This is counter-intuitive in a world where most organizations, including churches, start their budget cycle with overhead expenses — buildings, personnel, and equipment — and then calculate what it will take to meet those expenses.
It’s true that overhead can’t be ignored. Any organization that doesn’t pay its bills won’t be in business for long. But we should start with imagining and giving.
What’s the most we can imagine doing in the next twelve months? Or, to follow an even better vision/horizon, the next five years? What’s the cost of allowing imagination to bear fruit? How will lives be changed?
Then we need to get honest about our giving. Most churches stop at “survival giving,” generally in an ethos of charitable giving. People give what they figure is required for the church to survive another year. Often they factor in the benefit they expect to receive.
A better stewardship approach is “harvest giving.” Measure the harvest in one’s life, and dedicate a portion of that harvest to God through gifts to God’s “temple.” The question then isn’t the survival calculus of overhead expenses, but the worthiness of this temple, or that temple, to receive one’s tithe. That determination flows from mission and health, not from a stack of paid or unpaid bills.
I doubt that our congregations will ever accomplish much until they teach people how to tithe and until they demonstrate mission and ministry worthy of receiving a tithe.
Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus,” and the founder of the Church Wellness Project.