Last month I raised the challenge of financial faithfulness:
“…the task before us is to recapture a Scriptural understanding of money and then put that understanding into practice, even as the realities of life in Southern California whisper that we are fools for trying.”
How, then, are we to find release from the Southern Californian predicament? Scripture’s answer begins with the principle of first fruits. Financial counselors frequently encourage household saving with the words, “Pay yourself first.” But in God’s economy, Scripture tells us to pay God first, and then to trust God to provide what we need.
The book of Haggai tells of a moment when God’s people got it backwards. After the exiles had returned to Jerusalem, they found themselves economically stressed. So they said “not yet” toward building the house of the LORD. In secular terms, the people showed good sense. Charitable giving is a “variable expense” that can—and according to a certain mindset, should—be reduced in tighter times.
Yet Haggai named the people’s choices as the cause of their struggles, not their response to them. So God through Haggai called the people to build the house. And when they did, they heard the LORD say, “I am with you.”
Just as the people of Haggai’s day had the Temple, we in the Reformed tradition have the Church, the Body of Christ. And just as in Haggai’s day, putting God’s work first frees us from the power money holds over us.
But the first step is the proverbial “lulu,” isn’t it? Putting God first before getting our financial affairs in order is scary. And if our congregants are going to take that risk, maybe it helps them to see their Sessions doing so. Let me give you an example.
At the Presbytery meeting on September 25, I reported that some of our congregations owe the General Assembly one or more Church Mortgage Grants. Many years ago, the congregation that my wife and I pastored in Southeast Alaska had received one. At a presbytery meeting, we learned that they had owed GA the same few thousand dollars for decades.
The small congregation had, for its entire existence, received mission aid from the Board of National Missions. Paying back the money made little practical sense. Why not keep it on the books and use the funds somewhere else? Yet our Session decided to retire the loan.
That step began the church’s path toward a fiscal revolution. After repaying the grant, the Session aimed to tithe ten percent of the budget to the presbytery. They also chose to reduce the mission aid the church received until it was self-sustaining.
Those choices triggered something in the congregation. Giving spiked. After three years, the Session doubled the rate at which it was reducing its mission aid. After only five years, they voted to go off aid entirely. By then, 39% of the congregants were giving at least ten percent of their household income to the church.
We often observe that congregants will give more when they see the church leadership exercising faithful stewardship. But when we speak of “faithful stewardship,” we usually mean “prudent money management.” Yes, it is easier to ask a congregant to give when we are not wasting money. But congregants will also respond when they see their leaders handling the church’s finances not just prudently, but Biblically. “Faithful stewardship” must also mean “stewardship in accordance with faith”—that is, trusting God to provide.
In upcoming columns I plan to speak at greater length about how much of our first fruits belong to God’s work; why (for both practical and theological reasons) that work begins with congregations, presbyteries and the denomination; and what we are to do when those structures have betrayed our confidence. To wrap up this month, however, I’d like to pose a few questions:
1. If you are a financially stressed church member: What would happen if you set aside money for the church first, and planned your household budget around the rest? What possibilities do Haggai’s words open up that you hadn’t imagined before? How might you take a first step?
2. If you are a Session member or pastor for a financially stressed congregation: Does your church’s budget apply the principle of first fruits? If it does, does the Session regularly communicate that fact to the congregation? If the budget does not reflect a first-fruits discipline, what discussions might your Session hold as you prepare your 2017 budget?
3. If you are part of the Presbytery’s decision-making structure: What application does this column have for us? How and where might we decide to “build up the house of the LORD” first, trusting God to be with us when we do? Just as I have suggested that a Session might lead its congregants by example, how might the Presbytery lead its Sessions?
As usual, I invite your thoughts.
Somewhere along the Way—
 Ex. 23:16, 19; 34:22, 26; Lev. 23:10, 17, 20; Num. 28:26; Deut. 18:4; 26:2, 10; 2 Chr. 31:5; Neh. 10:35, 37; Neh. 13:31; Prov. 3:9; Jer. 2:3; Ezek. 44:30. See also Matt. 6:33: “Strive first for the kingdom of God…”.
 See Haggai 1:1-13.
 Results for the First Presbyterian Church of Craig and Klawock, along with comparisons to national averages, obtained through the United States Congregational Life Survey. According to the USCLS, 19% of respondents nationally report giving 10% or more of their income to their local congregation.