Church giving figures show overall drop


Church giving patterns are mixed, according to Empty Tomb, Inc., publisher of an annual report on the state of church giving.

An analysis of giving patterns in 1994, the most recent year for which figures are available, found that per-member giving in constant dollars (adjusted for inflation) increased from 1993 to 1994. However, during the same period per-member giving as a percentage of U.S. per capita disposable (after-tax) personal income decreased, suggesting that giving patterns are not keeping pace with improved personal financial conditions.

The last time that per member giving in constant dollars increased in all three church giving categories tracked by Empty Tomb was from 1985 to 1986. The 1993-94 increase in giving to benevolences (a category of the church budget which includes denominational support, seminary support, and local and foreign missions) ended a five-year decline in giving to that category. In 1993 per member giving to benevolences was $62.53, but in 1994 it was up to $63.11. Giving to congregational finances also increased from $304.83 to $312.32.

Still, those donated dollars represented a smaller portion of income for the ninth year in a row. In 1993, church members donated 2.52 percent of their incomes to their churches. In 1994 that amount decreased to 2.48 percent.

Does the increase in constant dollar giving suggest that patterns may be turning around? Such a conclusion would be premature, according to the study’s authors, John and Sylvia Ronsvalle. For example, although giving to benevolences increased between 1993 and 1994 in constant dollars, the 1994 level of $63.11 was less than the 1992 amount of $63.99. Also, the 1994 level of giving to benevolences was less than the 1968 amount of $65.07.

The Ronsvalles say there are other reasons to be concerned about giving patterns. After studying the numbers over a period of years, they wondered what was causing the declining patterns. Under a three-year grant from Lilly Endowment, the Ronsvalles conducted a study of congregational dynamics (reported in a new book, Behind the Stained Glass Windows: Money Dynamics in the Church from Baker Books).

“Some of the dynamics affecting church member giving patterns are deeply ingrained at the congregational level,” suggested Sylvia Ronsvalle. “For example, we encountered many congregational leadership boards that valued the status quo more highly than expanding the support base of the church. Because the issues of money and power are often closely connected, these leaders were willing to keep their congregations at a maintenance level rather than risk a shift in the congregation’s power structure.”

John Ronsvalle noted that some of the dynamics are larger than the congregation itself. “The church has not had a positive agenda for the affluence that spread through our culture after World War II. Seminaries have not trained pastors in either the practical or the spiritual aspects of money. In the resulting void, church members’ attitudes toward their increasing resources were influenced more strongly by consumer advertising than by any religious perspective.”

The result, the authors suggest, is that many pastors feel pressured to make people happy rather than to lead church members into a deeper — and perhaps more demanding — relationship with God.

As an example of congregational patterns that discourage increased giving, consider the division between the finance committee and the missions committee, the authors suggest. The missions committee is supposed to challenge the church to consider ideas beyond its own needs — those items that would fall under the definition of benevolences. However, the budget for missions must be approved by the finance committee. And the finance committee’s task generally is to end the year “in the black.” It’s often easier for the finance committee to increase the budget only a little, to maintain current programs, rather than ask other members to increase giving a great deal to expand mission activities.

The authors describe what happened in one congregation when a missions-minded person was appointed to the finance committee. This person lobbied heavily to increase missions spending from within the power base of the finance committee. Finally, some other leaders of the congregation asked the individual to work to expand the church’s mission vision by becoming the missions committee chair. When the assignment change was made, the remaining members of the finance committee cut the missions budget. And the new missions chair found he now had no authority to influence the decision.

“This incident confirmed a pattern we saw repeatedly,” according to Sylvia Ronsvalle. “Current leaders would much rather maintain the church at its present level of activity than involve more people in responsible stewardship to expand its vision. But giving patterns suggest that if the church is not expanding its vision, it will slowly lose market share with its members over time.”

— E.P. News

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