Maybe we should stop giving money to the church


I am intrigued by the New York Times putting out two very interesting religious articles on two consecutive Sundays. Last week, I wrote about their article about the Vatican and divorce. This past Sunday, they talked about Jewish synagogues moving from charging membership fees to voluntarily giving to the congregation, whatever a member can afford, in order to keep it financially solvent. In the Episcopal Church, we call this 'pledging', and we fill out 'pledge cards' so we can know how to budget our income. We have been doing this awhile, though not terribly long, only about 125 years. And I, for one, say to our Jewish brothers and sisters: good luck with that. Because at this point, voluntary giving is not really working for us. It hasn't been for awhile. Even the most cursory look at Episcopal Church statistics show that our membership has declined steadily over the past decades and at the same time, of those who are still in the pews, the average pledge has more or less stayed the same (hovering right around the $2,000 mark), which means our overall voluntary giving is down significantly. Add to this generational patterns of how and why we give money, which show that younger people no longer support long-term membership and yearly renewal of gifts (think NPR, museum memberships, and the like), and it is obvious that the concept of pledging is not going to carry the church any farther into the 21st century than mandatory membership fees are carrying the synagogue.

This is an area of institutional change that the church can no longer afford, quite literally, to ignore. If we are to move into the future, we need to rethink how we financially support our mission and ministry beyond the concept of pledging. How? I can think of a few ways...

1. We can re-think how we use our buildings. Plenty of churches share space, house outside organizations, host weddings and funerals (of non-members), or simply have room, especially on weekdays, where groups or individuals could meet. Churches are often reluctant to charge more than the most nominal fee for these things, citing 'hospitality' as the reason. Hospitality goes both ways, though, and lots of people could (and should) want to see the church's mission prosper, and therefore gladly give more money for the privilege of using the space. There is no need to gouge or charge exorbitant rates for others using our spaces. But in many cases we could double or triple what we ask, and it would make a bigger difference to our budget than to the ability of others to pay. And in some cases, this could be the call to start looking at how or if we are willing to share the buildings we have been blessed with.

2. We can look outside of our membership for support. Why must financial support of the church come only from members, and usually not even all of them? Plenty of churches host yard sales, spaghetti dinners, raffles of coveted basketball tickets or bingo nights to add to their coffers. I know a few churches (though none Episcopal) who have Paypal buttons on their websites, and solicit donations from anywhere in the world. Surely, far-flung former members or Mom and Dad in Duluth might want to give thanks for our ministry occasionally.

Also, if we are a vibrant church changing the world in significant ways through the good news of the Gospel, we might be surprised how many people we have yet to meet in person who might be interested in supporting us through a gift of $10 - $20. Online fundraising is not just a place of huge donations (in fact, often not), but small gifts can add up and can also develop ties to people near and far who are not members. And incidentally, if we are not a vibrant church changing the world by sharing good news, that is a whole other set of questions to ask ourselves.

And speaking of asking ourselves questions, I think 1. and 2. are practical ideas, but ultimately they are fixes for what we are generally struggling with in the church: not enough money or members to continue ministry as we have lived it for decades. Which really gets to the question of who we are and what we believe and how we live those beliefs in the world today. And so, I think, maybe we are being invited to consider bolder options, such as:

3. We can think about what it means to stop 'giving money to the church' and instead share some of our resources in common as Christians. This may sound simply semantic, but what if instead of giving some of 'our' money to the church for its expenses, we started re-conceiving ourselves as Christian communities where we share a percentage of our incomes for the mission of the church? By this I mean, what if we really put some of our money together and thought about what we do with it beyond paying bills and salaries?

Here's one way that could look: what if part of our money was for taking care of each other? In other words, membership is specifically set at, say, 10% of each member's income, and we ask that all members do this. Some of that money goes to bills and salaries, yes, but it is also available to all members whenever they might need it - an unexpected bill, a child in college, a parent in the hospital, car repairs? What if we had the courage and vulnerability to have conversations about these things at church, and to give and receive resources as we need them? What if this was what church was about?

I am constantly amazed how we insist on not knowing what others give to the church, or even if they give. Sometimes we don't even want our clergy to know. And yet, then perhaps we also don't know who might have lost their job, who has a relative with an addiction problem, or who is writing romance novels on the side and making millions. In other words, sharing our money, and sharing about our lives in terms of money, can be a real source of building trust, practicing generosity, and loving and serving our neighbors. It can be an opportunity to bring us closer, to share more deeply, and also to negotiate differences and to practice what it means to rely on each other.

And of course, we are concerned about our neighbors 'out there', outside of the congregation, the ones in need. It seems selfish or inhospitable to only care for our own.

And I am also often amazed by how many congregations tell me 'we have no one in the community in need'. But do we know this? Are we willing to risk finding out? And if it is really true that not one member of our congregation has any needs they might not have enough money for, then how do we gather our courage to actually befriend those 'out there', so that 'they' become 'us'. In every way. Not just 'us' giving 'them' things they need, but 'us' sharing our lives and stories with 'them', and vice versa. So that our community becomes a place where we keep widening the circle to include many who share different states of financial security, as well as every other kind of difference. So that we eventually see that 'them' and 'us' are not really different categories at all. Wouldn't that be a church we would all want to be part of?

These are merely a few ideas, and surely there are many more. So many churches today are struggling with their budgets, their pledge income, their support of clergy and other staff salaries and benefits, their buildings. It is time for at least some of us to step out in faith and explore new ways of financially supporting the ministry of the Christian Church in the world, and to keep exploring what it means to share our resources faithfully. I am so interested in learning more about those who are.