Generosity and Debt

At the Summit on Economic Sustainability of the Ministry, the discussion inevitably turned to "generosity."

I was a bit crabby at that point in the discussion; maybe my blood sugar was too low or too high. I do worry that sometimes the only time we talk about generosity is when the church is asking people for money. "You should be more generous, and give me more money" is not going to wear well over time. The call to be generous is for all parts of life, not just for the religious institution.

My reflection since the Summit has been about student debt loads, and that has turned my thoughts to the role of debt for all of us. We are an indebted people. Not only student load debt, but credit card debt, auto loan debt and mortgages. And we are disciplined by our debts. We all know that parody version of the seven dwarves' song, "I Owe, I owe, It's off to Work I go." We see this, in our little UU context. Newly fellowshipped ministers are disciplined by their debts away from risky, experimental, missional ministries.

We are disciplined as a nation by our national debt, even though the majority is bonds held by US financial institutions. It is because of the national debt, we are told, that we cannot fix our infrastructure, rebuild our cities, lift all out of poverty. And consider the people of Greece, who are being forced into brutal austerity because of their debt.

Being in debt puts a person on the precipice of shame. You had to borrow money, which proves that you are in need, which is shameful, just to start. Now you have a car, a pair of shoes, a house, an education that you didn't really pay for, so you are kind of pretending to be more than you are, which is shameful. And finally, you made a promise to pay the debt back, so until you do, your honor is in question. To fail to pay it back, that is really shameful: a shame that goes deeply to your fundamental character. You are not a good person anymore. And asking other people to help you get of out debt also makes you morally suspect.

Indebtedness is the emotional landmine of people's personal finances.

First of all, we have to speak the truth about this and break the link between shame and debt. Debt is a fact of life now. Indebtedness is not a sign of personal failure. I would even go so far as to say that indebtedness is most pervasive form of economic exploitation in our country today.

Secondly, we need change the way we talk about giving and generosity. And our talk of generosity and giving does not acknowledge indebtedness at all. Our giving guides talk about giving as a percentage of what a person makes. But the most important fact about people's situation is how much they owe.

Perhaps we should be looking a giving in relationship to people's debt/income ratio, which measures how much of one's monthly income is dedicated to debt service. (There are other ways of measuring indebtedness; mortgage companies do this all the time.) Most people run between 10% and 25%, although some younger people in high real estate markets run much higher.

Perhaps asking for percentage of people's income after debt service would be more realistic, and acknowledge people's real situations.


  1. A good topic to consider; thank you.

  2. Joel Miller10:25 PM

    What would a Jubilee Year look like for us?

  3. Thanks Tom. I think I'm the one who disagreed with you and said we need to talk more about generosity - not less. A lot more. We need to talk a lot more about debt and money too. I don't think generosity needs to be curtailed because of debt. I learned as much, if not more, about generosity when I was in debt and counseled people in debt as I have in my religious community. I think we have a huge opportunity here!

  4. Tom -

    I appreciate your words. I think that generosity and stewardship are words and ideas we should DEEPLY discuss and consider in our congregations. I do agree that we need to move away from speaking about generosity strictly as it pertains to annual budget drives and asking people for money, but that does not mean that bit of information needs to be lost. Additionally, I hate the idea of asking people to give based on any type of percentage of income scale. In our congregation, we focus more % of congregation giving than on individual amounts. Of course we have a goal for our ABD, but the participation rate is our larger stress point because it focus less on actual $ amount and more on collective/vested interest in our congregation. The idea of stewardship is moving away from asking for $ once a year at ABD time and moving towards understanding generosity as a yearlong process, through time, talent, and treasure. Be generous with your time, your talent, and your treasure. Balance them as you see fit with what works with your particular situation.

    Just my $0.02

  5. I appreciate your comments, all. It may be that some congregations are able to message their annual budget drives with a message about generosity. It seems that I can remember the shift about 15 years ago when budget drive messaging shifted from "pay your fair share' to "live a life of generosity." I don't think that messaging shift really moved the needle that much.
    My larger point, though, is that debt not income is the primary fact of middle class people's thinking about their personal situation. And that fact changes the choices people face: instead of spending for myself vs spending for others, it turns into 'being responsible (debt under control) vs. spending for others. It shifts the apparent moral equation.
    To be generous when in debt requires a different non-shamed based understanding of debt. it is both a normal part of life under this system, and a systemic method of keeping money under the control of finance capital; it is a means of exploitation. To be generous in a debt system is to be defiant of the system -- to channel resources from centralized control and different forms of community control.


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