Icon (Close Menu)

Alms from the church

When I arrived at St. Dunstan’s 11 years ago, one issue that dogged me came during the vestry meeting that approved a particular part of the next year’s budget: the amount of money the parish would give away. We were conflicted. How much should we spend on expanding our worship and deepening its excellence, teaching the gospel and bringing our members into the apostolic fellowship, and caring for those sick in body or spirit — in short, our parish program — and how much should we spend on our call to seek and serve “the least of these” and on supporting the mission of the diocese?

Our perplexity and vexation became especially acute when a lingering resentment of the denomination’s institutions (from the events of 2003 onward) combined with the financial constraints imposed by the Great Recession. Some wanted to eliminate giving to ministry beyond our parish altogether — including the diocese, consequences be damned — and others were insistent that staff members should be laid off before we backed off any of our customary commitments. Without a settled way to navigate between a skinflint Scylla and suicidal Charybdis, we seemed destined to please no one and disappoint everyone. Prudence, it turned out, was a poor substitute for principle.

I think this conflict touched on a basic issue: to what extent is the Church the object of almsgiving, versus a giver of alms as a corporate expression of its members’ commitment to evangelical imperatives? The tithe is customarily presented as a biblically rooted “Christian standard of (individual) giving,” but nearly universally with the expectation that those resources are going to the parish. What I have not heard, though, is a biblically rooted standard of parish giving, outlining a principled way of deciding how much of God’s money should be passed through the parish and on to other ministries beyond its campus and membership.

We teach our people that household stewardship should not be a response to the needs of the parish budget, but rather a reflection of gratitude for what they have received from God. We don’t ask parishioners to react positively or negatively to an assigned share of the cost of running the church, but to give proportionately from what they have in proactive discipleship. I took it as a leadership challenge to apply those stewardship lessons to our corporate life as a parish and develop a principle of generosity to which we could aspire.

My first priority was to discover a scriptural narrative or injunction that we could actualize. Old Testament scholar Brevard Childs describes actualization of a text as the set of discrete practices through which the writings of the Old Testament were made into lived realities among the people of God. For example, the Passover narrative was actualized through the ritual of the Passover meal, in which the historical event was not only remembered, but also made a present reality through the kinderfrage — “Why is this night different from all other nights?” — and eating the lamb precisely in the way described by the Exodus text. Through such practices of actualization, the saving presence of God was made transformatively present in the concrete lives of those who read the text corporately and liturgically. For Childs, this is what it means for the Old Testament to be more than simply a historical text — for it to become Scripture.

As I moved from the tithe and its actualization in individual stewardship, I began to think about the sabbatical year and its provision for the poor. In Leviticus 25, the Sabbath expands to include the land: “the land shall observe a Sabbath for the Lord.” Instead of days, the land measures time in seasons, or years of growth, as it “works” to feed Israel. Six years it will labor to give its yield for the life of the people, but “in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land” (Lev. 25:2, 4). In this seventh year, God’s people are to eat from the saved surplus of the prior six.

However, one would only have a surplus if one actually owned a farm. So how are the poor to eat? Leviticus gives the answer: “You may eat what the land yields [of itself] during its sabbath.” And the beneficiaries of what God naturally causes to grow are specifically enumerated: “your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound laborers who live with you; for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land” (Lev. 25:5-7, 19-22). The sabbatical year’s growth is for the poor. Deuteronomy 15 underscores the justice orientation of the sabbatical year by adding the cancellation of debts to its enjoined “rest.” The whole created order — symbolized by the domestic and wild animals — is to enjoy God’s good work and provision during the sabbatical year.

So how could St. Dunstan’s actualize the sabbatical year? It would be an unusually well-disciplined parish that would set aside a surplus for six years, and then live off of that while giving everything it collected in the seventh year to outreach ministries. But what about setting aside one-seventh every year and giving that away to ministry beyond our campus? That would be a way to actualize the sabbatical year: every year would participate in a provision for the poor and those who could or would not “pay us back” in terms of attendance or giving.

Starting in fiscal year 2012, we began setting aside one-seventh of our operating revenues to give away to ministries beyond our campus, including the ministry of the diocesan office, which is so important to smaller parishes. We call this the “Sabbatical Portion,” and it has become a key consideration in our budget planning and a significant way for us to tie our teaching on stewardship on the individual and parish level to a biblical principle. We now have an agreed-upon way to decide the “right” amount for our parish to give away to other ministries.

A special opportunity to actualize an additional and related Old Testament passage is now presenting itself. Providentially, St. Dunstan’s 50th anniversary is coming in June 2018: we will have a jubilee. Again, in Leviticus, the year of jubilee was added as a beautiful coda to sabbatical rhythms. When the people of God observed a perfect cycle of seven sabbatical years, they were to “hallow the fiftieth year and … proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.” All returned to their family and farm, requiring a supreme cancellation of debt, since being sold for debt was the chief cause of an Israelite’s fall into slavery. And it was to be applied to all of Israel’s inhabitants, which would have to include foreigners, as well. Now all “shall eat only what the field itself produces.” In the jubilee year, all were equally dependent on God’s good grace and provision (25:8-12).

In the jubilee, Eden was actualized.

As I thought about how to mark and celebrate this milestone, I became more and more convinced that our blessings and celebration should be a blessing and cause for celebration for other ministries and especially for the poor. We are all equally dependent on God’s unmerited grace. In challenging the parish to a cumulative effort of generosity, I was committed to rooting our goal in the concrete, lived history of the parish just as the Sabbath, sabbatical year, and jubilee were rooted in the historical experience of Israel.

Second, I decided this milestone would need to include all of our blessings, not just the “operating” ones: the monies given to buy the land, build the buildings, fund memorials. All of it. With the help of my business manager, I embarked on a research project involving our parochial reports and the diocesan journals going all the way back to our days as a small fellowship meeting in a house in 1968. For every year, we calculated both our gross operating and capital revenues and our giving to the diocese and other charitable appeals. Fortunately, our parish and the diocese kept great records! For each year, we figured out what the sabbatical portion was and how much the parish had given away, carrying balances from year to year and adjusting for inflation.

In the end, we discovered that the parish had been remarkably generous relative to its operating budget over its entire history: that is something we can truly celebrate in our jubilee. However, when the cost of the land and buildings were included, we “owe” $655,000 in present dollars to our cumulative “jubilee” goal. In a parish meeting, this is precisely what St. Dunstan’s committed itself to raise by the end of our Jubilee Year on Dec. 31.

We have embarked on a capital campaign for others: to give away to ministries as diverse as our diocesan camp’s expansion, to water filters in the Dominican Republic, to new summer reading books for schoolchildren, to opening our own homelessness day center in a strip mall — all in order to actualize the vision offered to God’s people by the sabbatical and Jubilee years and provide a blessing to many ministries beyond St. Dunstan’s.

Giving from the parish from the funds given to the parish is a challenge every church’s leadership must face. Unless it is to be perpetually ad hoc and reactive, a principle involving some element of proportionality must be adopted. I hope that this adaptation of the sabbatical and jubilee traditions becomes as normative for parish stewardship as the tithe is for personal discipleship.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Get Covenant every weekday:


Most Recent

A Ministry of Christlike Service

A sermon for the ordination of deacons, given at Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville, Tennessee, June 1, 2024 Today is...

Only One Future

The story of the Episcopal Church in the modern era is usually reckoned in terms of presiding episcopates,...

At the Heart of All Being

Christ the Logos of Creation: An Essay in Analogical Metaphysics By John Betz Emmaus Academic, 592 pages, $59.95 In this ambitious work,...

What are the Liberal Arts For? The Case of Tom Ripley

Spoilers for Netflix’s Ripley and the Book of Job The liberal arts seem neverendingly threatened, most recently at small...