How to Fight Classism In UU Churches -- Tithing

Right now, most of our churches depend on particularly generous givers.  Let's call them our "angels".  Often they are older people who give a larger dollar amount.  Both they and the church leadership do not like to call attention to this fact, so they are never publicized, nor honored.  It means that the most important financial relationships that sustain the church are secret.  Yet everyone knows what is going on.  They have covert power.

Yet, these people are often not the most generous givers, because while the dollar amount is higher than others, they are giving a smaller percentage of their income or assets.

This system is a class-based system, giving more power to the members of the church who have the higher position in the class system of the general society.  And like the general society, this class power is hidden and disguised.  It means that our congregations conform to the class system, not counter it.

Tithing establishes a different standard: by explicitly creating an explicit standard based on commitment to the church, not on social class, it establishes a counter-cultural norm.  That's how you fight classism.

Here is what I would recommend.

1. How to Start a Tithe System. Establish through discussion with the most committed members of the congregation a standard of tithing. Start with the 5 families who seem to be closest to a tithe right now. The ideal mechanism for transitioning to a tithe would be that 10% of the congregation makes a public statement that they have voluntarily agreed to meet a commonly held standard of tithing, and that they invite anyone else to come along.

I would avoid a general discussion.  Why have people who do not intend to reach this level of generosity have influence over the discussion?  I would certainly avoid a by-law change, which opens it up to a general vote.  Why have cheap people have a vote on the level of generosity of generous people?

2. Defining the Tithe:   There all kinds of way to define a tithe.  You can have different standards for different life stages, a lower percentage of younger people. A percentage of net worth for retired people. You can have a path for growing the congregation into the tithe, saying "this year our standard is 2%, and in two years it will be 5% and in ten years it will be 10%."  I would think that your starting definition would include some families already and be within reach of some more.
3. Verification:   Once the standards are clear, the enforcement is on the honor-system.  I would use the tax year as the standard unit of measure and make the designation of the tithe retroactive, and make the designation after April 15.   (If I can say that my contribution in 2012 were x% of my 2012 income, I am on the list -- even if I didn't announce that intention at the beginning of 2012.)

4.  What do I get for Tithing:  Those who meet the standard are publicly listed and honored, without dollar amounts.  Tithing does not equal membership (because that would require a by-law change!) By not linking it membership, you also avoid the equation some want to make between volunteering and contributing.  Honor your dedicated volunteers of time and effort some other way.

I used to wish the UU World would annually list everyone who meets their churches' reasonable standards of tithing.  But I rather keep it voluntary and self-directed: the churches with tithing systems should buy an ad in the World to announce their tithing members.  Why get anyone else involved in the decision? Why make the UU World staff decide?

5.  What about non-tithing members of the congregation?  They should keep giving at levels which with they are comfortable.  But as Chris Rock says, "what do you want? A cookie?"

I would like to eliminate pledge campaigns, pledge-based budgeting etc.  They are also mechanisms for giving cheap people with low commitment to the church power to act as a brake on the congregation, but that is another post in what I guess will be a series:  How to fight classism in UU congregations !


  1. I agree with much of what you say about generosity and "cheapness," but I'm not sure how this proposal fights classism at all. There is another huge reality here that I would love to have you address, which is the how economic situations vary between households who may make a similar income. One "pledging unit" may make the same amount of dollars as another, and be expected to make the same tithe. But one household may be fairly comfortable retirees and the other have two kids in college and an infirm grandma living under the same roof. I would like to see us address the concept of "units," too, as a single person I have always found it interesting that I would be expected to contribute as much as a two-income household. More questions where these came from, but that'll do for now.

  2. PB, people have to figure out what are equivalent levels of generosity given life stage and circumstance. We liberal religionists haven't even started that discussion yet. Maybe there is some way to easily determine what is "discretionary" income. Maybe some way to adjust for life circumstance.
    But the way that it fights classism is that is establishes a different standard than quantity of dollars given. Finally, not every body will be a tither, even people who love the church may not be able to afford it at this point in their lives. I would hope that no more than a half of any congregation would be giving at this level -- otherwise, the congregation isn't reaching enough people who are developing their faith. BTW, I would disconnect membership status from money -- to get out of the Expectations game. And you're right -- the "fair share per unit" system discriminates against singletons. One more reason why the present system sucks. Think how unfair it would be if we had polygamy.

  3. I completely agree and Lindsay and I have given 10% of our income to charity for many years. Most of it goes to our two congregations (she is a parish minister at one church while I am a community minister at another), with the balance to a handful of other charities that we also support. Recently both congregations have begun to talk about a "half-tithe" as an expectation of membership in good standing, and we support that (even though we give more). This came to be because of the work of Mike Durall of the CommonWealth Consulting Group, and I highly recommend his work.

  4. Tom,
    There's no perfect system, is there? For the years, the UUA has promulgated graduated Fair Share guidelines that are indexed according to household income, and I'm not sure how a one-size-fits-all tithe (whether 10%, 5% or some other number) is an improvement. What I'd like to see is more transparency. Right now, the minister is usually expected to announce his or her own "pace setting pledge," but no other contributions are made public as a rule. Imagine how it would change the culture of giving if we could have an open conversation about money. My dream is to have church members sitting around a table, much like a family, figuring out a reasonable budget and determining together how much each participant needs to give to reach the needed sum. Secrecy would be the exception, so that most people would have a pretty good idea how much their neighbors were giving to the common enterprise. And because money talks, my guess is that those who were giving a large dollar amount, as well as those giving lesser sums but perceived as extraordinarily generous for their means, would have greater weight attached to their opinions.

  5. RevSpirits: yes there is no perfect system. So there needs to be a real discussion. But we can't have that discussion because we tie it to membership and that means everyone has to be involved. No one is going to vote for a membership requirement that they don't plan on meeting -- which is why we continue to be a very low expectations church.

    Liberal Religious Leaders have been calling for transparency for even longer than proportionate "fair share" with equally discouraging results. The main group against transparency are wealthier, but cheap, pledgers, who are among the most powerful members of the church. It seems that they have figured out the minimum amount to give that results in the maximum amount of influence.

  6. Just starting the conversation is where we could use help.

  7. Tithing would literally change everything about the way our churches work. With a percentage of people tithing and talking about it, others would be inspired to at least begin the conversation; more money in the budget would disrupt the normalized assumption that the best we can be is considerably less than the world needs. Rather than shoring up endless pledge drives, our religious leaders (lay and professional) could talk about giving as a moral, even spiritual commitment, rather than a financial choice. And if people were tithing to their churches, churches might tithe to their Association. Talk about changing everything.
    In my experience, the most generous givers come from different generations, and they don't always want power. They do, however, often feel lonely and wonder if they are the only ones holding the place together. A religious conversation about money is the place to begin.
    BTW, the UUA Suggested Fair Share Giving Guide includes good guidelines for adjusting household giving to reflect financial realities, so everybody can "find" themselves on the chart. The problem is that they don't hear enough about why it matters that they do.

  8. Anonymous10:40 PM

    Good comments, all. I do tend to like the UUA "Fair Share Giving Guide" -- which is worth mentioning, since I usually manage to find something, somehow, to criticize in UUA materials.

  9. Good stuff Tom and I think you're leaving out maybe the most important part of creating a culture/practice of tithing - sharing personal testimony. Tithing has been the most transformative spiritual practice of my life. I don't think my wife and I would have started doing it if it we hadn't heard stories about how it worked and, most importantly, changed people's lives almost every Sunday during the intro to the offering. (Of course this was a non-UU congregation.) I find that more of our people tithe than you would think and when given a chance to talk about how it's changed their lives their stories are powerful.

    1. I couldn't agree more, Don. My guess is that many of our people have testimony to give about how dealing with money has become a spiritual practice. Not to mention a justice issue. How can we open up that conversation?

  10. I didn't know until I saw the above comments that there even WAS a UUA Suggested Fair Share Giving Guide. Thanks!

  11. I want to echo Don's & Patricia's comments. Personal testimony and relationship-building are key elements of any successful system, particularly when this isn't just a UU problem, but a wider cultural issue of when it's okay or not to talk money out loud/in so-called mixed company. In my home congregation I can remember few moments or phrases from the many wonderful ministers who have graced the pulpit, but I remember disproportionately the testimonies of my fellow congregants, the franker the better.


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