I’ve always taken a curious interest in year-end giving.  As December begins, charitable giving is moving into full stride.  Almost every church and organization has opportunities for members to offer hands-on help or give financially to those in need.  I sometimes wonder what would happen if Christmas were in July, separated from the tax implications of year end giving.  Did the early church have any idea that wrapping Christmas and tax-deductible giving in the same package was a stroke of genius?

Having been a local church pastor for many years, I know that most churches receive a huge amount of their money in December, far disproportionate to the rest of the year.  The Christmas message of giving to others as a symbol of God’s great gift to us of Jesus Christ never fails to deliver.  Christians also like to put a human face on Christmas giving by adopting families or schools, taking gifts to homeless shelters or nursing homes, or hand-picking favorite missionary projects for a Christmas Eve offering.

What gnaws at my soul, however, is that through all of this “second mile giving,” we sometimes neglect our “first mile giving.”  By focusing on the special projects, we forget about honoring our prior commitments.  This plays out in our church life and in our connectional life.

As disciples of Jesus Christ and members of local United Methodist churches, our parishioners promise to support the church by their prayers, presence, gifts and service.  Most local churches ask their members to pledge every year to financially support the ministries of the church.

Gary and I have always preached and practiced tithing, the goal of giving at least 10% of our income to the church.  That 10% is built into our family budget and is non-negotiable.  Our pledge is automatically sent to the church every month, just like we pay our mortgage or utilities.  We don’t agonize.  We just do it.  We support other special offerings and charities as well, but our full tithe to the general operating fund of the church is our first priority.  

Every United Methodist church makes the same commitment to the connection as we make to our local church.   As churches, we pledge to contribute a certain percentage of our income to the West Michigan Conference and the Grand Rapids District in order to be in ministry together here in Grand Rapids, around Michigan and all over the world.  Why?  Because we can do far more together than we can alone.

Unfortunately, not all of our churches honor their first-mile giving commitments before moving on to the second mile.  I’ve heard all the reasons: declining membership; hard economic times; paying off the mortgage on a building addition; protests over conference decisions; deciding between paying ministry shares or reducing staff; wanting to choose mission projects rather than having them chosen for the church. 

I don’t want to minimize the financial hardships many churches face.  There is a lot of honest struggling going on.  However, if churches cannot honor their pledge to the conference, I wonder about advertising special offerings for other purposes.  By definition, we cannot go the second mile until we’ve completed the first mile.  First things first. 

Consider these 2006 Grand Rapids District statistics as of November 30:

73.56               Percentage of ministry shares/district apportionments paid by district churches: we should be at 92%.

27                    Number of churches (out of 69) who have paid less than 75% of ministry                         shares/district apportionments so far

$323,035.00    Amount we are behind right now

$466,517.00    Total amount needed to fulfill 2006 pledges

A few statistics from 2005:

89.25               Percentage of ministry shares/GR district apportionments paid for the year

$199,869         Amount we were short for the year

$132,990         Amount district churches contributed to Katrina relief

I certainly understand the importance of giving to Katrina relief.  What a blessing we have been to those in great need.  Yet when churches say they cannot afford to pay their ministry shares/apportionments but can find money for other purposes, I wonder.  The giving seems hollow if we give at the expense of other worthy ministries who are counting on but do not receive the money we have already pledged.  I’ve seen the effect first-hand.  It can be devastating.

Times are tough, but I believe the money is there.  As pastors, we need to preach, teach and live out of a theology of abundance, not scarcity.  You face difficult choices about how to encourage your congregations to give, especially at Christmas.  Never forget, however, that your congregations look to you to provide a vision and set the example for ministry in your local church.

Would you dare to invite your congregation to make a special Christmas gift toward ministry shares/district apportionments if you are behind?  Would you go even further to say that your congregation will not take any other mission offerings until the first mile giving is completed?  I will hold your decision-making in my prayers.  I’d love to hear your stories. 

Blessings, Laurie

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