Electric railroads generally provide locomotive power to train engines by means of a high voltage conductor following the tracks. It’s called the third rail. If for some reason you’d get on the tracks of an electric train and touch that third rail, you’d die. It’s become a political metaphor for any issue so highly charged that a lawmaker dare not address it, even if something must be done, for fear of killing his or her career.
One of the third rails of Adventist policy is how to manage tithes and offerings. The case for a tithe is fairly well stated in the Old Testament, in passages such as Malachi 3:8,10 . Our interpretation is that the tithe was for the support of the priests — in our case, licensed ministers — and since our ministry is paid through the structure of the church, it’s church administration that should receive it and distribute it. Critics say that there’s no evidence that the “storehouse” of Malachi 3 is the denominational structure, and could just as well be the local church.
I don’t know if the Seventh-day Adventist church is doing it right, but it’s how we’ve always done it, and given the size and nature of our church structure, and the many years it has been this way, I don’t think it could be changed no matter the argument in its favor.
I have a related concern, though, that we may be able address: the way giving is communicated and managed in the Seventh-day Adventist church is flat-out confusing and confounding. I hear it frequently from pastors, and have heard denominational leaders admit it, too.
When I came to Ohio a new member showed me the tithe envelope that is supplied by the conference office, and asked me to interpret it for her. “What does all this stuff mean?” she asked. “Which of these should I give money to?” The problem wasn’t hard to see: listed were ten funds and projects, starting with tithe, and ending with some blank lines to write in something of your own. Furthermore, the names on some of the lines (like “ingathering”) probably wouldn’t mean much to anyone who didn’t have a history in the church. To make it even less friendly, the conference placed their internal accounting line numbers at the beginning of some of the items!
It was an insiders document, not designed to make giving easy. Our local treasurer admitted to me that a few members just put $10 on every line each week. We finally printed our own somewhat simplified envelope.
During a discussion about giving at a pastors’ meeting, one young pastor with a small, long-established church raised his hand and said, “I just tell my people to pay their tithe faithfully. If they they have money left over, they can give to the church.” In his situation, he could do that. His church hadn’t had a mortgage for 60 years. There was no church school, no office or secretary, and the HVAC was turned off all week.
We, on the other hand, had built a $5.5 million church and a $2 million school. If my associate and I didn’t promote our local projects, we’d go under quickly.
When I call for the offering, I always remind people of the costs of running the local church and church school. But when I do, I feel like I’m implying a competition with the conference for the money — and the part the conference gets is what pays my salary!
The complication from a pastor's point of view is that in Adventist culture (if not doctrine) the tithe is the important part of giving — what God insists that you pay. Offerings, though they're also mentioned in Fundamental Belief #21, aren't as crisply defined as tithe, and so are often considered optional.
That’s assuming people are even aware that there’s a difference. I’ve heard church members say, when I’d mentioned the local church budget, “Pastor, I’m doing my part for the budget. I pay my tithe on every paycheck.” I’m pleased they’re paying tithe, of course — I do like getting a salary. Yet it’s clear that as hard as we've tried to communicate it, we've apparently not been able to make some understand that there's a difference between giving to the local church and giving to the denomination.
A few church members take the list of choices to its logical extreme. Using those many lines, they direct their gifts only to items they're interested in. I know people who only give to local budget, or only to worthy student fund, or only to write-in projects like upgrading the AV system. Some even create their own projects, such as the man who for years wrote “carillon” on his envelope, even though we had no intention of installing chimes in our church steeple. (Treasurers shouldn’t accept such gifts, though some do.) But if we present people with a list, and a lot of blank lines, should we be surprised when people choose their favorite target? It's more fun to give to a project you like than to chip in for the water bill or the pastor's salary.
Education is part of the answer, and we pastors try. Our new offering envelope is designed to be instructive: we put the local giving and the “away” giving in two separate columns, and explained each.
My point is that consumer-friendly organizations avoid making too complicated and arcane the process of parting with your money. Imagine if it were as complicated to buy something at Target as it is to figure out the tithe envelope! (That may be one reason our parachurch and independent ministries do so well. You don’t have to be an accountant to figure out how to give to The Voice of Prophecy. You just send a check.)
Is there solution? I think it could only help both congregations and denomination to find one. The danger will be that as soon as we open this conversation, we’ll begin to stumble up against that third rail, because you can’t talk about simplification without talking about offerings vs. tithe, local giving vs. denominational giving.
But we can make giving simpler than we have — and we should!
1. Interestingly, nowhere is tithing unambiguously recommended in the New Testament. It is mentioned, but usually in the context of an Old Testament story or rule.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2378