talking turkey about the tithe

coinsLet’s talk turkey.

I assume you’re familiar with that phrase: it means let’s actually talk about money, let’s get to the particulars of an agreement, let’s do this deal.

Today, I want to talk turkey about the tithe. The tithe (a pledge of 10% of one’s income) is a life-changing thing and something that I think we’re all called to do, or at least reach towards. Most of us aren’t there yet, of course. But we’d be dropping the ball if we didn’t at least talk about it.

This Sunday I actually talked about the tithe in my sermon. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before because rightly or wrongly I’ve assumed that it was improper to do so. As I started talking about it (and believe me, feeling a little hot under the collar) it occurred to me that it’s worth deflating some of the reasons why we secretly think that talking about the tithe is something that as a priest I’m not actually supposed to do.

The tithe is not an obligation. It is a gift (for the giver). It’s the means by which we put money in its place, by which we set ourselves apart as committed first to the Kingdom of God. It’s a way to find peace in a consumption-driven world. Giving generously is a joyful thing to do.

The tithe is one of the greatest charisms the church has ever given to its people and to its community, yet today feels much more like the electrified third rail when mentioned from the pulpit. How did this happen?

Let’s look at some of the reasons why we aren’t ACTUALLY supposed to talk about the tithe:

No one can afford to tithe in today’s economy.

The economy does stink in many ways, that’s true. Yet historically we have a pretty high standard of living. One problem is that many of us commit ourselves early in adulthood to a standard of living (often based on consumption and debt) that makes a later decision to tithe seem heroic, if not unattainable.

We’ll tell people who don’t tithe that their pledge isn’t good enough.

I worry a lot about this one. Even though I feel nothing but gratitude for any gift or pledge, I’m afraid that by mentioning the tithe that I send a mixed signal. So I often stop short of mentioning it at all.

But real as that risk might be, it shouldn’t keep us from talking about the life-changing gift that the tithe is meant to be. This taboo may actually help us, though, if it keeps stewardship leaders and clergy sensitive to the fact that a gift of any size can be profoundly generous and sacrificial. It’s our job to teach proportional giving, but we must remember that we never know the whole story.

That said, I do remember the first time I made what I thought was a substantial pledge, of something like 4 or 5%. I was really darn proud of myself for hitting that mark, and even though I knew it wasn’t a tithe I didn’t feel at all like I was coming up short or disappointing anyone. I just figured it was one step on a journey that would take some time.

Nobody likes a show-off.

The best people to talk about tithing are people who aren’t me (the priest). But we’re afraid that this will look like showing off, which leads to the unfortunate perception that

Nobody actually tithes anymore.

Which is frankly not true. I don’t know anything about the rate of tithing or even how that compares to previous generations. But I do fear that if the current tithers continue to keep a dignified silence about how proportional giving has strengthened their faith, a great many people will never hear why it’s important.

The tithe has become, oddly enough, something we don’t speak about in church. To do so would break the taboo about speaking in specifics about money. But remember this about taboos: a taboo (especially one about money) can be thought of as a polite and non-threatening way that your wealth keeps you subservient to it. Never, ever trust a taboo, no matter how much it wants to sooth your assumptions. It isn’t your friend.

Taboos like this keep us from ever mentioning things like the tithe. The tithe is a spiritual discipline, even a vocation of sorts. It is one of the most powerful means of real transformation that our tradition offers.

Yet somehow it’s become impolite to mention in church. Isn’t that weird?


About bernardowens

I'm an Episcopal priest in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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