On Tithing, Money and Faith

This is an edited version of a sermon I gave this spring at the Mid-Columbia Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, a congregation I served as minister this last year. UUs are known for being great about sexuality education, but money can be much harder to talk frankly about. Hence, this sermon.
Growing up, our family never worried for money, as far as I knew. We were upper middle class—my parents still live in the suburban, 4-bedroom house in which I grew up; I took cello, ice skating, piano, and ballet lessons; we went on long road trip vacations in the summertime; we ate out occasionally.
My parents gave me my first allowance when I was about 6 years old: a whopping 50 cents each week! They used it to teach me about money. 10 cents had to go into saving, 5 cents had to go to our church, and the rest I could use as I pleased. The 5 cents, they told me, was called “tithing”—giving 1/10th to the church. So each week, I’d put a nickel from my allowance into a special little envelope to put in the offering basket Sunday morning. It wasn’t a big deal. It was simply something we did. Thus was my introduction to tithing, a practice I still have.
When it came time to consider colleges, I remember going out to lunch with my parents to have “The Money Talk.” Getting to college depended on the financial-aid package and what your family could afford, and I figured I’d be looking at significant loans. My parents didn’t talk openly about our family’s finances, so I was nervous about this conversation…only to have my parents say, “Oh no, Grandma and Grandpa have money for you—you won’t need any loans.”
Wow! This was not what I expected from my penny-pinching, raised-in-the-Great-Depression grandparents. Not only did my grandparents pay for my college education, but they also set up a trust fund of about $150,000. What a blessing! Those funds, even though they’re gone, are what made it possible for me to serve MCUUF this past year as a half-time minister, something I couldn’t afford to do if I had hundreds of dollars of loan payments due every month, as many of my colleagues do.
But that inheritance also brought shame, secrecy, and fear of judgment. Suddenly, I felt different from my peers. Was this money really mine? I didn’t do anything to earn it or deserve it. But as a young adult, this money became mine to steward, regardless of where it came from.
There’s another piece of my family’s money story that gets too easily buried: my grandparents were able to accumulate this money not simply through their hard work, but also because of white, Christian privilege that enabled their ancestors to purchase farmland; privilege that gave them both the opportunity to get college degrees, which opened the door to my grandpa’s WPA job through a New Deal program. In short, it was this unearned privilege combined with hard work and frugal living that allowed my mother’s family to realize the American Dream. Their hard-earned money then accumulated through my grandfather’s smart (and lucky) investing in the stock market, whose profits come at the expense of other workers and the environment around the globe. And then, after decades of frugal spending, of wearing holes in shoes before buying new ones, my grandparents gave me the incredible gift of an inheritance.
For the first several years, my shame and fears were a tight clamp when it came to money talk. But shame and fear aren’t healthy—they eat us up inside. Then I got involved with Resource Generation and learned to talk about my money story, to be transparent about what I had and the complexities of having it. I began to develop a plan for the money: to use some of it for seminary and to give a good chunk of it away.
The trust fund is gone now. It has transformed from money in the bank into a seminary education, and tens of thousands of dollars to amazing organizations and my church. My inheritance also left another legacy: I learned how to talk about money. I learned how to sit in the discomfort of hard conversations about money and class without running away.
At MCUUF, the congregation that I served last year, our members come from a wide variety of class backgrounds. Some choose to live communally and close to the earth. We have those who have built their own homes—small and large. We have those who have lost jobs or live on a fixed retirement income for whom paying the monthly bills is a struggle. We have many who are generous with their time, their treasure, and their talent in the congregation, and throughout the local community.
MCUUF has class diversity, and we also have a shared value that community matters. We share longing to live in a world where everyone’s needs are met. A world where everyone gives and receives as able, so that we live and breathe justice, equity, and compassion. We share a value that everyone deserves enough, because every person is holy—in Unitarian Universalist-speak: every person has inherent worth and dignity, regardless of the status of their bank account (or lack thereof).
For many of us, our financial situation changes throughout our lives. Our class status is complicated. Our income fluctuates with job loss, a new professional degree, divorce, or a lucky break. I’m glad that the Occupy movement has brought wealth inequality to the spotlight, and yet for almost everyone, our money story is so much more complicated than being in the 1% or the 99%.
I no longer identify as a rich kid with wealth to give away, but rather as a new parent supporting our family of 3 on a salary that’s more than I’ve ever earned, yet not really enough to pay for health insurance for all of us in expensive Washington, DC. As my partner and I adjust to both the lack of sleep and the expenses of parenting our adorable 4-week old, I sometimes wish I had some of that trust fund left. Gosh knows it would be helpful in the next few years! But I don’t regret spending that money on my values.
Even now, in my post-trust-fund life, I can still tithe. And I can encourage my congregants and friends, regardless of our fluctuating incomes, to tithe too. Tithing is different from giving away part of the inheritance that I had, which was certainly more than enough. Tithing is an ongoing act that reminds me that what’s mine is not all mine, that I am part of a larger community that needs me, that needs my time, treasure, and talent.
I have tithed 10% of my income every year of my adult life (even moreso in the years when I’m on top of my personal bookkeeping!). I give to organizations trying to build the world we dream about— a world of fairness and equity, art and creativity, a world of Enough. And part of my tithe goes to my church, because church has been a place that sustains me, a place that challenges and supports me to live better, and a place committed to building beloved community within the church and in the wider world.
Giving takes me outside of myself, my problems, my needs. Once I’ve set aside the money to give, the actual giving feels good. It’s fun to write checks to support amazing groups!
What I appreciate about tithing is that I don’t angst over the amount. 10%. That’s it. Done. Then I get to do the fun part of disbursing that 10%. Different faiths have varying calculations for how much to give. The tithe works for me. Some use a rule of thumb that if you can write your church pledge or your other donations added up in one lump sum check from your bank account, you’re not giving enough. It’s true—I can’t write a check for 10% of my income, or even the 3% I give to my church.
“When practiced consistently and intentionally,” writes author Lauren Tyler Wright, “giving can become a spiritual discipline and, even more, a sacred art. When we practice giving regularly and understand that our motivation has some connection outside of ourselves, we have the opportunity to radically transform our lives, the life of another person, even the lives of entire communities…” This is at the core of my faith.
We must give of our time, talent, and treasure in the service of a vision. And we must come together to reflect on that giving. Tell stories. Learn from each other, and keep going. That’s how we build movements and sustain communities.
My financial status now is in transition. For the first time I can remember, I’m taking a 6-month sabbatical from tithing while we manage a tight cash flow and the organizational feat of making a cross-country move with a newborn, and downsize from two incomes to one. But I look forward to returning to tithing after we get settled. I wonder at what point we’ll give our our newborn a 50 cent allowance, and to which organization or congregation she’ll give hir first nickel tithe.