by Loren Seibold | 30 November 2023
A question arose not long ago in a Facebook group that Carmen and I follow: should a pastor, someone asked, check his church members’ contribution records to make sure they are giving faithful tithes and offerings?
I was a bit alarmed by how many of my pastoral colleagues who commented thought it was a good and necessary thing to do.
I don’t. It offends me. Furthermore, it is an unbiblical way of handling charitable giving.
I first checked the Church Manual. It’s been awhile since I’ve studied that book, and I was surprised again at how weirdly specific it is about some matters, while leaving what I consider to be important questions unaddressed.
Mostly, though, this is not a document that (as the saying goes) leaves well enough alone. It reads like what it is: a book of occasionally disconnected rules and expectations assembled by committees over many decades and many meetings.
In regard to giving, it appears that tithing is more important to those who assembled the Church Manual than offerings are. The reason should be self-evident: those who proposed these rules receive tithes, but not offerings! Thus, tithe paying is a holy financial duty, while local congregational offerings have less importance.
As for the pastor’s checking the treasurer’s records, the guidelines are confusing. It says that all congregational officers and pastors are required to pay their tithe.
All officers shall set an example in the matter of returning a faithful tithe to the Church. Anyone who fails to set such an example shall not be elected to church office (p.77).
So it appears that someone other than the treasurer will have access to giving records. Yet the same book also says that giving should remain confidential:
Elders should regard all financial matters pertaining to members as confidential and shall not give such information to unauthorized persons (p.80).
The treasurer should always remember that relations with individual members are strictly confidential. … Great harm may be caused by failure to observe this rule (p.91).
Good luck with that. My experience is that information in a “confidential” committee is like water in a wicker basket: it runs through as fast as it’s poured in. Someone always tells someone, sooner rather than later.
But it’s not going to be me
Early on, I decided that what my church members gave was none of my business. Here’s why.
First: you’re grown-ups. You know what the church needs, and you know that if you want it to succeed, you should contribute to it. I’m not your daddy or your nanny. We’re adults and should treat one another that way.
When I addressed the matter of giving to my churches (I personally dislike the word “stewardship”—it’s an ugly, obscure word that implies unpleasant duty rather than generosity), I said that I wouldn’t ask the treasurer about anyone’s giving. I would instead tell everyone up front what the church needed, and if they believed in it, they should give.
Second, the New Testament says that giving should be “willing.” Not only did Paul specify “cheerful” giving—not grudgingly or under pressure—but when he collected offerings he made a case for why he needed the money.
Third, I don’t think checking on people’s giving and scolding them about it actually works. I like my privacy; if a pastor scolded me about my tithe, I would no longer let him be my pastor.
So what works better? Telling people that the church needs the support of the congregation, of which you’re a member, and reminding them that if we don’t get it we can’t carry on.
Fourth, it puts those who are making the judgment in the ridiculous position of having to estimate how much money someone else makes. Not only is it none of their business, it is impossible. It leads to comments like, “Well, look at the house they live in.” That is to say, it brings out ugly qualities like envy under the guise of spiritual concern. When the topic has come up, in my experience, there’s a sort of drooling eagerness among certain folks on nominating committees to dig into other people’s business that I find unpleasant.
I remember one congregation where the elder got his shorts in a knot about another elder’s not paying tithe. So when (under pressure—I was young) I asked the “offender,” it turned out that he knew his fellow elder was unnecessarily nosy, so he was sending his tithe directly to the conference. I guess I didn’t blame him.
Between you and God
Please understand that I’m not taking guilt out of the equation. But it’s not up to the pastor to create the guilt. Pastors should deal with people as mature, rational beings who, when a need is explained, will respond.
Not everyone is mature and rational, but that’s not my problem.
I knew a guy who drove a newish German luxury car and lived in a (back then) half-a-million dollar home, who bragged that he had no income. He’d fiddled his taxes, he proudly told people, and he owed nothing—so he need give nothing to the church, either.
He should have been so very ashamed of saying that aloud—but he didn’t appear to be. I had to admire his chutzpah. All I said to him was, “Man, seriously?” It had no effect on him whatsoever, at which point I realized that he was immune to nuances of generosity and responsibility. Checking his tithe records wouldn’t have helped.
(I also remember that he was the church’s biggest critic and advice-giver.)
But I still say it’s God’s responsibility to make you want to give, and if that includes guilt—because guilt is good for us at times—then I’ll leave it to God to guilt you up real good.
Now, I think we leaders should be quite willing to inform people of needs, and even outright ask them for money. That’s the best way to manage giving, it seems to me. When Paul told people he was collecting for the believers in Jerusalem, he described the need vividly, and left with a purse for the needy. He told them he needed support for his evangelism, too, and we have a record of several long missionary trips.
If you believe in the work, you’ll give. But I’m not going to tell you what God thinks of you: as a responsible adult, you should be able to figure that out. And if you can’t, that’s your character problem, not mine.
Why some won’t tithe
The pioneers of our denomination set up a system they thought was terribly clever, and for about a century, it worked fairly well: they demanded 10% off the top of everyone’s income, paid a local pastor some of it—then had the rest to sink into positions and projects and offices, with little actual accountability.
The result is that if you like your local pastor but you don’t want your money to go to a bloated system with four levels of administration above your congregation, you’re flat outta luck. Because if you give your tithe for your pastor’s sake, you also have to support the conference, the union, the division, and the General Conference.
We recently heard a leader from Silver Spring publicly denounce everyone who doesn’t see things his way, going so far as to ask those who disagree to leave. Can you blame anyone for listening to such a sermon and saying, “I really don’t want to support that man”?
So they quit giving. I understand why.
This tithe scheme appears to still be working, but I fear it won’t forever. The reasons are complicated, but at least one is that wise people resent paying for administrators who tell members that they really quite dislike them and would prefer that they get “shaken out” of “their” perfect church.
Deciding for yourself
Turns out we may not be the first Adventists who don’t like the way the church spends tithe. In a letter to Elder George F. Watson, president of the Colorado Conference, Ellen White wrote that she was using her tithe for her own projects. She wrote,
It had been presented to me for years that my tithe was to be appropriated by myself to aid the white and colored ministers who were neglected and did not receive sufficient properly to support their families [italics added].
Not only did she use her own tithe, but
…if any person shall say to me, Sister White, will you appropriate my tithe where you know it is most needed, I shall say, Yes, I will; and I have done so.
She gave three reasons:
First, there were people in need, and the leaders weren’t doing their duty.
Second, the Lord had given her permission.
Third—and this should be noted particularly—because people had lost faith in the brethren’s judgment to spend their money wisely.
For years there have now and then been persons who have lost confidence in the appropriation of the tithe who have placed their tithe in my hands, and said that if I did not take it they would themselves appropriate it to the families of the most needy minister they could find [italics added].
Ellen White summed it up like this: “Circumstances alter cases.”
Indeed. And I think, in the present circumstance of so very, very many unnecessary levels of church organization, with money spent on sumptuous offices and unnecessary travel, and leaders who demean their church members, God might well ask church members to reach the same conclusion: that they can with good conscience direct their tithe to other “cases” the Lord has presented to them, and not simply drop it into a churning tithe river where there is little accountability.
But I repeat: this is between you and God, not between you and me, or you and any other clergyperson. Be a spiritually responsible adult and make up your own mind. As Paul says, you reap what you sow.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.