The Tithe of Tithes and A Tale of Three Cities – Part 3
I’ve been hearing the term “tithe of tithes” since I was a young child. I would overhear my Dad refer to it occasionally in some of his conversations with Mom. I was too young to grasp the meaning of the term, but became very familiar with it as time passed and I got involved in ministry. As I’ve shared in the first two articles on this subject, my first-hand experience with the tithe of tithes came in the first two churches I pastored. Each of those churches had its own unique practice as to how the tithe of tithes was processed. As I have already related, the Lord helped me find meaningful ways to work through those situations and come to acceptable conclusions with both.
In 1996, I started down a new avenue of ministry that took me into state and regional administration, and ultimately into denominational leadership as part of the International Executive Committee. In those roles, I experienced the typical learning curve that comes with new administrative responsibilities. However, as I would go from church to church in those early days, I did not notice anything unusual about the long-accepted denominational tithing practices. The economy in the United States was roaring and it seemed that pastors were leading congregations into new building programs at an accelerated pace. At the time, debt thresholds of three and four million dollars were being crossed, while state and denominational underwriting guarantees were flowing like water.
It was during this time that tithe of tithes income to the International Office reached a high of $27,000,000. Of course, an equal amount was being sent to state and regional offices. Based on the 15% tithe of tithes at the time, that meant that $306,000,000 (three hundred and six million dollars) remained in local churches to carry out ministry in the United States and Canada.
Then There Came A Shift
Occasionally, one might hear of a church that was redirecting their tithe dollars in order to retain more funds locally, but it was rare. Usually this “redirection” was done by an emphasis on general fund giving. But then something began to shift.
By the time I made my next move in early 1999, the downturn in real estate, technology stocks, and other equity markets begin to lead to a shift in the economy. However, it didn’t initially seem too serious as people looked to the possibilities of the new millennium, as well as to the outcome of the presidential election in 2000 which, after some controversy, brought George W. Bush to the White House.
Then came September 11, 2001. Terrorists attacked America. And little would ever be the same again.
The real estate boom of the 90’s became a bubble that would ultimately burst, affecting property values across the nation. The unscrupulous business and investment schemes of a few dishonest Wall Street tycoons left the pension plans and portfolios of many Americans in shambles. Soon enough, the shattered confidence of a disappointed population presented multiple challenges. And the church was not excluded from those challenges.
Following the downturn, the mortgage payments on those newly constructed church buildings became harder and harder to make. Pastors and local church leaders were having to make choices between keeping building payments current, paying utility bills, or sending money with their monthly church reports. Churches that had never been late or missed sending their reports began to struggle and soon, various means of retaining more money in the local church were being explored.
Pastors and local church leaders were having to make choices between keeping building payments current, paying utility bills, or sending money with their monthly church reports.
When I visited in some churches, I began noticing new tithing options appearing on the giving envelopes. Usually the new giving option was followed by a small-print explanation, stating that a more “local” tithing focus insured that all tithe dollars given would be used within the context of that particular church. While this wasn’t necessarily a new concept, the nomenclature had been updated to accommodate the donor’s need to be assured that their personal tithes were going to a “tithe”-designated fund, rather than something as broad as the “general fund."
I am sure there were various factors that came into play that led some pastors and local leaders to create and move toward a local tithe option. No doubt some were prone to move in this direction because they wanted greater transparency from the denomination, some had different philosophical views on how the money should be spent at the state or denominational level, and some probably truly felt the local ministry could do a much better job of spending the money. I am also convinced that an overall lack of knowledge of how the denomination used tithe dollars contributed to misunderstanding and a lack of trust, making the problem even more complex.
Ultimately, at the 2008 General Assembly, restructuring of the tithe system was approved, reducing the amount sent in by the local church from 15% (which included the 5 % State and General missions percentages), to what many argued was the more biblical figure of 10%. This reduction was accomplished over a five-year period. The idea at least in part, was to allow more money to stay in the local church, get everyone on the same track and take away what some believed to be an indefensible financial system.
Once fully implemented, the 2008 General Assembly measure allowed churches to retain 1/3 of the tithe of tithes dollars locally that they had previously been sending to the denominational offices. To accommodate the change, the International Offices made sweeping reductions, eliminated some departments, and attempted to do its work on 33% less income. Although Church of God World Missions experienced a 50% reduction in its basic revenue, they immediately put measures in place to try to operate effectively. As anticipated, the International Offices ultimately realized a $7,000,000 (seven million dollars) per year reduction in income.
Thankfully the reductions have now come to a conclusion, the church is growing, and income is once again showing a slight increase. However, the tithe of tithes remains the financial foundation of global ministry for the Church of God, and unfortunately, there are few other revenue streams for the denomination.
...the tithe of tithes remains the financial foundation of global ministry for the Church of God, and unfortunately, there are few other revenue streams for the denomination.
A Structure for Tithing
Some would argue that we are in a day when being linked to a denomination isn’t as appealing as it used to be. While I personally take strong issue with that argument, I do understand that pastors face board meetings every month where some church members, business men and women who are totally in love with what their local church is doing, have less affinity for the denomination’s work and often see the denominational structure as an unnecessary burden to bear. That sentiment becomes more pronounced when a board member suggests that they could use the tithe of tithes monies to hire a staff person or make other purchases for the church.
As previously indicated, in an attempt to strike a compromise to satisfy some congregants and also satisfy their commitment to state and International Offices, some church leaders have created the option of directing tithe dollars through a silo of local designations.
Please understand that this article isn’t my attempt to chastise or condemn. And while I can’t condone the practice of intentional redirecting tithe, I certainly understand the predicament and even the dilemma some pastors are in with the tithe of tithes matter. I also understand the difficult place that state and International leaders find themselves in with this issue being left to wonder if “a little bit of something is better than a lot of nothing.”
It’s easy to try to ignore what is happening and attempt to go, and hopefully grow, around it, leaving a pastor in the tension between a non-condoned and unauthorized tithing practice and the pressure of satisfying at least some of his/her people. It’s harder to acknowledge it - and then find ways to address it in a healthy manner.
I suppose the thing that I wrestle with most is that redirecting tithes, without General Assembly endorsement or approval, seems to isolate and segment those participating pastors and leaders into an “easier to get forgiveness than permission” mindset, creating more questions than answers.
It’s easy to try to ignore what is happening and attempt to go, and hopefully grow, around it, leaving a pastor in the tension between a non-condoned and unauthorized tithing practice and the pressure of satisfying at least some of his/her people.
As members of the Church of God, we are a part of something known as the General Assembly. The structure of our Assembly gatherings is complex and often seems limiting in how we can carry out the business of the church. Though tithing was addressed at the 2008 General Assembly, if it were ever determined that it should be addressed again, I would rather do it at the General Assembly level rather than individually, or church by church. And then once the General Assembly reached a conclusion, I would trust that each local church and pastor would fully abide by that decision.
Hear my heart. I am very aware that a structure is in place. Our book of Minutes provides every pastor and church leader the written policy, practice and protocol regarding tithing and a host of other subjects.
Hear my heart. I am very aware that a structure is in place. Our book of Minutes provides every pastor and church leader the written policy, practice and protocol regarding tithing and a host of other subjects. Inherent within our credentialing process is the commitment to embrace the doctrines and practices of the Church of God as set out in the Minutes. Therefore from a technical sense, no one has to say anything else. As you’ve heard me say before, “It is what it is and it says what it says.”
But in this day and time, is it really enough to say, “It’s all in the Minutes. So there!”
Drop the Mic. Walk Away.
What do phrases and actions like that mean any way?
Not a whole lot in the face of reality.
Regardless of what’s in “the book” and regardless of the rules, we all have to earn the right and privilege of people’s trust.
Regardless of what’s in “the book” and regardless of the rules, we all have to earn the right and privilege of people’s trust. And nothing speaks of their trust as much as when they release their money and where they place it.
So here’s what I know and here are the commitments that the Executive Committee and I make toward spending tithe dollars in the future…
- We will work hard to make global ministry as impactful as possible, so that every local church, large or small, can say, “I’m thrilled to be a part of a denomination and movement that does that kind of outreach.”
- We will work night and day to encourage international leaders and state overseers to maximize their tithe of tithes dollars to better insure that life changing ministry is implemented at every turn and on every level - regional, state and international.
- We will work to stabilize and then increase budgets so that more tithe dollars coming to the International Offices are focused on educating and developing pastors to maximize their calling and ministry.
- We will work to insure that tithe dollars are reaching around the world through Church of God World Missions to continue to “Send the Light," sponsor Bible Schools, orphanages, clinics and assist missionaries.
- We will work on enhancing our global communication efforts to insure that we are telling the story effectively enough to make our congregants aware of what their tithe dollars are doing.
- We will work on enhancing the dollars designated for education within the Church of God for the purpose of training future pastors and leaders for ministry.
- We will continue to make church planting a priority and keep working on budgets that reflects that commitment.
- We will continue to work on opportunities to better fund our Youth and Discipleship ministries so that students will determine early that the Church of God holds them in high esteem and is dedicated to their future.
- We will keep waving the flag of CARE, so that when storms hit and crisis knock on the door, our giving will always insure that we can respond quickly.
- We will work to put every tithe dollar through the Great Commission FINISH Commitment litmus test. If a cause or purpose doesn’t help FINISH the Great Commission, then it will need to be funded from a different source.
- We will work until the 10% that leaves a local church can stand up and join hands with the 90% that remains and together declare great things have been accomplished for the Kingdom.
Finally, the Executive Committee and I, along with church leaders and pastors everywhere, will do a better job at saying, “Thank You” - thank you to hard working and faithful people who just want what’s really best for their church, their families, the Kingdom and the denomination they love.
The tithe system of the Church of God has always been “local” but it’s also been “global” - and together the 90% and the 10% have made a huge impact.
Let’s talk about it.
Better yet, let’s work on it.