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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Money and generosity

Columns to focus on giving from Lutheran theological, biblical perspective

Editor’s note: This series is intended to be a public conversation among teaching theologians of the ELCA on various themes of our faith and the challenging issues of our day. It invites readers to engage in dialogue by posting comments online at the end of each article at www.thelutheran.org.

The series is edited by Philip D.W. Krey, president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, on behalf of the presidents of the eight ELCA seminaries.

As my editing for this series draws to a close, given that I am retiring, the essays in “Deeper understandings” over the next months will address perhaps one of the most challenging topics we have yet considered: money and generosity.

For some time the church, the courts and society in general have worked rigorously on the issue of human sexuality, with the church, in particular, addressing the biblical and theological issues that pertain. This generated great controversy because we weren’t adept at talking theologically about sex and sexual identity. But we are learning to be more comfortable as we work faithfully together with the Scriptures, our confessions and our rich theological tradition.

Offering plate

We have been less willing to discuss the role of money in the church and culture. Like sexuality it has been considered a topic for private conversation. Both are good gifts of God, given us in creation, and both can become destructive idols.

As we discovered in our discussion about human sexuality, our reticence to talk about things publicly and in the church may have negative consequences for our neighbors. Our fear of members’ responses to sermons or presentations on money makes it hard to speak publicly from a Lutheran theological and biblical perspective.

But the Bible and our catechism contain more passages and references to the abundant gifts we have received from God and our stewardship of them than references to sexuality. Many of Jesus’ parables and teachings were about money, yet in the average congregation the only time one hears anything about money is during the annual stewardship emphasis, if there is one. 

There is more to stewardship and generosity than money. We know this. But it’s easier to talk about time and talents (though we don’t do those as well as we ought either). So we have asked this column’s writers over the next few months to focus on a theology of giving money to the mission of Christ’s church from a Lutheran theological and biblical perspective. 

We have many resources in our tradition to have regular healthy conversations and deliberations about what we should do with the financial resources that God has given us out of pure goodness. God gives, and we give freely out of thankfulness.

Consider the fourth petition in the Lord’s Prayer and Martin Luther’s explanation in the Small Catechism of “Give us today our daily bread.” 

Bread for good and evil

“What does this mean? In fact, God gives daily bread without our prayer, even to all evil people, but we ask in this prayer that God cause us to recognize what our daily bread is and to receive it with thanksgiving” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 1163).

What does “daily bread” mean? “Everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like” (ELW, 1164).

One could also respond to God’s goodness and mercy by living out Luther’s explanation of the first article of the creed, thanking, praising, serving and obeying God  (ELW, 1162).

I was taught from childhood to budget so I could give one-tenth of what I received right off the top in thanksgiving to the church. In good Lutheran fashion the expectation was in no way legalistic but a gift of Christian joyful freedom.

Over the years my wife and I learned to respond thankfully to God’s abundant generosity from laypeople who gave intentionally, generously and regularly. They taught us to respond to God’s abundant grace by giving a generous percentage of our income and grow toward 10 percent or more. These generous givers wanted to support the mission of their congregation, their synod and the churchwide office.

My wife and I were inspired by them to commit 10 percent off the top of our income even when we made only $7,000 per year. In fact, the more we made over time the more challenging giving 10 percent became, but the joy of supporting God’s mission through the church has motivated us to continue. It has helped our budgeting because we had to be careful about the 90 percent and donate some of that to our favorite charities: our seminaries, the many church institutions we love and a few key secular causes. 

Research has shown that ELCA members on average give about 1.8 percent of their income in regular offerings to their congregations. There is a lot of room for growth — and lots to talk about. How much mission and ministry are we leaving unsupported?

Many people want to give to the causes and charities of their choosing in a designated way. There are no two ways about it: this is the trend and the church needs to recognize it if it wants to compete for resources with all the other charitable causes that demand members’ attention and support.

There is a cost to this trend, as regular giving through the offering plate diminishes and we have turned generosity into charity. The result is that giving has become more atomized and targeted. It’s no wonder that we find ourselves besieged by mailings and phone appeals from charities. When every part of the church and society needs to make its own case for its ministries, the case may be clear but it’s expensive to have to spend valuable financial and human resources on marketing and development.

It also forces us to accept the growing disparities in wealth in our church and turns all giving into charitable choice, where those who have the most can control the medium and the message. God was pretty clear to Job and the prophets that God’s grace and mercy was all the case that needed be made.

Ministry dislocations

In addition, when regular, intentional and percentage giving is replaced more and more by designated giving, dislocations occur in the church’s mission and ministry.

As this is a series sponsored by the seminary presidents, it’s important to know that, while giving by individuals is vital, church institutions like the schools receive less and less in grants from synods and churchwide because those expressions of the church receive less from congregational regular mission support.

Seminaries have had to increase tuition in response, and students have to borrow more. We have downloaded the cost of leadership onto our students who are so stretched financially that most of our schools have food pantries. Congregations become alarmed and support these food banks in a charitable way. 

There is something not right about this picture to an old steward like myself. I would think the church would know that seminaries produce pastors of the gospel of Jesus Christ and other leaders for our congregations and agencies. We want to give to local charities of our choosing with our money — and we should. But it should be above and beyond our generous, faithful and intentional (percentage) giving to our congregations.

Congregations then need to give generously to their synods in mission support so synods have adequate resources for the church’s institutions and its global and domestic ministries. The synods in turn send generous amounts to the churchwide office, which also provides grants for global and domestic ministries and the ELCA’s eight seminaries.

It’s a neat system, but it begins with our joyful, intentional, regular and generous response to the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.


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