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In December, articles and blogs address various aspects of Christmas. We would like to address another important December event for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—tithing settlement. While few people have as many positive nostalgic memories of tithing settlement as they do of Christmas, there are profound spiritual aspects of tithing as a way of giving back God in gratitude for what God has given us.
Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount, “[W]here your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21). The Savior may be suggesting that the way one values “treasures” is revealed through how he or she spends his money. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have the opportunity to literally put their “money where their mouth is” or, even more so, put their treasure where their heart is. They account for their related decisions each December during tithing settlement with their Bishop as each sister or brother makes their tithing “declaration.”
For nearly two decades, we have had the opportunity to interview more than 200 diverse American Families of Faith (see www.americanfamiliesoffaith.byu.edu). Most of those families have been Christian (from 15+ denominations). A majority of these families tithe by making generous offerings to their religious communities. On average, these families donated 7-8% of their income with some giving much more.
This research project has provided us with the opportunity to dig into what leading scholars have referred to as the central question in the social scientific study of religion. That question is: “Why then do they do it?” Stark & Finke, 2000, p. 51). Here in Meridian, we share our participants’ recurring answers to this fascinating question. Four major reasons or recurring “themes” are offered, along with abundant direct quotes from Christian wives and husbands that allowed us onto their sacred ground.
Theme 1: Giving out of Obedience and Duty: “You [just] do it.”
Giving as Obedience. The last prophet/writer of the Old Testament, Malachi, spoke for Deity as follows:
Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. . . . Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it. (Malachi 3:8,10 KJV).
This passage had an apparent influence on our participants and offers a point of departure for the findings. A Pentecostal father said, “[W]e try to make our [decisions] scripture-based. We try to teach [our kids] the principle of tithing. Our son works…in the summer, and we tell him [he’s] robbing God if he doesn’t tithe.” Jimmy [all names are pseudonyms], an Episcopalian father from California, stated, “[Paying tithing], it’s like breathing. . . . It’s not an issue. You do it. That’s the idea.” The responses of several other participants closely echoed Jimmy’s:
- “[We pay tithing out of] Obedience to God’s law.”
- “It’s … a commandment…. You are to give.” “You give it because that’s what you are supposed to do.”
- “This is something that we just can’t not do.”
After citing obedience as a reason he paid tithing, a, non-denominational Christian father went on to explain:
All those things are [God’s] anyway, actually. The time is His. The money is His. [W]e’re just stewards, and I think that’s what helps us through hard times, because no matter what we lose . . . time or the money . . . it’s not ours.
Steven, a father from Oregon, stated: “God is in charge of everything that we have to do in [our] household, [including our finances].” Winnie, Steven’s wife, said:
[T]he whole purpose of why I’m here is to be more like our Heavenly Father. . . . As we [sacrifice and learn to help others] … we’ll be happy [like He is] …. I know that’s what I’m here for. And I know that everyday it’s a new challenge, but I know I can overcome it because of my faith. I don’t have to question [our giving] anymore. I don’t question it anymore. It’s just who I am. I think that’s what I have testimony of now, that’s who I am. I don’t separate it anymore.
Winnie’s response seemed to convey not only a behavior, but a sense of identity. Obediently paying tithing is a behavior. In Winnie’s case, however, it seemed that contributing (a reported 15% of their income in tithes and offerings) to her faith community had transformed her personal identity into that of a giver. In her words, “It’s just who I am.”
Giving as Duty. Many of the above statements from participants referred explicitly to God. However, the explanations of some of the participants were less explicit in their references to the divine. This first theme’s title was “giving out of obedience and duty.” In this study, the term “obedience” denotes obedience to God. Duty refers to a sense of obligation to the church as an institution or social body. This sense of duty, was frequently referenced as the following excerpts illustrate:
- “It’s my job.”
- “That’s what I’m here for . . . (to give.” “Part of being a part of church is giving, so therefore, what am I sacrificing?”
- “[It’s] just part of being [in a] church.”
The following two parents, from different families and different faiths, offered more detail:
Melinda: If you are participating, your goal is to not … be a “benchwarmer.” Whatever organization that you’re involved in, you need to … be a contributor, and in giving your time, you learn that … you give your finances.
Alvin: I don’t look at it as a sacrifice, I look it as a pledge, an opportunity. It’s not that I grudgingly [offer it] or anything like that. It’s…no longer a sacrifice, it’s just your reasonable service.
In sum, many participants were reportedly motivated to pay substantial amounts of tithes and offerings to their faith community based on their desire to be obedient to God, to dutifully contribute, or both.
Theme 2: Giving out of Gratitude and Enjoyment: “It’s not a ‘have-to’, it’s a desire to.”
Theme 1 addressed the two closely related concepts of obedience and duty. Theme 2 addresses two additional but connected motivations: (a) giving out of gratitude and (b) giving out of enjoyment.
Giving out of Gratitude. For many of the participants, a sense of gratitude was a reported influence in their decision to give tithes and other offerings. Antonio, a teenaged son in a family, explained:
We like to thank the Lord a lot for giving us all we have. We give … 10% of our earnings to Him … and it’s really blessed us in our lives. You know other people might think, “Ten percent? Ten percent, that’s a lot!” It’s really not that much to me.
A mother from Louisiana also reported that “we give back to [Him, for] what He has given and done for us,” and a father from a different faith said, “We’re just fortunate to have it [to give].” A Southern Baptist father similarly emphasized:
I sacrifice nothing … I don’t look at it as a sacrifice. I look at it as God has given me a gift to do what He would want me to do. So, I can’t say that I sacrifice anything, [I just pass along the gifts I’ve been given].
A final comment related to gratitude comes from a Baptist father from Louisiana:
God is so good and so kind and so forgiving … And all He asks for is that you praise Him … He doesn’t want you to praise money. He wants you to honor Him and be obedient to Him, and if you do that, you’re [richer] than most … that’s what I think.
Giving out of enjoyment. Another motivation for contributing money and other resources is that the giver gains joy from the giving. This is closely linked with the idea of giving out of gratitude because the joy and satisfaction often reportedly stemmed from being able to reciprocate and show gratitude by “giving back” some of what God or others had given them. These statements about the joy of giving are representative:
- “It’s very fulfilling to spend [my resources on others].”
- “You know, we’re not supernatural, we’re nothing special. We just do what we do because we like doing it.”
- “There is [a financial commitment and a] time commitment…but…in the end you just enjoy [it].”
A Baptist mother who donates considerable time and money similarly explained:
I don’t see [the money and time] as a sacrifice personally because I love those … beautiful little girls from church…. It’s very fulfilling to spend [my resources on] them…. There’s … the really spiritual side that comes with it that’s just indescribable.
Another mother seemed to encapsulate the essence of this idea in a single phrase: “The [resources] that we spend doing service is not a ‘have-to,’ it’s just a desire to.”
Theme 3: Making a Wise Investment: “It costs you a little, but the return is huge.”
In the previously referenced book, Acts of Faith, Stark and Finke (2000) challenged (or at least reframed) the notion of faith-based giving. In partial response to their own question of why individuals sometimes give so much to their faith communities, Stark and Finke contended and demonstrated at length that:
people will only accept high religious costs if these result in such high levels of religious benefits that the [overall] result is a favorable exchange ratio. [In sum], people attend not only to cost, but to value in making their decisions (p. 51).
Our project yielded substantial data that gave voice to Stark and Finke’s (2000) position that givers were mindful of “a favorable exchange ratio.” Consider the following examples, drawn from women and men, across several denominations faiths:
- “[Our contributions are] a good investment.”
- “We feel that blessings come from all that.”
- “The benefits I get from it are far greater than [what I] put into it.”
- “God has so [richly] blessed us since we’ve started tithing.”
Joseph, a Christian father of four from Pennsylvania, drew a related analogy:
I wouldn’t construct any of [the things I give up, the money or the time] really as “costs.” I would see it more as an investment. I don’t know…what does it cost you to have a nice car? You pay money for it, but it’s worth it. I mean it’s a bad analogy, but you invest time and you give finances and stuff but it’s not like it costs you something … it’s not like that.
One of the main reasons families gave offerings was to invest in their children. Javier, a Catholic father, stated: “For us, [our contributions are] a good investment because we’re investing, not only for us, but for our kids. So that’s what we’re [doing]….”
Will, an LDS bishop and father of six, reportedly donated more than 10% of his income and roughly 20 hours a week to his faith community. He said:
There’s an old adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Our congregation is the [village] that we have chosen to focus our [resources and] energies on, and I think our kids felt comfortable in that community and have drawn a lot of strength from it …. A lot of things that [our] church provides as part of their standard program are faith-initiated, and it’s only because persons of faith are involved that there is enough [money, time, and] energy around to make them happen, and I think that [those programs] have had a big impact [on our kids].
In each of the above reports, the investment is for the sake of their children and the rising generation, an effort that Erik Erikson has classified as generativity. Although the rising generation was frequently referenced as a central purpose for giving/investing, many participants discussed receiving other forms of return on their investments as well. Several even reported financial gains as a result of honoring their faith’s laws of financial giving. A Baptist mother named Regina reported:
God gives you strength … to make it through tough times, and He’s faithful to His Word…. [W]e used to struggle financially, but after we really were faithful in our tithes, now we have an abundance, and we don’t struggle like we used to.
An Assembly of God father from Oklahoma shared a similar experience, “Tithing just is so important. When [I] read … that only fifteen percent of [my] church tithes, that’s just … I can’t even think like that. The first year we tithed, our income doubled.”
For the three above participants, the “returns” on their financial contributions were reportedly greater than their initial donation—in their words, the participants had not made a sacrifice but a wise investment. A father from Washington summarized:
[We feel we are blessed more than we give], which begs the question, is it a sacrifice? And that’s why I said, “[We sacrifice] nothing [for our faith],” because for whatever you put into it, you get back more than what you put in, so is that really a sacrifice? Maybe it’s just a matter of semantics. I’m not trying to be moralistic. I’m trying to answer the question honestly.
Theme 4: Challenges and Convictions: “I would rather lose this house than not pay my tithing”
Even among the most devoted, some of the participants reportedly found it a challenge to give at high levels. Participants’ discussions regarding the difficulties of giving varied widely. As reported earlier, many participants were very reluctant to even define their contribution as a “sacrifice,” responding with comments such as: “I sacrifice nothing” and “It is not a sacrifice, it is a wise investment.” Some participants, however, offered a glimpse of a more human side by admitting implicitly or explicitly that they do count the cost. An LDS father named Stan reported:
We don’t make a lot of money, we [bring home] between 50 and 60 thousand. That means we tithe [about] $8,000 a year [Note: They tithe on the gross income]. Most people look at that and say, “Boy, that’s a much bigger house that you could be living in, a couple nice cars.” […] We don’t give it too much thought. [But] of course it’s crossing our mind when we’re here in our $100,000 house when we could be in a $220,000 house with nicer cars. 800 bucks a month is…that’s a lot of money.
A Presbyterian mother named Gayle offered her opinion that:
I think, sometimes, people who are not active in a church, I think they’re kind of amazed at the money that we’re willing to spend, to pledge, on a weekly basis, or to write a check as a donation. I think that that’s … my impression is that’s what people are thinking. [They think], “[I]f we didn’t pledge, we’d have $5,000 more a year. We could do [something] with that.” … They find it hard to think that we’re willing to spend that kind of money for your church.
Stan and Gayle reference outsider perspectives (e.g., “people who are not active in a church”). This is not an effort to be coy, but part of their response to an interview question that asked, “What do some people think you sacrifice or give up for your religious faith?” Although the question invokes a more distal, third person response, the point is that both Stan and Gayle do not draw arbitrary numbers for their respective examples but cite their concrete annual amounts. In Stan’s case, he also has a monthly figure calculated … which he converts into other potential goods including “nicer cars” and a “much bigger house.”
Parents like those from the two families referenced above were certainly not alone. The following excerpt is drawn from an interview with a Greek Orthodox Christian family who contributed generously to their church:
Interviewer: What are the greatest obstacles, either internal or external to your marriage being all that you and God want it to be?
Interviewer: Now wait a minute, with all this talk about fasting and giving things up [for your faith], why would money be an obstacle to your marriage?
Tyler: Because I love it.
Ashley: … [T]hat’s one of the obstacles […]
Tyler: [I admit it. I struggle with] not being too materialistic…wanting the new car all the time. I still want a new car …[but] do I need a new car? That’s the question of the day.
The above excerpts illustrate that for some of the families in the sample, giving was a struggle—it was (and is) a challenge. Michelle, a Christian Scientist mother of two, illustrates a recurring subtheme in the participants’ interviews—namely, that the payment of tithes and offerings is at least as much an issue of faith as an issue of finances. She said:
[W]e’re … trusting that … it will work out a step at a time. Kind of like, I said to [my husband] the other day, “If Moses and the children of Israel had waited for everything to be worked out before they left Egypt, they never would have left.” You just have to, at some point, take the right steps and trust that the supply will come as you go along. That doesn’t mean that we don’t save as much as we can. We’re very responsible with our money, but sometimes you have to take leaps of faith financially.
It is noteworthy that in these reports, families tithed even during times of significant financial need. An especially memorable example is drawn from a Latter-day Saint mother of seven, named Catie:
A few years ago when we were still living in the little house and [my husband] got out of work … we just couldn’t pay [the mortgage] …. [I] told [the lady at the bank] my dilemma [and she asked], “Isn’t there any way you could make that payment?” I said, “The only way I could do it would be if I didn’t pay my tithing this month, but I can’t not do that.” She goes, “Well, call your bishop, and tell him. He’ll feel fine about it, he’ll understand,” [then] she went on and on and on. I said, “[The issue] is not about asking permission to do this, [tithing] is something that we just can’t not do. I would rather lose this house than not pay my tithing. We need [to pay] that.” She, I’m sure, went away [from] that conversation just thinking we were the stupidest people she’d ever met in her life, [wondering] why would anybody do that? But when you [pay tithing], you don’t do [it] because of fear, you [don’t] think lightning is going to come down and hit you if you don’t do it, or [because] your parents or your peers are going to think less of you if you don’t do these things. … I feel a huge responsibility to practice what … I believe. Not just [to be an example to our] children, but for my own integrity [and for Heavenly Father].
Catie and her husband Rod did lose their home. Years after losing their house, Catie insists that she has never regretted their decision. She views it as a defining moment in her life—a chance to show God that He came first under any circumstances.
This study has demonstrated that for these faithful participants, tithing was not merely a budgeting or resource allocation decision. Although some of the participants showed that they understood the financial ramifications of their offerings, the meaning of these offerings transcended balance sheets and dollar and cents calculations. Making an offering was not just something that they did—it was an expression of their faith, their identity, and a central part of who they are. Offerings were simultaneously a duty, an expression of thanksgiving and joy, an investment, and a means to assist others. We conclude our report with the narrative testimony of a father of eight whose testimony seems to integrate many of the above elements:
Lance: I remember the time [in the 1970s] our washing machine gave out, we had three kids in [cloth] diapers and I didn’t [even] have money to have the thing fixed, and I certainly didn’t have money for a new one, [but we still paid our tithing]. [M]y wife came home from running the errands … and there was a washing machine sitting on the porch with a hundred dollar bill in the envelope taped to the lid, [and] boxes [of laundry detergent] . . . . We don’t know [exactly who] it came from … [but] we probably would have found out had we done the detective work. But my assessment of that was that there are some miracles that are so sacred that to check to see whose fingerprints on the lock to the windows of Heaven is sacrilege. Somebody obviously understood the principle of charity where you don’t let the right hand know what the left hand is doing, and they left that there for us, and God bless them!
Lance references the same passage of scripture cited at the commencement of our article:
Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse … and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it (Malachi 3:10 KJV).
 For the full academic journal article from which this article is extracted, see: Marks, L. D., Dollahite, D. C., & Dew, J. (2009). Enhancing cultural competence in financial counseling and planning: Understanding why families make religious contributions. Financial Counseling and Planning, 20, 14-26. For a related follow-up article, see also: Marks, L., Dollahite, D. C., & Baumgartner, J. (2010). “In God we trust”: Perspectives on finances, family relationships, and faith. Family Relations, 59, 439-452.