Budgeting as an act of social justice

budgeting-piggy-bankIt’s stewardship season in many churches around the country. As my friend Jason Micheli wrote, talking about how much money people give in church is probably even more taboo than endorsing political candidates from the pulpit. As I’ve been thinking about stewardship, I’m convicted by my own bad habits. I think of myself as an easygoing, generous person when it comes to money. There’s one thing I’m not very good at which feels miserly but ironically is a key foundation to pursuing justice through your use of money. I suck at keeping a budget.

I remember when I was in my early twenties and worked in various social justice-oriented non-profits, I was very passionate about a lot of causes related to disadvantaged people. But when the offering plate was passed in church, I would pull out my wallet and take out a five or a ten or sometimes a twenty and put it in the plate. I wasn’t earning much money at all, but supposing I averaged $12 or so a week and made about $25k a year, my giving would have been about $624 a year or 2.5%, far below the 10% tithe that is the Biblical standard for giving.

I didn’t have a budget. I just had a general sense that I wanted to be extravagantly generous with homeless people or friends in need whenever the opportunity arose (which was rare) and that I needed to be stingy and live within my means when it came to what I spent on myself (or what I put in an offering plate which doesn’t look at you with puppy dog eyes that melt your heart when it’s asking for money).

Budgets have always seemed like the same kind of thing as those color-coded filing systems that some of the girls in middle school had in their three-ring binders. It seems like something that meticulously organized people do so that they can pinch every penny because they’re too “rigid” to be “generous” and “easygoing” like I am. But the “rigid, ungenerous” people who plan ahead write checks with a calculated amount of their monthly income to put in the offering plate that end up being a lot more than reaching into your wallet and grabbing even a twenty.

I still suck at budgeting, though now that I’m a pastor, I do make sure that one way or another 10% of my income gets into the offering plate (we usually have to play catch-up in December each year). I couldn’t stand the hypocrisy otherwise. At the same time, I have to confess that whenever I get charity solicitations in the mail, I stand by the recycling bin and toss them all in, because I have a general sense that we need to be careful and so it’s easier just to say no to everybody than to have to make decisions about how much of my money I should give to the National Zoo or the farmworker ministry or the Lupus Foundation.

I tell myself I’m saving up so that when somebody “really” needs help, I will have the resources to help them. Or if I discover that God is calling me to start a non-profit. Or of course my kids’ college money. But I don’t have too little money when I decide to buy a $10 sandwich from the local Lebanese cafe because I didn’t plan ahead and buy lunch items in bulk from the grocery store. I don’t have too little money when I want to splurge with a bottle of wine at dinner. I don’t have too little money when it’s time to buy Christmas and birthday presents and I don’t want to look like a cheapskate.

Budgeting has always felt like something I couldn’t just start midstream. Don’t you have to have all your ducks in a row before you start? But it hit me how ridiculous that assumption is. All I have to do is look at my paycheck and divide out 10% for God and other percentages for groceries, kids’ sports, date nights, routine medical costs, etc. I can adjust as I go and figure out what I’m really spending.

So we’re going to start budgeting. Because if we’re planning how we spend our money, then we will have to face constantly the reality of whether or not we are living out our values with our spending. Generosity won’t be as much of a feel-good thing, because it will be calculated instead of a rare gesture of spontaneity. I will have to cut some things out so that I’m saving responsibly also, but I’m no longer going to just think generically that I’m going to save everything I don’t spend so that I don’t have to make any decisions.

It’s a farce to talk about social justice and standing up for the marginalized when you don’t have the discipline to live justly with your spending. Something as banal as making a budget is a critical first step in the journey to living out God’s kingdom. If everyone in the church really did budget 10% of their income for God, there’s no telling what we would be able to accomplish.

11 thoughts on “Budgeting as an act of social justice

  1. 1 Timothy 5:8 – But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.

    The first responsibility is to ones family. That family is extended in scripture to include relatives in need and it is really a brilliant plan. If everyone followed the advice and directives of scripture the government would not be over burdened and the people would not be overtaxed taking care of the poor.

    All our directed to give to the church and be good stewards of their money. That to me means making sure the funds given are directed and used for purposes that promote the things of God. I never give to any organizations that uses the money to sustain or promote unbiblical practice. I give to Christian Organizations so it is clear why I give and who (God) is the driving force behind what I give.

    • No, we’re called to seek first the kingdom of God. Jesus specifically says that if we put our family before him we’re unfit to be disciples. 1 Timothy is talking about taking the church’s charity when you’re capable of providing for your family. When people don’t tithe, the most common reason is that they’re looking out for their family first. The idolatry of the nuclear family is an epidemic in the American church.

      • You will notice all examples of scripture teach some member of the family is obligated to take care of family. Widows whose husbands have died, children left without parents, a brothers wife,
        Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi. The nuclear family is what makes Gods plan perfect. History shows the a breakdown in strong families leads to disaster.

        • And every good thing can be made into an idol which is what has happened in American Christianity with the nuclear family. That isn’t even the topic of this post by the way. What do you find objectionable about budgeting and tithing? I’m having trouble understanding where you were coming from with your original comment.

          • “. What do you find objectionable about budgeting and tithing?”
            I find nothing wrong. Both are good. What I do hear across the board this time of year, when the budgets are getting low, is pressure to give more There is little emphasis on the responsibility to family support from the church. Your response to my comments highlight that fact. You say God first and that is true. It is also true God directs family support first and in supporting the family we honor God..
            In order to budget there has to monies to budget and that is getting harder and harder for the average family to do. The avg. family is not living a lavish lifestyle and as housing, medical costs, energy costs, transportation, taxes etc. go up there is little left to share with the church.

            A comment to a post is not always a rejection of the original thread. It could be just a comment.

          • That’s fair. Thanks for clarifying where you’re coming from. I think your concerns are legitimate.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Morgan. Because my wife and I are not regular churchgoers, we don’t pay a tithe to any particular organization. Though I have doubts about the hard-and-fast rule of devoting a tenth of your income to ministry (it comes a little close to the problem of a flat-tax rate, i.e. people who have lower incomes are giving up a much larger portion of their available wealth that they may need in order to cover basic necessities), I do think that part of the exercise of growing in charity requires contributing available resources to the enrichment of other peoples’ lives. With our current income, my wife and I can’t afford to make regular donations to any kind of charitable organization, but we find other ways to devote our resources to ministry, either through letting a friend of ours who runs a student ministry at our local university stay in our guest room for free so he doesn’t have to commute during the week, and putting time and money towards demonstrating hospitality to our friends and neighbors. None of these things qualify as official tithing, as you’ve described it, but they are still important ways to contribute to ministry.
    As my father- and mother-in-law have demonstrated to us many times, generosity and charity are best exercised when you have the resources to do so, while the act of accepting the same in return when you don’t is just as important.
    Anyway, just some thoughts.

    • Good point in making the analogy to the flat tax rate. I think the thing I would say is that a lack of intentionality is often the hidden factor that keeps us from being as generous as we could otherwise be. Planning ahead doesn’t feel generous in the same way that grabbing a hamburger with a homeless guy does. I think it would be a good discipline for me to develop. I’m really bad at it right now.

  3. I know how much I earn so it’s easy to budget that 10% for tithing but I don’t budget out anything beyond that. It all just comes out of the pot. Seems to work for me and my family.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s