Are people in the pew pinching their pennies? Across the country, congregations and denominations are recording year-over-year declines in giving. For some it’s reached panic time.
What’s going on? Have general economic conditions made people stingier? Apparently not. National statistics show that overall charitable giving has actually increased in recent years. And donations are expected to increase more this year. But giving to churches continues to shrink.
As churches face budget shortfalls, the church consultants and clergy bloggers have been feverishly churning out list after list of strategies to plug the drain of dollars. “10 Ways to Increase Giving in Your Church.” “5 Things You Can Do to Increase Giving in Your Church.” “15 Ways to Increase Your Church’s Offerings.” The recommendations in the lists are rather predictable:
- “Talk about stewardship–often, every week.”
- “Explain the church’s financial situation.”
- “Use online giving systems.”
- “Offer finance classes.”
- “Ask new members for their pledges right away.”
- “Invite your big givers to share their giving testimonies.”
- “Hire a stewardship consultant.”
The trouble is, some of these techniques may be making things worse. Church financial tactics sometimes scare people away–provoking them to join the Dones. One of them commented, “It was always a plea for money. Fear tactics were used to promote getting folks to give. They created a give-to-get mentality, as if God is a bill collector in the sky. Pay him or he will repossess your good health or punch you.” Yikes.
Now, I understand that a church has real financial needs. And I understand that God encourages people to be givers. But perhaps it’s time to give the top-10 giving lists a rest. And consider some approaches that actually work with real people. Here’s a view from the pew.
Don’t shame me. Inspire me. I remember a hired-gun fund-raising consultant who chided the congregation for spending our money on vacations instead of contributing that money to the church’s building fund. That tactic backfired. Conversely, when I’ve heard how my gifts will be used to make a real difference, I’ve been motivated to join that effort.
Tell me a story. Give me actual examples of our gifts at work. Tell me about the little girl who heard about Jesus for the first time at our church’s VBS. Tell me about our youth group members who built a wheelchair ramp that granted freedom to a disabled man. Tell me about the water well that brought life to the isolated village in Kenya.
Shape a budget that builds the Kingdom, not an empire. When administrative and facilities costs inundate the church’s budget, givers look elsewhere to make our gifts accomplish more. If the church wants me to give selflessly, show me how my gifts go well beyond church amenities that are designated to placate me and my fellow church attendees.
Ultimately, when the relationship with Jesus becomes the central focus, his people want to give–not out of guilt, or obligation, or obedience–but out of love.
One of the factors that kept me from going back to church is the financial obligation. I understand the cost of things and when most the church’s budget goes to pay for the wages and overhead of the church, yea, just like purchasing things, you look to get the biggest bang for your buck.
If I give $10 to the church that in turn gives $1 to the local food pantry to buy $10 worth of food for the poor. How about I give all $10 directly to the food pantry to buy $100 worth of food for the poor? Or how about $100 to the food pantry so they can get $1000 worth of food. If for $100 dollars, I can feed a family of 4-5 for a month, that’s worth the giving.
Yes I agree. I give half of my former tithe to our local food pantry. The other 25% I divide between Food for the Poor, Salvation Army. Both of these have a very good comparison between administrative cost and support to needy.
I have downsized my church offering by 75%. Increasing my donations to charities of my choice by the same amount. I for one do not like being forced to give to conference mandated charities where I can not see how much actually goes toward the needy. I see excessive salaries, benefits for administration with little regard for the welfare of the local church.
I was in a fairly small congregation that was taking in $200k a year. All of that money way used for maintaining the machinery though. A very small percentage, ~2% (I’m being generous in estimating that high), was given to actually help others, even within the congregation. This is not at all how Biblical giving looked for the early church, though I’m not recommending we attempt to follow that as a methodology. Then we just get a replicated system to attempt to maintain externally. I feel bad that I wasted as much money as I did when I could have been giving it directly to those who most needed it.
I was Trustee Chair of a rural Southeastern Region Methodist church in recent years, and I have given considerable thought to the question of why such a high percentage of our overall budget must go to pay the senior pastor’s salary and benefits. I learned quite by accident in 2011 of a change in financial policy at our church that required $15,000 yearly increase in cash benefit to our senior pastor for his cash housing allowance starting back in 2001. This fixed outlay has continued for the past 14 years (approx.), in addition to base salary for senior pastor ranging from $53,000 in 2001 to $65,600 now. This change took place in 2001 when the new pastor of that year refused to live in our 1400 sq.ft. parsonage which he said needed upgrading. There would have been no reason to be offended about this change except that it occurred with only a handful of church people knowing about it. In 2003 the pastor who initiated this change asked me to serve as Pastor Parish Relations Committee Chair, and this $15,000 additional outlay to him was not in the briefing to me or to any of that year’s committee members when staff raises were discussed. Hence the committee awarded a 5% raise without knowing of his landfall increase only two years earlier. Remember it was 2011 when I learned that our parsonage had even been sold, with a fixed cash expense of $15,000/year replacing the obligation of providing housing to our senior minister.
I have done extensive reading about Internal Revenue Code 107 giving federal and possibly state income tax-free housing to qualifying ministers. IRC 107 was started in 1921 and was tax code with the specific intent of increasing the number of churches in America. This tax-free housing allowance was created as a benefit to qualifying ministers, and it wasn’t suppose to cost individual churches anything extra–not one penny, to provide housing to their ministers. My question then is why have churches circumvented the intent of this tax code with this insane reality of paying cash housing allowances? Why not keep the housing allowances within the salaries of ministers and not additions to the salary. I know for a fact that this change in fixed cost (if it remains as now) is going to cost my church an extra $1,000,000 by approx. 2067 (2001 + 66 yrs. approx.). In our rural town one half of that amount would have purchased a mansion for our minister to live in. So why then in 2001 didn’t we just use approx. $150,000 and do a big upgrade to our parsonage to satisfy that minister. Or, why didn’t we just build a shining new parsonage for that minister? Either option would have saved thousands of dollars for our church in the long haul? The answer is we as members and all leaders were not informed for open and honest discussion. Since 2001 and up to 2014, we have now spent $195,000 extra outlay with this new fixed expense exclusively divided between two benefiting ministers, with their added salary in the $65,000 + range with full health insurance and retirement benefits and other benefit payments.
I have never felt the need to question what I have given to the church over the years until I discovered what happened at my own church in 2011. Don’t take me wrong; I love my church and the worship experience and my fellow Christians, but this should not have happened the way it did. The monies we collect in church should be used in a thrifty way to honor God’s purpose. It should never be spent frivolously on two people already receiving very respectable salaries.
I believe this kind of church history is the reason we see donations at churches shrinking. As a continued believer, I have personally learned to designate my giving to the church and to specific charities directly.
I’ve been on both ends of the tithe stick: I’ve been a full-time church staff member (my salary–such as it was–paid for from the church coffers) and I’ve been a giver. Am a giver.
Here’s what I’ve concluded: in a perfect world every local congregation would find a way to avoid raising funds to raise a building that’s both expensive and largely empty. They’d rent rather than buy.
Which sounds wonderful until you have to live with the ongoing headaches that come along with not having control over the space you wish to use. Anyone who’s dealt with renting a school building knows how wonderful an arrangement that is right up until a sports tournament bounces you out of the space, or the van that hauls equipment in and out breaks down, or the rent suddenly goes up.
And the church would put on staff only bi-vo staff–people who hold down a 40-hour per week job and also serve every night and weekend. Except that’s hardly sustainable…trust me on that. I’ve done that, too, and it wasn’t pretty–or healthy.
This paid ministry model (“The workman is worthy of his hire,” etc.) is awful until you try something else. And having dedicated space for programming is stupid until you try something else.
Are many churches completely out of balance in their budgets–spending way too much on infrastructure rather than ministry? You bet. And they should be ashamed. Did any of them put up that building 15 years ago thinking they’d end up in this spot? I doubt it.
So a little grace here, people–and perhaps some helpful suggestions about how to back out of that “oh-no-the-building-is-eating-our-budget-whole” hole?
The local church doesn’t exist simply as a conduit for getting funds to people in need. By all means, if that’s what you want to do with your dollars, go through a more efficient organization. But be sure those front-line service organizations are as efficient as you think–check their direct service/overhead ratios before assuming a dollar given is a dollar delivered to someone in need.
Meanwhile, what’s an upside-down church to do?
When people see that God is allowed to be involved in their community they will give. It’s always been that simple. God made it that way.
I have gone to church almost every Sunday since I was an infant, and I’m 67 now. I never walk out on a service and I stick around long after it’s obvious to others that a particular congregation isn’t going to meet the needs of the community and my family. BUT the church I now attend is so heavy-handed in how it asks for money and so frequent in its requests, that I have often wanted to walk out, and at one service, I did. I have let the Powers That Be know this. I have railed against their methods and frequency, while begging to do more mission, reach out to the community, SHOW people what a church can be. (Thank you, James!) They simply cannot change their mindset.
Yes, like any organization, the bulk of money will go to salaries and overhead. Presbyteries determine minimum salary and benefit packages, and I think all would agree that it would not be appropriate to pay a pastor with 35 years experience the same as someone fresh out of seminary. Many church buildings are older and require expensive maintenance, and in cities, there are often strict ordinances to comply with. I don’t mind these expenses, and we should be able to meet them with our offerings (a workman is worthy of his hire) and still have enough to do program, ministry, mission.
I just cannot understand why we are concentrating on money and not on God’s power.
I do believe that the decrease of tithing is a symptom of today’s church. So many churches have adopted an attitude that is quite juvenile. Some, not all churches have an attitude that they have to keep up with going on in the world to attract people to the services. It reminds me of a teenager stating that they want that $100 pair of shoes because all the other kids have them. I have actually heard church leaders say that they want a particular sound and lighting system because it is what “so and so” uses. I have witnessed too many churches campaign for more money so they can buy such equipment and it becomes a priority. I truly believe that it becomes an idol because it requires a lot of energy to maintain such systems and it is a distraction not only to those who run them, but the congregation. This environment of visual and auditory stimulation fosters church goers to be observers and not participants. It also leaves no room for community, so people feel disconnected. It is this disconnection that can cause some individuals to not give his or her tithe. I believe that tithing is a mandate from God because He knows how our human hearts and minds work. When we give, we feel a sense of involvement and ownership, but it also teaches us to let go and trust Him. God starts to work on our hearts and we begin to desire what God desires; fellowship, community, helping those in need and bringing hope and love to the world through His truth.
God has called us to be set apart, not to be part of this world. He has set music aside for His people not to copy the world. He has set apart His people to be a light, a beacon set up on a hill.
Thom I love your description of God being the big Bill Collector in the sky. I have been around church life for over 50 years now and by the powers I have heard it all before I think.
This need for cash has led to straight demanding money “With Menacing Means”. We would consider these techniques “Criminal” out there in normal land. I’ve heard the consultants pitch and gee-up for your dollar and also been aware of their professional fee as well.
The use of “Tithing” as a scare tactic and a vicious God who will strike you family with sickness and cancer so that he gets his cut of your income.
I wonder how many christians have actually done a historical/theological research into the old testament biblical tithing model??? One would find to their amazement that it has nothing to do with a 10% church tax!!! “Where in have we robbed God???? ” answer: in the Tithe and the heave offering. The Levitical tithe model was inextricably linked to the blood/animal sacrifice.
Hebrews tells us that the priesthood was changed and he caused the sacrifices to cease. Worth looking in to and stop talking silly talk about a subject few christians understand.
Part of the tithe was used to feed and equip the family as they travelled to the Jerusalem temple for the major feasts. There would be an interesting take if you could use part of your tithe to pay for expenses just to get to church!!
Tithing was not revived untill the 3rd century and then to build great Romish buildings and enrich the “Princes” of the church to live in abject splendour whilst the populace went without.
A model of Power and dominance.
Giving is a different matter really and is up to the giver. The introduction is quite right really, we need to be inspired as to what and where are funds going and what real good is resulting.
I know a few ministers personally and they all seem to have investment units/houses and overseas trips on a reasonably frequent basis. I would think that they do not really need my
funding at all. If old church buildings are sucking all the money, then this needs to be reviewed and real practical desicions need to be made.
It would be worth do a study into the history of the church and money, the same picture surfaces again and again. Remember Tetzil the Romash priest and the sale of indulgences.
“When the coin in to the coffer rings….. The soul from pergatory springs!!” sing this with a high squeaky voice, remember that the pope has had you castrated thus the “Castrate” as the choir boys were known. Things have not changed much over the centuries at all have they.
Well goodluck on the chocolate wheel in heaven; be in it to win it and start planting those cash cow seeds today!!
There are a lot of abuses in the area of clergy compensation. In my large “rust belt” city, in the EC the Rector of a struggling city church can easily make $90K a year plus fabulous benefits. In the case of one such church, the Rector of the church didn’t care to live in the area or even the city the church was in, but decided to take a (substantial) housing allowance- which meant they has to sell the house that previous Rectors found satisfactory- and live in a tony, wealthy suburb some distance away. None of the Vestry members apparently saw anything wrong with this…
And then there’s this: a fine for failing to tithe. http://www.rawstory.com/2015/07/florida-church-sends-1000-collection-notice-to-single-mother-because-she-didnt-tithe/
Don’t synagogues charge membership fees to allow people to participate and to vote?
God in Heaven!!!
I very much appreciate these Holy Soup posts that Thom is writing! These are important issues!
I want to continue to be a voice for encouraging people to at least considering another paradigm of church that many are unaware of. And, yet, it has clear biblical precedent. That is, the growing house church movement. Here’s how it relates to church finances…
There are two ways to balance the church budget. Increase income (giving) or decrease expenses. The beauty of house churches is that no special church building is required! People simply meet in their homes for church. What a concept! “Greet the church that meets at their (Priscilla and Aquila’s) house.” Romans 16:5.
Eliminate the church building and you eliminate a huge line item (mortgage or rent, building program, insurance, repairs, heating/air conditioning, cleaning, etc. (and, likely coming soon… taxes on church property) This is money that can then be freed up for other things like helping the poor, financing apostolic church planters, etc. The Pew Foundation estimates that 9 to 12 million Americans are now enjoying this option.
Income is decreasing, not increasing. Membership is decreasing, not increasing. Number of people in the pews is decreasing, not increasing. Number of children and youth (with the exception of children’s choir) is decreasing, not increasing. Yet our stewardship people see nothing wrong with their approach, and instead increase the urgency and sometimes the number of their appeals. The balance is off.
we’ve adopted a ‘this is what we want to do, and this is what we need to do’ approach to talking about finances- basically if we’re generous to a certain level, we can just about pay the bills. A bit more will put something aside for when that roof needs fixing; but if we can give this much then here’s what we’d like to see happening… and base it all on our shared vision of what we’re meant to be as part of God’s kingdom. Its helped that we’ve had a few miraculous donations/grants etc over the last 2yrs- we’re talking 4 times the annual budget has come out of nowhere, and all we changed was the general direction of how we talk about money- not celebrating fundraising but mission giving… that kind of stuff… and its slowly working.
Preachers are very quick to point out the scriptures about tithing and giving. However, I’ve never heard one single sermon about the verses in the New Testament concerning the physical structure where the church meets. Nothing about technology verses.
Because they don’t exist. There are plenty of verses about what should happen when the body meets together, but that isn’t preached on.
The construct of the modern church is artificial (big buildings, audiences rather than functioning members, entertainment rather than congregational singing, sound system updates rather than mission giving). Long, long ago we departed from the Biblical pattern and I have no sympathy for church organizations that can’t maintain their favorite programs.
I believe that unless there is a vast change in the attitude of the American government, churches will have to choose:
1. Knuckle under to Big Brother and embrace apostasy;
2. Go under;
3. Abandon the big budgets and emulation of the world, and return to New Testament Christianity. The early church spent a lot on missionary work and how much on facilities?
Yes. Long long ago. Check out this 1800’s quote from Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard,
“The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.
Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. ‘My God’, you will say, ‘if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?’
Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you?
Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”
Ken, your response led my husband into reading more about Kierkegaard. Glad you posted it.
We need to let people tell their stories — to open up and share the contents of their heart. To create holy soup. That will inspire giving! https://stevesimms.wordpress.com/2015/07/18/veggie-cans-church-christ-in-you/
This was a very timely post for me. I have not given to my church in quite awhile. Our church just acquired an 8 acre piece of property where we now have a huge sanctuary, a beautiful cafe, basketball courts, quiet rooms, etc. All the creature comforts of the American way of life.
In the meantime, I have found several ministries that are run on a shoestring (NOT World Vision!) by faithful, God-centered, God-dependant people who are ministering to the poorest of the poor in the Dominican Republic (pastor and wife cashed in everything in the US to start a ministry in the DR that is doing such good and centered on the Gospel) as well as a friend who has become a missionary in Uganda. There are others, as well, and this is where I give my $$$. I want people fed, spiritually and physically without paying for high salaries, pizza for privileged teens, etc.
I know my church needs funds in order to function, but I don’t want my money to pay for expensive buildings, etc. I want it to go where it is most needed to further the Kingdom of God to the least of these.
Am I wrong in this?
Spot on, I’d say.
We’re instructed not to give of necessity nor grudgingly – we are basically to give how and where our hearts dictate – cheerfully
P.S. God is so secure – that he even lets you determine the amount. 😀
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