Disciplined Giving in The Era of AutoPay

You guys left some really thoughtful, really insightful comments on my previous post about charitable giving (I would expect nothing less from you smarty-pantses). Your comments have been rolling around in my head for the past few weeks, and have sparked some new ideas, so here’s a follow-up post, and I’m sorry if it rubs you the wrong way.

A couple of you expressed a similar point, and that’s that giving isn’t about me and my growth (or us and our growth), so much as it is about providing for the needs of others, and I have to admit, at first I was a little stung by the implication that I’m giving selfishly. But then I thought about it some more, and there’s a couple things I see happening:

  1. I didn’t explain my thoughts completely the first time. This is a bad habit for me. This might sound like a cop-out, but here it is: in my head, one idea expands into a giant web of interconnected ideas so quickly, that I rush though explaining how I got from point A to point B (and C, then D, then E), in favor of writing everything out as quickly as I can, lest I forget everything. The result is too many big ideas that lack sufficient background or explanation. I’m trying to improve in this area, but also, I want to keep my posts under 500 words, so….It’s a tough compromise.
  2. I bit my tongue, and censored myself, because I don’t want to piss anyone off, or alienate you wonderful people. I have some things to say about automatic giving, and I’m afraid of how it will be received. More on that in a moment.

That all being said, let’s do this thing.

To the point that “giving is about meeting a need, and has nothing to do with what get out of it:” I don’t think God is concerned with the bottom-line, when it comes to giving. An easy example of this is the story of the widow’s offering in Mark 12:41-44, wherein she gives far less amount-wise, but far more in terms of sacrifice. This shows her great faith and gratitude. Jesus says she gave more than all the rest, though in dollars, she gave a fraction of a penny. So when I talk about not giving “enough,” I don’t mean enough in terms of the dollar amount, but in terms of expressing my faith and gratitude. In this regard, my family is very much like the wealthy folks in that story, throwing in our excess money and not even thinking about it. And boy, is that humbling.

Giving is a Discipline. Disciplines Take Practice. (Maintain a Loose Grasp.)

Our nature (and this is strictly my opinion here) is to keep a firm grasp on what “belongs to us.” You can see this in children, who are reluctant or unwilling to share toys, out of fear that the toys will never be returned, and the feeling that those toys belong to them. I think grown-ups are kind of like that, only that we’ve learned to put a smile on, and share just enough to be socially acceptable.

Because of our very human inclination towards maintaining a tight grasp on our material possessions, I know that I need to practice giving. I need to practice putting my hand into my pocket, pulling out some money, extending it to another person, opening my hand, and not expecting a single thing in return. I need to practice remembering that none of what I have “belongs to me,” and I need to practice letting that understanding overcome my will, and my desire to give just enough to be socially in the black.

(Question I like to ask myself, to check-in on the state of my heart: “How tight is my grasp on “stuff” and money, right now?”)

Automatic Giving/ Auto-Tithing Stunts Our Spiritual Growth

Someone in the comments said that automatic giving is great, because it shows that I’m “disciplined” in my giving. I would argue that the opposite is true. It’s not “disciplined giving” if it’s automatically withdrawn. “Discipline,” by definition, results from training, and training takes effort and thought. (Interesting that “discipline” and “disciple” share the same root.)

Automatic giving/auto-tithing circumvents a spiritual process of recognizing that what I have is not really mine, and really only serves the legalistic purpose of meeting the bottom line. And like I said, I don’t think God is at all concerned with the bottom line. I think God can, and does, work miracles with even the smallest portion, given from a full and loving heart. (Loaves and fishes, for example.)

I think God is more concerned with the condition of my heart, than whether or not I’m giving a lot of dollars, and in that regard, giving is more about me than meeting a need. I think God wants me to go through that process every single time: saying thank you, counting my blessings, and giving what I can for the benefit of others. And I can’t do that if my church is automatically drafting tithes from my bank account. The very reason people use auto-tithe is because it simplifies the process, and they are assured that they’ll fulfill their giving obligation for the month. And I just don’t buy that line of reasoning.

(The pastor of the church my family used to attend would remind folks, in the weeks running up to summer, that they should consider enabling auto-tithing before they go on summer vacation, that way they don’t “forget to give.” This would always make my ears ring “so the money is more important than the act of worship?” Perhaps, rather than treating the symptoms (tithing slows to a trickle over the summer), we should treat the illness (congregants don’t understand giving)?

(Um. Also, how reverent is my worship when my automatic-tithe gets the same amount of my attention as my student-loan payment?)

Giving is an Antidote to Greed.

This one is pretty easy. Habitual, intentional giving breaks us of our habit of greed, and keeps us from tightening our grasp too much. And one of my favorite things Jesus said, can be found in Matthew 6:19-21 — “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Bingo. I’ve heard this said and re-said (“Want to know a person’s priorities? Take a look at their checkbook”) so many times over the years, and it is as true today as it was when Jesus said it.

Other Assorted Bits That I Can’t Be Bothered to Organize Right This Moment:

Giving is meant to be a joyful expression of thanks to God from the heart, and not a legalistic obligation.

Amy (in the comments of my previous post) said “I think sacrificial (truly joyful) giving comes from a truly thankful heart. If we come to understand that everything given us is completely unmerited, then I think GIVING then becomes a true act of worship. It’s not the amount…not at all…it’s our attitudes behind the gift.”

And now I’m 600 words over my self-imposed limit.

I hope you’re happy. 🙂 But seriously, I want to continue this conversation, because I think we’re beginning to touch on some really sensitive issues. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve heard anyone address finances in a church-setting (not counting Dave Ramsey), and I think there’s a lot of unresolved tension in this. Wanna sort this out with me? Lord knows I have more blind-spots than I can count. Say what’s on your mind in the comments, below.


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  1. I appreciated both of these posts, thanks so much for your perspective on this. I have mixed feelings about the autodraft but I think even if you do it there are certainly ways to give sacrificially. Such as, when you REALLY don’t want to take the time to stop at the youth group car wash, or you JUST donated to a Christian mission and then another comes along requesting donations. I realize you were speaking directly about tithes, but I wanted to point out that on the “offering” side of the coin (ha-coin!) there are other opportunities for that sacrificial giving.
    Another thought is if you’re setting aside cash or writing the same check week after week, that can become rote as well (though not as far removed from thought as autodraft, certainly). I definitely understand what you’re saying about it (and I HATE the idea of the preacher suggesting people go on autodraft over the summer!) I’m very sympathetic to the plight of a preacher in having to basically be on call 24/7, be everything to everyone, keep a smile in spite of those people who insist on being thorns in his side and depend on people to provide for their family, but I think you hit it “right on the money” (to use a REALLY bad pun) when you used the example on focusing on the illness instead of the symptoms. (and no, I’m not a preacher’s wife!) 🙂
    Love your blog-thank you!

  2. I was somewhat hesitant to reply because I don’t want you to think that I disagree with you. It’s not even that I do not agree with you. But that I agree with you but I think you’re presenting one side of the coin (which is fine). However that means, for the sake of balance, that I feel compelled to provide the other side of the coin.

    (As an aside, I belive that this issue could be termed a Mary/Martha issue, ie there are two side/opinions/ways of doing things. Neither is wrong. But making things which we should do into a dichotomy so that we only do one and not the other isn’t right either.)

    “I don’t think God is concerned with the bottom-line, when it comes to giving.”

    I think He does. He cares about both the faith and gratitude as well as the amount given. An example would be Cain and Abel. Some people think that Cain’s offering was unacceptable because of what it was (ie vegs instead of meat). I don’t think that was it. I agree with you in that instance that the moral lesson to be derived was the attitude of the offerer not the substance of the offering. But that doesn’t mean that attitude is everything. Even Abel had to make an offering.

    If I could nail down what made me uncomfortable about your post I think it’s that there should have been a distinction made between the method of giving (autopay or conscious decision each month) and the attitude of giving.

    Yes, the method of giving does make a difference. But it and of itself the method of giving is morally neutral. Yes, it makes it easier for the giving to become automatic (heck you could argue that was the whole point) and hence to make it something we do unconsciously.

    But if you examine it further I suspect that it’s more the amount rather than the method that leads to giving becoming something we don’t think about. For example if you auto-tithe or give 80% of your income, unless you were very wealthy I think you would notice the giving each month.

    In fact you could make the point that we mostly autotithe when the amount is not material (it could be material to the receiver but that’s another subject).

    So therefore I think you shouldn’t blame the method for whether you personally choose to reflect on the act of giving.

    You see, in our culture we have a bias to view things from an individualistic perspective. Hence we think about giving from the point that it’s more important for us to give consciously with a grateful heart that the actual giving. But for the receiver it is important. Yes, God can multilpy – but I look at it this way. For the causes we feel lead to give to, we have been called by God to contribute to those causes. Hence when we forget to give, we are failing in our (specific) mission.

    God can ensure that the money comes from somewhere else but we have lost that specific opportunity to donate to that cause that month.

    You might say, well I’ll set a reminder so that I don’t forget to give. Well you could also set a reminder so that you don’t forget to reflect on the autotithe that you’ve given.

    In conclusion, I think that it’s my responsibility to give with the right heart / attitude. Even though autotithe might make me more likely to give without thinking I’d rather do that than risk the receiver not getting funds. Because sometimes it’s important for them to get money THAT particular month (cashflow timing, etc).

    Hope that was clear… (he mumbles…)

  3. Melissa, I love that you are having this conversation here. I was raised to practice tithing and sacrificial giving. I still do, although I admit the sacrificial part is often a struggle for me as well. I’ve seen too many of my Christian friends struggle with the concept and, unfortunately, give up on it altogether. I think many pastors shy away from the topic because of the negative stigma associated with churches asking for money.

    God does not need us to give, WE need to give, for all the reasons you listed above. I think it is a matter of heart-attitude more so than the method of execution. Yes, autopay might be a mindless act for some, but for others it could be just as sacrificial. We cannot know the hearts of others, but we MUST examine our own hearts and attitudes.

    Thank you so much for having this discussion! I look forward to hearing more on it.

  4. Brandon Barkley

     /  December 28, 2012

    I think one reason you have not heard giving discussed much is because it is such a sensitive subject. I know that often when I hear a sermon (or even a sermon series) on giving, it plays to my heart as a money-grab. It is easy to feel guilt tripped (and you probably should) during these conversations and sometimes it pushes people away from joyful giving.

    Also, full disclosure, my giving habits suck. I’d like to get better about them.

  5. Here’s my perspective/experience. I used to give way less money to church. That’s because I was always forgetting our checkbook and/or envelopes for church, and I would just give whatever cash was in my purse, which is rarely much. That never felt like meaningful giving because it was money I wasn’t really keeping track of anyway and wasn’t going to miss.

    Our church didn’t have any sort of direct deposit option, but I found out that auto bill pay means that your bank will send a paper check to anyone who doesn’t accept electronic funds. So I sat down and figured out how much we needed to be giving to our church every week based on our incomes. And yes, it felt like a lot. But it was important to me to make that a priority. So I set up the auto bill pay. I get an e-mail when the check is cut, and the transaction shows up in my Mint.com account when the check gets deposited. I see it come out of our monthly budget. It’s not mindless or meaningless because that money is intentionally accounted for as part of our household budget, as is the money for our World Vision child and the extra money we set aside for charity every month.

    The automated method of payment, to me, is a way to ensure that giving is made a priority. I can’t get out of it with “I forgot the checkbook” or “I only have this much cash in my purse.” It is built into our budget and changes when our income changes.

    I understand your point about growth, but to me, giving is so important that I don’t want to make it dependent on my overcoming my human flaws. It’s like how I have a browser extension that limits the time I can spend on social media. I could argue that trying to stay off the sites through discipline and personal willpower would make me grow as a person more, but realistically I know that that’s not going to happen, and I’m going to end up wasting time plus feeling guilty. Instead, I’m forced to stay off those sites, so out of necessity I spend my time elsewhere and grow as a person that way. With my money, that money is automatically gone/committed, so it’s not there to spend on anything else. Automated giving IS my antidote to greed because I’m unable to make excuses to keep more money for myself, and I learn to be satisfied with less.

  6. Melissa

     /  January 14, 2013

    late to the conversation, but GREAT point Jessica! I agree, autopay can be a way to make sure you are building more of a discipline of giving in your life, rather than letting things fall through the cracks in our busy lives – we do auto-giving to World Vision, and we tithe with checks at church, and to various other missionaries we support monthly, but I don’t think I revere or think more or less of either of those ways of giving – receiving monthly newsletters or correspondence with our World Vision kids keeps me thinking and praying for them and paying attention to the importance of giving, regardless of the autopay option

    I think this is somewhat a first world problem to discuss, but important point to bring up with American Christians – we do get so comfortable in our technology that spiritual discipline is very far removed from us – but it’s not impossible to harness that same technology (morally neutral as it is, as someone earlier mentioned) and use it to help us practice more sacrificial giving. I agree that the heart attitude is important but let’s not get too pharisaical about our attitude versus our actual giving 🙂

  7. I like this post and found it really thought-provoking. ^_^ I wrote a response on my blog: Giving and Autopay: What’s the Point? I wrote about spiritualizing autopay from a different perspective (for me, it would be BETTER for my spiritual outlook on giving to use autopay) and the purpose of giving from a big, little, and medium-sized point of view.


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