The Collection Plate Dilemma

According to various studies, approximately 40% of Americans attend religious services on a weekly basis (though that exact percentage is disputed). Once a week, they’ll get up and head to the religious institution of their choice to engage in fellowship and worship.

One common part of those services is the request for donations of some type so that the organization can keep the doors open and, ideally, perform good services in the community. In many places, this takes the form of a collection plate or collection basket, passed among the people in attendance so that they can drop whatever they wish into the basket.

So, there you are, in the middle of a religious service, and the collection basket passes in front of you. What do you do?

First of all, religious beliefs on tithing vary greatly. Even within Christian denominations, you’ll find wildly different perspectives, as can be seen in the wonderful book Perspectives on Tithing by David Croteau. One person’s adamant religious belief on tithing might not even match the belief of the person sitting next to them, let alone someone else in another service across town or someone not attending a service.

Second, the ways in which various institutions use their money varies widely, too. One local church used their money to give permanent housing to a food pantry, while another religious institution of roughly the same size has a much larger staff of religious leaders. This, of course, might be more of an argument of switching to a different religious institution, but there can often be theological and cultural and social reasons not to do so.

Finally, there’s the personal impact of the decision. Money dropped into a collection plate can have a real impact on your financial state, particularly if you’re struggling to make ends meet.

So, there’s that collection plate in front of you. What do you do?

First of all, if this is a question that troubles you – and based on reader email, I have a few readers who are definitely troubled by this issue – you should study it. Don’t just bury that trouble or find excuses to pave over it. Learn more. Check out the book I mentioned above and take the time to read it (it can be a bit dense and complicated, so read it with Wikipedia at the ready so you can understand the meaning of some of the terms). Read what others have written about tithing and giving.

Second, talk to your religious leaders about your struggles. Any religious leader worth their salt will listen to you and have a discussion with you. They will not lead with “rules” about tithing.

Why? To put it simply, a struggle about tithing is just one face on a struggle about faith and beliefs. If you’re struggling about whether or not to put money in that collection plate – or how much to put in there – you’re struggling, on some level, with spiritual issues. That’s the very purpose of a religious leader – to help you work through those issues.

If they simply respond with a “rule” that you must follow, then they’re not providing spiritual leadership for you, and you should include that response as part of your search for answers.

My solution is simple. If I’m a guest in a religious service, I put a small amount in the collection plate. For regular giving, Sarah and I talk about it beforehand and decide what we’re going to give long before we’re faced with that plate.

Do your own homework. Usually, you should know well in advance when you’re going to be faced with that decision to give. Think about it in advance. If you’re troubled, read more about it or consult with religious leaders. Find the answer that seems right to you so you can make the appropriate choice in that moment with a clear conscience.

A final thought: never feel like you have to “give.” A gift is given out of free will because you choose to do so. If others are making you do so, it is no longer a gift.

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