Becoming Patrons (Part 2)

My last post was originally so long, more than twice the length of what I actually posted. So I cut a lot and didn’t get around to talking about some of the things on my mind, such as the different types of rewards…or how this all relates to ministry and religion. Minor point. (Though you could probably just guess it was going to be about offerings.)

I’ve had a complicated relationship with church giving. As a child I was taught that it was good to give all you can (a whole quarter!), then in my teens when I was starting to actually understand money but didn’t have any of my own, I learned about the concept of a tithe. That church was big on tithes, I got to hear about it and see the same single verse that mentions it up on the board every single week. So that got cemented into my mind and when I finally got an adult job, I gave my tithe (10%) at the end of the summer. Giving it all at once meant it was quite a bit of money, and I think that freaked my mom out a little. After all, I’d never handled money before and now right before I was about to head off to college and not have her to watch over me I dropped about $100 in one go. She told me that I wasn’t even supposed to tithe, I was still a kid and she gives on behalf of the family.

I get where she was coming from, and I want to be clear that I don’t think it’s her fault that this affected me so much. I tend to be very rules-based and have trouble changing my perspectives on things like that. I’ve had conversations with my sister recently about autism therapy and my concerns that exerting too much control over these kids will harm them later in life because they won’t know how to make the jump from compliance to responsible decision making. This didn’t make any sense to her, and she pointed out that it was never a problem for her – apparently when other people grow up, they just naturally recognize a switch to adulthood and start taking on more of their own responsibilities and decisions. I never did that, and I never realized that was odd. So it’s only been fairly recently that I’ve started trying to break out of the structures I had in place and have been thinking about creating ways to belatedly celebrate rites of passage to reinforce my independence and authority to make my own choices.

That’s not something I knew I needed, it’s not something my sister or probably my mom or most people for that matter needed, so there’s no way my mom could have known how her statement would affect me. But the fact is that I felt sort of like I was in limbo in terms of church. When was I really actually an adult? When did I get to join a church on my own as my own person and therefore become responsible for making my own offerings? Going away for college was always temporary, I went home to my parents on breaks, so it didn’t make sense to join a church then, and if I gave it was a few dollars every once in awhile when I happened to have it on me, just to show some support. After I graduated from seminary and moved into my own place, I just never really thought about it and made the realization that my status had changed and it would make sense to join a church now.

The first time I really thought about that was very recently, around the same time I started thinking about how crowdfunding works and how different it is from just buying something in a store. Like I tried to describe last time, it gives a sense of community and participation in what’s being done. One of the ways it does this is through the incentives offered. I think the lowest and least effective of those is basic rewards – the more you give, the more you personally get. You can donate just enough to purchase the product, or give a bit less and get other rewards connected to it such as stickers or acknowledgements, or give more and get the product AND the stickers AND a poster AND they’ll sign it AND have this special bag to hold the thing, etc. Not very workable for a church.

Stretch goals and milestones, on the other hand, are about giving more to the whole community. Supporting the thing at any level means you’re a part of the group and in most cases (for ongoing series at least) get access to the basic product and occasionally behind-the-scenes stuff or participation in the decision-making process. I like that, because the rewards something like that (or something like a religious community) can offer aren’t much of an incentive. If you choose to support it, your reason would have to be just because you want the thing made and that’s enough for you.

But the idea of stretch goals and milestones is that the more the project makes as a whole (as opposed to how much you give personally), the more everyone gets. If we make this much money, we’ll add an extra video! At this level, we’ll make the thing in color! You get the idea. As a contributor, you can see concrete ways the project is going to be better and the community is going to benefit from your support. At the same time it’s better for you to build the community and help more people who would enjoy the project find it than to give a lot of money yourself, there’s not so much pressure to give a lot and it doesn’t cut out people who can’t afford to give much.

That understanding of giving and belonging helped me finally understand the actual point of giving to a church. It probably helps that my church is internet-based so it winds up feeling very familiar if you’ve just given to one of these projects. But it suddenly occurred to me that joining a church and/or supporting them financially is the same as supporting these artists. Churches also provide services that are basically free but that can be better and keep going longer if they’re supported by members, and they also grant a similar sense of community. And for someone like me who is fairly quiet and has had trouble feeling like part of any church community, it gives me a way to participate.

Making connections with other people is hard, and in a lot of cases that’s a big part of what defines church community. I’ve heard many times that internet-based church can’t be real church because it doesn’t have that face-to-face component (among other things) that people find so important. That part never made sense to me and was actually a boundary, but the minute I hit the button to donate, I became a participant. I’m part of the church and I’m helping it to do what it does better. Not much better maybe, not from my small donation personally. But I’m part of a larger group, and together, everyone giving what we can, we have the power to help it be the best it can be and meet its goals.

Often we can see those improvements as they happen. Without seeing any announcements or anything, I’ve noticed staff changes, I think I’ve seen more positions open (but it’s possible I just never noticed those titles before), the website setup has changed and become less buggy. All good, solid ways to see what that giving is doing for the church. But I wonder how church giving in general might change if churches embrace the patronage model and talk about benefits and goals for the community rather than obligations. Why do they want the money? What improvements does the church hope to make and how much will it take to get there? How close are we as a community? I think that might help people feel more inspired and see giving as an investment and active participation, making them more excited and invested in the community, maybe even wanting to give more of their time and skills as well.

It was commonly said in the church I used to attend that you can tell what someone really values by looking at where they spend their money. Generally I think that’s overly simplistic and mostly not true, but I do think it makes sense that mindfully spending money on something would make you more likely to value it. You want to get something out of it. Choosing to support a church financially means you’ve found something of value there and want to be a part of it, and once you’re a part of it you benefit from doing what you can to make it better. I’d like to see more of this approach.

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2 thoughts on “Becoming Patrons (Part 2)

  1. I really enjoyed your thoughts on this topic. Some churches preach tithing as an obligation while others say the tithe is not mandatory any more (apparently it was in OT days and that’s where it comes from), but we should give as God has blessed us. Ideally the church uses money to support those who serve you in the church, and to help meet needs outside the church. NOT to make the preacher into a wealthy person!

    I’m reading a book about Mormons by a Mormon, and he said to be in good (temple) standing that tithing was required for LDS members.

    My preacher reminds us that God loves a cheerful giver and if you don’t want to give, don’t.

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    1. That’s interesting. I was only part of one church where I was old enough to follow the concept of tithing, so I never heard any other ideas about it. While I was thinking about this post, I came to the conclusion that tithing in that exact way doesn’t make sense since it’s clearly not what the ancient church did, but I didn’t know how common that view was. When I decided to join my current church, I looked up UU guidelines on how much to pledge. (UUs pledge a certain amount with their membership, though it’s not a set amount so people can join regardless of income level.) They have different levels that they categorize based on commitment to the church, starting at about 2%. While I hate having to give so little, that’s where I am right now and I appreciate that they recognize that small amount as a pledge. It’s a starting point.

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