Maybe This is What General Convention Meant...


by A. T. Mollegen, Jr.

I had heard tithing talked about for many years before I thought seriously about whether it could have something to do with me. My passing reaction during those years was that the idea was archaic, extremist, legalistic, impractical, and just not the sort of thing that Episcopalians take seriously.

However, one day, about eight years ago, I found myself in a position such that tithing was something that I needed to make a deliberate decision about. (I was in charge of my parish's Every Member Canvass, and in preparation for that, I was reading some of the Church's literature on stewardship.) When I suddenly met the question head-on, I was quite noticeably disturbed. I was afraid that I would lose ten percent of what I had. I wasn't in a complete panic, but I certainly felt distinctly threatened. There was a tightness in the pit of my stomach and I had a sense of an impending very serious loss. In my mind's eye I could almost see a group of black-suited workmen hauling away part of our house!

After a while (thank goodness!) these feelings got under control, and my mind got back to work on how to deal with the question of tithing. I started to think about some things which I had heard in the past, but which I hadn't before paid much attention to.

First, I remembered someone's telling me that we don't really need to give ten percent in these modern times, because nowadays our taxes pay for the government's doing many of the things that used to be paid for by people's tithing.

"Cute rationalization," I thought to myself, "but what about the fact that my standard of living is incredibly richer than that of anyone -- even kings --back in biblical times when the concept of the tithe was originated? Wouldn't my relative richness morally require a higher level of giving?"

"Well," I thought, "what about the issue of before or after taxes? (Maybe there's an out here!) But wait a minute... since contributions are tax deductible, maybe I should give more than ten percent of my pre-tax income because if I didn't make the gift, I wouldn't be able to keep the full amount anyway. Maybe I should give enough so that the amount that I will have left, after the gift and the taxes, will be 90- percent of what I would have had before."

"And what about my fringe benefits? ('This is getting to be a drag!' another part of my brain protested.) The IRS doesn't consider them part of my taxable income, but wouldn't someone from biblical times consider them to be part of my actual income?"

Oh woe! A quick mental approximation to any of the above calculations led me to the conclusion that the resulting amounts were very large, no matter which way I might rationalize myself into calculating them. And it didn't seem really right just to choose the method which led to the smallest amount.

After a long time, I finally decided that using 10 percent of my gross tangible income would be my approach. (I would tithe from my pension when I got the payments.) I wasn't sure that this way was any more right than the others, but tithing on the basis of gross tangible income was simple, and it may even have been the way they did it in biblical times.

I then turned to the issue of how to give such a scary amount.

First, I started trying to think of things that the family was spending money on, that could so easily be done without, that we would never miss them.

At first, there did seem to be some such things, but I soon realized that they were mostly things that my wife and/or kids were interested in, but that I myself had little or no interest in. Both my sense of fairness and my sense that my wife and kids would notice the same thing about my list that I had, led me to keep on thinking.

Finally I concluded that this avenue led nowhere: there just wasn't that much that we would never miss if suddenly it were no longer there. Drat!

For a while I began to be afraid that I would never find a painless way to get to ten percent.

But surprise! I did find a way, and it works.

Like many people in the late 70s, I had a reasonable expectation of getting a raise each year. "Well," I thought, "if for instance I get a six percent raise, I can use two or three percent to increase my giving, and keep the rest for our regular use. Thus, each year I will get two or three percent closer to the standard of ten percent.  We probably won't even notice any loss if our standard of living goes up two or three percent less per year than it otherwise would have."

By and large, this prediction has worked out to be true. In addition, once we put the plan into practice, two very interesting unexpected things happened.

First, we found that it was really exciting to have a tangible, feelable amount of money to use to do some good with. It was now possible in some cases to give enough so that we could cause some visible, tangible result. For instance, we financed the purchase of a (very) used car for a refugee family that a local church was sponsoring.  Wow! We suddenly felt a sense of commonality with history's great philanthropists. (A quantitatively-oriented accountant might not have noticed this commonality quite as quickly as we did!)

Second, we found that once we had started down the path of significant giving, we really didn't want to stop at ten percent. At the time that I had first started thinking about the tithe, I would never have believed that a modern, logical, enlightened, scientifically-oriented twentieth-century person such as myself could ever be happily giving away over ten percent of my income, much less continuing to increase the percentage every year, even after passing the ten percent benchmark. Maybe this is what General Convention meant when they said that the tithe is the minimum standard.

There is one little problem though. It has all been so easy that the nagging voice of conscience suggests that I have not been giving sacrificially. I guess I'll have to start thinking seriously about that...

* * * * *


author's note: I have tried to convey some of the humor and the joy of my own tithing journey. Working out my relationship to what are, after all, God's possessions has been a very important and rewarding part of my spiritual journey.  Responding to God through action has certainly made me feel much better about the job I have been doing of being a Christian.  My father used to say "If you want to know about the state of your soul, take a look at the stubs in your checkbook."  To this, I would add: "If you want to feel better about the state of your soul, respond to God by putting something on the stubs of your checkbook to feel better about."

Ted Mollegen is a layman who lives in Willimantic, Ct.,

where his wife Glenis is rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church. Ted

is chairman of his Diocese's stewardship committee, and a member of

the national Church's Standing Commission on Stewardship and Development.