Pay tithing, be happy?

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Only 2.7 percent of Americans pay a full tithe.


Only 2.7 percent of Americans pay a full tithe.

Only 2.7 percent of Americans pay a full tithe.

Only 2.7 percent of Americans pay a full tithe.

As a Mormon, I’ve sat through a fair number of lessons and talks that can be boiled down to a single, facile message: “Pay your tithing and be blessed!

Sometimes they make me uncomfortable. Mormon lessons can get pretty creative and transactional with interpreting Malachi 3:10, promising that Heavenly Father will take care of the material needs of anyone who commits to a full 10 percent.

Which is not actually what that scripture assures us will happen, I retort inwardly. (I rarely say these things out loud in church. That’s why I have a blog, see.)

Despite my quibbles about our money claims, I have been faithfully giving 10% of my income to charity since college, even before I was a Mormon. I may feel uncomfortable by superficial talks and lessons that focus on the material blessings that arise from generosity, but . . . I’ve also never missed any money I’ve given away, or wished I had it back.

If anything, my experience has been that tithing has made me a little more spiritual, a little more loving, a little less greedy than I would be without it as a regular spiritual discipline.* And I’ve never wanted for anything financially, not really, unless you count the TARDIS I keep asking for each Christmas to no avail, or possibly that pony.

So I particularly resonate with the sociological findings of the new book Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose, releasing this week from Oxford. Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson have attempted a rigorous, five-year scientific investigation into generosity.

It turns out my anecdotal experience is borne out by actual data. Some statistics from the book:

  • Four in ten people who are full tithe-payers say they are very happy and have a strong purpose in life, compared with 28% among those who don’t tithe.
  • Generous people are more likely to be interested in personal growth, have stronger relational connections, and avoid symptoms of depression than non-givers.
  • 50% of people in the “most generous” category say they are in excellent or very good health, compared with 20% for the least generous.**

So you’d think, given the chance to be happier and healthier, we’d all be reaching for the checkbook each pay period, right? That we’d want to selfishly boost our own welfare, to say nothing of the altruism of doing a little good in the world?

51vEbhBQ-yL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_According to the book, only 2.7% of Americans pay a full 10% tithe (even though a whopping 20% claim they do). As the authors put it, “the vast majority of Americans (97%) are forfeiting their chance to enhance their well-being by practicing real generosity with their money.”

Six out of seven people don’t even give away as much as 2%, the authors said this week on Nearly half give nothing away at all, not a single dollar.

Among Mormons, obviously, the tithing figure is much higher than 2.7%, making me wonder how low the overall national figure might go if Mormons were taken out of the mix. A very conservative estimate would be that a quarter of U.S. Mormons are full tithe-payers, with a recent non-random Pew study suggesting it might even be as high as 65%. (See here for details.)

Let’s split the difference and imagine that 40% of American Mormons are actually full tithe-payers, roughly in line with sociologist Armand Mauss’s notion that it’s somewhere around a third. That’s far from total compliance with our own religious ideals but a darn sight better than the 2.7% national average.

I’m glad that Mormons as a people emphasize generosity and sacrifice, that we think the spiritual discipline of tithing is important.

And even though we mangle Malachi by attributing to it all kinds of claims about the “window of blessings” being the wealth, health, and happiness that will be rained down on tithe-payers, those Sunday School teachers can now cite another kind of expertise to prove their point: The Paradox of Generosity.

Greater personal happiness may not be the best motivation for tithing, which Mormons believe is a commandment, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.


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* I do have issues with the lack of financial accountability in the LDS Church, as I’ve addressed in another post.
** Note that this is self-reported based on how the respondents said they felt, not their actual medical diagnoses.
  • CL

    Tithing is a deeply satisfying personal practice intended to help others in need and to achieve greater levels of gratitude for abundance. Not allowing women to be ward clerks nor having an open and transparent annual ward accounting of how tithes and fast offerings are spent, however, are unacceptable practices deeply embedded in LDS tradition. I choose to tithe to the local food bank–where women can hold any financial position and where the use of my contribution is a matter of public knowledge. In some countries, Church tax returns are obligatorily public, and very eye-opening indeed.

  • TomW

    Jana, I have a brother whose lifetime experiences with paying tithes at times of extreme financial distress are as miraculous as it gets. In our own family, our mileage has differed and we trust that the blessings have (or will) come in other ways, and we are happy to be obedient about it.

    But just the same, if we up things to 15%, can we get that TARDIS?

  • TomW

    CL – To the extent that one has faith in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, and sustains the leadership of the church as a manifestation of one’s faith, the gender of those who are called as ward clerks is among the most inane and absurd standards that one could come up with to withhold paying tithes through established channels. Adding to it an underlying suspicion of those who are called of God to administer the financial affairs of the church, where is the faith to move molehills let alone mountains?

  • DougH

    It’s a pity that you are choosing to be generous with Someone else’s money.

  • Galatians 6:14, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which[a] the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

  • WilliamRichardsonMesa

    Interesting thought about who can, and cannot, be a ward clerk. My grandmother was the ward clerk of her Southern Utah congregation for years. There is no evidence that anyone gave two seconds of contemplation over this fact.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    These are great observations, Jana, thank you. I, too, squirm in my seat if tithing is presented as (in effect) an investment strategy. But there is no doubt in my mind that inside or outside of the Church, happiness is associated with generosity, which can be expressed in monetary and non-monetary ways.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    Good one. 🙂

  • trytoseeitmyway

    Yes, but only in the next life. Wait for it?

  • TomW

    Our blessings are far beyond anything we could possibly deserve. I don’t require of the Lord to make them conspicuously comparable to faithful tithe paying.

  • CL, all tithing collected at the ward level is sent to office of the First Presidency/presiding Bishopric for disposition. At the ward level, all building expenses and funding for activities is paid from an allocation made to the ward from tithing funds, so the bishopric and every organizational head knows exactly what is expended at the ward level. No secrecy.

    BTW, if I went and asked the local food bank how much of their funding was spent on administrative costs versus providing food, would they tell me?

  • Perhaps when we begin to look at the opportunity to pay tithing as our small part in building the Kingdom of God and focus less on the blessings we might obtain we will find greater satisfaction even when the blessings don’t come. The opportunity to participate with God in building His kingdom should be the blessing.

  • Bryan

    Malachi 3 says that tithing is paid so that there may be “meat in my house”. If you want receive the promised blessings from the windows of heaven you need to go to the temple to receive it. The promised earthly blessings of paying tithing is that the destroying angel will pass over them – not a fat wallet. The attitude that is sometimes prevalent in the church that “wealth is the reward of righteousness” is false and disturbing. Wealth is a test of righteousness to see if we will use our funds to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

  • TomW

    Just realized you were probably playing off of my TARDIS remark. Sorry.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson


  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Jana, I know you are working with a limited supply of images, but the collection plate is not a part of Mormon donations. I would just like to point out to people who are not LDS that we make our donations quietly, in sealed opaque gray envelopes addressed to the bishop, usually by check, and hand it personally to a member of the bishopric, so most people don’t even see us do that, let alone know how much we are donating.

    The checks are made out to the Church, not to any individual, and are counted and our records credited after meetings on Sunday, and then a deposit made up that is dropped at a bank and a record transmitted to Church HQ (here in North America). Each ward has a double signature checking account that is credited by the Church for the necessary expenses of the building and utilities, and a limited amount of organizational expenses, but nobody gets personal pay or benefits. Your bishop is not covering his Cadillac out of tithing funds.

    I am pretty sure that donations in my ward, where lots of us are doctors, lawyers, and engineers, is substantial compared to where my son the nurse lives. I assume you don’t want to probe what individuals donate. I assume you don’t want to make a big deal about the differences between wards in different neighborhoods. The Church made commitments decades ago to centralize finances and not let some wards have luxurious activities while other ward activities were poverty stricken. We are all on strict budgets now.

    So all the ward and stake expenditures are pretty straightforward, and only other items are discretionary. But the vast bulk of Church expenditures is right there at the local and stake level. You can add temples, transporting missionaries, and supporting the three BYU campuses. And there are Church farms and bishop’s storehouses. What other expenditures of the Church do you want to measure?