More than a feeling, part I: Give away an increasing percentage of your income each year

Several years ago, the concept of random acts of kindness became popular. Commit random acts of kindness, the idea was, and the world will become a better place.

Perhaps the world will become a better place through your random acts of kindness. But odds on, you yourself will not become a consistently kinder person through random acts of kindness any more than you will become a more physically fit person through random acts of exercise.

Developing virtues like kindness and generosity requires consistent, regular discipline under the leading of the Holy Spirit. That’s why we Christians call it discipleship, y’know.

And there are fewer disciplines more effective in developing generosity than making a commitment to give away an increasing percentage of your income each year.

Notice that I said an increasing percentage, not an increasing amount. Christian ministries are struggling today precisely because we failed to understand that distinction.

Check this out:

Over the past fifty years the amount of money Christians have given to churches and missionaries and charities has steadily increased–well, up to this year anyway.

What hasn’t changed, however, is the percentage of income Christians give to charity. Whether we’re in the midst of boom or bust, recession, depression, or progression, bear or bull, over the past fifty years the percentage of income American Christians have given to charity has remained between 2.9 and 3.1%.

That means giving has gone up over the past fifty years only because Christians have steadily been making more money. In other words:

Christian giving in the US is tied to GDP (gross domestic product), not generosity of the heart.

How do we begin to change that?

Well, we can’t teach what we haven’t learned. So we Christian leaders–both pastors and nonprofit ministry leaders–need to grow in the discipline of generosity in order to be able to teach others to do so. A simple–but deeply challenging–way to do that is to make a commitment to increase the percentage of income you give away each year.

My wife and I learned that discipline from a much beloved champion in Billings, Montana named Doc Haggstrom.

Doc married Evie as he was completing his medical education as a urologist. Serving in the military during the Korean War. Financially strapped young couple with promise–you get the picture.

Doc had been raised in a Christian home where tithing (giving away 10% of one’s income) was standard practice. Evie, not so much. So when Doc talked to Evie about tithing from their meager income, she found the whole concept irresponsible.

“We can’t even pay our own bills,” she protested. “What business do we have trying to pay everyone else’s?”

Now Doc could have simply insisted that they were going to tithe, but I suspect that not only did Doc not want to sleep on the couch; he also wanted to help Evie (and himself) grow in the grace of generosity, and he knew that forcing her to tithe was likely to make her more resentful, not more generous.

So Doc proposed that they begin their married life by giving away 5% of their income, and then, every year at the end of the year, they would evaluate whether God had been faithful in providing for them, and, if He had, they would then increase the amount that they gave away the next year by another half a percent.

Evie agreed, and the two did just that. They both passed away a few years ago, at a point when they were giving away the vast majority of their income. They have forever impacted the town of Billings, not to mention everyone in their sphere of influence, with their generosity. I still think about Doc often for so very many different reasons, and his practice lives on in my own family, among others.

There’s nothing magical about the percentage you increase every year. If you don’t like half a percent, try .25%. Some folks, like John Wesley and Tony Campolo, went cold turkey, determining comparatively early in their lives the absolute base amount on which they could subsist and then giving away the rest. Myself, I think it would be hard for me to rightly judge what that base amount ought to be, and as the father of four children who are college and upper high school age, I tend to think that that number rightly and responsibly changes as we grow older.

But all of that personal reflection is secondary to simply making the overall commitment to give away an increasing percentage of your income each year. That’s a decision you can make regardless of your age or position in life or present income. You can make the commitment to do that as you head into 2010, taking the next month and a half to pray about it, run the numbers, bite your fingernails, gird your loins, and git ‘ir done.

With respect to the donors-as-dunderheads pundits about whom I wrote in my previous post, I find that there’s nothing like giving away an increasing percentage of your income every year to make you less inclined to base your giving on your feelings and more inclined to think strategically, prayerfully, and intentionally about what you’re supposed to be accomplishing through your generosity.

But before Holden Karnofsky and others pat me on the back and shake my hand and compliment me for coming to my senses and realizing that this is what they’ve been saying all along, and that such intentionality should lead givers to GiveWell, Charity Navigator, and other charity ranking websites in order to discover which charity they can give through in order to make the biggest difference…

…I’d recommend they wait to shake my hand until after Monday’s post.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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3 Responses to More than a feeling, part I: Give away an increasing percentage of your income each year

  1. Pingback: More than a feeling, part II: Give as God, not your passion, directs « Transformational Giving

  2. Matt Bates says:

    Maybe this is all because your mentor was named Doc, but this makes me think that the nonprofit community would do well with doctor/patient as a metaphor for the relationship they should have with their constituents.

    For a long time the metaphors were financial, which is why we have terms like donors and investors. But lately this has given way to the metaphor of friendship, or even ministry in Christian nonprofit circles. Our donors have become our friends, friends we minister to. Who could argue with that?

    But the doctor/patient relationship is based on a prescribed course of action to achieve the health of the patient. The doctor is a regular person with specific, rigorous training, talents, and experience that lend her authority over the patient. The doctor has responsibility to inform the patient about preventative measures and remedial measures to take to achieve and maintain health. These measures are specific and defined, written down in the form of a prescription. You like your doctor to be friendly, but you don’t go to a doctor’s office for friendship. You like your doctor to be caring, but you don’t expect her to pick you up from the airport, or pray for your nephew who is looking for work.

  3. Pingback: Against Random Acts of Kindness (But Only For the Kindest of Reasons) | Transformational Giving

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