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Where Your Treasure Is

Pastors hold conflicting views on whether it is appropriate to know how much parishioners contribute to the church, or for that matter, how they spend their money.  The cult of privacy in the church around money is even stronger then the veil around discussions of sex. “How I use my money is between me and God!” is a frequent claim.  Some even worry that knowing how much a parishioner gives will affect our ability to minister impartially to our flock, the assumption being that generous members will garner greater attention than miserly ones.  I haven’t seen that.  The pastors I know – and I know a lot! – may enjoy some parishioners more than others and may welcome the calls of some over others, but when need arises they respond faithfully to the gracious and the obnoxious, to the arrogant and the humble, to those who give lavishly and, yes, even to the tight fisted who often make the stewardship campaign and its implications for the pastor’s salary an annual gut wrenching experience.

Jesus famously said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  If pastors are concerned with the quality and character of the heart, then shouldn’t knowledge of how a parishioner uses his or her treasure be an important tool to gauge spiritual health?  And while charitable giving is only part of the picture of how we use and think about money, generosity is certainly a key indicator of the state of our faith.

All of this came to mind when Mitt Romney released his tax forms last month and the media made public not only the income of the candidates, but also their tax rates and reported charitable contributions.  Mitt Romney contributed about the same percentage to the IRS and to his charities, 13.9% and 13.8%  respectively, on adjusted gross income in 2010 of $21.6 million.  Barack Obama reported $1.7 million in income, was taxed at almost double the rate of Romney, and reported charitable contributions of 14.2%.  Newt Gingrich earned $3.1 million in 2010 and was taxed at a rate far higher than either Romney or Obama – 32.2%.  But the percentage of income he reported as charitable contributions was a paltry 2.6%.

Of course, the spiritual health of our candidates may not be the most important concern of voters, though the candidates do go out of their way to reassure us of their religious credentials, thus inviting investigation.  Reportable contributions on tax forms may not tell the whole story of a candidate’s generosity, and any one of us may have extraordinary family responsibilities that affect our capacity to give.  That said, reported giving of $80,000 on an annual income of over $3 million is, well, remarkable, particularly for a man who is eager to share the powerful importance of his own personal “redemption” story and whose early career teaching at a small university certainly would have exposed him to the critical importance of benefactors in providing buildings, scholarships and professors’ salaries.  We might also expect to see someone eager to slash pubic spending demonstrate his own willingness to participate more fully in private contributions to the common good.  I don’t really need Gingrich’s tax returns to make me  tremble at the thought of him sitting in the Oval Office.  But I’ll confess that the hypocrisy his tax return suggests is a bit hard to take.

The good news for Gingrich is that he does better than the median US taxpayer who reports $44,619 each year, pays a tax rate of 7.4% and reports 2.1% of his or her adjusted gross income as charitable contributions.  And when it comes to contributions to religious denominations, Gingrich looks more like giddy Scrooge at the end of The Christmas Carol, eagerly searching for places to give away his money.  Between 1970 and 2009 religious giving as a percent of after tax income dropped from 3.1% to 2.4%.  Some of that loss may have been off-set by gains in giving to other purposes.  But even when you look at worshippers, particularly in the mainline churches, the average contribution is between 1.2% and 1.5% of gross household income.

Of course, we’re not running for president; Newt is.  And this in itself invites an examination of his generosity along with other issues of character, leadership gifts, experience, and policy perspective.  That said, the paltry level of giving in our churches suggests that perhaps we in the church need to remember another word from Jesus who urged us not to ignore the log in our own eye while pointing out the speck in another’s.

John H. Thomas

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