Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Striving for the Tithe

Post Author: Askie


Dear Askie,

My church was able to give me a very small cost of living raise this 

year, after many years of absolutely no raise. (The congregation knows what my salary is because our denomination requires this sort of transparency.) We’re a small church, and really just scraping by, so I get it that they can’t pay me well, and I’m incredibly grateful for the work a few people did to push this raise through.

A week after our congregational meeting, the chair of our stewardship committee approached me and asked if this raise means I will be revising my pledge for the year, since, “Your tithe should really be bigger and as the leader of the organization, you need to set the standard.”

Askie, I was flabbergasted. I don’t give much. I’m nowhere near “tithing.” And I do give more than she thinks: I donate a little to some other charities, and I feel like I give by the time I put in for what really amounts to ridiculously low pay for someone with a graduate degree. But is this really any of her business? She doesn’t know the details of my budget. I barely scrape by on my salary (and actually do some extra work in my free time to make ends meet). Do other clergy really manage to tithe at 10%?

Overserving and Undergiving

Dear Over and Under:

In a society that considers money, religion, and sex to be taboo topics of polite conversation, ordination truly opens us up for some very uncomfortable conversations, since if we are doing our jobs right, we are probably talking about at least two of the three regularly. That doesn’t mean that we- or in this case, the people we are in ministry with- get it right all the time, though. Budgets, as President Obama reminded us this week, are moral documents. How we allocate and spend money matters. That goes for your budget, and the church’s.

Forcing the pastor to tithe through low compensation is not right. A wise older pastor once explained it to Askie this way: his church, during a particularly hard year, proposed no cost of living increases to pastors or staff, but proposed a 5% increase in mission giving. One of the younger pastors (who may or may not have been Askie) felt like this was a good moral choice- of course mission giving should go up in a hard year. There were people more in need than the church staff. However, the Reverend Older-and-Wiser pointed out that while it was fine if a pastor or staff member chose to return a cost of living increase to the church as a donation, raising mission giving while not giving employees a cost of living increase essentially forces a tithe on the staff.

Askie is going to assume that you do have a good working budget for yourself (and, if you don’t, hopes you will pull one together). You have to make choices about where your money goes based on your financial obligations and priorities, and based on God’s call to be involved in every part of your life. The same goes for your church.

Tithing and giving are spiritual practices. You need to decide how this practice fits into your life independent of the congregation you serve right now. The best way you can set an example for your congregation is by being comfortable and confident with the role money plays in your life (even if, as it is for many young pastors, you have some appropriate anxiety about how much money you have…but, hey, none of us went into this for the money, right?). Even the tithe, we are reminded, is a benchmark to work towards- not the ultimate achievement of a Christian life.

Given Jesus’ interactions with money changers and usurers throughout the New Testament, going into debt in order to achieve a tithe is not modelling Godly behavior. Tithing also encompasses more than financial giving- talent and time are just as important as treasure when we offer our gifts to God. You might find that you are tithing much more than you think, if you count up all the sabbath days you’ve had to work and never been able to reschedule, or the webmaster duties you picked up because you have the skills and enjoy doing the work. (Askie has a little more to say later, though, about these extra hours and obligations you might be taking on.)

Out of a spirit of Christian charity, we will assume your stewardship committee chair stumbled in her own attempt at talking with you about a taboo subject. Christians should be comfortable talking to each other about money, but not in a demanding, legalistic way. This is made even more complicated when there is an employment relationship involved. You are giving as much as you can right now, and Jesus has your back on this (the widow’s mite, anyone?). You might want to rehearse how you go back to talk to your stewardship committee chair, and use it as a teaching moment for her as she undertakes future stewardship campaigns- if this is how she talks to folks about giving, there might be more than the economy to blame for your stagnant church budget. Connection and open communication are tough, but they are your friends in long-term church work. Perhaps you can explain to her that the raise is welcome, and will make a difference in your budget, but you’ve prayerfully considered the state of your budget and the cost of living raise will have to go elsewhere. (Where it goes is none of her business, but of course you won’t say that.)

If Askie may be so bold, she would like to address another issue that presented itself in your question. If you are working full time for a church and picking up extra work to make ends meet, there might be a justice issue here, too. It may be time to start some conversations with leaders in your church about whether you are being compensated fairly for full time work, and if there are some other, non-monetary options for supplementing your total package (reducing your hours; other benefits like more vacation or study leave, etc.). This will be a hard conversation, but honesty about this will, in the long term, be the healthiest thing for you and for your church.

Do you have a question for a Young Clergy Woman? Do you think our YCW was completely off in her answers? Comment below, or submit your own question- or answer- to ask.ycw(at)gmail(dot)com.

Image by: Andrew Dyson
Used with permission
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