I received a lesson in the relationship of faith and money the morning my oldest child was born. I was 29 and serving a small church in Florida; my wife was teaching at the nearby state university. For the first time in our adulthood we were enjoying financial stability and independence. We had purchased a condominium apartment and a $50 sofa at St. Vincent DePaul’s. (What an improvement from the trunk we had been sitting on! Material things can sometimes make a spiritual difference.) We had a modest bank account and a second-hand Toyota Corolla station wagon. We were ready to become typical middle-class parents.
After the birth and a brief time for the three of us to rest and cuddle in the delivery room, my first paternal role was to tag along as the nurse wheeled little Carolyn down the hall for her first pediatric checkup. For some reason this procedure took me by surprise. I think I had imagined that if mother and baby survived childbirth, we were safe. But of course that checkup was the first opportunity to diagnose any of a thousand pediatric ailments.
We had no special reason to be worried, and as it turned out, Carolyn was fine. But my mind spun with imagined possibilities. As I followed the cart that bore my tiny daughter, I realized my road was about to fork. These next minutes could be the beginning of a radically different life story: a fatal or disabling illness, a genetic or congenital defect, any one of which would change our lives forever.
Moving down the corridor, I—proud co-owner of a station wagon, condominium, and a couch—thought to myself: “I don’t own anything. All that I have is mortgaged to this child. If she needs it and I have it or can get it, it is hers.” (I should acknowledge that Carolyn’s mother had no such epiphany that day. For almost nine months it had been clear to her that she had been mortgaged, foreclosed, and occupied!)
Balancing Competing Claims
The memory of that day sheds light on a question that has bothered me for some time: What is one’s true relation to the money, property, and other wealth one “owns”? Is our wealth truly ours? If so, how does our use of it reflect the condition of our soul? Do we hold it in trust for God? If so, how does God intend us to choose among the many ways we might live in relation to it? How do we balance the competing claims of self-development, family obligation, charitable works, and—incidentally—the funding of our church or synagogue? Questions like these arise when I work as a consultant to a congregation that is raising money or making financial decisions.
Practical Givers. I have noticed, in most congregations, that one group, often including many of the lay leaders, seems to support the congregation from the excitement of being part of a team that is accomplishing a worthwhile project. These practical givers respond to one another’s leadership, especially leadership by example. Their giving is, at least in part, an act of reciprocity: One may support another’s cause even when he or she has little personal interest in it. It is with this group, mainly, that the techniques of professional fundraisers work best. Practical givers want the “case” for a fund drive to be well-prepared, and they want to be asked to give by someone who has pledged in their own giving bracket.
Spiritual Givers. Another group, usually smaller, and often but not always including clergy, speaks of generous giving as a spiritual matter. A spiritual person, these givers say, is a generous person. This attitude has led to a surprise revival of the tithe in some liberal denominations. Spiritual givers sometimes seem almost indifferent to the specifics of the project or institution to which they are giving. If giving is mostly a response of gratitude to God, a recognition that God already owns everything, or an expression of one’s own spirituality, one need not quibble about how the money will be used. These are the people who give to the panhandler on the street, not because they think it will help the panhandler, but because they think it is what a generous, spiritual person—Jesus, for example—would have done.
In a fund drive, spiritual givers are a bit offended by much talk about the budget or the building plan. Nor does it seem useful to match them with a canvasser in their own “bracket.” A spiritual giver is most likely to be influenced to grow in giving by another spiritual giver.
Dues Payers. Givers in a third group think about their gifts mostly as dues, or as a fee for service. Dues payers want to know the smallest amount they must give if they are not to be considered freeloaders. They are different from those who are quite happy to freeload, but they also differ from the people described above, for whom giving in itself is positive. Dues payers give to erase a debt created by participating in the congregation and availing themselves of services. Most synagogues respectfully acknowledge this position by funding basic operations through a system of progressive membership dues. “Donations,” in a synagogue, begin where dues leave off.
In another variation of the fee-for-service theme, some contemporary churches, especially New Age groups, raise a good part of their revenue through retail sales and fees for seminars and concerts. However it structures its appeal, every congregation has some members who expect to be charged for what they use. Some clergy disparage such “consumerism,” but I think it is better to appreciate it for the stimulus it gives the congregation to ask valuable questions such as “Who is our customer?” “What does our customer consider value?”1 Dues payers help their congregations if they spur the leadership to ask these questions occasionally.
Extremes Within the Groups
These three types—practical givers, spiritual givers, and dues payers—do not constitute a full typology of givers.2 Within each group are extremes. Some practical types give not just to participate in a group project but also to dominate the group. Spiritual givers range from nearmonastics who give to impoverish themselves to more worldly people who give believing that God will shower them with a reciprocal “abundance.” Dues payers include families who show up and pay only for their own weddings and funerals, as well as those who are quite willing to shoulder a full share of the “overhead costs” incidental to the services they use.
A Generational Shift
Overlying the whole range of giving styles is the ongoing shift of generations. Most congregations still approach giving in ways that reflect the values of the so-called “GI generation,” born 1901-1924.3 Most GIs believe in stable congregations, buildings, permanence, and reputation—and are willing to make sacrifices to achieve these things. The “silent generation” has followed them into congregational leadership, but as in many other areas of culture, their styles of giving have not left as lasting an imprint. It was left to the baby boomers, born 1943-1960, to provide a strong counterpoint to GI values. Boomers tend to want religion to provide personal experiences of depth and meaning; many have chosen not to affiliate with congregations at all. Members of the intervening “silent generation” and the “GenX,” “millennial,” and future cohorts all think differently about faith and money.
I am a boomer, and I suppose by nature a practical giver, but the birth of my first child moved me closer to the spiritual point of view. In realizing that “I don’t own anything,” I was consigning all that I had—not to my daughter but to my joyful duty of providing for her. In so doing, I took one step toward knowing that, from the perspective of the Infinite, none of us owns anything. All wealth is ultimately