An old friend who was going through a time of financial hardship said to me, “Paying bills is kind of fun when you have enough money in the bank but it’s miserable when you don’t.” Money is pretty important. It can be fun to deal with when we’ve got enough or it can really put pressure on us when we don’t.
How do you get to the place in life where you have enough money? For me that has been an interesting journey and I haven’t gotten there by building a bank account.
Mary Ward and I went to seminary a couple years after finishing college. We didn’t have much money and our lives were pretty simple as compared to most. We arrived in Alexandria, Virginia, with $250 in the bank and no means of income. Mary Ward quickly found a job with a company that sold water and sewer supplies, a definite change from her previous job of selling women’s clothes in a department store. I worked in the seminary library and went to school. Like many students, our existence was hand-to-mouth, paycheck-to-paycheck. When we finished seminary we had less than we started with, including a $5,000 balance on our credit cards. We pulled up to our first church in Greenville, South Carolina, with that debt and my new salary of $24,000.
In seminary I had learned about tithing. Odd that I either hadn’t heard about it before or just wasn’t paying attention if it was mentioned. I had now heard the wisdom of giving 10% of my income to the church, saving 10%, and living off of 80%. As I looked at the numbers it became clear that this formula would not leave enough money for us to pay the monthly bills. Something had to give. The monthly expenses weren’t going to go away, so we had to choose between saving money or tithing. We couldn’t do both because there wasn’t enough money for both.
Had I been sitting in the pew in that situation, I have no doubt what my choice would have been. I would have waited to tithe until I thought I could afford it. But I wasn’t sitting in the pew. I was standing in front of the congregation asking them to tithe so I had to either tithe myself and be cramped financially or live with the hypocrisy of not doing what I was asking others to do. I went with tithing but honestly I did it thinking that if it didn’t work out, I’d quit.
While I’ve heard some people say that when they started tithing they magically got some more income as a reward, that was not my experience. We just had less money to work with. But, to my surprise, we had enough money. We had to be careful and we could have paid off those credit cards quicker if we didn’t give that money away but we got it paid off over time. And immediately, by tithing first instead of being more prudent financially, money became something I enjoyed instead of something that made me miserable. Giving money to the church is more fun than paying bills for one thing. But I also felt like I was doing something important. I was exercising power over my money instead of letting it exercise all the power over me.
That was a big surprise for me. Jumping into tithing without really counting the cost too seriously actually worked for us. We had enough money to cover our bills even though it was very tight. And money became less stressful for us. Giving away more than we could afford brought more peace and more joy. Had we waited until we thought we could afford it, I’m not sure I would have ever tithed.
Giving first and then living off of what’s left over works. The only reason I did that, honestly, was because I couldn’t handle the inner feelings of asking others to do something I wasn’t doing. But I didn’t do that at first out of some great commitment. I just did it and knew I’d quit if it didn’t work out. Not only did it work out in terms of having enough money but it helped me begin to develop gratitude. As I gave money away and found there was enough left over for expenses, I became more grateful for the money I did have rather than thinking I needed more in order to make it. Tithing helped me see my money as a gift.
Practicing gratitude is important. If I don’t name the things in life that I’m grateful for, I either take them for granted, stop noticing them, or just expect that I should have those things. I lose the joy of appreciation. These past few weeks, as I’ve named things at St. John’s I am grateful for, I’ve felt my heart lift. Mary Ward even noticed it Sunday: “The way you read the Eucharistic Prayer was different today; you sounded more excited.”
Tithing has totally changed how I approach money. For us, just jumping in and doing it was very helpful. For others, making it as a goal and working toward it over several years has worked. However you approach it, practice gratitude with your money and things will change. You’ll learn more about faithfulness and you’ll learn that God provides all we need.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.