Tom Arthur: Should church membership depend on tithing?

Rigor is good. A two-tier system that keeps committed participants from joining is not.

In the ancient church a young monk would approach an elder and ask, 'Abba may I have a word.' Tom Arthur seeks advice from elders in these letters. Sondra Wheeler’s reply is here.

Dear Sondra Wheeler,

My first appointment out of seminary has been to a nine-year-old church after the founding mother retired at age 67 (she planted this church as a grandmother). It has been a thriving community in its nine years. I am their second pastor. I am finding that there are all kinds of things about a church plant that don’t fit the mold of the traditional United Methodist Church. One such issue is tithing and membership.

Our church has a tradition of expecting its members to tithe or to be working toward tithing. There is no formal process for determining whether someone lives into this commitment or not (we don’t ask to see paycheck stubs or anything like that), but rather in membership classes the commitment is presented, and if someone chooses to be a member the follow-through on this commitment is up to him or her.

This requirement naturally keeps many people from joining as full members. The commitment to tithe is a significant one, and not many people are willing to make that commitment. They do not generally leave the church at this point, but they do not enter into full membership. They continue attending regularly. Many are serving in significant ways.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, this system creates a perception of “pay to play.” I don’t believe that is the intent of the expectation, but that is how it comes across at times. It does also have the tendency to make some people frustrated at the least and angry at the most that they are not granted the privileges of full membership (e.g. voting). On the other hand, our Wesleyan heritage does have a history of setting high standards for membership to societies and classes, and Wesley regularly and forcefully preached about money in such a way that makes the requirement to tithe seem rather small and insignificant, and both he and Asbury’s lifestyle left little to no room for early Methodists to complain that their leaders weren’t living into what they were teaching and requiring of others.

It seems that this issue taps into a deeper issue of discipline in the UMC. Discipline was high in our past, and is lacking now. The tendency seems to be to want to put the discipline toward the front end of the relationship by setting high membership expectations. This has a kind of logic to it, but it also doesn’t necessarily take into account that the original Methodist context of being a renewal movement in a state church doesn’t exist anymore.

So what do you think of tying tithing and membership together? Is this a good idea? Are there unexpected consequences of this expectation? If this isn’t a good idea, how can a church be more effective at helping its members to make all they can (honestly), save all they can (by living simply), and give all the rest away (10% and then some)?

Peace,
Tom Arthur

Tom Arthur is pastor of Sycamore Creek United Methodist Church in Lansing, Michigan.