Friday, April 27, 2012

Generosity Not Just Tithes

For years I've struggled with the idea of tithing. Yeah, I know all about the verses in the Bible about tithing and why and when and whether you tithe on gross or net and all those other things about tithing. Yes, tithing is a critical component of Old Testament theology and practice. Yes, tithing is important for children to understand and it is easy enough for anyone who can move a decimal point to get as to how much they should give back to God. Tithing is for children - not for grown-ups.

I don't like tithing. Never have. Never will. There - I've said it. I don't think tithing should be the basis for adult stewardship education in Christian churches. We're beyond that. Actually, we've been beyond that for about 2,000 years - I'll prove it. Here's my premise - let's stop teaching tithing to adults and really, really teach GENEROSITY.

Tithing is the first step in giving back to God. I think most adults stop at that point and never progress beyond tithing. What Jesus teaches and lives out is much, much more than tithing - it is generosity and that is what God wants and expects from each of us, not just tithing. Too often tithing can end up being a scorecard - yep, done my 10%. God doesn't want just 10%, he wants more; he wants us to step out in faith and dependence on him. While tithing has a place, I don't think it is enough for a mature Christian.

Tithing is mentioned in the New Testament three times.
  • Matthew 23.23 and Luke 11.42: Jesus roundly condemns the Pharisees for being sanctimonious and legalistic, even in their tithing on minutae but forgetting the big picture.
  • Luke 18:12: Jesus mocks a Pharisee who keeps all the commandments, even tithing and fasting, but is less justified before God than a miserable tax collector.
  • Hebrews 7.2-6: Paul tells the story of Abraham's encounter with Melchizidek and the tribute, a tithe, that Abraham gave. Paul is citing history and not writing theology.
Jesus himself didn't have anything good to say about tithing because the Pharisees had made a mockery of it. Like so many other things that the very human Pharisees "legalized" to death, Jesus didn't argue the point but instead came at it from another direction. Jesus emphasized generosity at every turn.
  • He fed 5,000 men (plus women and children) - now that's generous!
  • He brought people back to life and healed people with disablities
  • He taught people like they'd never been taught before
  • He gave of himself till he was exhausted from the crowds
  • He died as the ultimate sacrifice and sign of generosity
In fact, the only instance I can find (based on my memory, mind you) of God being selfish is God's demand that humans not worship anyone else (including money). That's it. All the other words spoken by God relate to his giving nature and generous spirit. God does chastize people for their selfishness and spiritual immaturity but otherwise God is all about giving - from creating Eden (Genesis) to creating heaven (Revelation).

How does this translate to our churches today? Glad you asked!

Teach tithing to children. There are fundamental principles in tithing and of the relationship between what we have (time, talent, and treasure) and how those gifts should be given back to God. By all means, teach tithing to minors. But from middle school age kids up to 120 year olds, tithing takes a back seat to generosity. Big G is now the ruler - nothing trumps generosity. Tithing has the pitfall of becoming a scorecard - generosity has no negative connotations!

Well, how much is generosity? It is giving of all that you have in a way that makes you feel like you are indeed imitating God. Paul commended the Philippians for their eagerness to be generous; he taught the Corinthians the basis of generosity. Even Paul, that legalistic first century Christian, never focused on tithing but always on being generous. Imitate God in giving things away.

Generosity for some is just 1%,  for others it is 50%. For most of us it falls in the 5%-20% of our income. Generosity is not about keeping score of how much you've given away - as if you could ever compete with God, ha! Generosity is about seeing how much you can rely on God by imitating him in giving away anything and every thing you have. Let me challenge you to look at everything you have and ask if you'd be willing to give it away tomorrow if asked for it.

I challenge pastors and educators to start the conversation with tithing but to move quickly to generosity and ask yourself, "Am I being generous? Or stingy?" Stinginess is not a Christian concept - generosity is. And I can assure you that if every Christian lived up to his own definition of "generous" - the world would be utterly amazed. Teach, live, and love generously and generosity - and watch things change!

Lead On!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Willie Waller

Willie died a few years ago but he wouldn't mind me telling you his story, at least the part of it that has stuck with me. Willie and I met in February 1995 when I became the Director of Operations of South Highland Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama. South Highland Presbyterian is a beautiful building - built in phases in 1892, 1926, 1955, and 1996. The sanctuary and chapel are stunningly gorgeous (sometime I'll post about the Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket that a donor family and I approved to be placed in stained glass window in that church!).

In 1995 South Highland built a 25,000 square foot, $4 million dollar children's building and renovated the existing facilities. It was a much-needed overhaul of the current buildings with a badly-needed structure designed for kids. South Highland had a glorious past but had struggled to retain its members so the children's building was the church's effort to tell those who moved to the suburbs that the church was very much alive with a vibrant program for kids. It worked - South Highland to this day is a wonderful church.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Birmingham, Alabama was racked by racial strife. City and county leadership didn't want Blacks to have equal rights, equal education, equal opportunities, etc. In the midst of that tension, there were good relationships (but not equal) between individual Blacks and Whites - they were cordial and friendly to each other but there was a caste system between the two races. They lived on different sides of the railroad tracks and different sides of Red Mountain. In the 1960s, White Flight created the booming cities OTM (Over The Mountain, Red Mountain) which today form the business engine of north central Alabama. Willie grew up in a segregated and sometimes violent city.

Willie had already been the custodian at the church for 16 years when I got there. He was an institution: he knew all the members, he knew their cars and would get members out of worship if they left their car lights on; he knew how to run the building; he was THE caretaker of God's house. Before coming to South Highland, Willie worked in one of the steel mills near Birmingham. That's where breathed asbestos particles and developed a horrible illness which clogged his lungs. He got a monthly $300 check from the asbestosis lawsuit settlement but the illness shortened his life. He didn't die from that though, his kidneys began to shut down and he had dialysis three times a week. The docs put a tube in his arm - that really grossed me out to see that tube, yuk! His death was greatly mourned by the mostly white congregants of South Highland - they still miss him today.

On to the story, my most painful story about Willie. During the renovation work in 1996, all the bathrooms got a makeover. There was one bathroom, literally under some stairs, that was impossible to re-do. When I man used it, he would hit his head on the angled ceiling (which was the downward angle of the stairs); women never used it because it was so bad. So I had that made into a mop-sink, janitor's closet. It was perfect. There was floor sink and a faucet - I thought it was a great solution.

Shortly after that bathroom was completed, Willie came to my office. "Steve," he said, "where should I use the bathroom now?" I didn't understand the question. I told Willie that the church had sixteen bathrooms and he should use whichever one he wanted to, except the pastor's private bathroom. Willie replied, "I can't do that. See, I can only use the bathroom that you took away." I still didn't understand, "What do you mean you can only use that bathroom?" "Steve, when I started working here, I was told that the bathroom under the stairs is the only bathroom I could use and now you've done taken it away."

I was stunned. The history of Birmingham's Civil Rights struggles was not squarely in my face. This Black man, a very proud and dignified man, was told he could only use the "Colored Restroom" in the church and all the other bathrooms were for "Whites Only." I sat there not knowing what to do, how to say what, and somewhere between anger and astonishment.

After 15 seconds of silence (which felt like minutes), I said, "Willie, you can use any bathroom in the entire church. Every bathroom here is available to you. And if anyone, and I mean anyone, says anything to you about you using a bathroom, you come tell me or Dana [the senior pastor, Dana Waters, a wonderful gentleman] and we'll take it up with that person."

Later, I told Dana about the conversation and he supported me and was equally incensed that one of God's children, a servant in God's house, would be relegated to second or third-class status. We agreed that we'd do our part, the right thing, to help erase Birmingham's taint, if it ever came up - it never did. It was nice to know the church had grown up and moved on past those issues, at least in its building. At some point later, I saw Willie in bathrooms throughout the church - it was nice to see him using the "Whites Only" bathroom.

I miss Willie. He brought home to me for one instant, for less than five minutes, the struggles that he endured for over 65 years. I'm sorry he experienced discrimination at all but it was disgraceful that he experienced any in God's church. I was glad I could be part of giving grace back to a really, nice man, Willie Waller.

Lead On!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Pedophiles in the Church

Schools and churches were cited by Richard Hammar (THE guru of church legal and tax stuff) as the last places that pedophiles could hope to enter without being screened. Well, the school door is now closed - virtually every school screens anyone who gets near kids. That leaves churches - how open is your door? There are lots of ways to screen for pedophiles - see for a site by the Federal Department of Justice that lists every convicted pedophile in the US.

But what about pedophiles that have done their time and now want to attend church - your church! What will you do? How do you handle that request? I suspect that every sizable church in America has a convicted pedophile visit at least once a year - sometimes the church knows the pedophile is coming and can be prepared but often the visit is unannounced.

Pretend you are someone intent on harming a child: this Sunday wander the halls of your children's areas and see who stops you to ask why you're there and if you should be there. If you're on staff, you may not be challenged. So do something better, ask a friend is who a stranger to your church to wander the halls where children and minors are present. Ask him (it must be a male) to track how long it is before he is stopped. Hopefully it will be less than one minute till someone at the church asks him what he needs and escorts him out of the children's area. That drill might be eye-opening to you. Then share the info with your children's leaders - either praise them for their timely actions in stopping a stranger, or use this as a teaching

But what about pedophiles who "do the right thing" by contacting the church and explain their situation and ask about coming. Consider the upside versus the downside - the upside is that one person, a convicted pedophile gets to go to church and the downside is that he might do something on your property that endangers your little ones. So, what should you do? Here are some simple steps to take:
  1. Have at least two people from the church (pastor and another person) meet with the pedophile. Ask about his faith tradition, his faith journey, and his reasons for wanting to worship at your church and not a church closer to his home. (I use the male pronoun because most, but not all, pedophiles are men.)
  2. Have the same two people who visited with the pedophile to meet with the parole officer (PO) to hear what the PO says about the situation. Listen for variances between what the PO says and what you heard from the pedophile. Tell the PO what the pedophile told you - it may not be the "whole" trust but just part of the truth.
    1. The PO will give a clear opinion about whether the pedophile is ready to come to a worship venue where children will be present. Follow his advice - he's much better at evaluating these situations than anyone in a church; that's his job.
    2. Some POs have a covenant which is a contract between the pedophile and the church. Read it carefully and decide if the church can fulfill its side of the contract. Most contracts have similar language and are designed to protect the church, not the pedophile.
  3. If you decided to let the pedophile come to church then abide by the following guidelines. Tell the PO what you're doing and get his approval or ask for changes. Don't vary from the final agreement; any variance can open the church to legal proceedings.
    1. The church must appoint a handful of men who agree to be the "shepherds" of the pedophile while he is present on church property. These should be mature men who do not have young children in their immediate family (so that a child isn't sitting with her father and the pedophile).
    2. The pedophile must arrive at the church and stay in his car in the parking lot until his shepherd comes to the car. The pedophile and the shepherd will walk together to worship and sit together. If an approved shepherd doesn't come, then the pedophile must leave the church and return another week. The pedophile can have the cell phone numbers of church shepherds.
    3. If the pedophile needs to use the restroom or get a drink while inside the church building, the shepherd must accompany him (even into the bathroom). The shepherd should not lose sight of the pedophile.
    4. After worship, the pedophile should return to his car and leave the church grounds. The shepherd can then go to his Bible study group or his family.
    5. A pedophile should not attend Bible study on church property. There are too many risks in walking halls to a classroom to see and be seen by children and students. There is no upside to this. If the pedophile wants to attend a Bible study, then seek a male-only Bible study that meets elsewhere during the week (preferably a public venue like a coffee shop) that will accept him. But don't force the group to do it.
    6. A pedophile should attend only worship and nothing else. No meals, no special events, no concerts, nothing. Worship only, and then only with an approved shepherd.
    7. That's it - pedophile drives to church; waits in car for shepherd; walks to worship with shepherd; leaves worship to return to car and drives home.
If you and your leadership spend more time on this than on carrying out your vision and mission then you've spent way too much time on this; in fact, I'd say that if you spend more than an hour on each situation, you've spent too much time - after all, do you spend that much time on your active members, those who are contributing to the health and well-being of your church - invest in them first and pedophiles lastly. There are few (if any) documented cases of completely rehabilitated pedophiles. Invest your time wisely and not necessarily in rehabilitating pedophiles for which you and your staff are probably ill-equipped.

Yes, this seems harsh and you may be thinking I've gone too far. But let me say that this is a situation that the pedophile has placed himself - you didn't put him into this, he did it to himself. Just like Spock in Star Trek says, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one." Put the church and its minors first in importance and then see if the pedophile can fit into your situation. You should never feel that you need to accomodate the church to fit the needs of the pedophile - that is absurd!

Lead On!