Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Why I Stopped Outsourcing my Charity

When I outsource something, it’s usually for a good reason.  Usually.  

Most of the time, it’s because someone else can do a much better job than me.  One time I re-did the PVC plumbing under my kitchen sink.  It took me all night, and when I was done, boy was I proud of myself.  A few months later our washing machine started flooding our house every time we ran a load of laundry.  When the plumber came to fix it, he looked at my handiwork under the kitchen sink and seemed personally offended, “Who did this?  This is a nightmare!”  I just shook my head and played dumb.  

Apparently this is a nightmare

Other times I outsource because I want to avoid something that I detest.  Thank goodness there are people who will do my taxes for me.  I would rather stare at a blank wall for five hours than do my own taxes.  No, I’ll go farther.  I would rather watch the Disney Dinosaur movie again.  The first time was when my mission president allowed companionships to have a one-time special P-Day movie rental, as long as it was rated G.  Worst.  Movie.  Ever.  And the salt in my wound was knowing that I had blown my only chance in two years to rent a movie of my own choosing.  

I dunno, maybe it would have been better in English.  Nah.

So there are a few good reasons to outsource a job to someone else, but outsourcing can also be just plain stupid.  If I outsource something that would be personally rewarding to do for myself to someone who does a shoddy job, that’s dumb.  Dinosaur movie dumb.

Whether my reasons are good or bad for outsourcing something though, one thing is certain: I’m not going to get any better at the thing I’m outsourcing.  There’s about a zero percent chance of me becoming the world’s best plumber or tax guru.  And I’m totally okay with that.

Enter the Church

Now, what happens when we outsource our acts of charity?  I’ve talked previously about how I came to recognize the perils of outsourcing my moral compass to the Church.  It took me a bit longer to realize that I was also outsourcing my charitable deeds to the same institution, and as a consequence, I wasn’t becoming a very charitable person.  I found myself auto-deducting tithing from the top of my paycheck at the beginning of every month, while at the same time I was averting my gaze from beggars holding signs up by my car at stop lights.  Just like anything else, it turned out that I wasn’t getting very good at charity by wanting someone else to always do it for me.  

I’m not saying that the Church (or churches in general) should get out of the charity business.  On the contrary, I think that charity should be a big part of what any church does.  But what I am saying is that we need to look to the Church as a tool on our spiritual journey instead of as the destination.  And when it comes to my church, I think that we have gotten charity wrong in many ways when it comes to tithing, fast offerings, and service assignments.  In each of these areas, the Church could be preventing us as members from taking ownership of our need to develop charity.  And to top it all off, we have a major transparency problem that drives our inability to realize that something is amiss.


The biggest problem with tithing is that we think it’s a charitable donation when it’s really not.  Tithing is meant to cover the costs of running the church – something that is for our own benefit and self-interest (i.e., not charity).  The second big problem with tithing is that we don’t understand how much we are supposed to pay, and so we often pay too much, with little or no money left over for actual charitable giving.  I could go into a lot more detail on these topics, but instead, you should just read what Rock Waterman has already said about it.

Unfortunately (as it turns out), the Church does use a very small portion of tithing for charitable efforts.  Best estimates are that this represents about 1% of total tithing revenue, but because there is no transparency with how tithing is used (more on that later), church members generally assume that the percentage is much higher.  Even if this estimate is low (as some have claimed), the charitable portion of tithing is certainly a very small percentage.  It would be better if the Church would just stop spending that 1% on humanitarian causes because then members would see more clearly that tithing is not charity.  By blurring the lines, and filling up the gaps between conference sessions with story after story of Church humanitarian awesomeness, members understandably feel that they are being charitable when they pay their tithing.  If anyone in charge is listening, please just sever the two so we can stop deluding ourselves!

Blurring the lines can get messy

Fast Offerings and Church Welfare

If you are going to overspend on any of your church donations, go with fast offerings.  This money is 100% charity, and is used entirely for real people who need help (edit: except if there is a surplus at the stake level, in which case the money goes back to Church headquarters and could be used on who knows what).  Another benefit is that the money which isn't remitted to SLC stays local with your ward or stake, and so there is less bureaucracy between giver and receiver.  More specifically, the bishop is the only gatekeeper for how these funds are disbursed, though his hands are tied to some extent by the guidelines in the Church Handbook of Instructions.  The good news is that most bishops do a fantastic job of using fast offerings to help as many people as they are aware of who are in need.

Now for the bad news.  All too often, fast offering funds are not freely given and they come with strings attached.  Need alone is an insufficient qualification; instead, the Church gets its money’s worth by exacting a price of obedience in return.  For instance, a member may be told that they need to attend all church meetings or quit smoking if they are to receive fast offering funds.  Many people will say that this is a good thing.  After all, the money won’t be able to help these people nearly as much as a decision to re-commit themselves to living gospel principles.  The problem is that when people are leveraged into making a choice (even a good choice) it leaves a bad taste in their mouths.  It’s difficult to take ownership of any choice made in such circumstances, and the feeling of being manipulated can breed resentment (Satan’s plan, anyone?).  In fact, if someone is asking the bishop for help, they are already in a vulnerable position, and later on, they may view the interaction as abusive on some level.

Other times, the Church exacts a price of humility (the humiliation kind) in return for fast offerings or food from the Bishop’s storehouse.  I am friends with a convert of two years who was once homeless (as a result of a mental disorder), and who still struggles to make ends meet.  A few months ago when he was out of food and getting desperate, he asked the Church for help.  Later on, he told me about his experience.  First, the bishop asked him lots of questions about his financial situation that (perhaps unintentionally) sent the message that his situation was caused by his own carelessness with money.  Because this interview also included a slew of worthiness questions, he came away with the feeling that his financial problems were a result of his other shortcomings and sins.  Let’s get real.  The primary reason this man doesn’t always have enough money is because he is living on the small amount of money (held in trust) that his mother left him when she died, and the reason he can’t hold down a job is because of his mental disorder that employers aren’t able to accommodate.  He is a good, generous person and is simply “one of the least” among us on this earth who needs our help.  And he does everything he can to “give back” to those who help him.  Getting back to the story, after his interview, a member of the Relief Society came to his house to fill out his food order form.  The first thing she did was to perform an inspection of his cupboards and fridge, presumably to verify that he wasn’t hiding anything.  Needless to say, he was humiliated by the experience.  In his own words, he said, “I felt like a worm, two inches tall.”  He then received strict instructions that he couldn’t share the food he received with his roommates or anyone else.  He was gracious with everyone involved and expressed a great deal of gratitude, but he told me that in the future, he would rather try to get help from the government before asking the Church for help again, and asked, “Why don’t they trust me to buy food for myself?”  Maybe the Church is afraid he will use the money to buy cigarettes.  I say if someone is addicted to cigarettes, then that is a real need and we should let them use fast offerings to buy them.  We can then offer other resources to help them if they want to quit smoking.

My last observation about fast offerings is that they are primarily used to benefit active or semi-active church members.  I am aware of occasions when Bishops have used them to help people outside of the Church, and the fact that they have the prerogative says a lot for the Church, but primarily, fast offerings are how “we take care of our own.”  Nothing wrong with that.  It makes sense for a church to begin with charity among its own membership, especially because when you get people on their own two feet, they are in a better position to go on and help others.  

The problem for me only comes up if fast offerings become our only form of charity, as a church or as individuals.  Mormons are already accused of being clannish, and this can be viewed as just one more evidence of a people whose myopic vision cannot see past its own pews.  I know, if everyone would just convert to the Church, then this problem would go away, right?  Right.  So our charity is for everyone, they just have to become Mormons first, and after all, someday everyone will be a Mormon (you know, when the stone of the Church rolls forth and fills the whole earth).  

Another friend in my ward is married to a non-member who was taking the missionary discussions for a while, but stopped when they got too overbearing about setting a baptismal date.  Later on, their marriage started to break down and they separated amid financial trouble.  The wife (also a friend of mine) came to the Church for help.  I don’t know the details of what was said, but I do know that she felt humiliated by the experience.  When her situation didn’t improve in the coming months, she confided that “If no one helps me, I’ll have to go to the LDS Church for help.”  So we are her last choice.  I wonder if the story would be different if she had been baptized.  Apparently, the process of helping people with Church funds produces such shame that they would rather go almost anywhere else first.   Now, I’m sure that some of the more fiscally responsible readers out there might be pretty pleased with this outcome.  After all, if you make it too easy for everyone to get money, then they will just live off the Church forever and suck it dry.  Maybe that’s true.  But in my experience, people don’t want to live that way.  In any case, I have to wonder how Jean Valjean would have fared if he had sought help from the Mormon Bishop of Digne.

No silver candlesticks for you, 24601!

Anonymous Service

Money isn’t the only way we can be charitable.  Giving of our time and of ourselves through service can sometimes be much more meaningful and helpful to people.  The Church provides lots of opportunities for service.  Unfortunately, many church service opportunities are not very meaningful, and those that are tend to be not very anonymous.  Here are some common church service opportunities that don’t strike me as meaningful:
  • Cleaning the ward meetinghouse
  • Babysitting for a Stake Relief Society Meeting
  • Going through the harassment checklist to move membership records out of the ward
  • Directing traffic at the temple Christmas lighting
  • Serving a full-time service mission as the missionary automobile steward

The problem with this list is that the primary objective of all these activities seems to be for the Church to avoid paying someone to do a legitimate job.  Why not use some of those vast tithing reserves to charitably employ some people and free up the members’ time to provide more meaningful service?  What else would we do?  Here are a few ideas:
  • Use the ward meetinghouse to run a soup kitchen for the homeless
  • Provide free babysitting for the single parents in the ward
  • Give a family with a new baby a checklist of things you would like to do to help them
  • Decorate a Christmas tree and direct it to a family that can't afford their own lighting ceremony
  • Serve a full-time service mission as a dentist in Ghana 

Don’t get me wrong.  There are Mormons all over the place doing just the kind of things I have listed above.  My wife’s sister is a devout church member who often travels to third world countries to provide humanitarian service.  But her efforts are not officially affiliated with the Church.  How do I know?  She wasn’t wearing a yellow Mormon Helping Hands vest.

I am encouraged by Mormon Messages about service, and by LDS Charities, but we could do so much better with the time and resources we have been given, especially if we weren’t so busy with temple parking assignments and so financially maxed out by tithing.

Anonymous Giving Isn't Blind Giving

When Jesus said, “Do not your alms before men, to be seen of them,” I don’t think he meant, “Do not see those to whom you give alms.”  

So who are these “men” he spoke of?  First, there are the people the alms-giver might be most concerned about impressing – third-party observers, those with the means and influence to “give back”; but there are also the recipients of the alms to consider.  We cheapen our gift in God’s eyes to the extent that we seek the praise and adoration even of those we are helping.  Worse, we may create a dependency that serves our own less worthy aims.  Completely anonymous giving is the Savior’s standard.  

Somehow, this beautiful and unassailable teaching seems to have been misinterpreted somewhere along the line by our church leaders when they set up the current systems for fast offerings and tithing.  Someone concluded that the ideal expression of charity is through a double-blind interaction where neither the giver nor the receiver ever see one another.  In fact, we can now have our donations made by direct deposit, so we don't even have to think about it.  I think we are supposed to think about it.  We are supposed to open our eyes to the suffering around us.  We are supposed to freely make the decision to help relieve that suffering.  And so I believe that the anonymity Christ spoke of is supposed to be on one side only: the giver sees the recipient, but the recipient does not see the giver when possible.  

Let’s explore an example.  If someone donates to a very good charity that benefits people who they will never see, is that better than putting an envelope with money under the door of an acquaintance who they know to be struggling financially?  I think that it depends.  There are two important questions to consider: first, is one cause more worthy than the other?  And second, which donation will have the most influence on the heart of the giver?  I can’t answer the first question, but I can say that a thoughtful donation is more likely to influence the giver than a mechanical one.  In fact, if the giver wrestles with the first question of which cause is most worthy, she is probably going to have the kind of experience that develops charity, regardless of the choice she makes.  

Now, someone could say that perhaps the giver isn’t a very good judge of which cause is more worthy.  In fact, I often used to think to myself that no one could be a wiser or more efficient steward of my donations than the Church.  Even if that was true (which I am afraid is not the case, sadly), I don’t think it would outweigh the importance of the personal struggle that takes place when choosing between competing categories of good.  But if we are to take this decision upon ourselves, I think we need to be aware of the potential for personal bias.  I may be more inclined to donate to someone I know or like even though there is a greater need with someone I don’t know or don’t like as well.  We need to fight this bias as we struggle with our charitable decisions.  And we need to balance individual needs with other causes like medical research and clean water for people in remote villages.  We can’t do it all, but we can open our eyes to the world’s problems as much as possible.  Maybe we’ll get better at it the more we try.

Another consideration is that sometimes, it is impossible to give anonymously.  One example is that panhandler at the stop light I mentioned earlier.  When someone asks you for help to your face, it’s time to stop worrying about anonymity and just help them.  If you’re a stranger, then these face-to-face interactions are practically anonymous anyway.  If a third party is in the car though, we sometimes can silence our conscience for charity in favor of our conscience for anonymity. Don't do that. I’ve done it and it filled me with regret. Charity first, anonymity second. 

Finally, I will acknowledge that there is one circumstance where I think double anonymity is a good thing: when the recipient is in an embarrassing situation and wants to minimize public knowledge of their problems.  In this situation, most people would never know that the problem exists, because it is probably kept secret.  This is the perfect situation for fast offerings.  Because the bishop is more aware of the members’ financial needs, he can direct help while maintaining the privacy of the recipients.  Just keep those attachable strings in the drawer okay? 


There is a checkbox on the tithing slip for members to make donations for humanitarian aid through the Church.  It may well be that the Church does a better job with these funds than any other organization in the world.  The problem is, no one outside of the Church Office Building knows if that’s true or not.  And no one even knows where all of that money is being used.  So until the Church becomes fully transparent with how it spends this money, I can’t in good conscience use it as the steward of my donations.  I also need transparency so that I can see the needs that are being addressed, which allows me to cultivate empathy as I make the choices of where to give.  

To go back to an earlier point, transparency with tithing would be the best way for members to realize that their tithing isn’t charity.  It would also have the effect of shining a light on any abuse of tithing funds that may be taking place.  It’s just crazy that we all accept the secrecy.  Haven’t we learned that secret money breeds corruption?  Even really good people and organizations aren’t immune to this influence because their bias (and everyone has bias) makes the problems invisible to their view.  Enough already, just open the books!


Something important happens during that struggle of deciding where to spend our charitable dollars and service hours.  Something possibly more important even than the quality of the choice we end up making.  It’s what happens within ourselves as we wrestle with deciding between competing good causes and feel the longing to be able to support them all.  It’s the awareness we acquire of the plight of others and the empathy we exercise in actually doing something about it.  Finally, it’s the sense of ownership and personal investment in a better society that we obtain when we freely decide to help the disadvantaged and helpless all around us.

Equating tithing with charity deprives us of this experience entirely.  Even if all tithing and church offerings went to charitable causes, they still remove us from the decision-making process, and in so doing, we miss out on the important introspection that results from that process; and because there is no transparency in the use of tithing funds, we aren’t even able to inform ourselves about the causes that the Church decides to be important.  Thus, we gain no empathy through exposure to the suffering of others.  Most tragic of all, we often become even more callous to the plight of others as our feelings of personal generosity to the Church become a shield we use to deflect the guilt of our ungenerosity toward our fellow man.  This ungenerosity often results in part from the financial pinch of erroneously feeling obligated to pay tithing on our gross income.  

Some would cite the Church News or the humanitarian report between conference sessions as an accounting of the Church’s use of charitable tithing funds, but I fear that these sources have an opposite effect on our empathy.  Instead of awakening us to an awareness of the continuing suffering taking place in the world, they give the impression that the Church is on the scene following any disaster, and that any and all good that could have been done has already been done.  The intent is not to motivate members to do more, but rather to assure members that their payment of tithing is already the best thing they can do.  The rosy pictures presented only tell part of the story, and while great for PR, they leave untold the stories of those who didn’t receive help, or whose lives are still shattered.

I’m not against tithing.  I think it is a necessary and important part of church membership.  Do I wish it was more transparent?  Absolutely.  Do I wish the Church would solicit input from church membership on the disposition of those funds?  Yes indeed.  Do I wish the Church would clarify that tithing is on our surplus so that members would have more funds freed up for charity?  You bet.  But despite these problems, I still pay my tithing because I want to contribute to the operation of the Church to which I belong and from which I benefit.  For me, it’s still the right thing to do.  But outsourcing our charity to the Church robs us of personal growth, and I think it needs to stop.  

There is also much to be improved when it comes to fast offerings and church service opportunities.  Fast offerings are good, but they can’t be our only fund for charitable giving.  We need to branch out beyond the walls of our own congregation.  The same is true of church service.  Let’s open our minds to service that is both meaningful and less self-congratulatory.  No more retired couples spending their twilight years on a service mission that does little more than save a few bucks for the institution.  Let’s put them in positions where their light and wisdom can uplift people in need.

A few weeks ago, the copper pipes under my sink started leaking after a series of unfortunate events beginning with my attempt to install a new outdoor faucet.  Like an idiot, I went to Lowes and bought a torch and a soldering kit.  Twenty-four hours later, I had created a drip sculpture with an entire roll of pipe solder and almost set my house on fire.  When my kids still couldn’t flush the toilets and were running out of bottled water, I broke down in a heap and sobbed like a child.  When I regained my composure, I called a professional.  I think that with this last failure, I have finally accepted that I will never be a good plumber.  It’s time for me to outsource that part of my life for good.  

But I’m not giving up on charity.  I’ve still got a lot to learn before the last day, and no one else can practice it for me.  Maybe that’s why the scriptures say we should be “possessed of it.”  Maybe when we start to really own our need to develop charity, it ends up owning us at last.  

Outsource this

Not this