Dean and Patti Hamingson and their family moved seven times during Dean’s 35-year career with Xerox.
"We moved in and out of communities," he said. "Oftentimes, I felt like a parasite to the community. I was not giving anything back there."
When Dean retired and settled in Webster in 2001, he made a commitment to help out his parish, St. Rita. Under the guidance of the pastor, Father Charles Latus, he started a stewardship committee at the parish. Then he did some calculations to figure out how much his family was personally giving.
"I’m sorry to say, I was not giving very much back," Dean Hamingson recalled, noting that his family was giving 5 percent of its income to the parish and other charities.
Over a five-year period, Dean and Patti committed to gradually increasing their annual charitable giving each year until they reached 10 percent of their income, a level of giving known as tithing. They give 5 percent to St. Rita and 5 percent to other charities, including the diocesan Catholic Ministries Appeal.
To researchers who study patterns of giving among American Christians, the Hamingsons are among a rare breed: Catholics who tithe.
Despite long-standing Catholic teaching that calls for generous financial giving, as well as references to tithing in both Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, only 4.4 percent of Catholics donate 10 percent or more of their income. One out of every 13 Catholics who regularly attends church gives no money whatsoever to any religious or secular causes, according to research cited in the 2008 book Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money by Christian Smith, Michael O. Emerson and Patricia Snell.
Various studies highlighted in Passing the Plate found that Catholics on average give about 1.5 percent of their income to religious and nonreligious charities, trailing all other Christian denominations.
Church-going folks from across the nation told the book’s researchers that they would like to give more, but that there isn’t much left over for generous giving after their expenses are paid. Yet Passing the Plate comes to a different conclusion: Mass consumption has replaced religious giving as a top priority for many American Christians.
Although Americans were richly blessed with steady increases in disposable income during the 20th Century, per-capita charitable giving actually declined sharply due to an increase in consumption of material goods, according to Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame and director of the school’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society.
"It is not that they do not actually have the annual incomes to give generously," Passing the Plate notes. "It is rather that they have already made and continue to make long-term household and consumer purchase decisions that commit most of their money to be spent in ways that leave little left over to give away."
Connecting by sharing
Balancing economic and spiritual concerns was a central issue for Jesus’ contemporaries as well, said William Cavanaugh, professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., who spoke at Nazareth College Oct. 22 and 23.
For instance, Cavanaugh noted that when a rich man asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus told him to sell all his belongings and give the money to the poor. The man walked away dejected, leaving the disciples to ask Jesus who then could be saved. Jesus replied that all things are possible for God.
"Spiritually what (wealth) can do is give a person an illusion of self-sufficiency that they have no need of others and no need for God," Cavanaugh said. "It is at least regarded (in Scriptures) as a spiritual hazard."
Yet Chuck Zech, a professor of economics at Villanova University and director of the university’s Center for the Study of Church Management, said Scripture did not always paint wealth in a bad light.
For example, the fact that Joseph of Arimathea was wealthy enough to own his own tomb enabled him to donate the tomb that would serve as the backdrop for Jesus’ resurrection, Zech said.
"Joseph, because of his wealth, was able to do things for the church that no one else could do," noted Zech, who penned the 2006 book Why Catholics Don’t Give … and What Can Be Done About It.
Learning to be content whatever the circumstances allows people to develop attitudes and practices not centered on pure materialism, said Sister of St. Joseph Patricia Schoelles, president of St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry. That’s a message that is particularly important during the current economic recession, she said.
"Our happiness is not based on status symbols like wealth or material success," Sister Schoelles said. "Facing hard times, we can still recognize our hard times are only relative to hard times on this planet."
Our faith teaches that material things are meant for sharing, Sister Schoelles said. She cited the story of Zaccheus, a wealthy tax collector who had a personal encounter with Jesus that caused him to share.
"He didn’t give up everything, he gave up half of what he had," she said. "We can give away something."
If Catholics see themselves as disciples, then they are compelled to give, Zech noted.
"Through my baptism as a disciple, it’s incumbent upon me to live out my discipleship to give," he said.
In addition to the scriptural obligation, giving also offers great rewards to those who help others, according to Frank Butler, president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, a network of private philanthropic foundations and donors that support Catholic programs and institutions.
"As they help others, they see themselves in one sense being vehicles for the mercy of God," Butler said of FADICA’s members. "That’s a very powerful experience when you are able to make a difference in people’s lives. You see yourself as a tool for God himself to love and reach people."
Diocesan officials point out that giving does not have to be monetary. Sharing time and talents in addition to treasure are central goals of diocesan stewardship efforts and the drive behind the annual Catholic Ministries Appeal, diocesan stewardship officials said.
"We receive our gifts from God, and it is our job to discern, develop and disburse them," said Mark Clark, associate director of the Joy of Stewardship program, which currently assists about half of diocesan parishes in coordinating their stewardship efforts. "It’s not just helping the parish. It’s more that we are called to help the world and to carry our faith beyond the Christian community in our everyday lives."
Father Latus said stewardship efforts at St. Rita have brought new faces and new people into the parish’s ministries.
"Catholics in general tend to think of stewardship only in dollars, but if people are participating in terms of their time and talents, then they will also be benefitting the parish because they are involved in it," he said.
Supporting efforts that reach beyond a parish walls has the added benefit of connecting people to the larger church, said Dave Kelly, coordinator of the CMA.
"People do respond to that calling to give to the greater church," he said. "People do have a sense of responsibility and ownership where they feel they are part of the entire diocese."
People also tend to be more responsive to giving opportunities if they are given regular chances to give, such as through parish envelopes or direct deposit of contributions, according to Smith’s book. Those who don’t plan ahead for gifts or who lack an easy way to give on a routine basis may wind up relegating religious and charitable giving to what’s left over after fixed and discretionary spending, explained Smith, who is continuing his research through a $5 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to fund a series of national studies on the origins, manifestations and consequences of generosity.
"There are a lot of different actors and institutions and voices trying to get people to use their money in different ways, including advertising and the mall," Smith said. "If handling of money is indeed an integral part of Christian faithfulness, then the church needs to teach that (forethought)."
"Part of the reason why people don’t give as much is that their household finances are out of control," he continued. "They don’t know what they are taking in; they don’t know what they are giving out."
Through interviews with parishioners and pastors, Smith and other researchers found that the churches that were most successful at engaging members in stewardship efforts were those that promoted the idea of Christian financial giving as a fundamental part of Christian worship and a way to express gratitude, rather than a simple necessity driven by a church’s budgetary needs. Setting high expectations for congregations also tended to increase giving, Smith and his coauthors noted in Passing the Plate.
Religious institutions and leaders can serve as good financial role models for parishioners and can help teach them budgeting, financial management and planning, the book asserts.
Hamingson said he found that it took financial discipline and some personal sacrifice to be able to give 10 percent of his family’s income to his parish and to other charities.
"You should feel it a little bit," Hamingson remarked. "If you’re not feeling it, then you should probably be giving a little more."
To free funds to donate, the Hamingsons trimmed their travel budget and got a smaller car-loan payment, and Dean took a paid, part-time job as a senior companion. As a retiree, he noted that he has committed to volunteering 10 percent of his time, and the couple also has set aside 10 percent of their estate to go to St. Rita Parish.
All was well until the markets plunged.
"We were all right on course until the terrible financial situation last year — that set me back a little bit," Hamingson said.
However, he noted that he has been able to get back on his tithing target for 2010.
Hamingson said he places such a priority on tithing his time, talent and treasure because it’s a way for him to be able to show gratitude for all that he has been given.
"Everything we have is on loan from God, and we are all blessed with what has been given to us," he said.