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Stats Don't Show that Christians (and Pastors) are Bad Tippers, but We Must Reverse the Stereotype

The evangelical blogosphere has been buzzing about the recent incident involving Pastor Alois Bell of the Truth in the World Deliverance Ministries Church and Applebee’s server Chelsea Welch. If you haven’t heard about the incident, here is a quick recap:

Pastor Bell was believed to have stiffed Chelsea on her tip (that was later debated) and commented on the receipt that she was a pastor and only gave God 10% so why should she give Chelsea more (no debate there). Chelsea posted the pic online and it went viral. Subsequently, Applebee’s fired Chelsea and Pastor Bell has been publicly shamed in the media and has even received some death threats.

Pastor Bell has apologized and I certainly think that is a good thing, though it would seem to be normal for some to question her judgement as a pastor if this is how she acts in public– however, I (too) have done some stupid things, so it is not my desire to pile on.

However, this whole incident has enflamed a long burning discussion about the stereotype of the conduct and courtesy (or lack thereof) that many Christians display toward servers, waitresses, valets, and others in the service industry.

But why does this stereotype exist? Because, in large part, many servers think it is true. Many Christians do as well. But, what does the research say? It says that it may not be true.

According to the only study of which I am aware, published last year in the Journal of Applied Psychology, it appears that “Christians as bad tippers” is not supported by the stats. In their study, “Are Christian/Religious People Poor Tippers?,” Michael Lynn and Benjamin Katz explain:

The results of this study produced three notable findings about the relationships between religion and tipping. First, Jews and those with no religion tip significantly more than Christians and members of other religions. However, the average Christian tips 17 percent of the bill when receiving good restaurant service and only 13 out of 100 Christians receiving good service leave a tip below 15 percent of the bill. Second, worship frequency has no significant main effect on reported tipping. Third, worship frequency significantly interacts with service quality such that the effects of service quality on tips were stronger the less frequently the tipper attends religious services.

You can read their whole report here and it would be worth doing so before saying that your personal experience trumps the research.

So, again, facts are our friends– but in this case, perception is not our friend. And, perception is reality. That perception is real and is, I believe, hurting the reputation of Christians (and pastors, as in Pastor Bell’s case). It is enough of a perception that one of the world’s leading researchers on tipping did a study on the topic. (And, who knew that there were people doing research on tipping? Thank you Google!)

So, how do we deal with such a perception?

In an article at the Christianity Today Her•meneutics blog, Karen Swallow Prior gives some helpful advice:

Perhaps there are some simple explanations. Times are tough. Eating out is expensive. But if diners can’t afford all of the expected expenses of eating out, they should go to an establishment they can afford, or not go out at all. Or perhaps in some cases, it’s ignorance. Maybe some folks don’t know that the minimum wage for servers is lower than for everyone else, or that the percentage for tips increases like everything else, or that the government collects income tax on tips, whether those tips are received or not. Tips aren’t donations. Tips are payment for services rendered.

She concludes:

I don’t think that Paul had servers in mind when he exhorted believers, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God,” but the principle certainly does apply. Those who are to represent Christ in all they do should remember that includes paying the check–in total–at the end of the meal.

Does such bad tipping happen? Of course. Pastor Bell is the easy example. So, it should be addressed (though, again, let’s not use bad stats to evidence it).

Being cheap or taking your frustrations out on a server is in no way Christlike. And it is not indicative of how we should live our lives as Christians.

We should be known as a generous people. We should be known for our love. Not just with waitresses and waiters at restaurants, but with everyone.

So in response, I’ve been striking up conversations with servers and asking them about this perception. Interestingly, most do not say that the Sunday crowd are bad tippers, though I know many who do say that. Then again, they may be saying kind things since I talk like a researcher but am also a pastor.

Yesterday, I talked to a server, and we discussed the “pastor tip gate” scandal. I wanted to do a small thing to change the perception so I wrote this note on my bill:

Great job! I’m a pastor & I don’t leave bad tips!

When I tweeted it, more than 12,000 people viewed or shared it in a day– showing that there is some angst on this issue. And, there should be.

So, statistically, this claim does not hold up. I’ve written before in in Christianity Today on the fact that Christians like to make up– and widely distribute– the stats that make themselves look bad. But, in this case, a lot of non-Christians believe it. Also, the authors of the study actually say managers should tell their wait staff this fact, so they believe it as well. So, we should address it– with the facts (it’s not true) and with our example (we can do better).

The answer, I think is simply to be better tippers for the glory of God and the advance of His mission.

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.