If you’ve been reading the Pastors’ Blog, you know that I am using this forum to share some additional thoughts about the weekly themes that are guiding our worship throughout our Stewardship Campaign this year. And each week, I’m connecting the promise we make in the UM Membership Vows to a specific resource God has entrusted to us. As a reminder, here’s how those stack up so far:
- The Vow of Prayers corresponds to the ways we cultivate and nurture our Spiritual Life
- The Vow of Presence corresponds to the ways we cultivate and nurture our Time
- The Vow of Gifts corresponds to the ways we cultivate and nurture our Material Possessions.
Over the course of my 18+ years as a “Pastor in Charge,” a pastor who has primary responsibilities for leading a local Congregation or Charge, I’ve had many opportunities to welcome new people into the churches I have served. When I talk to prospective members about the possibility of joining the church, I talk to them about these Vows and the expectations that membership brings. I almost always tell them, “Membership isn’t the entry point for becoming part of the church, it’s the final step of formalizing the covenant you’re making.” In other words, by the time someone joins the church, they should already be practicing the spiritual disciplines that are the basis for each of the five vows.
As members of the UMC, we make a commitment to be giving a portion of the fruits of our labors—our income—as a way of claiming the Lordship of Christ in all aspects of our lives. During many of those conversations I described above, especially when I first started having them, I began to see that it was important to define “Gifts” as more clearly aligned with the practice of financial stewardship. Although it’s vitally important to offer our spiritual gifts, our talents, and our abilities, as well, those more clearly fall into the Vow of Service. (I’ll share thoughts about that Membership Vow next week.)
The vow of “Gifts” really refers to the spiritual discipline of giving. It doesn’t imply a certain level of giving, just the regular practice of setting aside a portion of our income and making that the central commitment of our material resources so that the way we use them revolves around that commitment to God. In this respect, giving is not one of many financial commitments, it is the central commitment that then informs the other ways we use our money.
Throughout the history of the church and, for that matter, since Old Testament times, the universally accepted standard for giving has been what is called the Tithe—a ten percent share. The fact remains, however, that the vast majority of United Methodists give in the range of 2-3% of their income. So what does that mean? In some respects, it just means that we haven’t taught people to tithe, but it’s my view that a strict rule of tithing isn’t really what God expects of us. Instead, God simply asks that we give enough so that it makes a difference in the way we use the remainder of our money. For some people at some points in their lives, a tithe might be too much, while for others, a tithe might not be nearly enough.
I learned a great deal about the spiritual discipline of giving from a wise man in my first congregation, Eddie Healer. He and I became very close during my five years together, partly because we shared a passion for golf, but even more because he shared so deeply with me about things that were important to him. Eddie had several proverbial sayings he liked to repeat and one of them was, “Tithing changes your wanter.” What he meant was that the practice of tithing creates a change in your heart and makes you want different things out of life. You may have heard people say that when they tithe, they always have enough money. I used to think that they meant they had more money, but I realized that what was really happening was that their priorities were just different. They had enough not because they had more, but because they wanted less.
Now that is a message that needs to be heard in our materialistic, greed-ridden, status-oriented culture. And it’s exactly what the practice of giving is all about—rejecting the values of the world and forcing them to conform to the spiritual values of faith. The fact is that money touches every aspect of our lives, because it is the currency we use to assign value to everything. If we allow it, money will control our hearts, and giving is the spiritual discipline that allows God to guide us in our constant struggle to relate to the material world.
When a person joins the United Methodist Church, the reason they vow to give is not to support the church, even though that’s an important aspect of what happens with what they give. The real reason we commit to a regular practice of giving is so that we can keep God at the center of our lives—in every way.
As I began teaching and preaching about giving, I realized that it wasn’t any different than talking about prayer, or coming to worship, or reading the Bible, or loving your neighbor, or any of those other things a pastor is supposed to talk about. And I have grown to understand that I am truly helping people by sharing this witness about giving. Do pastors personally benefit from your giving? Of course we do—it would be silly for us to pretend otherwise. But I would want you to know these things even if that weren’t the case, because I believe that none of us can be truly satisfied in life until we discover them.
And here I am, walking this road of faith right along next to you, just trying to figure it all out.
NEXT WEEK: Service
Grace and peace,
Pastor John Fleming