Monday, October 10, 2016

God Doesn't Need My Money

I would imagine if you were to ask the average person in this country whether or not churches were rich, there would be a thunderous yes.  After all, we see magnificent church buildings, see some pastors who live in mansions, drive expensive cars, and connect wealth to God's will.  Most unchurched people might well believe that every pastor, priest, and reverend are variations of people like Joel Osteen.  I wold imagine many are off put by such a garish display and cynically respond to giving with "God doesn't need my money." 

However, for most outside of the health and wealth evangelicals, such a grandiose lifestyle is not the rule. Truth be told, there will literally be hell to pay for those who fleece their flocks.  While the grand churches are indeed beautiful, what is forgotten is the immense amount of other things done by churches in this country.  Forgotten are the schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, clinics,orphanages, soup kitchens, food pantries, relief services, and such that are the only ones around in the poorest areas of the world and in the richest as well.

As a Catholic priest, I am going to speak to my experience. For those who do not know me, I am a pastor of a church with about 425 families is a rural area of Missouri.  In almost twenty years of priesthood, I have been stationed in 8 parishes in 6 assignments.  5 of those parishes had parochial schools.  I grew up in the lower middle class to being in poverty.  I have never been assigned to parish flush with money.  Every parish I have served and almost  every parish I know of, including protestant  churches, struggle financially.  The parishioners of my churches were and are major contributors to local help agencies. My current parish give direct help to those in need.  I have been insistent about this.

Why?  Because of the nature of the tithe.  The tithe, or thanksgiving offering/sacrifice of the Old Testament had a specific purpose.  In the Old Testament, the Levites and priests were to be of 24/7 service to God and the people.  They were not to own businesses or other ventures that would take them away from this service. Also, the Old Testament placed a premium on assistance to the poor and needy.  The tithe was the offering for the first fruits of one's labor.  that tithe was to be used by the priests and Levites for their support, for the upkeep of the temple, and to be distributed to those in need as well.  The tithe was an act of thanksgiving by the person; an acknowledgement of God's blessings already present in their lives.

In the Catholic Church, the tithe serves the same  purpose.  Priests, for example, are not allowed to own businesses or ventures that trump their pastoral duties to God and to His people. They are to immerse themselves in ministry.  Furthermore, Canon Law (Canon 282) states that clergy are to live simply.  This does not mean impoverished, it means simply.  Hence part of the thanksgiving offering goes to him and others who work for the parish (teachers, principals, maintenance and janitorial, secretaries, bookkeepers, and so on), none of whom make what their confreres make in the private sector. Part of the tithe goes to making sure that utilities are paid, insurance is paid,  benefits are paid, and to upkeep the buildings.    Numerous collections are also taken up to help the diocese do its work, to send to missionary work across the globe, to help local help agencies, and to bolster particular programs and outreach within the parish.

Globally, the Roman Catholic Church is the largest charitable organization in the world.  It has been from the beginning.  The concept of institutions we take for granted now: hospitals, schools, colleges and universities, and a myriad of institutions to help those in need grew out of the ministry of the Church.  The Catholic Church is still the largest health care provider and educator on the planet.  Yes, we have grand buildings, but we also do more to help the sick, the poor, and the needy.

It is an unfortunate truth that some churchmen have misused funds and have grown wealthy on the tithe.  It is worth noting that this has been repeatedly condemned by the Church from the times of St Augustine  (read his letter on Pastors), St Gregory the Great (Pastoral Care) and down through the line to our current Pope Francis.  It is and always has been scandalous for a priest or bishop to fleece the flock.  Truth is, though, it is rare.  Most clergy try to be responsible with what is given and make many quiet sacrifices when budgets get tight.  Like a good dad, they simply and quietly do without so that those placed in their care get what they need.

All this said, it is important to remember that the Church is not primarily a social work organization nor is it a business or bank.  There is nothing wrong with these entities.  But that is not the primary reason for the Church's existence.  Archbishop Sample of Portland, Oregon reminded his flock in a pastoral letter this year that the primary purpose of the Church was the salvation of souls.  Sure, teaching, health care, assistance to the poor are the activities of an an institution dedicated to the salvation of souls.  However, the kerygma is to preach the Good News so as to draw people into the Body of Christ.  Truth be told, how effective we are at that is facilitated or restrained by the tithe.

My job as a pastor is to be sure that the tithe is used for the purpose for which it is given.  As per our teachings, we do help the poor of our parish and local area through a fund we set up that gives direct but limited assistance.   The rest goes to the upkeep of our facilities, the pay and benefits of our staff, utilities and insurance,  and other items needed to carry out what we do as a parish.  I can assure you, there is nothing left once these things are done.  I am well aware as a pastor that I will have to stand before God someday and give an accounting of what was done with the thanksgiving offering.  I also will have to stand before God, as will everyone else, to give an accounting for the thanksgiving offering I made.

In closing, consider the following: thanksgiving builds relationship.  This is especially true with God.  He doesn't ask that the thanksgiving offering be burned up like the sin offerings.  No that offering is given back to benefit His people.  In Catholicism, we believe that in exchange for our thanksgiving (Eucharist comes from the Greek for thanksgiving) which is a sign of our desire to be in relationship with Him, we are given the Flesh and Blood of Christ our Lord.  God will not be outdone in generosity.  None of us would want a relationship with a leech; no one wants a relationship with someone who continually takes without gratitude.  My dad used to reprimand us as kids when we would be thankless.  He would ask why we should be given more when we were not thankful for what we had already.

The tithe isn't merely about paying the bills, it is about acknowledging God's blessings and sharing those blessings so that the work of His Church might thrive and that those in need find help. Thanksgiving is a part of a healthy relationship.  Let it be a part of your relationship with your God, your parish, and your society.

1 comment:

  1. Very poignant expose on what it takes to run a parish, a diocese, and all that this entails. May you be blessed with helping hands and pockets as you continue the work of the Holy Spirit!