I grew up Mormon (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints/LDS) in central Maine. My family attended church every Sunday, while also participating in mid-week activities and most special congregational and regional events. My dad was often the one to turn off the lights and lock the church building after activities. He served on the leadership team and my mom often taught Sunday school. Our family’s faith and church community were important parts of our lives.
Our church demanded much of our time, but there was also a financial obligation to tithe ten percent of our gross household income, with additional monthly donations to assist those in need. We were held accountable to these expectations through yearly “tithing settlements” where we had to affirm that we had paid a full tithe to our bishop. Regular worthiness interviews for teenagers and adults also included a question about paying tithing, which was a requirement for full participation in the church. We did not have a strong sense of where that money went beyond meeting the needs of the local congregation and worldwide church. I knew that our local clergy volunteered their time, together with those staff working in children, youth, and music ministries.
Church teaching included lessons that emphasized paying tithing as a commandment given by God. If I had to make a choice between paying tithing and feeding my family, I was supposed to choose God. My obedience in this area would guarantee divine blessings and disobedience would cause God to withdraw from me.
My family needed blessings. My mother suffered from serious chronic mental illnesses and our family struggled to pay for needed treatment and its related costs, even with medical insurance. My father was sure that paying additional tithing would guarantee God’s blessing and he often paid more to try and secure those needed blessings. My family went into debt to make this divine financial calculus work, but it never created the health or wealth that we hoped and prayed daily for. Instead, our sacrifices contributed to unprecedented wealth for the LDS Church.
I spent years experiencing chronic anxiety about money stemming from my family’s financial problems. Today I feel deep anger at what I was taught about generosity as a Mormon and the shame I have experienced around money, faith, and church. I now hold different beliefs about God and the prosperity gospel, but I carry the wounds of generosity abuse.
As a bivocational pastor in Community of Christ, I serve a tiny congregation of former Mormons who experienced similar kinds of generosity abuse. Each of us has different stories related to this kind of abuse, but we are all skeptical of giving in a church. Healing this wound, and others created in a high-demand religious tradition, is at the heart of our congregational life. I try to ensure that our folks know and feel like they can fully participate without burdensome demands of time, money, or energy. We do not have a dedicated building space and I do not ask my congregation for regular weekly donations. Instead, we meet in borrowed spaces, coffee shops, public parks, bookstore cafes, the community room at the local public library, and my backyard. The folks in my congregation engage in generosity in a variety of ways, offering their gifts as musicians, organizers, readers, crafters, and thoughtful seekers and everyone knows how to donate online. We work hard to thrive within the energy and financial resources that are offered freely and used transparently, living into a different vision of God’s economy.