The eight degrees of charity

Maimonides was a 12th century Jewish teacher who is new to me but old hat for those who know anything about Judaism and philosophy. While he writes on a wide breath of topics, it is some of his writing on charity that stands out to me this time of year. It was brought to my attention on the podcast "Question of the Day" (trailer below).

Here are the eight degrees of charity that Maimonides puts forth. Just a note that each degree is "greater" than the preceding degree.

8. When donations are given grudgingly.

7. When one gives less than he should, but does so cheerfully.

6. When one gives directly to the poor upon being asked.

5. When one gives directly to the poor without being asked.

4. Donations when the recipient is aware of the donor's identity, but the donor still doesn't know the specific identity of the recipient.

3. Donations when the donor is aware to whom the charity is being given, but the recipient is unaware of the source.

2. Giving assistance in such a way that the giver and recipient are unknown to each other. Communal funds, administered by responsible people are also in this category.

1. The highest form of charity is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, or by extending a suitable loan, or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.

What is interesting to me is degree number two. I have heard much of my time in church work that many people value giving in a way that they know what the money will be used for and they will not give or not give as much if they do not know what the money will be used for. That is to say that for our time it seems we do not value Maimonides' degree #2 as highly has he did.

Could it be that we are missing something in our persistent insistence in having the final say on where the money we donate goes? Could we it be that we are eroding away social Trust when we push aside the second degree for a "lesser" degree? 

Beer exposes the growing or dying fallacy in the Church

From the laity to the largest church pastors I have heard this phrase, "you are either growing or you are dying." Like many dichotomies that set up an either/or scenario in order to categorize good and bad, this "growing or dying" dichotomy is not Gospel but Empire building. 

To begin with this grow or die idea puts out there that there is prefered option - growth. And because we tend to have an unhealthy relationship with death, church leaders will lie to ourselves in order to paint the picture that our church is growing (just to show we are not dying). This is part of the reason why it has taken the UMC decades to come to terms with the fact that we are in rapid decline. 

Because fundamentally this growing or dying question is in our minds and we all desire to grow, we forget that the Gospel is not about growth but about dying. It is about dying to self. It is about dying in order to be raised by God. As such, in our efforts to always grow, Churches never learn how to die - as a body or as individuals. We are so growth focused that we shun death and dying thus retarding a healthy developmental relationship with death. 

 It may be the influences of Empire that Christians began to read the story of Jesus and elevate Matthew 28's commission over the other commissions of Jesus. The "Great Commission" of Matthew 28 is not great because Jesus said it was great. Jesus gave many commissions - forgive, heal, reconcile, welcome, visit, feed, etc. But it is the "Go and make disciples" commission that also helps fuel the growing or dying dichotomy.

"Westvleteren-beer" Attribution below.

"Westvleteren-beer" Attribution below.

As an example of what is might look like to add an additional way to the grow or die mentality lets talk about beer. Specifically the beer that is brewed by the Westvieteren Brewery. This brewery is run by the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus in Belgium. Their three beers have been talked about as some of the best beers in the world. With such high demand you might think this brewery is looking to expand, because we all know if they are not growing they are dying. 

However, the monks there make a set amount each year to meet the financial needs of the monastery and their mission. At that is all they will make until the next year when they make roughly the same amount of beer. 

When asked by commercial businesses why they do not make more beer to meet the demands of the market I imagine the monks might say something like, We do not make beer for the market, we make the beer for God who has put before us a specific mission and purpose. To be move too far away or become focused on growth we miss the mission God has set in our hearts." 

Of course it is exciting to hear about the visions growing churches have. It is equally humbling to hear of the dreams that dying churches hold on to to preserve the saintly work of the past. But it should also be admirable to the churches that seek to be who they are because that is what God is calling them to be.

These churches are not growing or dying perhaps they are, like the monks in Belgium, focused on meeting the call of God and not the demands of the market. 

Source: "Westvleteren-beer". Licensed under CC ...

When good news is bad news

When it comes to fundraising, there are many approaches to the non-profit world. Over my time in ministry I have seen a number of them on display in the different people. These approaches all seem to boil down to two different philosophies.

The first philosophy I call "good news is bad news" and it is built on the worldview of scarcity. It assumes there are limited resources and the best "sales pitch" for those resources will win the prize. And because your organization wants those resources to go to your organization and not another, you need to constantly reminded to give to your organization. You talk about how your organization needs are very large and broad. You show images and graphs that convey how short the organization is to the goal or how many "needs" there are. This philosophy would hesitate to refuse a gift of any type out of fear that the donor would be upset and give future gifts elsewhere. It also hesitates to spend much time celebrating reaching a goal because that time and energy would be taken away from the time and energy that could be used to secure future funding. In this sense, the good news of reaching a goal would be a sort of bad news because then you have to generate a new set of needs. 

The other philosophy is what I call "bad news is good news" and it is built on the worldview of enough. It assumes there are enough resources in this world and regardless of the resources, creativity can multiply those resources in ways previously unimagined. It believes that the "bad news" of not meeting the financial goal can be a source of good news for creativity and imagination. It views other organizations not as competition but as partners and future collaborators. This philosophy shows images and graphs that convey how close the organization is to meeting the goal or opportunity. It does not fear refusing gifts that do not fit into the mission of the organization but in fact will refer the donor to an organization that may benefit more fully from their donation (another reason to build relationships with other organizations). It takes time to celebrate reaching a goal because it assumes that donors desire to achieve goals and that no one wants to give to a sinking ship of needs. It also subscribes to the idea that life attracts life and with each celebration there will be another and another. Even if the goal is not reached (bad news) the organization affirms what was given and then uses creativity and imagination and trust to bridge the gap to the goal (good news).