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Oh, It’s Tuesday: The Church and Money

Photo Credit: Kendra Malloy

Photo Credit: Kendra Malloy

An interesting thing happened at church the other day. For the first time ever, I almost completely disagreed with a sermon. It started off with a moral-lesson story from the reverend about how she decided to treat herself to a concert in another city, because she “worked hard and deserved it.” After finding cheap airfare and arranging to stay with friends, the concert was canceled, which she took as a a sign that she had been sinfully overindulgent.

I was stunned. 1) This seemed like a perfectly reasonable expense to me for a working mother and pastor who probably doesn’t do much for herself. And 2) standing in an aisle with other mothers who were trying to calm fussy babies while our partners listened to the sermon, I thought it was a dangerous message to send to moms who already overextend themselves in every aspect of their lives save for themselves. Just once, I would like to hear a sermon that urged mothers to take some time for themselves. Seriously, I’ve been to a lot of church services in my day, and I’ve never heard any aimed at overextended mothers, though I imagine that they’re a high percentage of most congregations.

This message was then followed by a sermon on prioritizing your money, in which it was suggested with a straight face that we make giving offerings and/or tithing our first priority above budgeting and creating a rainy day fund. Another piece of dangerous advice in my opinion and so self-serving on the church’s part that it made it hard for me to listen to the rest of the very good points in the sermon about creating a budget (which we totally need to do).

Having two week’s beforehand gone to another United Methodist sermon on money in St. Louis, in which the message was literally printed on the bulletin as “Are You Giving Until it Hurts?” and it was preached that if you weren’t giving until it hurts then you weren’t giving enough; I wondered if the church (in general) is fully equipped to talk with their congregants about money.

Now I do believe that everyone at every income level should find some way to be altruistic, whether it is with time or money, but I’m also a big believer in putting the oxygen mask on yourself before trying to help others. That is, if you’re in deep debt, I think your first priority should be making a budget and a rainy day fund THEN giving money to the church or whatever cause you deem worthy. In fact, I think a big reason to get financially healthy is to gain the ability to give more money and time to the causes you care about.

Also, considering that most churches ask their congregants for money every Sunday, in oral and printed form, I doubt that they truly believe that we really need extra messaging about giving. In many cases it seems that churches want more of our money in depressed times, while not increasing the services they offer congregants. It should be noted that I don’t believe my church to be one of those cases, as I’ve been impressed with the array of workshops and classes they’ve offered in response to our current economic crisis. But having seen how little some churches are doing in this regard, I wonder if they’re an exception.

It just seems like many churches feel that congregants need to be guilt-tripped right now, and I really don’t think that’s a very sensitive response to what’s going on with people. Telling an overwhelmed mother that indulgence is wrong doesn’t help. Telling an audience dealing with financial issues that they need to figure out how to give more doesn’t help.

I’ve no doubt that giving to my particular church is a worthy cause. I love the programs that they offer their congregants and the community at large. However, instead of churches continuously asking if their congregants are doing enough for the church in these tough financial times, I think many of them would do well to ask if they are doing enough for their congregants. I’d take their criticism more seriously if they were examining themselves as thoroughly as they seem to be examining what we are putting in the offering plate.