it leaves a congregation, for whatever reason, the congregration will go into deficit?

2) "I think tithing should be definable by looking at the relationships between certain numbered lines on one's income tax return." I have heard this said from time to time. With all due respect, I don't think you have a clear idea what my tax return looks like. (It's a few hundred pages long, for one thing.)

2a) More generally, I would note that people in business for themselves may have obligations to reinvest part of their income in their businesses or to hold back some of their income for a rainy day, and none of that shows up on a tax return.

2b) Still more generally, it seems to me that some of the UU talk about giving is built on unrealistic ideas about wealth. One fellow congregant once expressed to me the view that no one in our congregation could be making more than X, and anyone who made that much money must be living in unimaginable luxury and is probably engaged in some sort of criminal activity. X, at that time, was about a third of my household income.

3) There is significant national variation in the cost of living. A family making $50,000 in Omaha is living a different lifestyle than a family making $50,000 in New York City. I don't really know how comparisons across congregations (and a form of congregational tithing recognition would implicitly be such a comparison) should take those facts into account but I think they might need to. For example, the UUA giving guidelines don't address that issue.

4) It would be interesting to know what most people really do give to their congregation as a percentage of household income: I'd guess that the number is something like 1%. Would it make more sense to promote a more acheivable target (say, 2%-3%)?

Chance said...

I'd be much more comfortable with the Muslim model of zakat. (3%)

Anonymous said...

We have had excellent results with pledge guidelines that top out at 3.5%. We surveyed the leadership to find the maximum level that could be broadly accepted by the leadership. We have a leadership pledging event ahead of the pledge drive so the leaders are obviously out front, setting an example for the congregation.

Our wealthiest members give no more than about 3% of our budget in a single pledge. This "rule" has never been formalized, but I believe that it would be appropriate to cap the maximum pledge to avoid depending too much on any one "angel".

Kim Hampton said...

Having been raised in the tradition I was, I continue to be amazed at how UU churches seem to have so many money porblems, yet on the whole have incomes way above average; and yet those churches with members whose incomes are lower than average have fewer money problems.

But this all comes down to expectations. UU churches, on the whole, are low expectation churches. And their members live up to those expectations.

High expectation churches get more because they expect more.

jbbaab said...

It is so hard to define the tithe for everyone. There are so many aspects about it that's everyone's worried about. That's why i chose to give freely.