In a world of instant information, it's easy to become busy or over-extended so that we neglect the call of Philippians 4:8 — to keep our minds fixed on things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of a good report. As Grace Fellowship United Methodist Church starts a new interdenominational seminary in the Houston area, we're trying to keep our minds fixed on the correct things while we consider various choices using wisdom that the Lord provides. One of the biggest topics of all? How to use money.
To that end, we're seeking the Lord's direction on incorporating an "institutional tithe" into the new seminary's budget. Grace Fellowship has long given 10 percent of our operating budget to ministries outside of ourselves — mostly missions. But as we consider implementing an institutional tithe for the seminary, we're wrestling with several questions that are memorably encapsulated in an acronym: DISC.
Bill Hybels, in his recent book Axiom, stresses the importance of defining words carefully. "The truth is, leaders rise and fall by the language they use," he says. While the Lord is ultimately in control, Hybels highlights the positive effects of well-conceived prose. "When you put the right words to a vision or a principle, it becomes axiomatic. It begins to live!" Before we can seriously consider implementing an institutional tithe, we must develop a definition for "tithe" in our seminary context.
We haven't completely worked this out. A simple definition — designating the first 10 percent of the seminary's income to ministries outside the seminary itself — still demands some clarification:
If we implement the institutional tithe, what will our "first fruits" be — the revenues on which we tithe? While congregations can count their income each week and designate a portion as their tithe, seminaries receive income from a variety of sources, some of which are restricted for particular uses. That's why we must consider how gifts, restricted income, accounts receivables, and other forms of income might be counted.
If we implement the tithe, what ministries might be eligible to receive tithed funds? What criteria might be used to filter potential choices?
If we implement the tithe, who will ultimately decide where the funds go?
Before deciding whether to tithe on the seminary's revenue, we must learn how to balance "walking by faith" with doing right by a fledgling organization. As we consider this path, we are asking questions like this:
If we include gifts in our definition of "first fruits," should we allow donors to opt out?
How do we communicate to students, donors, and other stakeholders our commitment to the practice of institutional tithing?
How do we set up appropriate accounting procedures to track, record, and monitor the tithed funds?
Serving the kingdom of God
Martin Luther said, "We grow our faith through our discipline and commitment to giving of our resources." Similarly, the prophet Malachi saw offering a tithe as an external sign of the internal reverence that God desired. We believe that personal tithing is a way to worship God, invite his blessings and favor, and invest in ministries that advance the kingdom of God. Similarly, as we found a new seminary, we think that institutional tithing may also be an external practice of an internal faith. That is why we are considering an institutional tithe - to invest in God's kingdom outside our own walls and invite his blessing and favor.
Clarity of purpose
The new Bible Seminary has already established that it exists to glorify God by training Christian believers in a context of biblical community in all 66 books of the Bible so that they can serve the local church and fulfill the Great Commission by the power of God's Spirit. Incorporating an institutional tithe into our community life is a tangible way of trusting God with the seminary's finances and worshiping God through our finances. As we train pastors, church planters, and missionaries, tithing on our institution's income can be a wonderful witness for our students, demonstrating one of the principles that we hope they practice in their personal lives and in their churches.