October 6, 2011

Something to Talk About

Filed under: Children and Families,Financial Commitment — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 6:31 pm

Following on yesterday’s posting about tithing and proportional giving, I would like to talk more specifically about the “modern tithe.”

In some traditions, the expectation is that members of the congregation will give 10% of their net income to the church, with any giving in the community offered in addition to that amount. In other traditions, the expectation is that all giving will be through the church, trusting in the church’s outreach ministry to distribute gifts in the community.

A more common approach among Episcopalians is the modern tithe, the setting aside of 10% of our net income for total giving in the congregation, community, nation, and world. As a baptized member of the body of Christ, the Episcopal Church not only welcomes you, it trusts you.

I am married to a wonderfully faithful, generous man. He gives to people on the street. He buys popcorn and cookies and gift wrap and wreaths from every kid in the neighborhood. When we met, he had no clue what he gave, or to whom he gave it. He drove me crazy.

Gradually, I drew him in. He genuinely struggled with first fruits giving, but he never gave up on my conviction. The turning point came when he concluded that we simply could not afford to tithe; he couldn’t justify giving away at the top if it meant borrowing from savings at the bottom.

I calmly assured him that the allocation of his salary was up to him, but that I would continue to tithe from my salary. I will never forget the look of transformation that passed across his face. Years later he told me that my witnessing to tithe was among the greatest gifts he had received in our marriage.

With the amount understood, we still had to negotiate where it would go. And from that was born one of my absolute favorite family traditions—the annual tithe allocation meeting.

Once a year, we gather at the table with snacks, beverages, and a spreadsheet to talk about the modern tithe as an expression of our individual and shared values and priorities.

We begin by calculating our projected tithe for the coming year, understanding that anything we agree to in this meeting can be adjusted if our income increases or decreases during the year.

Next we allocate half of the funds available to our local congregation—the first half of the first fruits.

And then the fun begins—and it really is fun.

These conversations have been rich opportunities to learn about one another and to share our spiritual journeys—it doesn’t matter how long we’ve been married, there’s still something one of us didn’t know about the other. And because we were older when we married, some of our gifts have histories that pre-date our family. It is a wonderful time of storytelling, remembering, and at time, grieving a change in circumstances that removes a ministry from the list or reduces a gift. (In this meeting we negotiate both beneficiaries and amounts for our giving.)

When our family increased from two tithers to three, we learned to listen even more closely to how the Holy Spirit lives and moves in one another. Our daughter did not come to the table through a rite of passage. Rather, she wandered into the room one year and asked what we were doing. I pulled her onto my lap, explained that “Daddy and I are deciding how we will use our Helping Other People money this year.” When she replied, “Don’t I get to say my ideas?” we knew she was ready—and she had some really great ideas and insights!

Is the spreadsheet set in stone? No. We revisit it periodically through the year, making adjustments for changes in income and tracking where we have or have not yet fulfilled our commitments. In years when income increases unexpectedly, we talk together about which gifts might be increased. Likewise, in years when income decreases unexpectedly, we work together to prune the allocations in a way that preserves our over all priorities.

As for my husband, we do honor his spontaneous generosity. He gets a small sum to use throughout the year for church fairs, community events, and kids who come to the door.

It’s a conversation. It’s a holy, funny, serious, poignant conversation. And with the possible exception of putting up the Christmas tree, it’s my favorite Sunday afternoon of the year.


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