Your Money and Your Life (the Sequel)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

TithesLook closely. There is always an opportunity to practice generosity. There is always a chance, no matter what burden we carry, to give of ourselves. The more I reflect on this truth, the more I realize that being fully human—being whole—demands that we practice generosity. Our hearts are meant to be open, spacious, and roomy. Our hands are meant to help. Our goodness, compassion and love are meant to pour out. An open and generous heart is the hallmark of a well-lived spiritual life. It should come as no surprise, then, that one of the highest outward manifestations of any religion is generosity! When we take our Unitarian Universalist principles seriously, when we let them guide our living, generosity is the natural outcome.

Those are, with some adaptation, words from a sermon I preached in 2003, entitled, “Your Money and Your Life.” It was a sermon about giving money to the church. It was about tithing, about giving a certain percentage of your money to the church. It was ambitious for the newly installed minister who had only been on the job for four months to preach about tithing to Unitarian Universalists who historically and generally speaking have been wary of the concept and, frankly, have been somewhat reserved—especially in New England—when it comes to asking for money. Well friends, I am still ambitious, not only for myself and my values, not only  for our congregation and its mission, but for Unitarian Universalism and its capacity to change the world. And because I am ambitious I want to revisit that sermon from 2003, especially the part about tithing. We launch our 2016 Annual Appeal this weekend. The Policy Board, with my support, has set an ambitious goal—an increase of 6% over last year—and I’m feeling ambitious, which really means I’m feeling incredibly positive, hopeful, excited and joyful about our ability to raise the money we need to provide great worship, great religious education for children, youth and adults, great pastoral care, great opportunities for connecting and building community, great social and environmental justice activism, great leadership development, great concerts, art shows and guest speakers.

When I began my ministry I was clueless about congregational fundraising. There were courses about fundraising in seminary, but I didn’t pay attention. Some people love fundraising, but there’s something in me that cringes when it comes to asking for money. It didn’t help that the congregation I served as a student had a nearly $10 million endowment at the time (this was during the dot-com bubble). The interest from that endowment, along with a number of very lucrative rental agreements, provided annual revenues far above what the congregation’s members and friends were giving every year. Stephany and I were living on her part-time salary in those years. We felt we had no money to give to the church, and nobody asked us. I learned a lot during those years, and I am forever grateful for what I learned; but I didn’t learn how to do fundraising and, even more importantly, I didn’t learn the value of making a financial gift to the congregation I love.

It wasn’t until a few years after seminary that I attended a workshop by a Unitarian Universalist fundraising consultant named Mike Durall. I remember him making a distinction between low expectation and high expectation congregations. High expectation congregations ask their members and friends to make a commitment. Low expectation congregations don’t High expectation congregations have a strong vision for their future. Low expectation congregations don’t. High expectation congregations talk about money, and directly ask their members and friends to tithe. Low expectation congregations don’t. Durall said he found it difficult to work with Unitarian Universalist congregations because so often he experienced them as low expectation congregations. He liked working with High Expectation congregations like the Mormons. He said we could learn a lot from the Mormons.

I had two transformative insights that day. One had to do with how I conduct my ministry. I realized that I was setting low expectations. I was operating as if my job as a minister is to set an example of what it means to be a committed Unitarian Universalist, and then trust that people would just naturally follow my example, and naturally they would all want to do that. That assumption was misinformed for a number of reasons. First, just setting an example and leaving it up to lay people to decide whether or not to follow without actually inviting them to follow is about the lowest expectation one can set. If I want people to do something, I need to motivate them to do something. I need to invite, ask, arm-twist, cajole, organize, empower. Furthermore, as a staff member with a seminary education and the title Rev. in front of my name, there are ways of being a Unitarian Universalist that I can pursue precisely because my job gives me the authority and the time to do so. Lay people who have rich, busy, and often demanding lives outside the congregation, in so many instances, can’t follow my example even if they want to. Thus my role as a minister is not to set an example for everyone to follow, but rather to work with people to discern what being a committed Unitarian Universalist means to them, asking them directly to make that commitment, and then supporting them in keeping that commitment.

The second insight had to do with money—my money specifically. Mike Durall said, essentially, your congregation ought to be the place in your life that expresses your highest, dearest, deepest values. It ought to be the place you come back to week after week to hear those values proclaimed in a world that is in so many ways antagonistic to them. It ought to be the place that helps you keep those values at the center of your life. “Keep fresh before me the moments of my high resolve,” said Howard Thurman, “that in good times and in tempests, I may not forget that to which my life is committed.”[1] Church ought to do that for you. And then Durall asked, what’s a church like that worth? I knew the answer in my bones: it is worth everything. Our highest, dearest, deepest values matter immensely. Shouldn’t we have the highest expectations possible of the institution we ask to uphold, proclaim and act on those values? “Yes, yes, yes,” I shouted out. Others did too. And shouldn’t that institution have high expectations of us as well? Shouldn’t it elevate us, raise us up? Shouldn’t it call on us to bring those values into the world every day of our lives? “Yes, yes, yes.” And if we’re going to have high expectations of our beloved church, shouldn’t we be giving as generously as possible so that the church can do what we need it to do?” “Yes, yes, yes!”

But then, to myself: “Ohhh, wait a minute. Something is wrong here. I am an ordained, fellowshipped Unitarian Universalist minister. I have just completed a nearly $50,000 graduate degree in order to become a minister. I am dedicating my life to Unitarian Universalism and the congregations I serve. I expect Unitarian Universalist congregations to be there for my children and grandchildren, to provide them with the same, open-minded, spiritually-grounded, justice-seeking religious education I was blessed to receive as a child. I am relying on Unitarian Universalism to participate in and, when necessary, lead the national conversations on environmental justice, racial justice, economic justice, gender justice, marriage equality. I am counting on Unitarian Universalism to be there for all the milestones in my family’s life—births, dedications, affirmations, marriages, deaths. When I die I fully expect a Unitarian Universalist minister will officiate my memorial service. I look to Unitarian Universalism to elevate me, to raise me up. I proudly proclaim myself a Unitarian Universalist. My life depends on this, and yet I am giving less than half a percent of my annual income to the church.” This utter disconnect hit me so hard I had to leave the room to collect myself. My expectations of myself changed radically that day, from low to high. I am forever grateful to Mike Durall for challenging me to rethink my financial commitment to my beloved faith.

I’m reminded of an old image—I suppose it’s from old movies: the robber sneaks up from behind and says, “your money or your life!” It’s always presented as a choice: your money or your life. But we know that’s not what the robber means. The robber is not saying, “either give me all your money, or let me kill you, and in that case you can keep your money.” The robber doesn’t actually separate our money out from our lives. And similarly, we cannot talk authentically about generous living without talking about money. It’s not a real choice. So let’s transform the image. If generosity—including financial generosity—is the hallmark of a well-lived spiritual life, then I reason that our capacity to be generous gives us greater life! Our capacity to give of our money is part of what makes us whole. It is not a choice—our money or our life. It is a shift in perspective: through generosity we live our lives to their fullest; we become fully human; we fulfill the promise of our principles. Our money and our life.

Most of you know what tithing is. I believe it originated in the Ancient Near East. It appears in the Hebrew book of Genesis as a tribute paid to a secular leader, an offering given to the priests and the temple, or as a gift given directly to God. The Patriarchs Abraham and Jacob both, at different times, pledge one tenth of everything they have. Abraham pledged one tenth to King Melchizidek of Salem after winning a battle. Jacob, in the story we heard earlier, pledged one tenth to God after God visits him in a dream. But tithes are not always one tenth. Often the amount isn’t specified. In the Christian New Testament, as far as I can tell, there is no mandate to share one tenth, though there are many admonishments to give freely, promises that the giver shall be rewarded, and reminders that God loves a cheerful giver.

I don’t think Unitarian Universalists will ever become like the Mormons. It certainly isn’t likely that our congregation will establish a formal expectation of tithing. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have high expectations. We do. We ask that you consider what it would mean to give a certain percentage of your income or wealth to UUS:E every year. What would it mean to give 10%? What would it mean to give 7%, 5%, 3%? Can you commit to a certain percentage every year? And can you commit to increasing that percentage over time? This is important to me, because a congregation whose members tithe can be very powerful—can provide any ministry, serve any constituency, offer any program, achieve any vision. Anything. And by my best guess—and I think this is conservative—if every single one of us tithed at 10%, our annual congregational income would be over $1.5 million. That’s exciting to contemplate! Dream with me for a moment. Our mortgage would be gone! Our endowment could grow by a few hundred thousand dollars every year with no extra appeals. We would have money abundantly available to members who fall on financial hard times. We could fill all our staffing needs and pay excellent salaries and benefits. And imagine how our values could be put to work in the wider world, by making generous grants to organizations and people in the community whose work is consistent with UU principles, by founding new service organizations to meet unmet needs, and by supporting social and environmental justice campaigns that change the world. And we would never have to do another extra fundraiser!

I am dreaming. So let’s make it a little more realistic. Let’s cut back from 10% to 5%, a half tithe. What if we raised around $750,000 dollars every year? Every piece of the dream I just named would still be entirely possible—on a smaller scale, yes, but entirely possible. I think it’s worth dreaming. And I think it’s worth asking “What is it worth?” That’s our theme for this year’s appeal. What is it worth? That church that affirms your values, proclaims your values, acts on your values, and calls you to do that same—what is it worth? That church that offers a safe and familiar place to rest, to breathe, to heal, to rejuvenate, to connect, to commune—what is it worth? That church that offers a challenging place to question, to reason, to think and rethink, to feel, to intuit, to grow—what is it worth? That church that strives to provide your children and grandchildren with religious learning opportunities not through the rote memorization of catechisms and insinuations of guilt, but through experiences of wonder and awe, comfort, love, trust, gratitude and joy—what is it worth? That church that responds when you or your family are in crisis and need a helping hand, a supportive presence, a ride, a meal, a prayer, a conversation, a memorial service—what is it worth? That church that puts itself out there and fights in a principled, respectful way for economic justice, gender justice, racial justice, environmental justice—what is it worth? That church that keeps fresh before you the moments of your High Resolve, so that in good times and in tempests, you will not forget that to which your life is committed”[2]—what is it worth?

I know 5% is unrealistic for many. Even in good economic times, 5% is hard to imagine. And that is why we don’t formally ask anyone to tithe. It’s ultimately a personal and private decision on your part. Stephany and I have pledged $6,000 to UUS:E this year, which is just short of 5% of our adjusted gross income from last year. Many of you strive to tithe—3%, 5%. Some higher. Thank you. And for those of you who don’t, I ask simply you consider what it would mean. What is it worth? We need you. We have high expectations. You have high expectations of UUS:E. And UUS:E has high expectations of you. Let’s have a great Annual Appeal. May our financial gifts be a measure of the high expectations we hold. May we give generously. May our money and our lives go hand in hand.

Amen and Blessed be.

[1] Thurman, Howard, “In the Quietness of This Place,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #498.

[2] Thurman, Howard, “In the Quietness of This Place,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #498.