Monday, December 15, 2014

Pharoah's Dream

I've decided to name my next blog Pharoah's Dream.  (I'm just posting here for the time being.)
The purpose of this blog is to talk primarily and specifically about church finance, but also about non-profit finance in general.

My primary intended audience is the lay leadership of churches like the  Episcopalian congregation of which I'm a member; although much of this will also pertain to all non-profits. 
The central theme of this blog is reconsidering how to use one of our main pillars of financial support -- those larger sums of capital which usually come from people's estates, and which typically have been used to create perpetual endowments.   I'm going to argue that, unless such an endowment is the only thing the donor wants to do, a better way to use legacy gifts is to liquidate them and invest them in fulfilling your mission.  
The Bible, whether read as the sacred word of God or simply as one of the foundational historical documents of Western civilization, talks a lot about money and wealth -- depending on who's counting, perhaps more than any other subject.  
One of the earliest instructional episodes for institutions considering how to handle assets occurs way back in Genesis 47, in the story of Pharoah's Dream.
Joseph, the great-grandson of Abraham, had been sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers, but emerges as an advisor to Pharoah when he is able to interpret a troubling dream.  In Pharoah's dream seven fat, sleek cows are eaten by seven scrawny cows; and then seven full and heavy heads of grain are devoured by seven withered plants.   Joseph  indicates that the dream is a weather forecast of seven years of plenty, which is to be followed by seven years of famine.
Joseph offers a plan from God, which Pharoah empowers him to implement, to prepare Egypt for the coming disaster by setting aside 20% of the harvest from each of the seven years of plenty in great warehouses.   When the famine years begin, enough grain has been stored to feed the people of Egypt and their neighbors through the times of trouble.
For 3400 years, this story has been used to demonstrate the wisdom of prudence and thrift, of setting aside money for a rainy day.  It is, in fact, frequently cited in books and essays about the need to create endowments. 
I'm no Pharoah, but I am often troubled, sometimes in the middle of the night, by concerns that lean years may already be upon us.  I serve on the vestry of a church that is blessed (and challenged) with an endowment that can support more than half of our current operating budget -- if that's how we continue to choose to use it.  I've spent nearly 30 years working with dozens of non-profits that only aspire to having more assets than annual expenses.   (I'll probably break this into two posts at this point).
I decided to name this blog after the story in Genesis 47 because it is instructive in a way that we don't often consider, in our efforts to turn years of plenty into futures of plenty.    Pharoah was told to set aside 20% of the income from seven abundant years to use it, to spend it, over the next seven years -- to meet human need, not to produce interest income as an additional revenue stream for the palace. 
Most churches and most non-profits do a pretty good job (although we all can do better) at talking to their members and supporters about the importance of regularly supporting their annual operating budget with a recurring gift or pledge out of the member’s income. Churches have the extra advantage of a common language about giving back to God.
Very few churches or non-profits are anywhere near as systematic about talking to their supporters about ALSO supporting their mission with a significant one-time gift out of their estate.  Many endowments that do exist came as unexpected surprises, or as the result of extensive targeted cultivation of a few significant prospects.
And yet if churches – or non-profits in general – succeeded in making their case for the second kind of gift at the same conversation rate that they do in making their case for the annual kind, they could transform themselves within a generation.  
If every parishioner in your church would endow their pledge – would commit to a gift out of their estate of $20,000 or so for every $1000 they pledge on an annual basis – then within 60 years, your endowment would be producing as much as your current annual appeal does; you could double the resources available to pursue your mission.  And, probably two-thirds or more of your pledge revenue comes from people over age 50; so there is a chance that you could increase your budget by 70% in just a generation, even without increasing pledging.
Excited yet?  No, me either.  This is going to take too long, and the benefits are too far down the road.
But Pharoah’s Dream offers one other bit of advice for making a case for that legacy gift. Joseph didn’t tell Pharoah to store up seven years’ worth of surpluses to invest it at 8% so he could spin off 5% per year while reinvesting the other 3% as a hedge against inflation forever.  The plan was to use it over the course of a seven-year famine.
Maybe we need to change, or at least add a new dimension to, the paradigm of how to use estate gifts.  Maybe putting a million dollars into an “investment vehicle” that spins out $50,000 a year until the end of time isn’t the only or the best way to inspire giving or plan your organization’s long-term future.  Perhaps other donors – particularly those whose estate gifts will be four or five figures instead of six or seven – can better visualize the meals served, the people clothed, the lives changed if their gifts, pooled with others like them, were spent down over a given number of years – perhaps a generation, during which time the next generation of donors are cultivated to replace the gifts that preceded them.
There are and have been charitable foundations, such as the Herman Krannert Trust and the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, designed to self-liquidate in this manner.  How many individual institutions are beginning to plan at least a part of their legacy giving and asset management programs in this way?  Trinity Episcopal Church in Indianapolis is at least exploring it.  In posts to come, I’ll share what we’ve experienced, and what I’ve found in talking to others across the country. 
We may survive this famine yet.  We may even come through stronger.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Good Use for a Quarter Million Dollars

What’s the right way to use $250,000?

Saturday Sally and I took a behind the scenes tour of ProjectHome Indy, one of the neighborhood non-profits that Trinity Episcopal Church supports.

PHI rents from Trinity, for about a dollar a month, a home around the corner from the church that the organization has nicely restored and now maintains as a place that offers shelter and life-skills training to homeless pregnant teens and teenage moms.

Read that again.  Homes for pregnant teens have been around for generations.  This one fills a need for girls (yes, “girls,” we’re talking about children) who have no place to live.   Many of them are 15 or even younger; they are pregnant or raising a newborn; and they have no home.  Perhaps they’ve been kicked or driven out of a parent’s home.  Perhaps the one parent they have is homeless themselves.  Perhaps home is where a stepfather or relative or unrelated adult male impregnated them.

PHI’s lovely house has five bedrooms upstairs, so at any one time they are working with as many as five girls (and maybe their babies).   Sometimes they’re not full.  Some clients don’t like the structure and bolt at the first bad opportunity to sleep on a friend’s couch.   Some stay as long as 18 months, but the average is closer to six months.

 “Success” for PHI is when a client completes whatever is necessary to move out into a sustainable home life.  Sometimes that means that the original home has become viable again.   More often, it means completing high school or a GED, getting a job, perhaps sharing an apartment with another “graduate,” ideally having acquired the knowledge and the habits to build a life outside the cycle of poverty and abuse  that led them here in the first place.

Based on the numbers above, it would take an absolutely ideal set of circumstances for PHI to serve and graduate ten young women a year.  But probably, five is closer to the reality.

We didn’t talk about budget, but afterwards I looked PHI up on Guidestar.   The most recent numbers there show them as a $250,000/year operation.  Most of that is the cost of having 24/7 paid adult supervision in the home.  They also have an impressive part-time executive director who, like most part-time non-profit execs, is really just receiving part-time pay for full-time work.   In the year I looked at, less than a third of their revenue came from reimbursements from the state’s Department of Child Services.  Private donations made up the rest.

I have to admit to doing a mental calculus on return on investment.   $250,000 seems like a lot of cost to society to run an operation that serves five people a year.  $250,000 is four times the annual budget of each of the two feeding ministries – a food pantry and a kitchen – where I volunteer.  And those both serve hundreds of people a month.
On the other hand, our clients are hungry again within a week, or a day.

At PHI, that $250,000 helps five teenage girls who ideally learned the skills and disciplines to break the cycle.   Odds are, without intervention, they would have had another baby while they were still children themselves; maybe more.  Odds are, those babies would grow up in the same cycle of dysfunction and, in 15 to 18 years, have a couple of babies themselves.   And they would repeat the cycle. 

Ideally, this year’s quarter million dollars turns around the lives of five young people.   It avoids the need for ten such investments in 2030 and the couple of years thereafter, and twenty in 2045, and forty in 2060. That’s 70 future “broken” lives, in just the next fifty years, that hopefully won’t need interventions at the cost of $50,000 each.   That’s three and a half million dollars.

PHI’s inspirational CEO Lakshmi Hasanadka would love to build an endowment, and who can blame her?   We teach our non-profit leaders to use renewable revenues on operations, and one-time gifts like bequests for capital projects or to build endowments.  But would another $250,000 be better used if it was used as an endowment?    It could create $12,500 a year in spendable income.   How much of a difference would that make on this issue, in the lives of five people a year? 
Such a gift to PHI, as an endowment, would spin out $12,500 a year … $125,000 a decade … $625,000 over fifty years. 

Coincidentally, $250,000 is also just about what it took PHI to rehab a sturdy but dilapidated house that our church made available to them four years ago.
I don’t want to oversimplify the situation, or make another organization’s decisions for them based on two hours of observation.  I just want to point out that sometimes, the best way to use $250,000 can be to spend it.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"But I'm Not Dead Yet." Another Response to Another Dying Church Story.

Bring out your dead!   The Episcopal Church has released the final tabulated results of the 2013 Parochial Reports.  I'm commenting primarily for my friends at Trinity Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, but there are points here that are relevant everywhere.  The trend lines in this report are mirrored not only in all the mainstream Protestant denominations; it's been an issue in the Catholic Church for two generations and now even the evangelical congregations that grew throughout the 1980s and 1990s are experiencing a decline in numbers.

Bring out your dead!  As a denomination, the Episcopal Church is down to 6,622 parishes in the US, a fifth straight year of losing 40 to 100 a year.  In many cases this is a matter of small parishes merging; but in some cases communities are simply losing their Episcopal churches.

The count of total active Baptized Members is 1,867,000, down 1.4% this year, down about 7% total over the past five years.  This number has been dwindling from a high of 4 million 40 years ago.  During the early ‘00’s it was common   to attribute our membership losses to people leaving over the then-divisive issue of ordaining gay clergy.  Now that decision has positioned us at the vanguard of the right side of history, but it is not translating into membership growth. Bring out your dead!   

The Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) in all 6600 parishes on a given weekend is 623,700 – down 2.6%.  The five-year trend is down by over 10%.  Attendance is dropping even faster than membership – indicating that normative expectations about what constitutes “participation” are changing.  So ... "but I'm not dead yet!"

Median parish membership  is 152.  (The mean, or average, is 281; a few very large churches drive up the average.)   The median means that half the Episcopal congregations in the US – 3311 of them – are smaller than 152 individual members.  Sixty percent have less than 200 members, and only 14% are larger than 500.  We at Trinity are well established within that top group, with more than 800 members.  So ... "really, I'm feeling much better."  

Median  ASA is 61, and the average or mean is 94.   Only 4% of Episcopal churches have a higher ASA than 300, and Trinity is just outside that group at 282.

The national Average Pledge $2553, up .8% … that number has increased by 60-70 dollars a year for five years.   Our average pledge at Trinity in 2013 was $2150, up by $150 after having hovered just under $2000 for several years.   Nationally, the average pledge has increased by almost $400, or 18%, over the past five years.   That’s a good thing, I believe, but I can’t help but think that that’s largely a function of small churches having no other revenue stream and no other alternative, in the face of inexorably-rising costs, than for every remaining member to give more to make up for the members who passed away each year.

I also have to think that Trinity’s average pledge is lower than it could be, because people don’t see that same desperate dynamic at play here, thanks to our endowment.    But certainly we are a more affluent-than-average Episcopalian congregation.  Considering how many of the 47 parishes in the Diocese of Indianapolis are in small rural towns where the median household income is three-quarters what it is in Marion County and half of what it is in Hamilton County, Trinity has to be above average in our capacity. 

And for all I know, we very well may be above average in our individual generosity.  We just are not, as a group, doing as much of our giving through the local church as the average Episcopalian congregation. 

But I didn’t write this just as a means of shaming us into giving more.  Rather, I’d like to suggest applying these numbers to a couple of different perspectives.  

A growing Average Sunday Attendance is likely a good indicator of a healthy congregation, but a declining ASA is not adequate evidence that a church is not healthy.  ASA is measuring changes in societal patterns that it is counter-productive to battle.  I would argue that a member who worships twice in a month, attends (or leads) an educational offering twice a month, and invests time on a committee and/or at an outreach mission twice a month, is a more engaged member than someone who attends worship four times a month but does none of the other.   I think Trinity is full – or at least half-full! – of people who fit that former profile.   Of course, I’m sure there are some smaller churches where the same thing is even more true.  But we at Trinity have the resources to demonstrate some leadership in tracking and promoting this kind of engagement measuring, and in that way changing the national narrative of what is and what is not a “dying” church.

I also think that there are some good conversations going on at Trinity about how we should cover the cost of our program with our giving, and use our endowment to maintain our physical plant and fund new initiatives.   What new initiatives?    That’s not been decided … in fact, I don’t think there’s even a list started.  

But every time I read a new analysis on the decline of the church, I have to think … we have at Trinity the resources – the talent, the imagination, and the venture capital and financial flexibility – to conceive and implement ideas that could change the world beyond our walls and our neighborhood.   

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Tyranny of the Moment: An RPG Review

If you learned to play the original Dungeons and Dragons in the 1970s with an anal-retentive dungeon master – the kind who would plunge you into darkness if you mistakenly drew your sword without first telling him that you were carefully placing your torch in a wall bracket – you might be pretty good at playing CAPS, the Community Action Poverty Simulation.

Last week my friend Susan, a fellow “church rat” and member of the vestry at Trinity Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, invited me to participate in an educational offering, sponsored by a pair of local non-profits -- the Domestic Violence Network and the Julian Center – utilizing a pretty remarkable Role-Playing Game developed by the Missouri Association for Community Action.

Susan and I were on the invitation list because we’re active in several of the feeding ministries and other outreach activities that Trinity sponsors in our inner-city neighborhood.   Susan’s husband, a judge, had been through the experience, along with his staff, and recommended it. 

So on Tuesday morning I joined about 60 other people – all but seven of them women – in the community room of Tabernacle Presbyterian Church; was given a randomly-assigned role to play, and met my “family” to hear our instructions.    In this simulation, most of us play members of one of about a dozen families – some adults, some children; some working, some unemployed, some retired, some disabled.   The rest of the group played the staff of the various businesses and community organizations with which we would interact:   grocery stores, banks and pay-day loan centers; government agencies and police stations; utility companies and pawn shops.

I was assigned the role of the 36-year-old wife in a household where my husband had a $313/week job. We
had a 15-year-old daughter in school, and my disabled father living with us – until moments before the game began, when my husband’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and came to live with us as well.

The simulation itself took exactly one hour to do – four 15-minute “weeks” -- in which we dealt with the known and unexpected challenges of our lives.   Each 15-minute week was divided into eight minutes of work and school, where the employed and the students went to their “assignments,” while the rest of us dealt with paying bills, buying groceries and prescriptions, getting to the bank, getting our food stamps renewed (in my case, while juggling a pair of seniors with limited mobility) and making sure that every member of the family had a supply of the ever-important transportation tickets that had to be cashed in at the start of every transaction at every venue.  Then we had a seven-minute “weekend” to strategize and prioritize the coming week. 

Our family got behind the eight ball immediately when my "husband" (paternalistic driver that he is!) responded to the sudden arrival of his dementia-ridden mother by taking her out the door with him and dropping her at an adult day care which we couldn’t afford on his way to work – despite the fact that we had two other adults at home.  He also left the rest of us without enough transportation tickets to go everywhere that we needed to go in the next eight minutes. 

I went into take-charge mode myself, taking my “father” to the bank with me to cash his disability check; and drawing his ire for agreeing to pay the entire car loan out of the proceeds, instead of trying to negotiate a partial payment.    

By the first “weekend,” we were snapping at each other, even though we didn’t know each other and were only playing a game. 

Of course, the “game” was stacked against us, although some would argue “no less than it is stacked against the poor in real life.”    In the second week I got a summons from the welfare department and after two trips there to collect the necessary documentation, I learned that my father’s disability check was going to reduce our eligibility for food stamps.   Not that I had time to get to the grocery every week anyway.  I learned that my father had a checking account at the bank, but my husband did not – and we never had a week to wait to open one, so had to keep going to the payday loan store to cash paychecks, for an ever-increasing fee.      Almost everywhere we went, the people “playing” the staff made us wait precious seconds while they completed conversations with each other. 

I deal with anxiety in real life, and 35 minutes into this game I was thinking it might be better for my health to just quit.

Our “family” came out rather well.  We never lost a job for being late twice; we weren’t evicted; our teenager got a job during “spring break” and was able to pay most of the cost for the glasses she needed, and we never had to bail her out of juvenile detention.  We missed a payment and got our phone disconnected.   We actually had a second car that we could have sold, if we had the time. 

During an hour-long debriefing session, I didn’t even get a chance to share my observations because so many people were so eager to talk about their experiences.   And I’m not pushy enough.  I’m a line-waiter-inner. 

One of the observations I made of myself – and my entire family of middle-class role-players – was that it never occurred to us to try to bend the rules or even ask for help.   The system has usually worked for me.  Not only did I not lie on my food-stamp paperwork; it certainly didn’t occur to me to rob the pawn shop.  Nor did it occur to any of us to try to barter services with other families.   We had two adults at home, taking turns taking care of an Alzheimer’s patient.   The families around us had disabled family members and pre-teen children.   Finding the time to seek them out and trade services for cash or goods didn’t occur to us.   It did occur to me to try to find a job, but the game didn’t allow the time for that.

The reason for this, and perhaps the central “takeaway” of the whole exercise, was summed up in the often-used phrase “the tyranny of the moment.”   The game is designed, above all else, to illustrate that being working poor is a full-time job for each member of the family.  It is too easy for our society to blame the poor for their condition – to ascribe it to laziness or bad choices.   In this simulation, the choices are made in a framework of urgency.   I didn’t choose to not have a bank account – it was just a daily matter of preventing the electricity from being turned off being more urgent.

I wasn’t able to get a complete roster, but everyone I talked to at this event was associated with a hospital, a government agency, a non-profit, or a church – people who work with the poor on a regular basis, and at least have a need, if not a pre-disposition, to understand their motives.   And again, fifty-three of the sixty participants were women.   I couldn’t help wondering what might have been different if I had participated along with a room full of 55-year-old male bankers and insurance executives.

I also volunteer as a mentor with Starfish Initiative.   Because of our mission – helping disadvantaged youth qualify for college scholarships – one of requirements of being a mentor is to have a college degree.  So we have a good cross-section of educated and successful people, across the political spectrum.  Starfish encourages its mentors to read a book, Ruby Payne's A Framework for Understanding Poverty, which discusses the different ways that the poor and the middle class evaluate and value basics such as food and money.  (For instance, whereas the middle class may ask of a meal, “Was it tasty?  Was it healthy?”, the poor are likely to evaluate it in terms of “Did you get enough?”)   Starfish doesn’t promote this book to turn us into socialists, but to help us understand the background of our kids – including the fact that their parents may not be lazy or stupid, but just have different, and understandably different, immediate priorities.

Yes, the simulation is a bit heavy-handed, which could be used as the excuse to dismiss it by someone not predisposed to be sympathetic.   Which might be a good reason for a community like a church – with a range of ages and professions represented – to be a place that demonstrates it.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Italian Exceptionalism?

First in a series of blogs that I started during my trip to Italy:

The Italian peninsula  has twice been the apex of human civilization – in two different eras and cultures, over a thousand years apart.
 First the Roman Empire, and then the Renaissance. 

We think the pace of change in our modern world would be incomprehensible to anyone born before 1900, but imagine being a young Florentine coming of age in 1490.  Lorenzo de Medici was still in power.  Italy was still the center of the western world, largely because everyone in Europe – including Spain, which was just completing its liberation from 700 years of Muslim Moorish rule – was Catholic, and owed allegiance to the Pope in Rome.  

Thanks to Marco Polo two centuries earlier, Italy controlled Europe’s trade with the Orient.  In science (Galileo, da Vinci), art (Michaelangelo, Rafael, etc.), and politics, (the de Medicis, the Borgias, Macchiavelli), the leaders of the age came from Italy.    If anything, the fact that Constantinople had finally fallen to the Turks fifty years earlier, after seven centuries of keeping Islam out of southeastern Europe while carrying on the legacy of the Roman Empire, only made Italy’s role as the final heir to Rome more obvious.

Most educated people understood by then that the world was round, but it wasn’t until an Italian, Christopher Columbus, convinced the Spanish king and queen to fund an expedition that it was proven feasible to cross the ocean and return.   That voyage and those that followed proved that there were two whole new continents in the world – but it was the Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, and Dutch that explored and colonized them.  Maybe none of the Italian city-states of the period could have mustered the resources to build, maintain and leverage an overseas empire – but who would have figured Portugal could?  Perhaps Italy was still too preoccupied with maintaining its pre-eminence in Europe. 

But in 1520, up in the northern regions of what had been known for a thousand years as the Holy Roman Empire, a German priest named Martin Luther, began to protest many of the positions of the church in Rome.   A German inventor named Guttenberg invented the printing press and within a very few years people were translating and distributing copies of The Holy Bible from Latin into local languages.  By 1540 – within one adult lifetime  –  many of the German principalities and most of England had left the orbit of the Vatican, and Holland, Switzerland, and Scandinavia were well on the way to following.  At least Spain, the early leader in the European effort to colonize the world, was still Catholic. 

Who would have guessed that Spain’s time as a world power was a mere 50 years away from peaking?   
Despite spreading the Spanish language and the Catholic  faith to half of the New World, Spain’s influence on the continent started declining shortly after the loss of the Spanish Armada.  Italy’s decline was a century underway by then.  I wonder if anyone was aware of it?

One could argue that the Florentine who was born in 1470 and reached his 70s by 1540 saw the world change in more fundamental ways than anyone born in 1890 who saw the automobile, the airplane, radio and television, and nuclear power come into existence.    I wonder who was more conscious of the change?

How intentionally did Italy resist or  ignore the changes in the world?   As the rest of feudal Europe coalesced into modern nation-states, did the Italian leadership – or even public – intentionally refuse to adopt such changes?   And was a sense of “Italian Exceptionalism” a reason why?  

I’m sure there has been a great deal of scholarship on this question, and I’ll probably look some of it up.  It was just interesting being in Italy, amidst such epic six-century-old grandeur, and wondering about it.  

I’m sure some national sense of “catching up” (modern Italy wasn’t united until 1871) and “reclaiming our rightful place as a leading power” explains Mussolini – although our guide spoke with embarrassment about that era; very little fascist architecture remains; and Rome still quietly marks the “liberation”  by the Allies from the Axis (the 70th anniversary occurred while we there). When I think of modern Italy, I think of food, film, fashion, sports cars, and the Azzurri national soccer team.  It’s still the ninth largest economy in the world.  Not bad things to be known for.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

More on Ancient Taxes and Charity

Sunday the lectionary for thousands of Christian churches of many different denominations in America contained an Old Testament reading from the book of Leviticus, a book of laws of the ancient Hebrews that governed them between the exodus from Egypt and the founding of a nation in what is now Israel and Palestine, over 3000 years ago.

Our reading was edited to focus on those passages that dovetailed with Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 about going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, and loving your neighbor. 

The 19th chapter of Leviticus actually covers a dizzying array of issues.  It reiterates some frequent prescriptions (keep the Sabbath holy, honor your father and mother) and prohibitions (no worshiping idols, do not steal or bear false witness, as well as do not wear garments made of two materials or cut one’s beard).  It offers some interesting redresses, too.  For instance, if a man has intercourse with a woman who is the slave of another man, they should NOT be put to death.  She receives no punishment, because she was not free.  His punishment is to provide a ram for a sacrifice of penitence.  Most of this is far more reasonable than the most punitive of the Old Testament laws that often get cited by modern progressives to point out the inconsistencies of those who use the Bible for modern political purposes. 

It also offers this, which I need to keep in mind:  “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.”   I don’t think that “the great” in our society need as much benefit of the doubt as the poor, but I do strive to be fair.

But there was also this:  “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”

This appears to be a call to direct charity, over and above the commands elsewhere to “tithe” ten percent of their income in grain, oil, and livestock.   Since in ancient Israel the church and the state were effectively the same thing, the tithe was really much more of an income tax than a gift to charity. 

We get into dangerous territory here, since today almost everyone pays more than 10% in taxes – in sales, excise, state, and social security taxes, even if not in federal income tax.  But I’ve never heard anyone – even (or especially) my socially- and fiscally-conservative friends -- use that as an excuse to not give at all to charity or church. 

I have heard modern tax rates used as a reason why the 3000-year-old 10% tithe is an unrealistic goal for church budgeting purposes.  And, given that the average American gives 2% to charity, and a third of that to church, I don’t think 10% is realistic, either.  That’s not to say it’s not a worthy individual goal. 

Meanwhile, how about this:  “you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.”   Whoa!  Wouldn’t that complicate the lives of our payroll departments!  I wonder of the State of Indiana is still holding the first day’s pay of a new employee for four and a half weeks before they get their first paycheck? 

And, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

Well, there’s a whole ‘nuther blog there …

I wrote this not because it is a major epiphany for me, but just because I’m trying to get into the habit of responding to and documenting what I learn every week.   The big lesson here is the extent to which themes of social justice in Judeo-Christian tradition predate the New Testament – and certainly our own modern politics. 

Just can’t help throwing in a couple of additional wise-guy remarks.

I can’t find any place in the Bible where it talks about tithing 10% of one’s income from labor, but only 5% of one’s income from investing.

I did find a reference in Exodus 27:32 concerning giving a tenth of one’s livestock.  It’s pretty easy to measure out a tenth of one’s grain no matter how little there is, but what happens when one has an odd number of sheep or cattle?  The instruction was to let them pass through a gate at their own random pace, and set aside every tenth one for the Lord.   So, it would seem, someone with only 17 sheep would only have to tithe one.  And someone with fewer than ten cows would get the equivalent of a standard deduction in today’s terms, and not pay a tithe on cattle.

I wonder how many ancient Hebrews had fewer than 10 head of cattle.  Perhaps 47%?

Friday, February 21, 2014

Private Work for Public Good (Part II)

On the heels of my recent discovery on the background of the word “liturgy”  as “private work for public good,” I made another observation while taking my son to school along 38th Street, one of the busiest roads in Indianapolis, and one of the few that sees a significant flow of city buses. 

Last week, after the snowfall that had set the local record for the most snow in a season, I watched an older woman trudging east in the far right-hand lane of the six-lane street, staying close to the dirty white ridge that hid the curb.   

We have very nice sidewalks on 38th Street, with landscaped right-of-ways between the sidewalks and the street.   But for a four-block stretch of that street – occupied largely by branch offices of banks – the walks have not been shoveled, apparently since the big storm in early January.

Monday, I decided to traverse that stretch on foot to go to the nearest drug store.   In the 29 degree temperatures, the single-file path blazed by previous pedestrians was turning into a trench filled with ankle-deep slush.   The trails ended in knee-high gray roadblocks at the crosswalks where the snowplows have cleared streets.

Over an eight-block walk (there on one side, and back on the other), only two property owners had attempted to clear the sidewalks – the landlord of an un-named apartment building at 38th and Penn, and North United Methodist Church. 

Who is responsible for keeping sidewalks cleared?   On my street, everyone does a pretty good job of keeping their walks shoveled, if only so our neighbors can walk their dogs without getting snow over the tops of their boots.   What happened to businesses having that sense of responsibility? 

It was the sidewalks in front of the banks that irked me the most.  I suspect these banks know who their customers are and are not.   The sizable parking lots behind the banks are plowed, and the walkways around from the lot to the front door are clear.  Apparently few pedestrians patronize these banks; perhaps not even many of the people in the neighborhood who use public transportation (when they can avoid being run over by it).   Or maybe the pedestrians are just so used to trudging through knee-deep snow that it doesn’t occur to them to say anything.

I’ve also been reading about the U.S. Postal Service’s idea of becoming an outlet for financial services such as prepaid credit cards and even payday loans.  Apparently a growing number of Americans don’t have bank accounts – not only the unemployed and the disabled and those supposedly-ubiquitous welfare cheats, but also a lot of people who take public transportation to their minimum-wage jobs. 

I just watched my son perform in Les Miserables twice, so I’m still feeling like a revolutionary.  I couldn’t help seeing the little old lady trudging past the offices of the multinational corporation and thinking,

Look down, and see the beggars at your feet
Look down and show some mercy if you can
Look down and see the sweepings of the streets
Look down, look down, upon your fellow man!

Or, for that matter,

Look down, look down, you’ll always be a slave
Look down, look down, you’re standing in your grave...

Man the barricades!   Occupy!

Whew.  Okay, I got that out of my system.

Actually, I did consider doing something about it (instead of just writing about it).  I thought about going and shoveling it myself.   And notifying some friends in the media to come photograph and interview me doing it, to publicly shame and humiliate the property owners.   Luckily, it’s been thawing all week, and so I didn’t act on my passive-aggressive impulse.

But I did think, if I had noticed this was going on earlier in the winter, it could have been a great opportunity to approach those business owners about putting young people to work shoveling these  “public  thoroughfares” which cross “private property.” 

So I’m talking to a couple of people in the area about gearing up for that effort in the future.   It might be best in this day and age if the property owners were approached by an adult on behalf of an organization that was supervising the young people who could use the work, the direction, and the small amount of money.   We wouldn’t be asking residents and businesses to support one more charity.  We would be providing them the means to fulfill their erstwhile  obligation to do private work for public good.  It would be a liturgy.  

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Private Work for Public Good (Part I)

Last week I got a little history lesson when Cate Waynick, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis, joined us for Sunday worship.  As part of her interactive homily, she told us that the word "liturgy," while often synonymous with "service," actually comes from a Greek word that referred to a form of "service" different from "ceremony."

Bishop Cate told us that the Greek word leitourgia is sometimes interpreted as "private work for public good."  The example she gave was of a merchant who built a bridge to get his goods to market ... and then left it for anyone else to use.

Intrigued, I did a little more research.   It seems that leitourgia -- literally, "work of the people" or "work for the people" -- originated with the ancient Greeks in the years 800-500 B.C., when the Romans were still clustered in central Italy and the Hebrews were in the Babylonian captivity.   The Greeks funded their civic enterprises -- temples, the military, and even gymnasia and theatrical productions -- by asking the wealthiest citizens to volunteer for the privilege of underwriting them.  There was great prestige in being named the "sponsor" of the costliest items.  Often this came with the benefit of serving as master of ceremonies at a related festival or feast.   Not unlike modern philanthropy, in a lot of respects.

Except this wasn't philanthropy in the modern sense.  It appears to have been much closer to their version of taxation.   A tax paid exclusively by the rich.   Has anyone told Mitt Romney about this?

It seems the ancient Greeks did have other forms of government revenue, that everyone paid, even if only indirectly -- primarily what we could call sales taxes and tariffs.  But at this point in history there was, apparently, no attempt to tax the income or "wealth" of the poor.  The Greeks didn't look beyond the wealthy. Like Willie Sutton's rationale for robbing banks, that's where the money is.