What’s Our Potlatch?

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Emmanuel saves up to buy designer clothes and products to look rich like his high school friends. Photo by Greenfield/Institute

Since last September I have discussed the challenges of being financially faithful in Southern California. This month I plan to conclude the series. As a quick review:

1. High housing costs, cultural pressure to appear successful, and perceived scarcity make it difficult for Southern Californians to delight in God’s ways regarding money.

2. We counter the difficulties by (a) giving the first ten percent of our income (b) to the church structures to which we belong, (c) even when we disagree with their leadership, (d) in order that we might grow into generous people who trust God’s timing.

3. The Presbytery currently depends on per capita and mission giving to fund its ministries and the infrastructure behind them.

I want to linger this month a little on this last point. Per capita and mission giving are the most common ways that congregations fund presbytery work. But the PC(USA) does not require that we fund our work this way. Consider, for instance, the story of Yukon Presbytery.

Twenty-five years ago Yukon’s leadership decided to respond proactively to the end of national mission funding. Baby boomers, wanting to know the specific programs their contributions would fund, did not support “unified giving” to the national church. The remote, often subsistence-based (cashless) congregations in the Aleutian Islands and on the North Slope could no longer assume that an entity in Louisville would pay for their pastors.

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Chapel in the Mountains, Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska

A small group of ordinary presbyters committed to three steps. First, in order to speak with integrity, they would tithe on their own income. Second, they would challenge members of other congregations to do likewise. Finally, they would seek creative answers to the presbytery’s need.

One answer fit the Alaskan context perfectly: A tithe on the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD).

Most Alaskans think of the PFD as “extra” money. They live off their paychecks (or subsistence harvests) and then splurge with the dividend. They buy special clothes or a television, visit family in the “lower 48,” etc. But the Yukon leaders had a better idea. What if they called congregants to tithe on their dividends for special ministries? Could such a practice give Yukon and its congregations hope for a future beyond the old funding stream?

One key player suggested a good modification on the basic tithe: Encourage congregants either to tithe annually on the PFD or to give the entire dividend once. Either way, half of that gift would stay with the local congregation and half would go to a Presbytery endowment. The income from the Presbytery endowment, in turn, would fund Yukon’s staff and common ministries.

Wiser still, the presbytery made a celebration out of people’s PFD contributions. Yukon’s “PFD meeting” included motivating worship, excellent food, great music, and uplifting prayers. It was a “giving party,” so to speak.

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Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

It fit the context perfectly. Alaskans love to give. The potlatch resides deep within many of the state’s indigenous cultures. Even more, the party echoed Deuteronomy’s command to hold a feast with the harvest tithe (see my column from January).

The proposal connected. Despite the end of denominational dollars decades ago, Yukon remains a viable presbytery. Its congregations serve Anchorage and Fairbanks, of course, but also villages on the North Slope, the Bering Sea, and the Arctic Ocean. It hopes to raise enough to fund a full-time itinerant pastor to visit multiple “off-road” village churches on a regular basis.

Los Ranchos and rural Alaska are worlds apart. But Yukon’s campaign was inspiring. What could we learn from them? How might we—pastors and church leaders, presbytery staff and committee members—more effectively unite the joy of giving and the joy of ministry in the minds and hearts of our congregants? If the Permanent Fund tithe fit the culture and circumstances of Alaskans, what would make sense for the people within our reach? What answer would fit perfectly in our context?

I don’t know the answers. I’m still the new one here. But I know the answers are out there. And you are the ones who can find them. Coming up with creative possibilities to help our congregations, fund our ministries, and pay our staff will require you, my faithful readers. I need you to identify the “PFD tithe ideas” for Los Ranchos and its churches.

When you do, I am confident those ideas will help us respond faithfully to Scripture’s understanding of money. They will be marked by celebration. And they will give us a glimpse of a joy beyond what Southern Californian affluence can bring.

Somewhere along the Way—

Forrest

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