Sunday, October 28, 2007

Stewardship Sunday

Today was Stewardship of Treasure Commitment Sunday at my parish. That's a long and fancy way of saying that they pass out the envelopes and ask everyone to write down a weekly or yearly pledge. Fr. Andrew gave an excellent homily addressed to the "5 groups of people in this congregation." The first group was those who have never given and have no intention of giving to the parish. And I had to sit there and listen to the message, knowing that I was part of that group. I wanted to stand up and yell, "I'd give, but my husband won't let me!"

It's so frustrating. I know God is aware of our family situation right now and I know that He wants me NOT to give. Truly, it's not that I care that the office clerk is going to tally up my envelopes for the year and shake her head and think, "Another family who gave nothing." What makes me so annoyed is that the church NEEDS my gift and I'm unable to do anything about it. Our parish is redoing the sanctuary starting tomorrow (there's a special Mass tonight and procession to move the Eucharist into its new spot in the school gym) and I can't be a part of it. They still need 7 million dollars to finish the reconstruction, but I can't give. Our community has hungry and needy that the parish cares for, but I can't participate. (Yes, I can donate spare goods -- which I have -- but the primary need is monetary. I worked for a nonprofit and frankly, unless you're Goodwill those material donations are more of a hindrance than a help. People like new things, many children's toys and equipment get recalled or are no longer usable, and the donations don't always exactly match the needs of the community. Money is really the best way to help.)

I don't want to be in the first group! I want to be in the last group, the group that tithes 10% every year and has only to readjust their pledge to accurately reflect any new income.

I had a strange conversation with my husband the other day. I'd found this site from one of the adoption blogs I'm following and had mentioned it with some excitement. "We wouldn't have to wait as long to find the money; we could start the adoption process next year!" My husband looked pained. "Isn't it need based? Because there's no way we'd qualify. We have too many assets."

"What do you mean, wouldn't qualify? Aren't we like, thousands of dollars in debt?"

"In my head we are." I must have looked poleaxed because he explained, "I sold stock to cover the debt. You know that."

This is the sort of thing that always made me nuts about economics and business when I had to take them in high school. I don't care what state the money exists in. I don't care if it's in a savings account, or it's stock, or it's cash under the mattress. There's only two kinds of money: assets and credit. We use our assets to make payments and our credit to purchase things that would take too long to save up for (a car, a house, etc.) Good financial stewardship means maintaining sufficient assets to make all required monthly credit payments and cover the expenses of living, while setting money aside for emergency savings, retirement, and significant future expenses (college, down payments on a house, etc.) Everything else is window dressing as far as I'm concerned.

If our assets were sufficient to cover our debt, it means we have no debt. We DO, of course, have house payments, car payments, insurance payments, school fees and a host of other expenses, but that's not the problem. My husband isn't saying that we can't give to charity or adopt a child until we own our own home. I misunderstood from his email that timing was an issue in this matter. Based on what I know now, I don't think it is. The stock has been sold already. We're not racking up interest payments on the debt anymore. So why can't we do a 1/2 and 1/2 sort of thing? How about we live frugally, pinching money wherever possible, then whatever we save, 1/2 goes into an account to offset the amount of the recent debt, and the rest gets put toward charity or adoption?

I don't know whether to bring this up to him. I'm really doing a VERY POOR job of humbling myself and waiting for God's time on this issue, but I'm just having such trouble justifying the delay. People need our help NOW and we can't even set a firm timetable for when we would be in a position to give. It's all this arbitrary, subjective point where we've put "enough" into a savings account. "They recommend you have an emergency fund equal to three months worth of expenses," says my husband. "How much would that be?" I asked.

The answer? Twice the current amount of our "debt."

I almost fell through the floor. How does the situation keep changing and our debt keep getting bigger and the wait keep getting longer?

"Well what about adoption?" I said. "Is that something we'd sell stock to cover, or would we save up for that?"

"I don't know," he admitted. "I guess we could sell stock."

I didn't ask the follow up question to that, which was, So, if we sell stock for an adoption, does our "debt" then increase by $30K? Is that ANOTHER threshold we have to meet before we can give money to charity?

Pray for me, please. It's all I can do right now to not shake the man. I'm succeeding in having these conversations with him rationally and calmly. I'm truly seeking to understand his point of view and accept his decisions.

But I'm really having a hard time.

Picture credit.


Abigail said...

I really empathize with your feelings in this post. I didn't realize how strong my feelings were until I was sitting in a book group and one of my fellow ivy college grads casually mentioned "we joined a new church & it's so great because I give 5 % of our income there and another 5% to charitable causes." I wanted to throttle her instantly and it wasn't until much later that I figured out why. We graduated the same year, she's been working at the same job for 10 years, married a lawyer and has 1 kid with a nanny. I did public interest law for 4 years, racked up huge student loan debt, married an artist, became Catholic, became a stay-at-home mother and now have 3 kids age 4 and under. I didn't just pick a cool church, I committed myself wholly to God, and it's killing my to not practice charity at the 10 % mark.

Here's a few things I've learned from this journey, take whatever helps and ignore the rest.

First, there is a difference between charity and benevolence. Benevolence gives out of abundance. Charity is sharing what we need ourselves. It's the difference between Bill Gates giving millions to stop malaria in Africa, and St. Martin of Tours split his cloak down the middle to give to a beggar. Both acts are "good" but one is "better.

Even though your financial situation feels "forced" by your husband, it's still real. You are married, you have to make joint decisions about money. That means that every time you keep your grocery budget down and give the excess to the church, your doing a saintly act of charity.

Two, I am someone who also has spooky childhood fears about lack of money. I see similar traits in your husband. It sounds more like your husband has less "rational" fears about debt/giving (after all, he was cool with getting a new car and new house) and probably more deeper issues of running out of money, etc. That means that arguing about the need for charity or setting up special payment plans isn't going to work. If he is at all like me, he probably can't even really verbalize what he is worried about.

There is literally ten thousand things this could be. For example, is he worried about being a good provider now that he's a father? is he worried that he's got to walk a careful balance financially or he might have to work in a terrible job as a law firm? It could be something totally different that you would never guess in a hundred years.

So my advice (which I learned from watching my husband deal patiently with me) is give up on the "logic" part for a while. Give yourself a strict time limit, say three weeks. For three weeks, your not going to mention giving money to anything or anyone to your husband. During this time period, pray like crazy for him. And don't pray that he'll do what you want him to do, but pray instead of God to bless him, heal him in any weakness, and heal your marriage from this strain over finances.

I think a little break will help. At that point, after a prayerful reflection, you should get to the point where you can start demonstrating how charity works. The whole render unto God what is God's and belief in manna from heaven- is really challenging, especially in US Culture today. Your husband is not alone in his beliefs and actions. What that means is that all the patience and humility you bring to this situation applies equally to healing the world and making all of us Catholic more sensitive to the needs of orphans and starving Africans.

Sorry for the advice. I just want to tell you that it sounds like you are doing great work. I know this task is not glamorous. However, I've got a Protestant sister who spent 3 years in the peace corps in Ghana and is currently writing her master's thesis on how to better spread malaria drugs in tribal cultures. Believe me, I get the appeal of helping in Africa. I think that God did answer you call and gave you a pretty cool saintly assignment. If I had to choose which would ultimately "save the world." It wouldn't be my sister's future career as a director of a NGO, it would be you small, quiet act of honestly converting one loving and imperfect husband to a great call of charity.

My family will be praying for you. Keep up the good work!

a said...

The Catholic teaching we're used to hearing is that nuns and monks take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but married people don't. It occurs to me that that's not quite right. There are married versions of each of these vows, and you're running into the married version of poverty. It's not that you're poor--not like the people you're trying to help. It's a different kind of poverty: it means that you don't have ultimate control over your money. You don't really own it, because you can't decide on your own what to do with it. It's not neediness, but it's still a real kind of poverty.

So I'm wondering if there's some way you can integrate that thought with your love for the poor. Just as you choose to give up luxuries, so as to take the poor with you, you are now experiencing the helplessness of not having the money for these pressing spiritual needs. Isn't this experience some sort of solidarity with the poor?

When you were talking about giving up a luxury like meat at a restaurant, you recognized that your suffering doesn't really compare to the suffering of actually going hungry. Well, now you have a suffering that does compare to that of the poor. It is a kind of poverty. Congratulations: I think you've accomplished something.