Bear with me…it’s not what it sounds like.
I just had an interesting email conversation about tithing with a new Twitter friend who was looking for perspective on his financial situation. He sent me his line-item family budget that included the big whack of money he donates to his church. Thirteen percent of the gross.
Now…unless you’re on the receiving end of a prosperity gospel swindle—and if you are, I can offer you a spectacular way to fuck off—it seems clear that giving money away makes it harder to save it.
So I told my new friend I’m not religious and therefore don’t tithe, and I asked him: if you focus strictly on the economic value of tithing, are you getting your money’s worth? You know…kids mowing your yard for you when your mom’s in the hospital, potluck dinners instead of nights on the town, the lawyer who’s always handy with free advice…does that stuff pay for itself?
He answered, “I don’t really consider the social safety net aspect of church attendance too much, probably because I have been incredibly blessed in life…I have not had instances to make “withdrawals’ from church…I am certain if I needed to or circumstances changed, I would have that supporting me. Your specific examples occur all the time at my church. I would also say they are great value but I cannot put a dollar value on that sort of thing.”
Fair enough. But his phrase “social safety net” set me to remembering that drowning incident I mentioned.
OK, I’m gonna reveal a bit of my secret identity here. You can google all this.
I’ve done some volunteer work for fire departments, one of which serves a rural Appalachian county in which there’s a farming community of old-order (i.e. horse-and-buggy) Mennonites. It’s a beautifully peaceful and quiet place; one where people work with their own hands and plow with Belgian mares, and families harvest vegetables along the rows together. They use no electricity and you’ll never hear a car alarm or jake brake.
But none of that’s to say that there’s no tragedy in their lives.
In January of 2013 I helped with a two-week search-and-rescue and then body recovery operation for three of the Mennonites who were canoeing in a heavily-flooded creek, got flipped, and drowned trying to swim to safety. Picture betting your life on a feather in a firehose.
It was a father and two of his five children. One boy, one girl. Both of them close to my daughter’s age. They had on those heavy black boots and wool clothes and such. Might as well’ve been concrete. No life jackets, either.
The whole county turned out to aid the search, including several churches that supported us with coffee and chili in crockpots and grilled cheese sandwiches and anything else that could keep us dragging the creek in the stiff January rain.
To make a sad story short, after all those long days of dawn-to-dusk effort we’d only recovered the bodies of the two children. Everybody was exhausted and the weather was getting even worse, so the joint command made the tough call to end the search without recovering the body of the kids’ father.
For us on the search team, of course, because everybody wanted closure…but I spent a lot of time trying to put myself in the place of the grieving widow slash mother. I couldn’t fathom what it’d be like to lose half your family in three minutes, even with faith to fall back on. How would you cope, never mind carry on? No closure for her whatsoever…forever and ever, amen.
As winter wore on, she was never far from my mind. I pictured her in a cold dark house that was empty of laughter.
I knew what she looked like because I’d seen her a couple of times during the search operation. Hadn’t spoken to her, but she was motherly, dressed in the long dark-colored dress and white bonnet typical of old-order Mennonites, and she was being tended to in her grief by a circle of grandmotherly women who were apparently working in shifts to ensure she was never alone.
Then late that winter one of my Facebook friends, somebody I consider a useful idiot, posted the latest poisonous “welfare queen” meme. And it clicked; it just clicked.
If this grieving widow/mom was out in what Mennonites call “society,” she’d be getting shamed left and right for having three kids but no man around…depending on SNAP for food, living in a shabby little Section 8 apartment, taking the kids to the free clinic…with the overarching message being that you better get a job, quick, or else we’re gonna whip your thieving ass.
But as things stand she won’t ever in her life—unless she leaves the Mennonite church and community—have to deal with any of that.
What’s left of her family will never miss a meal and they’ll always have a roof over their heads. They’ll never be homeless. She’ll have meaningful work. When she’s on her deathbed she’ll be surrounded by people she loves and who love her; in her own home instead of some crummy public care facility; largely unafraid to die because of her belief in an eternal reward.
Her grief for the family members she’s lost will be neverending, though…but it’ll be a comfort that she’s part of every family in the community. In fact, I know of one family that has fourteen kids and enough grandkids to fill a cow barn. They need all the help they can get, so they’ll call on her and she’ll cheerfully do everything she can for them. They’ll send her home with fried chicken and mashed sweet potatoes and a few of their own kids to help her with chores and–in truth–to keep her company.
So yeah, time will pass and eventually she’ll get better.
I knew her husband Nick just a bit from my frequent visits to their community’s vegetable market. What I remember about Nick most was how he was always smiling. And I mean always, in a Great Gatsby sense that made you believe he took a special interest in you. Probably he did.
You might think Nick was foolish for horsing around in swift currents with small kids. And I’d agree.
But when Nick went out, he went out like a champion. An older kid from the community was watching from shore and waiting for his turn in the canoe. He ran for help when he saw the canoe overturn, and told rescuers that Nick, in the last few moments before he want under, was swimming downriver with the boy on his shoulders, trying desperately to get to the girl.
Given the state the creek was in I’m not sure Nick could’ve even made it back to shore with the weight of his son on his shoulders, much less towing his daughter. I’m guessing not…but putting the lives of his children ahead of his? No matter if he was stupidly complicit in their deaths, I’ll always admire him for that, both as a father and as a human being.
So what does all this have to do with financial independence and early retirement?
As an FI/ER advocate it’s hard for me to get behind tithing. I don’t intend to sell all I hast and distribute unto the poor, yo? I choose to donate time rather than money.
But that said, I don’t know, man…I’m not as certain about tithing as I was back before those three Mennonites drowned.
I’ve written at length about how if I had it to do again I’d consider “retiring” to an alternative community. A commune or collective or some such place where I could take care of others when they need it, and where others could take care of me when I need it. Not a old-order Mennonite community, of course, because I refuse to pretend to a faith I don’t have.
But then again, we in the FI/ER movement place a lot of faith, a lot, in principles that are just as nebulous and open to interpretation as those of any particular god-permutation you’d care to name—Christian, Muslim, Old Norse, or what-have-you. Principles like the survival of Social Security, the affordability of health insurance, and the viability of the 4% rule.
So if you’re bent on FI/ER, you have to consider the possibility that the principles you place your faith in will fail, and that someday you’ll have to fall back on your own social safety net. Will you even have one?
And mind you, if the answer is “no” I’m not suggesting you hurry to the nearest church or mosque or maypole and dedicate yourself whatever goes on there. What I’m saying is that you should remember that long-term market return of 7% isn’t engraved on a stone tablet.
In other words, the future won’t take care of itself, however much you want to believe that it will. Plan accordingly, or at least try to. Whether you believe in the 10% rule, the 4% rule, both, or neither: forever is a long time.