by Jeff Kunkel

Not long ago, I officiated at the funeral of a young man I did not know well. After the funeral, his mother, whom I had never met, asked me, “What do I owe you?” This is the question we are always asking and answering in our exchanges with one another, isn’t it? What do I owe? What am I owed? I knew the way I chose to structure the exchange with that bereaved mother would create a certain economy between us and shape our relationship. If I said to her, “Please accept my work as a gift,” I would be offering a gift exchange. Or, if I said to her, “My honorarium is two hundred dollars,” I would be offering a market exchange. Understanding the different results promoted by gift and market exchanges—both of which exist in modern congregations—can benefit anyone who works with congregations or other small communities. Throughout the article, I will build upon the fine work of Lewis Hyde in his book, The Gift.

Gift Exchange

The giving and receiving of gifts—or gift exchange—is one way we structure our exchanges. We give and receive gifts on holidays and special days.  The communion liturgy speaks of the bread and wine as “the gifts of God for the people of God.” Jewish blessings offer thanks for the gift of the Sabbath, the sunrise, the bread and wine.  Gift exchange is not neutral. Gift exchange, by its nature, initiates or deepens ties of affection and gratitude.  This is why we feel freshly indebted whenever we accept a gift—from God or a person. This is also why we refuse to accept certain gifts—we don’t want to accept the debt of affection and gratitude which is created by accepting that gift. By accepting the gift of freely given care from a congregation, a lay or clergy person is obliged to enter or deepen the ties of affection and gratitude with that congregation. By accepting a gift from the Holy Spirit, “peace, patience, kindness….”, a person or community is obliged to return thanks and praise to that Spirit, as the liturgy reminds us: “It is good and right that we give You thanks and praise.”  Those in Alcoholics Anonymous speak of their sobriety as a gift and remind themselves that they have work to do as a result of accepting that gift: “When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of A.A. to always be there. And for that: I am responsible.”

I recently attended Burning Man, a fire festival and experimental community set up in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Gift exchanges were strictly encouraged among the thirty thousand Burners. The survival guide for the event says, “Black Rock City is a place of sharing and free exchange within a gift community.” What did this mean? No vendors, no logos, no advertising, no bartering, no sales, just gifts given and received—or declined. Gifts I was offered: lemonade, a shot of tequila, a Hawaiian luau, cookies, bike repair, hugs, and handmade objects. Gifts I offered: watermelon slices, coffee, meals, and help with setting up camp.  The only exceptions to these gift exchanges: the entrance ticket fee, and a price for coffee, tea, and ice at Central Camp, which made these market exchanges.

Gift exchanges create gift economies, and gift economies thrive best in small communities where people want to know and care for one another—families, support groups, clubs, congregations, neighborhoods, tribes, small towns, convents, and monasteries. The United Methodist Church asks each member to support the church with his or her “prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness,” language which encourages the practice of a gift economy. The collection plate passed during worship is an invitation to give to the gift economy of the congregation. Other such invitations to join the gift economy of a congregation: the loaf of home-made bread given to a first-time church or temple visitor, the flowers taken to a hospitalized congregation member, or the food given to homeless folk. The Realm of God can be viewed as a pure gift economy.

Market Exchange

A market exchange is characterized by an exchange of goods and services rather than gifts.  Gifts have inherent worth and are not easily priced—just try to set a price on your favorite family heirloom or helping a friend! But goods and services have comparative value which easily translates into a purchase price. Purchase price is objective, neutral, and separate from the ties of affection and gratitude. So it follows that we exchange goods and services and create a market economy in order to initiate or preserve our freedom and independence from others.  Price, fee, salary, wage, and honorarium all are characteristic of market exchange and tend to diminish the motivating force of affection and gratitude.

Market exchanges tend to dominate between people who do not know one another well—and do not necessarily want to get to know one another any better.  Childcare, once done as gift exchange within a family or village, is now often done between strangers. One woman says it this way: “In Manhattan, they have nannies. In Brooklyn, we have grandparents.” Nannies charge a price for their services, a market exchange.  Grandparents volunteer their help, a gift exchange. Our nephew, a saavy wild mushroom hunter, gives some of his harvest to my wife and me as a gift, but he sells the rest of his harvest to area restaurants – a market exchange. Ancient Israel practiced a gift economy among tribal members and a market economy with those outside the tribe. The New Testament story of the Good Samaritan is remarkable in part because it is the story of two strangers—a Samaritan and a Jew—who unexpectedly create a gift economy between them.

Gift Exchange, Market Exchange: Side by Side in Congregations

Most families, convents, monasteries, small groups, and neighborhoods are still dominated by a gift economy, but in today’s congregations—especially large or urban congregations—a market economy exists right alongside a gift economy. For example, most congregations practice gift exchange through volunteering, donating, and bequesting, but also practice market exchange through negotiating salaries, setting certain fees, making purchases, negotiating loans, or investing in market securities.

Long ago, my great-grandfather, John Roeck, pastored a church in the small Wisconsin town of Kiel. He was given no salary, just gifts: a home in which to live, a share of each farmer’s harvest and slaughter, free visits to dentist, doctor, store, and stable. Today, a clergy person usually receives a salary, typical of a market exchange. But that same clergy person might also live in a church-owned house or receive other benefits which are gift exchanges. I was single and broke when I arrived as pastor of my first church, and even before I received my first paycheck, members gave me a kitchen shower, filling my empty cupboards and larder with practical gifts. The newly arrived executive of a corporation is not likely to receive such a gift.

Over my years as a pastor, I have been offered other gifts, like the use of mountain cabins or beach homes owned by members of my congregation. These were fine, attractive gifts, often offered privately with that lovely four letter word, FREE. But over time, I realized that accepting any substantial gift from an individual in my congregation was not really free: the inevitable “price” was a deepened sense of gratitude and loss of freedom toward them. I could become TOO grateful to that person, just like a member of Congress who accepts a free vacation from a lobbyist can become TOO grateful to that lobbyist.

Certain congregations—and most clubs and associations—now assess fees for membership. Such fees make sense to those who want the satisfaction of being paid in full. But such fees make little sense to those who want the satisfaction of ever-deepening ties of affection and gratitude. Friends of mine withdrew from their temple when faced with membership fees – a market exchange which felt ” too businesslike” to them.  As a rule, small congregations – or small groups within a large congregation – will tend to practice gift exchange, while large congregations – or large groups within a congregation – will tend to practice market exchange.

Structuring Exchanges Within Congregations

Sometimes, one person or group will want to practice a gift exchange while another person or group will want to practice a market exchange. The result: a conflict about the nature and purpose of exchange.  For example, some people see tithing as an assessment or fee to be paid in full. Others see tithing as a challenge to deepen affection and gratitude for gifts received.  Or this example: an outside choral group tried to set up a performance at a congregation I was pastoring. The choral group wanted a certain price for their performance, a market exchange, but the act of pricing didn’t “feel right” to that congregation— they were all part of the United Methodist family—so the congregation asked the choral group to accept a love offering instead, a gift exchange.  The choral group, after some discussion, agreed, and the congregation took up a collection for the choir based on “love and gratitude” rather than price. The result: about the same amount of money collected for the choir, but on different terms, terms which deepened the ties between that choir and congregation.

Another example: during the recent economic downturn, a congregation felt unable to give a staff member a raise in salary, a market exchange. Instead, the personnel committee arranged to give the staff member a free stay at a member’s condominium in Hawaii, a gift exchange. Another example: a man in one of my congregations offered a large sum of money as a gift to help the congregation with financial difficulty. To my great surprise, the congregation turned down the money as a gift—but accepted the money as a loan, a market exchange. One member said, “If we take his money as a gift, we’ll be TOO grateful to him.” This person understood that substantial gifts—whether they are given by a person, a group, or God—vastly deepen the debt of affection and gratitude between the giver and receiver of the gift, and the receiver might not be ready or willing to take on such debt. In such a case, a market exchange will seem preferable to a gift exchange: “We’ll take the loan, not the gift.”

So, if both gift and market exchange are practiced in modern congregations, which way might be best or right for any given exchange? This question can only be answered by asking ourselves what we want to accomplish through that exchange. Do we want the exchange to deepen our sense of affection and gratitude? If so, a gift exchange will make sense. If, on the other hand, we want to be “paid in full” without further obligation, a market exchange will make sense. This does not mean that a market exchange disallows affection and gratitude or a gift exchange disallows freedom and independence. It just means that each kind of exchange will tend to promote a different result.

Remember my opening story—the mother at her son’s funeral who asked me, “What do I owe you?” Since I wanted to initiate ties of affection and gratitude between us, I answered, “Please accept my work as a gift.” She did so and said, “Thank you,” and our relationship deepened in a particular way as a result of that gift exchange. Remember, she could have said, “Nonsense. Here’s a check for two hundred dollars.” Paid in full! No further obligation! Market exchange! No relationship necessary! The nature of what we want to give and receive from one another shapes our exchanges, and our exchanges shape our relationships.
Congregations, 2010-10-01

Fall 2010, Number 4