Becoming a Beacon for Love and Justice
At our church we’re in the midst of the annual pledge drive, an essential process for maintaining the life of a church which has no endowment income and no subsidy from a major benefactor or denomination. Our ability to employ staff, maintain our buildings and present Sunday services and programs is dependent on totally voluntary donations, plus fees we get from rental of our facilities when not in use by the church. This year I agreed to be part of the Stewardship Team, which means I’m paying extra attention to the process and doing what I can to ensure its success.
We are in challenging times politically and as a religious institution. The steady drumbeat of alarming developments in the news makes us think hard about our personal beliefs and whether we are doing enough to speak out and act out in support of principles we thought were well established decades ago. My church is a place where I find friends who share many of my most cherished spiritual and civic values. It is also a place of refuge, where I can thoughtfully examine life’s problems and renew my commitment to face them with strength and determination.
While our nation and the world are facing tremendous challenges, the church is as well. My church is in transition from the loss of a highly-regarded minister, to a well-loved interim minister and the hope of obtaining a new settled minister in the coming year. While the transition process is going well, it’s not without issues. We’ve said good-by to long time members who have chosen to move on and hello to newcomers we are excited to meet, but don’t yet know well. Our music program is now mostly volunteer-led and still determining its new direction. We have new leadership on our Transition Team, Search Committee and soon on our Board of Directors. Adding to the stress of the situation is the increasing cost of living in Kirkland and the realization that a new minister must be compensated in an amount adequate to maintain a comfortable life on Seattle’s expensive Eastside.
My introduction to donating money as a percentage of income came during my first full-time employment, when I had just finished law school. One of my work colleagues came around with a pledge card for United Way and the suggestion that my fair share was a percentage of my income. I don’t remember what the percentage was, but it resulted in a dollar amount dramatically larger than any donation I’d ever made. What to do? I earned very little in that job and felt I needed every penny for my apartment-living and bus-commuting lifestyle, not to mention student loan payments. On the other hand, I wanted to be a team player at work and didn’t want to be known as the hold-out who didn’t support the goals of the United Way campaign. I made the requested pledge and, over time, giving a percentage of my income to community charities became a normal practice. I benefitted from art galleries, music and drama organizations, hospitals, parks, schools and many other institutions created and maintained by donations and I learned to appreciate that I needed to do my share to ensure they would be there for future generations.
I learned another lesson in income sharing from the secretary who worked for me when I was a self-employed attorney. She belonged to a church which expected all members to contribute 10% of gross income. Whenever she received a paycheck she wanted to be clear what her gross income was, before deductions, so that she could calculate how much to pay her church. I quickly realized she was paying more to her church than I was to mine, even though my income was substantially more. While I admired many of the services offered by her church, I strongly disagreed with their advocacy on women’s issues. It was bothering me that money originating with my clients was indirectly being utilized to oppose what I considered important civil rights. I challenged myself to increase my church pledge to be at least as much as hers in dollar amount and to supplement my philanthropy by donations to community organizations, especially women’s groups, so that my total gifts to charity were approximately 10% of my income.
I haven’t yet made my church pledge for the coming year. The Stewardship Team recommends increasing our commitment by 1% of income. In making that recommendation, they may have taken into account that church pledges in “liberal” denominations are often no more than 2% of income. The chart of recommended donations tops out at 10% of income, so it’s not clear what the recommendation is for those already at that level. In trying to decide how much to give, I think about how important I feel the church is to my neighborhood and the broader community. I think about the inconvenience it would be if I had to find a new church and possibly have a long commute to get there. I think of the friends I’ve made at church and the memorable experiences I’ve had there. Then I revert back to all the challenges we are facing across the country and around the world and contemplate what the future holds for my five grandchildren.
Expensive vacations, remodeling projects and new clothes can be postponed, along with a reduction in meals out and new electronic toys. My donations are going to increase, to be consistent with the pledge chart and the Stewardship Challenge. It’s my way of ensuring my values are represented in the community. It’s also my way of paying back what I’ve gained from others who have worked to improve life here and across the country.
No one has asked me to give a testimonial at church in support of the stewardship campaign, and I won’t even be present for Stewardship Sunday, so I thought I’d just put it in my blog. Our church slogan is to “Be a Beacon for Love and Justice.” I’m proud that I will be making a significant donation in support of that cause, in dollars, as a percentage of my income, and in time and talent devoted to the work of the church.