Pretend you are a struggling restaurant server scraping by to make ends meet. You get back your customer’s bill and read the following words scrawled all over it: “I give God 10%. Why do you get 18?” This is precisely what one server experienced recently when serving a large group at the Applebee’s restaurant where she works. Generosity is a core value of ministers ordained online, so antics like these should make us disappointed and embarrassed.
The details of the incident render an even more disturbing picture of selective generosity. Not only did the woman paying for the group contest the 18% tip that the register automatically adds for large groups, but she scratched it out, replaced it with a “0”, and wrote the word “Pastor” before her name, in stark contrast to the reputation ordained pastors enjoy as paragons of compassion and open-handedness. Soon after, the waitress posted a photograph of the mutilated bill on the social network Reddit, stirring up a controversy over religion, charity, and generosity. Unfortunately for her, however, the pastor called the restaurant and complained about the waitress’s actions. Ultimately, the waitress lost her job.
Contrary to popular opinion, however, this kind of stinginess on the part of ordained ministers and their lay members might not be so anomalous. Applying the tools of social science to study religion, researchers are beginning to uncover what motivates religious people when they choose to be tightfisted. A recent study by the Nottingham University School of Business found that religion has little influence on generosity, except between co-members. In one task, participants pretended they had a sum of money they could choose to share or not share with other participants. The recipient could give part back, in which case that part would be tripled. The only case in which religious participants were more generous than nonreligious participants was when they were told that the recipient of their gift belonged to the same religion. It begins to make sense, then, that people like the pastor at the Applebee’s restaurant believe tithing is more important than helping out a struggling waitress.
But is tithing, or investing in one’s own church and religious mission, the “alpha and omega” of religious generosity, and if it is, should it be? After the Haitian earthquake, one Christian organization responded not by sending medicine to the devastated victims, but by sending them solar-powered Bibles. The question is where our priorities lie. Does an almighty God really need us to tell people about him more than a struggling waitress needs to make a living, or an earthquake victim needs anesthetic for an amputation? Probably not. Becoming an ordained minister (at least in an interfaith online church) means giving out of love and compassion to people because they need it, not because they share your beliefs about God, sin, and salvation, everyone else be damned.
There is nothing wrong with supporting your local religious community, but it becomes questionable when driving the engine of your own organized religion’s proselytizing mission becomes more important than helping the poor, needy, and downtrodden. When we do this, we begin to miss the point. As Universal Life Church ministers, we do not lend aid to members of our own community and deny it to others, because we understand that “we are all children of the same universe”.