Q: In a recent column, you stated, "There's no shame in not supporting your local church or synagogue." You go on to limit that statement to those who don't expect to need any services from these institutions or their clergy in the future.
As a synagogue president in a resort/retirement community, it's distressing to me that almost 90 percent of our Jewish population does not affiliate with a congregation. Many of the seasonal residents see nothing wrong with regularly attending religious services or educational offerings and partaking of the hospitality that follows for six months of the year without joining our congregation. These same people seem to think that because our community is a second home to them, we should be expected to "host" them year after year with little or no contribution from them.
I believe that if you can afford a second home in a resort community, you should contribute to a congregation in that community if you take advantage of its services or expect to do so at any time in the future. The alternative is that some or many congregations may not exist in the future and the leadership of those that remain may be unwilling to provide any services to people who had the means but were unwilling to recognize an obligation to offer support prior to their time of need. -- R., Palm Beach, Fla.
A: Here's an idea. Tell the freeloaders that they can come and pray but they can't eat the cookies! Seriously, as you correctly surmised, I agree to some extent with your laments concerning "free riders" at synagogues, churches, mosques and temples.
In my opinion, every person who seeks comfort or prayers in a house of worship is, I believe, spiritually and morally bound to support that house of worship and its clergy with a sacrificial gift or a commitment to pay the annual dues (depending on how the religion structures its financial support).
However, I also wish there was some way to say this without sounding penurious. Nobody would go into a market and steal food just because enough other people are paying for the food to keep the market in business. However, when it comes to houses of worship, some people feel that since God doesn't need money, neither do the priest, the minister, the rabbi, the secretaries, the janitors, or the teachers. This is, of course, a foolish delusion. You're also correct that free riders do weaken the financial underpinnings of our religious institutions.
My overall conclusion on this matter is that I'm happy to be cheated out of a few cookies. I welcome free riders because I want them to go home and realize that I am not running a business but a house of God. I want them to suddenly realize that they didn't steal the cookies because we put them out for everyone to eat (as a needed reward for sitting through my long sermons). What I want is not to force them to contribute but rather to want to contribute because it's simply ungrateful to take from people doing God's work and not give back something to help sustain the people doing that work.
Another thing to understand about free riders is that some are really suffering and poor. Some come to eat the cookies because they don't have money to buy food. You may find this hard to believe in your resort/retirement community, but your synagogue may actually be the only place they can afford to go where they're treated with kindness and respect. So open your heart just a crack more. Some of those freeloaders have had a hard week or a hard life, and your Sabbath service may be the only thing helping them feel God's love and helping them keep their grip on some measure of hope.
I wish everyone would place a generous contribution in the collection plate in church or become a full dues-paying member of a church or synagogue, but life is not like that, and broken people are not like that.
The places we've built to pray to God and study and gather together must welcome everyone with an open hand, an open heart and an open cookie plate.
Send questions to The God Squad, c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207, or e-mail them firstname.lastname@example.org.