Is it okay to give to other missions instead of my local church?”

We’re in the last month of the year. People are paying closer attention to their bank and credit card accounts. Some are lamenting rampant consumerism in America. Others are already making plans for how they’ll handle their money well in 2018. In light of that, each week for the rest of the year, I’m sharing an article on money and generosity for your consideration. If you’ve followed this blog for several years, you may recognize some of these. They were helpful for me to review again. I hope they will be for you, too.

This post is a response to a reader question:

Hi Teddy,

I have a question about giving. My family has always appreciated the discipline of generosity. So we wanted to give generously––beginning with a tithe as minimum––but we DIDN’T give it back into our local church. We felt no conscience about this, but when my senior pastor found out, he was very displeased about it.

As I think about becoming a senior pastor in the future, I’m less concerned that my staff tithe to the church and more concerned that they are generous in other kingdom ways that expand beyond a mere tithe.

As of now, I could direct most of my giving somewhere besides the church without having a conscience issue SO LONG AS my family is being generous TO THE BODY as a whole.

Maybe that’s the question — where is the line between the local body and the larger body of Christ? Why does one seem to demand priority in our giving?

What a great question! Thanks for asking. I certainly relate to this. We give to several missions outside our local church. It would be hard not to. There are a lot of great missions / missionaries we believe in, and it’s fun to be a part of what they’re doing. We don’t necessarily separate out “tithing” to the church and “giving” to other places, so I’ll just talk in terms of giving. And let me commend you for considering “tithe” (10%) your minimum and then giving more. The vast majority of American households have the capacity and should be giving more than 10%.

In my case, I would have a conscience issue if we weren’t giving––and giving substantially––to our church. I obviously see up-close how the money available affects what our church can do. We depend on people’s generosity to continue the mission. If I believe in our mission, I need to be supporting it with our finances. If I don’t believe in our mission, I need to be working on a short-term “reform or exit” plan.1

That wasn’t always my position. For a couple of years, I didn’t give to our church. I had told our Sr. Pastor at the time that I didn’t believe in how we were spending money and couldn’t contribute to it. In retrospect, I’m embarrassed by that. If I couldn’t believe enough in the church to give it our money, I should have left. (I’m not suggesting I should have actually left in that situation. Rather, I think I should have been giving, despite my disagreements. They weren’t big enough to warrant leaving, so they shouldn’t have been big enough to warrant withholding my money.) Moreover, that position made it difficult for me to lead and to call for others to buy-in. I wasn’t bought-in myself. I didn’t realize the difference that made in my leadership until later.

Jesus’ words, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” have proven more true than I expected (see the linked article on generosity for more on that). Once I started giving, even sacrificially giving, to our church, I began to love the church a lot more. I began to lose my cynicism and feel much more like a full member of the team.

Buying in” doesn’t prevent me from raising questions and challenging certain things. But now I’m doing it as a fully-committed member. For any of us who fashion ourselves “reformers” of any sort, we need to do it as committed members. That kind of commitment doesn’t have to require lock-step agreement. But it requires being in. So long as I was criticizing our use of other people’s money while not contributing myself, I was just standing on the outside throwing stones.

In short, my love and commitment for our church and our mission have followed my money more than they preceded it. If I waited until I was in full agreement with how we spent money, I probably never would have given. (For what it’s worth––I’m very proud of how our church uses money now. Along with the important work we’re doing locally, we send 25% out the door for missions bigger than our own. And we’re in the minority of UMC churches that pay our full apportionments, no matter how tight the budget. How can we ask our members to be faithful with their giving––even in tough times––if we aren’t being faithful to our commitments to the larger body?)

I’m able to ask for other people’s full investment––prayers, presence, gifts, service, witness––because I’m willing to stand at the head of the line, as someone who’s all-in. With that experience, it’s hard for me to imagine leading again if I weren’t all-in myself. That’s not so much advice as personal testimony.

I don’t know if that answers any questions about lines between “local body” and “larger body” giving. I don’t know if I would ever tell anyone else that their local church demands priority. I wouldn’t point to any biblical regulations to say that your church should receive your first-priority giving. But I might point to your personal situation. The mission I’m most directly a part of is First Church’s. So by virtue of participation, First Church’s mission is our top priority. For us, that means it needs to be our top priority for giving, too.

Thanks for giving me a chance to reflect on that. I hope it might be helpful to your situation.

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  1. A note: If I find myself constantly exiting places because of my disagreements with them, it’s probably time to ask if the problem is me––if my standards are too high, or if my initial selection criteria is poor. Beware the person who leaves angry and often.

We’ve always done it that way” –– a phrase to celebrate

Done-it-this-way2

What if this didn’t have to be a bad phrase?

We’re in the last month of the year. People are paying closer attention to their bank and credit card accounts. Some are lamenting rampant consumerism in America. Others are already making plans for how they’ll handle their money well in 2018. In light of that, each week for the rest of the year, I’ll be sharing an article on generosity for your consideration. If you’ve followed this blog for several years, you may recognize some of these. They were helpful for me to review again. I hope they will be for you, too.

Did you make a New Year’s resolution? By the end of the year, research says there will be an 8% chance you’ve kept it.

Eight percent!

Why so low?

Because objects in motion stay in motion. Objects at rest stay at rest. To change their course or get them going, you need external force. And the bigger something is, the more force it requires. You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever tried to push a car.

The same is true of your resolutions. They require change, a new force, willpower. And that means working against nature, working against what you’ve become accustomed to.

They say one of the best times to change a habit is when you move. Why? Because you’re already undergoing major, unavoidable change. While everything is in motion, you can get that new habit in motion, as well. It’s a natural new start. And it’s easier to start that way, than to try to change later.

That’s an important general truth––it’s easier to start that way. Changing later is hard.

Because we’ve always done it that way” is a common phrase in corporate culture and church culture. It’s usually derided as a bad answer. But it’s also human nature. When we start doing things from the beginning, we’re likely to continue doing them.

How to use “we’ve always done it that way” for good

While we usually sneer at “we’ve always done it that way” as an uncritical, unreflective response, it can be just the opposite. Whenever you start something new (job, friendship, marriage, etc.), you have a great opportunity. Ask yourself this question:

Ten years from now, what do we want to look at and say, “We’ve always done it that way”?

Let’s take generosity as an extended example. I’m going to start with a thought about churches and then say something about families and individuals.

NEW CHURCHES & GENEROSITY

Several years ago, I was with the leader of a new church start in another state. They were about two years old at the time. He talked about how they were still trying to get established and hoped to start giving to missions and our denomination’s ministry fund (called apportionments) soon. They weren’t yet giving anything externally. Actually, they were receiving external funds.

That’s not unusual. They were two years old and still trying to get their feet under them.

About five years later, that new church start was still going. They had grown and hired multiple staff. I saw their pastor and asked how they were doing. Not well, it turned out. They had just learned they were losing their external funding, and they weren’t sure how they could survive without it. They were still giving nothing to missions or the denominational fund and still relying on external support.

How does that happen? They had grown and looked to be thriving! But from the beginning they had required every penny for themselves––plus some outside funding. And when their resources grew, their internal need grew equally. So that great ideal of starting to give some away remained just an ideal.

For new church starts, a wild and unusual suggestion: Ask yourselves how you want to be giving ten years from now, and then start giving like that on day one. Because if you choose to use everything internally until there’s “enough to spare,” you’re likely to find yourselves ten years later with still nothing to spare. And if you choose to give generously from day one, in year ten you’ll be able to say, “we’ve just always done it that way.”

First UMC’s model

I’m going to take a moment and celebrate the church and community I have the privilege to be a part of. I don’t intend it to brag––they’ve done this long before I arrived and apart from any of my leadership. I intend it to share a model I’ve learned from and hope others will follow.

First UMC has always been a generous church, and a few years ago, the leadership decided to automate it––no questions asked about whether to be generous. In lean years and good years alike. The church puts 12% of every dollar given immediately into a fund for missions and puts another 13% immediately toward our denominational fund (the full amount requested for that fund) ––which goes to support important missions locally and around the globe. That’s 25% out the door to support missions external to us. It’s automatic, immediate, no questions asked. In a difficult financial year, we don’t make ends meet by cutting our external giving. Not an option for consideration.

Since my community at First UMC (called Offerings) started, our leaders have never wavered on this. 25% goes out the door from the very first day. They want extravagant generosity to be part of our identity, and they don’t want that to start later. If you think you’ll start later, you may never get around to it. Our leaders want to say, “We’ve always done it that way.”

To be certain, this involves sacrifice. If we kept that extra $35,000, I can tell you quickly how we would use it. If we had an extra $70,000, I can tell you how we’d use it. But isn’t that always the case? There’s always something more. Always something more we would like or could use or even think we need. And that’s why if you don’t start giving generously from the beginning, it’s likely you never will. Changing that pattern doesn’t get easier when you get bigger. Remember trying to push that car from stand-still?

FOR INDIVIDUALS

The same goes for individuals. So you’re just getting started at your first job, just barely scraping by? You couldn’t possibly be generous now. That’s for when you have more.

As your resources grow, so will your appetite. If you don’t set a pattern for generosity now, on that just-out-of-college budget, you’ll be shocked that you have just as little to spare on a nice 6-figure salary later. Even more, if you find that right now you need 110% just to get by (i.e. what you’re making isn’t quite enough to sustain, so you take on a bit of debt…), you’re likely to need 110% to get by, even when you’re making 6 figures. Even 7- and 8-figure earners aren’t immune. Sports Illustrated wrote here that 78% of NFL players were under financial stress within two years of retirement. Within 5 years of retirement, 60% of NBA players were broke.

Whether you’re just starting out, or just got a new job or raise… take advantage of anything new and ask whether you can start a new pattern now.

A big challenge for any of you who want extravagant generosity to be part of your identity… It’s 2017. What if you resolved to give away 17% of your income this year? And made it 18% next year? You see where this is going… If that’s impossible for you, then set your own numbers. If you go out for meals or Starbucks, have more than one TV / movie / music subscription, or stand in line for the newest iGadgets (as just a few examples), you should be able to aim for 10% minimum … or think about scaling back some of those other things. [This comes from my own convicting experience. See, “I wish I could give more.”]

Years from now, someone may ask how you––as a church, or a family, or an individual––can be so generous. And I hope you might be able to say, “I don’t know. We’ve just always done it that way.”

I wish I could give more” — On Generosity

We’re entering the last month of the year. People are paying closer attention to their bank and credit card accounts. Some are lamenting rampant consumerism in America. Others are already making plans for how they’ll handle their money well in 2018. In light of that, each week for the rest of the year, I’ll be sharing an article on generosity for your consideration. If you’ve followed this blog for several years, you may recognize some of these. They were helpful for me to review again. I hope they will be for you, too.

I was talking to a friend about generosity a few years ago, when I said, “Yeah, I wish I could give more than I do.”

Maybe you’ve said or thought something similar. That statement tends to mean, “If only I had more, I would give more.”

My friend didn’t let me off quite that easily. He asked, “What do you spend on other things by comparison? How about what you spend eating out?”

It’s nice to have people around who’ll ask the uncomfortable questions.

Our talk progressed to all of those different life luxuries––

  • eating out
  • coffee shops
  • home improvement & decoration
  • electronics
  • clothes
  • travel
  • entertainment in all its forms (Netflix subscriptions, music, movies, concerts, sports events).

Once it was added up, it wasn’t just a significant amount, it was more than what I had given away.

That was a humbling and convicting moment for me.

Now I’m not opposed to every luxury in life. I don’t join the ascetics who say that if I spent a dollar on luxury, it was a dollar I should have given to charity. But when my spending on life’s luxuries outpaces my giving, it’s disingenuous to say, “I wish I could give more than I do.”

We’re so often deceived by the same lie: “If only I had _____, then I’d be really generous.” Because whatever we have is almost enough to satisfy our needs. But when our means grow, our appetites tend to grow in equal proportion.

The Bible’s teaching on money consistently points toward simplicity and generosity. I’m convinced of that. But giving definition to simplicity and generosity is difficult. What exactly does it look like to live simply and give generously?

I don’t have any firm definitions. I’m not sure they exist, or would prove helpful. For me, at least a starting point was to acknowledge that if I’m spending more on my luxuries than I’m giving away, I can’t claim to be living simply and giving generously.

That was the beginning of a change in how I give. It was birthed out of conviction, not love. I don’t know that I could have been called a “cheerful giver.” But something interesting happened in that process…

As I changed some of those patterns, other things changed, too. I became more patient, less cynical, more willing to listen, less demanding of my own way.

Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.“1 It’s interesting that he says it that way. We so often assume that we follow our hearts––“let your heart decide,” “go where your heart leads,” “give where your heart leads…” But Jesus suggests that our hearts don’t always lead the way. When I began to change where my treasure went, it began to change my heart.

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  1. Matt 6:21