Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Faith Works 5-8-10

Jeff Gill


Not quite "I gave at the office," but close



Giving is often a faith community subject in the fall, but not so much in the spring.


Which makes this a great time to bring it up, actually.


April is usually a time when we think about taxes, and May has just opened with a major set of levy votes for police, fire, school, and library causes, along with mental health & recovery programming going up for a local levy vote for the first time.


As we all (I'm pretty sure now) know, while the libraries and some local schools came through this "democratic" process with the support they need to maintain programs and staffing at current levels, much was voted down. The economy is obviously a major factor in these votes, where often very vocal "no" voters will say they support the idea or purpose involved (county parks & green space, vocational education, counseling for low income families), but that their personal situation and that of their friends and families makes a tax increase, especially on property, an unbearable burden.


Which may be true. I will note, with cautious skepticism, that I've worked on levy committees in West Virginia and Ohio over the last twenty years, and it's never been a good time to pass a levy, and it's always a tough time for people on fixed incomes. Just saying "well, but now is really a bad time" sounds valid the first few times you hear it, but when you always do, it doesn't represent the compelling case you once thought it was.


Individual congregations have to face a similar situation when it comes to giving and launching new efforts, starting outreach initiatives, or just maintaining staff salaries. In good times and bad, there's always someone who will say at board or council or cabinet or vestry (however your fellowship rolls, leadership-structure-wise), "hey, my pay has been cut and/or my benefits are decreasing."


Or "many of our people are on fixed incomes." It's not that these statements aren't true, but if one or two people saying it becomes definitive, then you will never grow, expand, or progress in any areas, and your staff will stagnate at best, or lose value in their compensation, broadly defined.


My use of "scare quotes" around "democratic" processes above can apply to both church life and our peculiar civic polity in Ohio for school and other public service funding (watersheds can just impose wide-ranging assessments, but schools have to keep using up volunteer and staff time to run election campaigns on a steadily backwards running treadmill?).


Even when levies pass, people say "well, not everyone voted on this, it was just [blank] percent." When they fail, adherents say "it's too bad only [blank] percent of the district can vote this down."


Now, in church life, I have to admit something: democracy is not an ultimate value in most faith matters. Someone once said "One person and God equals a majority," and we can all think of situations where we wouldn't want a majority vote to determine divine guidance. So I am not at all opposed to, but I am quite cautious about assuming that voting is a good way for a congregation to cast a vision. Leadership is needed, leaders to form and present and explain a vision for where the community is going.


On the other hand, there is a blunt force democratic aspect, however your church organizes leadership, hierarchical or congregational, to weekly and monthly giving. Make no mistake about it, that's a vote. Vision casting has to take that into account, which is better than churches getting direct tax subsidies as in state churches such as most of Europe still has. The offering is a rolling referendum, which like polling, can't replace vision, but it should inform that process.


Tax season is often a time when each of us can assess our own giving with blunt accuracy, looking in our own giving mirror. The Obamas gave 6% of their adjusted gross income to charity last year, which is pretty good considering that the average churchgoer in America last year gave 2.2%. I should note that the Bushes gave 18% their last year in office, but Obama also directed his entire Nobel award cash to charity.


Joe Biden apparently just dropped a few twenties in the plate as it was passed when he attended, putting him right with the average guy, as he likes to say, which in this case is under 1%. Where are you in this spectrum? How are you "voting" on vision?


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he's committed to tithing but thinks there's nothing wrong with aiming for 20%. Tell him how you shape your churches' vision at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.