Stewardship calls for a modern view of tithing
March 13, 2019 by Robyn Davis Sekula
About five years ago, Adam J. Copeland met with a husband and wife who were co-pastoring a church.
The couple tithed their income to the congregation and had no extra income to give to other charities and causes that they wanted to support. That reality had made them resentful of the church.
“If tithing to church is the goal, there needed to be a reality check,” Copeland says.
Copeland presented at NEXT Church National Gathering in Seattle on Monday during a breakout workshop. His session, “Weaving Financial Generosity: Giving via Church AND Non-Profit,” invited participants to reconsider the concept of tithing, and with it, expectations for giving and stewardship within a congregation. Copeland is Director of the Center for Stewardship Leaders at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn.
He started with a scriptural interpretation of stewardship, borrowing from the work of author and theologian Walter Brueggemann. Money and possessions are gifts from God, Copeland reminded the audience. “This pushes against our whole notion of personal ownership,” he says.
Possessions belong to God and are held in trust by human persons in community. The call from God is to share those gifts and possessions with our neighbors out of a motivation of love. Possessions and money are seductions that can lead to idolatry, Copeland notes, and God calls us to examine our relationship with things.
Studying the roots of tithing
But tithing 10 percent to the church isn’t the solution for our own call to stewardship, or for churches that need more income to survive or meet community needs (or both). He points out that tithing is mentioned a few times in the Old Testament, but it is within the context of the Temple in that time. Giving 10 percent to the Temple was a practice in a time when priests were not allowed to own property, so this helped keep the church going and supported the priest. “The Temple is not equivalent to the modern-day local congregation,” Copeland says.
The average individual in the U.S. gives around 2 percent to charity annually. While that statistic has fluctuated some over the years, it’s never been more than 2.4 percent, he notes. “If this is the reality, then it will be a shameful conversation to discuss tithing with your members,” Copeland says. “It doesn’t fit our culture.”
The church is also not equivalent to a non-profit model. While some aspects of non-profit practices can be incorporated by churches, congregations can have a much larger impact and the role is much different in the lives of members. “Churches can talk about all of the assets someone holds, not just what they give to the church,” Copeland says.
He introduced the attendees to the “modern tithe,” giving 5 percent of income to the church, and another 5 percent to non-profits.
While church leaders sometimes see non-profits as competitors for charitable giving dollars that might otherwise be given to a church, Copeland says churches should actually celebrate the ways that members are called to make an impact on the community around them. Some churches create times of sharing, when members can talk about their volunteer work and support of non-profit organizations.
“Churches get to nurture generosity from a foundation that all we are given is a gift,” Copeland says. “We can inspire generosity beyond our own walls, and we should celebrate that.”
He suggested that for Christians, churches and non-profits are not in competition with one another, and therefore church leaders should find more ways to celebrate their members’ gifts to non-profits. “God is working beyond the church, and it’s time we catch up and celebrate God’s work and our members’ generosity beyond the church’s walls.”
Robyn Davis Sekula is Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.