Tithing: it’s a touchy subject, and one that many Christians very pointedly avoid discussing. When it comes up in the occasional homily, suddenly parishioners are complaining about priests who are “constantly begging for money.” When the deacon gets up to announce a second collection, the people in the pews begin to demand to know where their hard-earned cash is going- because the dollar bill that they dropped in the collection basket could have been better spent at Starbucks, apparently. Many people are resistant to the idea that they are expected to give something to the Church. They come to church expecting to receive something, whether it is energy for another week of work, patience to deal with rebellious children, a moment of quiet in an ordinarily hectic life, or quite simply, God Himself, in the form of the Eucharist. We come demanding to be given so much, and yet we are often so resistant to give anything back.
I’ve read that people often believe that they are giving more than they actually are. They assume that if they were to count up all those freely strewn dollar and five-dollar bills, the total would come to ten percent of their income, the number generally associated with tithing. I’ve also read that people on average give about 2-3% of their net income (i.e. post taxes, as opposed to their gross income, which is the amount before taxes), if they are giving anything at all. If that’s indeed true, and I’ve seen that number enough times to believe that it’s accurate, we have some very skewed perceptions of ourselves.
So on the one hand, it seems that people are willing to donate that 10% of their income on principle, if only because they already believe that they are doing it (even if they are not). The facts might not line up with our perceptions, but at least we can say that many people are not innately opposed to the idea of giving 10% of their income to the Church (though their opinion might change if they knew just what 10% actually amounted to). It seems that as long as the Church is transparent about how these funds are spent, people are willing to give. I’ve visited many churches over the years, and I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that parishes that are transparent about their intentions for parishioners’ money tend to be able to raise more money more quickly. If people know right off the bat that the parish is trying to repair their broken air-conditioning unit or build a new Religious Education center, it seems that they are more likely to donate to the cause.
That being said, there are also plenty of Christians who believe that they are under no obligation to tithe. They believe that donations are meant to come from excess, and if they have no excess, they have no reason to donate. Tithing is for the rich; they are meant to give to the poor. But we must remember the poor widow from the Gospels. She is commended because she gave “everything” (Mark 12:44), and as such, her offering is of higher value than that of the rich people, even if they technically gave more. Now, the poor widow most likely gave more than the standard ten percent dictated by the book of Leviticus (27:30), but her story is proof that even those who cannot be considered “rich” are meant to tithe.
Tithing serves many different purposes, both theological and practical. Tithing is a reminder that everything that we have been given has been given to us by God, and accordingly, the best way to show our thanks is to offer a “tithe” of it, the best of it, back to God in gratitude. Abel found favor with God because he gave from the best of his flock; Cain gave from what remained after he had reaped the best of his produce for himself, and God did not find this satisfactory. Tithing allows us to approach God in gratitude, and reminds us that everything that we call our own ultimately belongs to God. In His infinite generosity, He has shared these gifts with us, and a tenth of what we have earned is just a small token of gratitude for the manifold gifts that God desires to shower upon us.
In the Old Testament, tithing was also a way to support the Levitical priesthood. The Levites did not have land of their own; they were meant to serve the Lord, and were not supposed to be overly concerned with matters of this world. They spent their days offering up the sacrifices of the Jewish people to God, and in prayer, and as such, they were not expected to be farmers, shepherds, and workers like the rest of the people. Instead, the Hebrew people offered a tenth of their livelihood to God, and a portion of that offering was meant to support the Levites. Tithing was a way to ensure that the priests could devote themselves to prayer and sacrifice.
Tithing continues to serve a similar purpose, practically speaking. Some church collections are meant to support our priests, either by assisting with their education and formation, retirement, or physical needs. Other collections are meant to support our priests’ missions and ministries, and these can range from fighting poverty in third-world countries to supporting a parish Religious Education program. Still other collections simply pay the bills; when our students are taught about tithing, they are reminded that the money to pay for air-conditioning and heat, as well as the lights, needs to come from somewhere. Parishes rely on the generosity of their parishioners to run efficiently on a day-to-day basis. We don’t always think about the cost to light, heat, and/or cool such large buildings, never mind what must be done to afford routine maintenance needs, like a broken air-conditioner or new lights in our churches.
As Christians, we are asked to tithe, giving ten percent of our income to the Church. This can be done by just writing a check and throwing it in the collection basket, but this demand can also be a beautiful opportunity to really give of ourselves as we serve God. We can give toward those missions and ministries that mean the most to us, supporting those endeavors about which we feel most passionately. Tithing is not just meant to be a giving of money; it can be a giving of ourselves.
I am largely responsible for deciding how our tithing money is going to be spent. On a bi-weekly basis, Andrew updates a piece of paper in our room with our most recent tithing amount. As soon as pay checks are deposited in our accounts, he makes a note of the addition on the piece of paper. It’s then left up to me to decide how that money will be spent. Ultimately, Andrew adds to our tithing amount, and I subtract from it. Some weeks, I just write a check to our parish covering the amount prescribed on the paper, and I drop the envelop in the collection basket during Sunday Mass. A few times a year, I write checks to different organizations across the country (and overseas) whose missions I have chosen to support financially. Andrew and I sponsor several religious sisters at various stages in their lives, ranging from formation to retirement. We also contribute money to a summer camp for less fortunate children. Finally, from time to time, an emergency will lead us to dedicate a portion of our tithing to a new fund- assisting with the medical expenses of a friend or relative, donating to rebuild a new chapel, or assisting my incredible Catholic Ob/Gyn as they moved to a larger building so that they could expand their practice and help more people.
The freedom to spend our tithing funds as we see fit has really led me to fall in love with tithing. Most people love to help others; their heartstrings are tugged when they hear of a friend’s sudden illness or after witnessing the plight of a parish that ministers to poor, vulnerable immigrant families. Many of us want to help, but sometimes our own financial situation might prevent us from doing so. We want to give, but we are concerned that if we give, we will not have enough for ourselves. So we hold onto what we have for fear of losing it.
That little piece of paper in our bedroom is a reminder to Andrew and me that that money is not ours. It does not belong to us. I know of many people who remove that money from their account immediately, so that they are not tempted to hold onto it, and so that they can have an accurate idea of how much money remains to be saved or spent. We leave our tithing funds in our checking account, but on a regular basis, a quick glance at our piece of paper will tell us how much needs to be subtracted if we need an accurate picture of our current financial situation. We live humbly, and do not have much saved, but we have never struggled to make ends meet.
There is nothing more liberating than wanting to give to another, and being able to do so without a second thought. Faithfully tithing allows Andrew and me to do that. Ten percent of our income is used to support all sorts of missions and ministries about which Andrew and I feel passionately. Ten percent might seem like a lot, and in some ways, it is. Consistently giving ten percent allows us to do a lot, a lot more than we probably would do otherwise. For every thousand dollars that we earn, one hundred is given to charity. But that remaining nine hundred has always been enough for us.
Prior to getting married, Andrew and I decided we would aim high. We would start by giving ten percent, which we had always done as single people, and in time, if that really proved to be too much, we would drop down to nine percent, or eight, or whatever was necessary. It was an adjustment we were both reluctant to make, though we both realized that at some point it might be necessary. Three years later, that day has yet to come. God has always blessed us with more than enough, and we in turn have always chosen to live humbly and within our means to show our gratitude.
Not everyone can jump to the full ten percent, especially if finances are already a bit tight. If making the leap seems implausible for your family, I would suggest that you start the other way around. Spend some time looking at your budget, and calculate the percentage of your income that you’re already giving to charity. Once you have that number, add 1% and adjust your budget accordingly. So if you were giving 2%, give three. If you were giving five, give six. If you weren’t giving at all, or too inconsistently to really assign your donations a whole number, start with one. Stick with that number for a year, and then reassess. Can you give an additional one percent? Many people have found that ten percent is possible, even if it takes eight to ten years to achieve it. The gradual increase makes it less of a burden on a person’s wallet, and certainly seems much less intimidating. Both methods have been proven to work; all you have to do is pick one and really commit.
Many people see tithing as an inconvenient requirement of the Church, at best, or a way for the Church to take advantage of us and invest in expensive luxury vehicles or summer homes for our parish priests (or bishops), at worst. In reality, having been a parish employee for half a decade at this point, I can honestly say that donations are vital to the growth and flourishing of a parish. Tithing parishioners at St. Ignatius have sponsored entire sessions of our Vacation Bible School program, provided Religious Ed scholarships for the struggling families of our parish, purchased brand-new First Communion outfits for children who have only ever worn second-hand clothing, and allowed teenagers to travel across the country to attend youth conferences that have played a pivotal role in their personal faith journeys. None of these things would have been possible without the generosity of parishioners. As I have often remarked when given the chance, the tithing of involved parishioners has given me the opportunity to make the dreams that I have for the youth and young adults of our parish come true, and I couldn’t do it without them. That statement is absolutely true.
Tithing is needed to maintain a healthy, flourishing parish, but it also creates healthy, flourishing souls within our parishes. I am a better person because I tithe. I am a better person because I have this ten percent of my income to give in whatever manner I see fit. Andrew and I tithe to our parish several times a year in the typical fashion (i.e. dropping a check in the collection basket during Mass), but I really enjoy looking for opportunities to give to missions and ministries about which Andrew and I feel passionately. Tithing keeps a parish alive, but it also has the capability of keeping a soul alive, and my soul has experienced such freedom in response to the call to tithe. I hope one day you can experience that freedom as well, if you haven’t already.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!