Tithing in the Time of COVID: Churches, Wealth Gaps, and Giving Gaps

Most charities are struggling financially right now. But churches are not most charities. Churches run on a unique revenue model, funded by voluntary contributions from a group of individuals who tend to be socially and economically homogeneous. Which means that the economic state of the church looks much like the country: the haves are having more and more, while the have-nots discover new ways to not have.

The way COVID hit American households is the way COVID hit American churches. We know people with college degrees have been more likely to keep their jobs, and that white workers—who are able to work from home in greater numbers—are more likely than Black, Indigenous, and employees of color are more likely to keep their jobs.

This means churches comprised of educated and white members are likely continuing to meet their revenue projections or, if they fall short, are suffering more from the inconvenience of virtual worship (that is, Zoom’s not-yet-developed in-app “Pay Now” feature) than a lack of member funds. Churches comprised of hospitality, mobility, and service workers (where people of color are overrepresented) are likely struggling significantly to meet budget, and disproportionately relying on denominational emergency support funds or external donor relationships. These are the same churches where pastors are already more likely to be bivocational, and pastors as well as congregants may be struggling with unemployment.

COVID is exacerbating the same wealth disparities we’ve collectively exacerbated for the last several decades. It is critical–faithful–that churches that have remained financially stable over the last six months change their patterns of giving. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Partner with a local church that has greater financial need. Offer ongoing support for the duration of the pandemic by subsidizing a local pastor’s salary—particular of a predominately BIPOC-church. The best thing you can give is unrestricted cash, because churches, like individuals, tend to know what they need most, and adding restrictions to money adds stress to both the relationship and the finances.
  2. Create mutual aid funds for inside and outside the community. Many congregations have off-budget support funds for congregants in need. If you don’t, start such a fund now. If you do, start an additional Community Aid Fund. These are dollars that go to anyone who shows up at the church doors and ask for money, without vetting or paperwork or prayer requirements. People who show up at church doors—who have both the humility and the desperation to ask for money—tend to be people who have exhausted every other possibility, from failing to qualify for disability to reaching the Salvation Army after all rent relief subsidies have been disbursed. While scammers do show up, and tend to show up repeatedly, take it on faith that a one-time cash gift fund, at the pastor’s or the administrator’s discretion, is a faithful gift and an essential part of the social safety net. If you’re concerned about abuse, set an annual cap or agree to “no more than $100 per person” or go read your Bible because Jesus did not vet the worthiness of the people he healed.
  3. Develop ways of communicating this aid if your building is still closed, because a community aid fund is only as accessible as the staff and volunteers who manage it. Put a flyer on the door with a phone number or office hours. Keep masks and PPE on hand for folks in need who come in without safe accessories. Collaborate with other local congregations and direct people where to go and who still has Community Aid Funds available, so that no single congregation gets overwhelmed. If you do get overwhelmed, take it as an affirmation that you are offering the gospel where it is needed. If you run out of money, count it as a success, take a breather, and find a new way to support your neighbors.
  4. Tithe off the top. Contribute 10% of total monthly giving to a charity. Or put it into your external mutual aid fund. If your church is meeting budget goals, or close to meeting budget and expenses have dropped with COVID, commit to giving every month a percentage of tithes receives. Quick distribution maximizes impact, allowing your gifts to get to agencies sooner and minimizing congregational debate and approval of the perennial “What to do with the surplus?” question that will be resolved next March, a year after COVID began. (If you want to be extractive and transactional about it, ask the church’s administrator or facilities manager to calculate the savings the church has gained from sitting empty—in water, electricity, and other bills—and donate that amount every month to an agency directly serving people in need.)
  5. Start a little free food pantry. Don’t start a food pantry—something that requires volunteers, committees, organization, and is likely duplicative of other understaffed and under-accessible food security initiatives that other local churches are operating. Just build a box—a very large little free library of nonperishable goods and encourage a small group to look after it, while encouraging everyone to drop by and contribute goods to it.
  6. Adopt a social service agency. Channel your volunteer time and relationships into one significant partnership that gives you a bird’s eye view of COVID-through-the-lens-of-“X”-agency. As mentioned at the top, most all charities are struggling, and sometimes, viewing COVID through the lens of homeless children, domestic violence survivors, or folks with mental disabilities, in a sustained, collectively committed way yields a bigger understanding of the impact one church can make.  
  7. Support denominational camps and retreat centers. Not the established, endowment-funded ones but the barely-meeting-budget-on-a-good-year camps that pay their staff in kitchen-made retreat meals. These camps are often regional centers for diversity, bringing together congregations from rural, urban, and suburban demographics with different socioeconomic backgrounds. Supporting and maintaining camps through the pandemic maintains pathways of communication and witness across socioeconomic barriers.
  8. Lower the barriers for financial support to Millennials and Gen Z attendees, especially college students. Instead of care packages, send students cash. Give a scholarship, even a nominal one, to every college student. Support early-career Millennials. They are now in the second recession of their decade-long careers (give or take), and many were already at an economic disadvantage from graduating into a recession.

Churches that are financially stable cannot continue “giving as usual.” There is a louder, more plaintive, desperate cry for help, and giving can no longer be usual, it must be abundant.

Consider this: What would you have done differently at the peak of the Great Recession, knowing what you know now, and if the Great Recession was 5 times as bad?

Do that.

Bottom line: Give as much as you can, whenever you can.

Making the Infinity of Coronavirus Less Infinite

It’s been said that time passes slower when you don’t know how long a task lasts. Uncertainty makes the future feels farther away, and the present more infinite. One of the most excruciating parts of the pandemic is the infinity of it. The Psalmist’s words, How long, O LORD?, took on a new meaning when two-week stay-at-home orders turned into months-to-years-to-undetermined-and-basically-forever of never seeing friends.

For progressives, the infinity of pandemic is overlaid on the infinity of the Trump administration. One way to make a task last longer is to create uncertainty, yes, but another way is to fill up the space with so much disgust and sensational cruelty that the time before and the time after cease to exist. Progressive Christians—and even some of those who at first had hope for a Trump presidency—have been in such a heightened state of reactionary stress for years that the present often numbs out all space for a past or a future. We know intellectually there is the presidency is time-bound, but Trump has a unique skill for making himself seem infinite (and undermining all the traditional rules of democracy).

We are infinitely stuck. Our churches, and our world, seem to exist on an emotional spectrum that runs from exasperation to fatigue to paralysis. The past is an alternate reality. The future is an unimaginable one.

The Christian faith is about finding a way to move through life centered on hope. The task of churches, now, is to cultivate hope, which means to imagine alternatives. Churches must attune us to the possible, the not yet, the alternative vision. For an hour every Sunday—perhaps a little more—we can gather our community, most of us virtually, into imagination. That’s all hope is, after all, the ability to imagine something good in the future.

This is not about self-medicating with eternal salvation. It’s about building the frame that allows people to fill in the center. Something that breaks the paralysis of infinity into manageable seasons where we can take action. Perhaps your church foresees a need for rent relief, or additional hours at the food bank, repairs in the building or in one of your social service or summer camp or mission partners. Orient toward the vision, what your favorite organizations look like in the time after coronavirus. Perhaps an empty building can collect school supplies or homemade quilts or canned goods, a tangible sign week-to-week of how our hope grows and cascades. Perhaps photos of the room are taken and shared weekly; perhaps every thousand cans the room is emptied and the goods delivered to the food bank and a new vision begins. This kind of tangible good matters. It distinguishes the days, the passing of time, shifts Coronatimes from an infinite fog to a rainbow, long and bending toward justice. It increases our sense of goodness day-to-day.

Of course, all this presumes a majority of staff and congregants are not in survival mode. And many, especially the caregivers, are barely treading water.

Ironically, it is the pandemic that has shifted me from survival mode to capacious dreamer—turns out, being bivocational is much easier when you stop trying to have a social life. When I was in the thick of survival mode, several months ago, everything felt doable, in theory. I did not feel that I was carrying more than I could lift. A congregant finally pointed out to me that survival mode doesn’t always feel like survival mode. For those who are overwhelmed, normalize fatigue and listening to your body and releasing the nonessentials. Normalize adjusting expectations. Name spaces that are capacious and where support exists, whether or not it is tapped. Affirm exhaustion.

And at the same time, inventory assets. Celebrate the strengths of parents, caregivers, teachers who are in survival mode, parenting, caregiving, teaching in ways unknown for generations. Notice their resilience, acknowledge them in small ways, imagine alongside of them and invite them into the brief moments they can steal of hopeful dreaming. To the degree that you can, invite the care-receivers into the work of imagination. Listen to children’s views of the future. Ask seniors what legacies they leave, and their hopes for those who arise to carry on the legacy.

In my church, realizing the challenges of Children’s Time in virtual space, we transitioned from adults telling the children stories to children telling the adults stories. Right now, each Sunday a different child is sharing their hopes for the future, from dreaming of eighth birthdays to fully trained puppies to someday becoming a teacher. I often think the adults seem to benefit from this dreaming space more than the children.

No matter how you look, it’s not an easy time. But it’s not an infinite time, either. And the more we can vision the future, the more we can oritent toward the horizon, the more gracefully and rapidly this time will seem to pass.

Find abundance where you can, even if it means eating cucumbers three meals a day.

“Defund the Police” is Deeply Anabaptist

From its origins, Anabaptism was a movement that questioned the belief that the state was worthy of wielding violence. So it surprised me, at first, that Anabaptist churches were even debating about defunding the police. This is a religious tradition that champions war tax resistance. We literally believe that religious freedom entitles us not to pay for our country’s military. It’s a hop, skip, and less than a jump to move from withholding military dollars to reducing police funding.

Anabaptist theology has no room for police, any more than it has room for soldiers, kings, or governments who claim to have God’s blessing. In 1527 in the Schleitheim Confession, Anabaptists made the bold statement that Christians should not carry weapons, but instead be “armed with the armor of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and with the Word of God.”  

But over time, this ability to critique violence morphed into a desire to avoid violence at all costs. The logic went like this: Jesus calls us to peace; therefore, we cannot exhibit signs of violence; therefore, violence simply does not exist in Christian community. There’s no need to create a vocabulary for something that does not exist. The Anabaptist legacy is one that silences violence because there are no words for it.

And so, most of our churches simply function as though police don’t exist. People like us would never be police officers. People like us would never call the police on a fellow church member. And, it must be said, people like us are rarely policed because, until three or four generations ago, Anabaptists were almost exclusively white. The message in most Anabaptist churches today is that Anabaptists should not be police officers—but police officers are also permissible when necessary to quash any violence we witness since, of course, violence is immoral. Police are unnecessary to our daily lives because we are Christian pacifists; but we understand police are needed respond to the harm committed by other, more violent people in the world. Ah, the sweet, sweet moral high ground.

Anabaptists cannot be police officers, it’s often said, because they would have to carry a gun. This is the most obvious observation we make policing, and one that fails to mention that tear gas, pepper spray, riot gear, and rubber bullets are also tools of violence.

Our historically flat critique of violence—a critique that washes over race, power, socioeconomic disparity, and gender—no longer serves us. Most likely, it never served us.

“We believe that peace is the will of God. God created the world in peace, and God’s peace is most fully revealed in Jesus Christ, who is our peace and the peace of the whole world,” begins Article 22 of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.

There is no way to get from “God created the world in peace” to “I’m okay with paying taxes to the government so that police have access to riot gear.” To be pacifist is to maintain that for every social problem, there are better places to put our money than police departments. Any government representative who is required to carry a gun is less effective at creating peace than a government employee who does not have “exercising violence when necessary” as part of their job description. Because, in the Anabaptist tradition, violence is never necessary.

The phrase “Defund the Police” is the most Anabaptist term to enter popular American social discourse in decades. As pacifists, we ought to be rushing full speed to join the movement. And if we are not, we ought to pull out our Confession of Faith and ask ourselves, “Why does this phrase make me uncomfortable?”

It is, most likely, because of our commitments to our own privilege, and not our commitments to God.

What if the True Meaning of Christmas is about Self-Worth?

In our hyper-programmed culture of productivity and accomplishment, it can be a relief to reach the Christmas season: those precious few days when there is finally a cultural pressure to just be nice. Time for Christmas, time for Love.

But we also receive very specific messages what that Love should look like. These messages are everywhere, but most powerfully in the inescapable holiday soundtrack that somehow penetrates every public and private event.

In church, it’s often said that faith is defined by music: our truest beliefs are not from the Bible but from the songs we sing each week, whether it’s lofty hymns battling the organ or the not-so-affectionately titled genre of “Jesus is my Boyfriend” songs. There’s nowhere in American culture that music more deeply shapes us than at Christmas. Our experience and expectations of the holiday is based on the songs we’ve committed to play in public spaces, whether out of cultural consensus or media manipulation.

The radio-dominating carols of snow and good cheer shape our subconscious holiday landscape, with their parties and presents and mistletoe and food and family and friends. These songs point us toward an elusive sense of comfort and love, but it’s a love wrapped up in a prescribed set of practices, ie., walking in a winter wonderland, getting the turkey and the mistletoe, letting it snow, and rockin’ around the Christmas tree.

The musical consensus tells us Christmas is about more than presents and lights. But only to the degree that the  #1 Billboard Holiday song by Mariah Carey tells it: we believe we can transcend the materialism of the season and access the true spirit of Christmas only by attaching ourselves to a romantic partner. “All I want for Christmas is You.” True Christmas is about falling in love, because the only thing worse than being in an unhappy relationship at Christmas is to be single at Christmas, as if singleness is evidence of unloveability.

Mariah Carey All I Want for Christmas is You

Mariah Carey’s Christmas hit was almost titled, “All I Want for Christmas is to Stake my Self-Worth on Someone Else in order to Cover my Crippling Fear of Unloveability.”

The classic (can we say classic about 1994 yet?) gives voice to one of the deepest American anxieties. If we make the leap to eschew materialism in favor of love, but can’t even master the connection of romantic love, it must mean we are not be loveable.

At Christmas, as at Valentine’s Day, we perform acts of conspicuous love without these displays, we would be unworthy of love.

To hear the Christmas songs tell it, Loving means giving as much of yourself away as you can—to buy presents; to send cards; to attend obligatory gatherings in an endless blur of warm and mildly intoxicating beverages; to socialize in specific and highly programmed ways; to make the season as perfect, as the song says, “as a picture print by Currier and Ives.” But somehow that Currier and Ives print becomes a month lived in a frenzied generosity and accommodation and giving more love than you receive until it all culminates in a sugary crash and a coma of introversion. The American Christmas is about giving away love, even when you have no more love to give. It’s the idea if you don’t give it away, you’ll never be worthy of receiving it.

Christmas can bring out crippling feelings of perfectionism and inadequacy as we race to give away “enough” love to become worthy of receiving it.

From this perspective, Jesus becomes a magic “Love Your Neighbor” card that gives you the energy to give away more love. But the real mystery and challenge of God Incarnate is that your own flesh is worthy of love. In that small baby in the manager, you face the reality that you—you, with your flaws and shame—are deeply loveable.

The Birth of Jesus is the antithesis of the Christmas carols’ message. It’s realizing that love doesn’t keep a scorecard, that no amount of presents or cards will make you more or less deserving. Christmas is about an encounter with a God who challenges you to say, “I am loved.”

This is exactly what the Virgin Mary does, in spite of theological attempts to reduce her to a humble saint who has somehow transcended the need for self-love. In carrying God inside of herself, she names her own self-worth and identifies herself as not only someone who gives love, but someone who receives love.

Annunciation El Greco

“Annunciation,” by El Greco; or, “The Terrifying Possibility of Self-Love.”

Immediately after the angel announces her pregnancy, in Luke 1:39, “Within a few days Mary set out and hurried to the hill country.” She learns she is pregnant and… She’s out. She’s on the road to visit her cousin Elizabeth. The Bible says nothing about talking to her parents or consulting with Joseph, she just packs her bags and walks across Roman-occupied Judea by herself. Mary meets the angel and she realizes, “God has a plan for me and I have to get my s*** together.”

And so she creates more space to be herself. As she contemplates engagement, pregnancy, and marriage, as she comes into adulthood with the massive task of forming her own family unit, and as she thinks of how she wants to create a family where she gives love but also receives love, she takes time to be a single woman. She puts her obligations to others on pause in order to reflect on her own patterns of loving.

And she’s gone for 3 months. That’s one-third of her pregnancy devoted to reflecting on love with a trusted woman friend.

Her visit is about adult women making space together to be adult women. Mary and Elizabeth spend three months together. Of course, Elizabeth’s husband is around, Zechariah, but Zechariah got into an argument with an angel and the angel struck him mute. So while Zechariah is around, these three month aren’t about him. It’s truly just a time for the women be together understanding themselves and their capacities to love. To love a child, but also to love themselves.

When Mary arrives, Elizabeth says, “Blessed is she who believed that what our God said to her would be accomplished!” (This is the part where John the Baptist leaps in her womb, but let’s de-center the male experience and look at the women beyond their fetus-carrying capacity.)

And Mary responds,

My soul proclaims your greatness, O God,
and my spirit rejoices in you my Savior.
For you have looked with favor upon your servant,
and from this day forward
all generations will call me blessed.
For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me,
and holy is your name.” (Luke 1:46-49)

Mary responds to Elizabeth’s blessing by blessing herself. Elizabeth says, “You’re so great!” And Mary replies, “Yes, I am great! And God loves me that way.”

Her song is full of my’s and me’s. It’s about her as an individual. Maybe coming from someone else’s mouth, it would sound self-centered, but here, it is Mary’s understanding that as a woman, she is deeply loved and worthy of all the love she has received.

Only from that place of belovedness does she launch into this vision of dismantling the political system and creating a more equitable world, the lowly lifted up and the powerful pulled down from their thrones, which is what the Magnificat is so well-known for.

Christmas is a season of love and loving. But it’s also a season of belovedness.

Among the pressure of cultural Christmas to perform acts of other-centered love, there is also space and theological precedent to shower yourself in love. To bask in the love of God.

Because you are loved and you are worthy of love. When God takes on flesh and walks among us, God gifts us the stunning truth that we are worthy of love.

 

This post was adapted from a sermon given Dec. 23, 2018.

A Prayer during Hearings for Supreme Court Nominees Accused of Sexual Assault

The Sunday after Christine Blasey Ford’s Senate testimony and the public re-traumatizing of all survivors of sexual assault in the U.S., my congregation, like many others, was hurting, confused, struggling, trying, wondering, searching for words. We spent some time in prayer, and this is the prayer I offered (as best I remember it):

 

Please join me in a time of silence for victims and survivors of sexual assault.

 

 

 

 

God we give thanks for the silence-breakers.
God we give thanks for the women who are survivors of sexual assault.
God we give thanks for the men who are survivors of sexual assault.
God we give thanks for the trans and gender-nonconforming people who are survivors, in so many ways.

Make our churches instruments of healing and recovery.
Teach us to lament. To listen to the laments of survivors.

We pray that we will have softer ears,
that we will become better listeners to survivors,
that we will learn to center the stories of survivors
and in doing so to create a more just world.

May we enter the public dialogue
practicing support and advocating for survivors.
May we speak healing and, when we make mistakes,
as we inevitably will in our attempts to learn justice, give us
the courage to learn from them and become better allies and better disciples.

And all God’s people said: I believe women.

Congregation: I believe women.

And all God’s people said: I believe survivors.

Congregation: I believe survivors.

Amen.

Four Things the Church should be Saying about Adultery

Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The same is true of every instance of adultery. The church tends to preach that there is one formula for dealing with adultery (or, in some traditions, one formula if you’re a woman and another formula if you’re a man). But adultery can’t be “solved” by applying the right formula. It’s a more complicated and emotional conversation. Nearly all of us have firsthand or secondhand experience with adultery—in a present or previous relationship; between parents or siblings or close friends. But we rarely talk about the frameworks that allow us to move through and beyond the pain of adultery.

Here are four guideposts the church should raise on the impact and consequences of adultery.

1. Adultery is a choice. Continue reading

Anabaptists, Abortions, and Moral Ambivalence

Even before Brett Kavanaugh was officially nominated as the new Supreme Court justice nominee, the media buzzed with questions about what might happen to Roe v. Wade. Most legal experts and activists anticipate that the decision that legalized abortion nationwide will be overturned—and the legality of abortion will revert to a state-by-state decision—within a handful of years.

Abortion is an emotional issue, no matter what one believes. The word immediately puts us on the defensive. It’s easy to jump to go-to arguments about why the other side is wrong.

There are two questions Anabaptists need to ask: Who are we in the abortion debate? Who do we want to be in the abortion debate?

However, Anabaptists cannot ask the second question because they are afraid to ask the first question. For years, Anabaptist traditions have quietly avoided public conversation about abortion, sidestepping the pacifist stance that suggests a pro-life ethic and the low church polity and strong tradition of empowering impoverished neighbors that suggests a respect for pro-choice views. Continue reading

3 Easy Things to Do if You Want to Help with Family Separation but Don’t Know How

If you want to help and you have no idea what to do–that’s okay, and it’s completely normal. It means your heart is working, and you’re trying to translate it to your voice and your hands.

When I arrived at church last Sunday, the weight of all the border issues, pushed into our faces and all at once, threatened to pull all of us down. What to do? What needs to be done? Slowly, together, we built a list of ideas that felt manageable, important, incremental. I  volunteered to work on a list of resources and actions. As I built the list, along with others, several things became clear: my church wasn’t the only one struggling with how to respond. And our response was stunted by years of being systematically under-educated about immigration issues.

The list had to be short—choice paralysis is real; manageable—despair paralysis is real; and informative—ignorance can be paralysis, too.

The result is a list that I hope is to be just long enough to offer options and just short enough to avoid overwhelming.  Continue reading

How we Keep Going When “Not Inhumane” feels like the Only Thing we Can Accomplish

Is this what we’ve come to? Defending the moral claim that families should be together and children should not be in cages? After days of denying the family separation policy and pleading helplessness to change the law, early this afternoon Donald Trump said he would suspend the Homeland Security policy of family separation at the border.

Trump offered no details on the new policy and maintained his tough-on-crime rhetoric. (BTW, almost half of all undocumented immigrants have not broken a criminal law; many immigration violations fall under civil law, which means there’s no crime against the public and should be no prison sentence attached to these violations). As with so many political moves, we’re left with the promise of justice but no evidence of it. Through popular pressure, the Trump Administration made a public promise to not be deliberately inhumane–but that’s far from a promise to treat migrants humanely. Continue reading

Is it Time to Stop Watching the NFL?

Last month when NFL owners approved a new rule requiring players to stand for the national anthem, many activists on the left cried game over. (Activists on the right cried boycott last fall when the protests continued for a second season.) If owners regulate their players’ behavior—in the name of regulating their love of country—it’s time for the populace to tune out. In the words of Chris Long, who played with the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl winning team in the 2017 season, “This is not patriotism… These owners don’t love America more than the players demonstrating and taking real action to improve it.”

With this declaration from the NFL owners, the ball is in the spectators’ court. Should we stop watching football in 2018? Should these regulations become the straw that broke the camel’s back? After lukewarm responses to domestic violence, after minimizing the risk of brain injury, how many bitter pills will we keep swallowing? Continue reading