In January, Bette Ashcroft was elected as St. John’s new Junior Warden. Knowing Bette as someone who lives their faith, I invited her to share a post about her financial story. I got an immediate response, accepting the invitation and letting me know it “would probably be on the fear I experienced when I first confronted the reality that my relationship to money was deeply entwined with my faith”. Wow! I was excited to hear Bette’s story…
Some time around 1991 I was sitting in a meeting at church. I don’t remember what we were discussing, but the person to my left – a man I knew well and respected – referenced tithing as the minimum standard of giving for followers of Jesus. “Oh my God”, I thought. “He’s serious”.
I was 38 years old; a full-time mom of three children. My husband was living with a serious disease (aplastic anemia), and the only “cure” was a bone marrow transplant. The BMT at that point was still considered to be in the experimental stage, and not covered by our insurance. Our plan was to sell our home to pay for the transplant. The recovery period would be at least three months. The risk of organ rejection was very high. He might very well have died and I would be raising the kids alone with the marketable skills of a mom which were, and still are, undervalued.
We gave money to the church. After all, our kids were involved in the programs and we understood that the ministers had to be paid. We thought of it like paying for a membership at the YMCA. Yet here was this guy saying that we should be giving at least 10% of our income to the church. Are you kidding me?
No. He was serious. I had a knot of fear in my stomach that did not go away.
Shortly thereafter I was invited to serve on the vestry. One of the first items on the agenda was for the leaders of the church (ie: me!) to publicly acknowledge the tithe as the Biblical standard of giving and to pledge AT LEAST 3% of our income to the church. I reasoned that tithing was an Old Testament law, one of the religious rules that Jesus consistently challenged – never mind that Jesus also advised the rich young man to let go of the far more radical 100% of his wealth.
Giving 3% of our income to the church was a stretch for my family. Nobody knew what our income was, so we could have continued to give as we had, or bump it up a few bucks. But I knew I couldn’t serve with integrity if I didn’t actually commit to the promise. My husband and I discussed this with each other and with our kids. We decided to give it a try.
I was angry about it. I was scared. I told Jesus that if things went South, I was gonna be done with tithing, and fast. I was not a cheerful giver.
I seriously doubt I would have had the courage to start proportional giving had I not been put in the position of having to make a public statement about it. Even the rector was reluctant to suggest the tithe as an expectation of the congregation. The subject of money creates tension and stress for many if not most of us. Talking and thinking about money often calls up deep fears and insecurities, and I was no exception.
Once we surrendered to the choice, however, it got easier. We didn’t have to feel guilty or agonize over how much to give; it was a done deal. In fact, it was so easy that the next year we gave 4%. The year after that, 5%. And so on.
After a while I began to feel less afraid. I began to feel freedom from financial anxiety, and it felt fantastic. Even though we were giving substantially more than we had been, astonishingly nothing in our financial life seemed to be at risk. Our kids still participated in camps and sports; we took vacations. We never worried about having enough to buy whatever we really needed or wanted. The family business was thriving and growing. New treatments for aplastic anemia were being developed, and my (now former) husband never did need a bone marrow transplant. In fact, he will celebrate his 74th birthday in May, Thanks be to God.
I am no longer afraid to talk about money. I don’t want money, or the lack of it, to define me or define you. It would be untrue to say I never, ever, worry about my financial future. I do sometimes, especially when I listen to what the world has to tell me about the state of things, or when I feel pushed by the Spirit to let go of a little more. When that happens, I pray.
Jesus said “no one can serve both God and wealth”. Sometimes supporting the church can feel like serving wealth, especially when the needs of the poor and marginalized are given lip service but not taken seriously by the faithful. Us pew-sitters may not always agree on what it means to be good stewards of our resources. This is part of the tension of living together in community.
There are always places in addition to the church that need our support. Ernie and I give to those, too. Places that, for us, proclaim the Gospel of Love. But the bulk of our giving goes to our church, because “where your heart is, there your treasure will be”.
Our faith family has supported and sustained us in times of grief and joy. It has been a light for us and a light for others who are searching for acceptance and belonging; searching for Grace. The natural response to Grace is gratitude and generosity, but sometimes the simple discipline of proportional giving can open the road to freedom from fear.
The market rises and falls, employment comes and goes, health challenges emerge, and it is easy to become trapped in anxiety. Jesus said “be not afraid, I am with you”.
Thank you Bette, for sharing your story and for modeling courageous faithfulness! I imagine most of us have found ourselves conflicted between keeping and giving. Will you share your story with your faith community? You never know who needs to hear it. Contact Sarah Dull, Executive Administrator.