Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Congregational Bromides: "We are a generous church."

Congregations, like people, are skittish related to money conversations. The tension has heightened for households and congregations in the ELCA. Some people and congregations chose to withhold offerings from congregations and synods related to Churchwide Assembly 2009 decisions concerning same sex relationships and clergy. The climate for stewardship was already challenging. In the midst of the tension related to money, congregations often make statements about the generous culture of the church, the generosity of their members, or the generosity of the leadership. What is the standard for generosity?

Public discourse often falls into the trap of emphasis on who gives the most. The person or organization that makes the big gift is lauded for their contribution. Large gifts are important for any non-profit type of organization, but a church has a calling to teach people about giving. Giving is one of the most referenced concepts in the entire Bible, more than love, prayer, and forgiveness combined. Before elaborating on generosity standards, consider these points:

1. Giving to religious organizations in the United States on average represents approximately 1-2% of annual household income. This figure is frequently referenced by church leaders and teachers, and this academic research confirms that publicly affirmed figure.

2. Related to point #1, in an anecdotal observation of giving in the Southwestern Washington Synod of the ELCA using (self-reported) congregational trend report statistics, the average giving amount per person in average worship attendance mostly falls in a range of $1000-$1500 annually to the congregation. This means that if your congregation has an average worship attendance of 100, your congregation's average offering income is $100K-150K per year. I'm investigating how that corresponds to how congregations give to their synods/ELCA. Once I gather that information, I'll post an update.

3. I think congregational leaders like to use the word "generous" referencing member giving because of the sense of relief they feel when a budget is met, a major project is completed, or a disaster strikes (Katrina, Haiti, North Dakota flooding, etc.) People indeed make an extra effort to meet certain needs in congregational life. People do give, but is it generous?

Many questions arise after the establishment of a simple giving standard. The biblical standard for giving is 10 percent of income--off the top (aka "first fruits giving). Does the 10 percent have to go to a local congregation first? Can a portion of the 10 percent giving go to other charitable organizations? Is the percentage of giving tabulated before or after taxes? These are interesting questions.

I have yet to reach a conclusion about the nature and scope about generosity, but I look for things that communicate generosity. Some points of generosity can be measured, others can't.

1. Sacrificial giving--do people or organizations actually give up something in order to help others? Or do they go deeper into debt while giving to others?
2. Growth in giving--if a giving standard of 10 percent is not met, then is the congregation growing in its giving, like half a percent growth in giving per year over a multiple year period?
3. Does a congregation extend its giving beyond 10 percent? I remember a challenge years ago when I served in the Greater Milwaukee Synod, when Bishop Peter Rogness invited us to consider becoming 50/50 congregations, sending out 50 percent of what we take in. I always aspired to serve that kind of congregation, but I have yet to experience first hand that kind of giving. Getting to 10 percent is challenging enough, and occasionally I experience something slightly over 10 percent.
4. I believe that true generosity reflects grace. Arguing and bickering about percentages misses the mark for grace. If giving leaves people feeling sour, the the giving and generous spirit is buried. One of the great congregational leaders with whom I worked, Otis Timm, told me instead of giving until it hurts, to give until it feels good. In his honor I called my stewardship newsletter, "Feel Good Giving."

What I find interesting is that congregational leadership wants people in their congregation to tithe, yet they struggle to tithe themselves. I learned holding an expectation rings hollow when leaders are not willing to do it themselves.Before I drift too far on a negative path, I must share that giving is not what makes people right with God. Giving is our response to God's love for us. But I do believe generosity can change the world. A self-giving, generous God in Jesus Christ gave to the point of a brutal death. In this example, generosity reflects going beyond expectations with giving and grace. My hope is that congregations reflect upon their usage of generosity and their proclamations of generosity in congregational life.


  1. Mark Allen Powell has an excellent book called "Giving to God." It's worth reading.

    One little piece from that book that I can recall at this moment is the idea that giving is an act of faith, and not necessarily functional. That is, in the act of giving we should be less concerned with where the money is going and more with the simple act of doing without 10% of our income and trusting on God to carry us through. After all, the OT sacrifices weren't used to keep the lights on in the Temple or feed the poor. They were just sacrificed and lit up - an act of faith that says, "we're going to destroy 10% of what we have and depend on God to provide."

    I'm not advocating that we collect the offering and then drop lit matches in the offering plates, but ...

  2. You've made a good addition to my post. The act of faith and worship through offerings is probably the most important component. But we live in a different world with different circumstances--and the act of faith remains--and God is the faithful one.

    There are functional offerings in the OT--I remember in Exodus when people brought too many offerings and they had to say STOP (there's a first--and last).

    I think you emphasized the trap that congregations fall into when they focus on their own generosity. In interim ministry, I'm essentially challenging congregational assumptions, and congregations hold an assumption that they are generous. Thus I have my 2nd congregational bromide--more forthcoming.

    Thanks again for your comment.