Are we willing to pay the financial cost of Faith….or not? And what does our answer say about what we value?

091513There is an interesting, albeit at times concerning, article over at that reports the simple fact that being a member of a believing community “costs” you something. And while the article is directed to a Jewish context, its implications reach all of us who believe and belong to the Church.

Underlying the article and those it interviews is a not so subtle premise that it is somehow wrong for faith to “cost” much. Never mind that just about anything in life costs something, involves tradeoffs and that the things we value are often where we chose to spend more. Somehow the implication of the article is that faith should be free, or less demanding financially.

Here are few excerpts from the article by Charles Passay with commentary from me in red and more substantial comments. The full article is here: The Financial Cost of Religious Faith

With the onset of Yom Kippur this evening, Jews will begin a day of fasting, prayer and reflection — all key parts of this holiest of holy days on the religion’s calendar. But this Day of Atonement often comes with another ritual of sorts — namely, a pitch from synagogue leaders for contributions….[It] may strike some as distasteful, but it underscores the reality that faith of any kind — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — often has a literal price. Houses of worship solicit donations in order to pay the bills…..

True enough, there are real costs to maintaining buildings and staffs related to houses of worship. But why should it be any more “distasteful” that a house of worship has costs and bills than say, a public school, a local recreation facility or city stadium, such that we are taxed to pay for their upkeep? The simple fact is that things we value have costs that need to be covered, churches are no different except that we are not forced to pay for them like the government does with taxes.

Beyond such fees, various religious practices, from adhering to certain dietary laws to avoiding certain types of investments, also have costs associated with them….The Jewish practice of keeping kosher — that is, adhering to a way of eating in which meats have been butchered and prepared a certain way, among other dietary matters — can translate into a 20% increase in a family’s food costs, according to one study….Some of the faithful say the financial burden has become harder to bear, especially in light of the slumping economy of late.

But again, it also costs money to go to a football game (often a LOT of money). And that money could be spent elsewhere too. But for people who value football, it is (apparently) a price they are willing to pay, along the the “privileges” of standing in long lines, sitting out in the cold rain on some game days, and paying 15 dollars for a tiny beer and hotdog. But people line up for it.

It’s about what people value. If I value my faith I accept that there are going to be some costs and inconveniences associated with it. If I want to keep my beautiful church open and in good repair, I accept that I will be asked to contribute to that, and will not have that money to spend on a movie or something else. If I want to be a true Christian, I am going to be generous to the poor and needy, and that means I can’t spend my money of some other things.

But If I love God, I value what he values and I want to do it. It’s called tradeoffs, and most people make them everyday for things they value. For Jewish people Kosher is important, and like anything important, it has some costs and tradeoffs associated with it. Welcome to life, filled with tradeoffs and with the need to decide what you value most. You can’t have it all, and almost none of it is free.

“I wish it wasn’t so expensive,” says Judy Safern, a Jewish resident of Dallas who runs a strategic consulting firm. In the past couple of years, Safern has cut back on what might be dubbed her “religion budget,” pulling her two children out of a Jewish day school in favor of a public one (a savings of $16,000) and foregoing membership to her local synagogue (a savings of $1,800). Safern’s hope is that she can maintain her faith without emptying her pocketbook. “I refuse to continue to be squeezed,” she adds.

While it is true that all of us might “wish” that things weren’t expensive, insisting on such wishes is not really a sign of maturity. A football fan might wish that the tickets in the nosebleed section behind the pillar weren’t $450 a piece, but (mysteriously) that is what the market will bear and he has to decide to pay it or not, whatever he wishes were not the case.

It is a worthy consideration, as Ms. Safern implies, to ponder if every expense is necessary. But at the end of the day faith does have costs in time, treasure, and tradeoffs. Does she value her faith so as to bear this cost…or not? From her remarks it seems doubtful that she values her faith much, since the “cost” is not worth it.

Regardless of the religion, Safern is far from alone in expressing such sentiments….A 2012 study by the Barna Group, a market research firm, found that 33% of Protestants and 41% of Catholics had reduced their contributions to churches or religious centers because of the economy….. Actually, Barna Group Vice President Clint Jenkin says it may be more than just the economy at play. He argues that a new generation of the faithful sees religion in an entirely different — and decidedly isolationist — way. “Faith is becoming much more something you do privately rather than something at an institution,” he says.

Exactly. Money and other resources are ultimately about what we value and what we do not value. The complaint about cost is not really all that much about money, it is about faith, it is about what we value. Many have devalued faith and decided that it isn’t “worth” much.

And, as the article suggests,  one can try and reinvent the faith into a “private” matter. But at the end of the day it is clear that the driving force behind most theological syncretism and designer religion is not deep faith at all. It is about making faith less demanding, less costly, more convenient, more about “me” and what pleases me.

A few concluding thoughts. At one level, faith need not cost much at all. We could just meet in a local park on Sundays, expect that clergy be volunteer, and that very few implements such as books, bread and wine, candles, etc be used. But of course such an attitude seems foreign to people who value their faith more than that.

Traditionally it has been the instinct of the faithful to honor their belief with substantial buildings, and dignified implements. Further, since the faith is something weighty, the faithful do not simply depend on rookies or volunteer clergy for the most central matters of teaching the faith and leading the faithful in worship and governance. Rather, given the respect due to Holy Faith, clergy are expected by the faithful to be well trained. (I spent five years of post graduate and attained to two Master’s Degrees, then spent almost ten years in the internship of being a vicar rather than a pastor). This is par for the course and, yes, its costs money. But this is the instinct of the faithful.

So, faith, just like everything else we value does cost. And while there are legitimate discussions to be had about whether every cost is necessary, at the end of the day it is going to cost. If you want to find out what people value, find out what they spend their money and time on. In our increasingly secular and faithless world, many (including some believers) lament what faith “costs” even as we spend exorbitantly on many other things.

As I write this, it is a Sunday afternoon and quite literally billions of dollars and millions of hours have been spent today in an obsession known as “football,” a game having to do with the movement of  a bag full of air on a field. Some fans (short for fanatic) spend as much as four to eight hours glued to the screen, or in loud uncomfortable stadiums. Hundreds of dollars are spent on tickets or parties. And yet many of these same people scoff at the “cost” of a Mass that lasts more than an hour, and would, if they went at all, consider themselves generous contributors if they put five or ten dollars in the basket.

Yes, Sunday is a day of great contrast.

What should faith cost? It is clear that the answer to this is for us to decide.

In the end however, the “lament” of the cost of faith reported in the article above is not about the money. It is about faith and what we really value. Everything “costs” it’s just what you decide to spend your money on that reveals what you most value. Do you value the faith? You decide, and you show it by what you are willing to pay. Where a person’s money and time is, there is their heart.

Video: the immigrants to this country were poor. But they combined nickels and dimes to build beautiful churches. Why? I suspect because they valued their faith and thought the cost to be worth it. Here are a couple of videos I put together of their gifts to us:

Wages of Catholic Ministerial Employees are on Par With Protestant Denominations

Prior to entering the Seminary, I was a choir director, cantor and organist in Catholic Parishes. In those days, (early 1980s), it was widely held that working for a Catholic Parish meant your were going to be paid poorly. The “real money” was made working for Protestant congregations. Concerns were raised (many of them legitimate) among Catholic liturgists and musicians that Catholic parishes needed to rethink their priorities, and pay more just and competitive wages, if we were ever going to rescue Catholic music from the amateurish state it largely was in in the 1980s.

It would seem, according to a recent CARA report that a lot of progress has been made in this direction. And this is true not only in terms of musicians, but also other professional positions. The CARA report says,

A companion piece to the CARA research released in the Emerging Models project’s The Changing Face of U.S. Catholic Parishes is the National Association of Church Personnel Administrators report, Pay & Benefits Survey of Catholic Parishes….One of many interesting findings is how similar wages and salaries are for Catholic parish ministers and those working in similar capacities in Protestant churches in the United States. (See Chart above right). The Protestant data used by NACPA are from Protestant: 2010 Church Staff Compensation Survey.

More on the CARA report here: Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) Blog.

It would seem that we have largely closed the gap in terms of wage comparisons with the Protestant denominations. As a pastor, I think this is good news. I have come to depend greatly on competent and well trained laity doing parish work. I have a very fine staff here at my parish. My administrative assistant and business manager is the best and daily brings great wisdom and experience to bear on parish issues.  My music director is top drawer, and nationally known. My support staff are all excellent. What a blessing.

It is also a fact that the parish has come to bat in the offertory and are well formed in their understanding of what it takes to run a parish where we pay just wages, and strive for excellence in the service of the Lord. I remain humbly grateful to my congregation for their immense generosity and Love of God. Biblical tithing has been embraced by most of the parishioners here who though small in number, yearly generate an offertory income of almost one million dollars.

Money is sign of what we value. Catholics who regularly toss down $50-100 to take the family to the movies, or even more to go to sports events, and then toss $10 in the collection basket are saying something about what they value. Likewise, Catholics who direct 10% of their income to God’s house in obedience to his word (cf Malachi 3:10, inter al) are also saying something.

Further, parishes that pay significant wages for administrative leadership, music and catechetical ministry are also saying something about the value associated with these works in God’s house. Money does have something to say about what we value.

I realize that what I say here is not without controversy. Some prefer to emphasize volunteerism in parish settings. Well enough, and volunteerism must continue to have an important place in parishes. For just as with money, what people do with their time is also an important indicator of what they value.

But there must be a proper balance or proportion at work. Music and liturgy, parish administration and catechesis are essential and important post that ought to be staffed by well trained and well paid individuals. It will surely be the job of such individuals to engage volunteers, and train good leaders to assist them. But in the end, we have to be willing to have well trained people in essential posts and be willing to pay them wages commensurate with both “the market” and also with the value we attribute to their work. And that value is significant. Further, we ought to be willing to pay just wages, with benefits to those whose work approaches full time.

Pastors do well to form their congregations around such notions so that God’s house will not be an afterthought in their lives and financial priorities. In preaching biblical tithing, I often emphasize that God gets the FIRST tenth of our income, not the tenth that is (hopefully) leftover after we pay the cable bill and for the latest iPad.

I also realize that some will comment that they don’t like the money is spent or that they don’t prefer the music, the catechesis. But be careful, give and then offer concerns to the Parish Finance Council. Give and then insist on excellence. Every pastor and finance council is required to report to the congregation every year. But give critique as one who is invested (in obedience to God), rather than one who withholds until he gets what he likes. Our parishes are not products we buy, not services we contract for. They are the Body of Christ we join and become part of, financially and through service. And in the context of communion and generosity, we listen for God’s will and move forward, in conformity to Church teaching.

Alright. I was not born yesterday and realize that whenever money is in the discussion there will be strong opinions. Remember, I do not write a complete treatise here. I am starting a conversation.

Telling the Truth by Time and Money

It has been said that if we want to discover what we really value most we need to look honestly at what we spend our time and money on. Most Christians, if asked what they value most will answer, “God.”  But that is the expected answer. The truest answer can be found by looking at our calendars and spending habits.

Disclaimer – The text that follows makes use of the collective “we.” The use of this collective pronoun is not to be interpreted as the “absolute” as in “Every single one of us does this without exception.” Rather the collective “we” bespeaks a general human tendency that will, in fact vary from person to person. Hence not all of what you read may apply to you. Nothing should be taken personally. There is a saying, “If the shoe fits wear it. Otherwise, let it pass over you.” With this disclaimer in mind let’s look at how “we” make use of money and time and what this might saying about what we truly values and what our priorities truly are.

If we look to our spending habits we discover that, at least in the modern American setting, our greatest love is creature comforts and entertainment. Even the necessities we purchase like food, clothing and shelter are riddled with comfort.  For example we buy a lot of food that soothes and merely appeals to taste but is otherwise junk. We buy homes that do far more than shelter us, but feature vast entertainment areas, widescreen TVs, large open kitchens, great rooms, cathedral ceilings, pools and patios. Our clothes too must come in every variety, matching shoes and ensembles. Even our cars have plush and adjustable seats, and have entertainment centers installed to include: fine Bose sound, mp3 players, Satellite radio, even flat screen TVs that play movies. All of this adds a hefty price tag to our increasingly high and comfortable standard of living,  and we pay it!  It goes a long way to show how highly we value comfort and entertainment.

But as for God, he too easily gets the financial leftovers. We may spend hundreds of dollars at a fine restaurant, 20 to 30 dollars going to the movies, hundreds more to go to a cold wet stadium and watch football and eat over-priced hotdogs. We will plop down large amounts for video games and Wii accessories, and yet feel like a hero if we drop $10 in the collection plate instead of our usual $5. Never mind that Scripture says that God is to get the first 10% of our income (e.g. Malachi 3:8-12), the fact is, he usually gets the leftovers. After the mortgage, car note, cable bill, magazine subscription and credit card bill are paid, after all the impulse spending, we figure out what, if anything is left and from that give to God. But truth be told He doesn’t get paid upfront like the like Mr. Walmart, God gets the leftovers.

For things we really like, money is no object, Charge it! But giving to the Archbishop’s Lenten Appeal, or increasing our offertory to afford the new parish education building is considered an odious imposition and our soul cries out, “Not again?!” Catholic School education has surely gone up in price and that is a factor in the dropping enrollment but many Catholic families still manage to afford some pretty nice stuff.

The fact is we just don’t value God and the things of God like we value comfort and entertainment. It may be a hard truth but it’s right there in our spending habits, plain as day. At the end of the day our priorities are pretty plain.

And as for our time – here too the overall portrait is pretty bleak. The vast majority of Catholics give NO time to God at all.  3/4 s don’t even go to Mass. Quite certainly they don’t pray either on any regular basis, if at all. As for the 20-25% who do go to Mass God gets 45 – 60 minutes a week. But beyond that, how much does the average Catholic pray each day? How much time do they spend with Scripture or the study of their faith. To be fair, many Catholics do attend bible studies, adult ed and/or other Church activities, but many do none of this.

Time for everything else – Now, of course, everyone is busy in these stress filled times. But we find time for everything else. We find time to sleep and eat, time to watch our favorite shows. We find time for vacations and other diversions. Many people can spend hours shopping, watching sports games, movies and the like. But when it comes to prayer, study of the faith, teaching the faith to children, reading Scripture, or helping the poor…., well, you know, “I’m just so busy.”

At the football game everyone is excited when it goes into overtime. But if Mass runs long, there is irritation. Football is about a bag full of air being pitched around a field. But Mass is about eternal verities and soul-saving grace. But never mind, five hours on football is reasonable, but a Mass longer than 45 minutes is unreasonable.

The truth, as told by time,  is that many value leisure and worldly activities far more than God or the faith. We may wish to doubt this but it is written right into our calendars and the balance isn’t even close. For most people God gets nothing of their time, for some he gets an hour a week, only a very small percentage give more.

Disclaimer 2 – It is a true fact that we cannot spend all day in a chapel or give all our money to God. Most people have significant and serious obligations they must meet financially and temporally toward others. Meeting obligations IS part of our holiness. Yet most of us do have disposable income and leisure time. It is how we make use of these resources that we must most look to discover how highly God really ranks in our world.

Telling the truth by time and money remains very instructive for us. Very instructive indeed.