An article published in late 2016 in the New York Times had this somewhat alarming title, Donations to Religious Institutions Fall as Values Change.[i]
For much of its history, the Adventist Church enjoyed the abundance of generosity from church members as they gave their tithes and offerings, perhaps out of habit, or parental example and persuasion, or simply belief in God and the church. However, in recent years that has changed somewhat, almost paralleling what is happening in the rest of the religious world in North America.
Back in the “good old days” which we remember fondly, when a pastor could say to his congregation, “God said to give, so you must give,” or something in a similar vein, church members by and large gave without questioning. That’s no longer true, and whenever it’s mentioned to pastors that generous giving has taken on different dimensions, they nod in solemn agreement.
Today members usually want to know what happens with their money, they expect to have a voice, they want reports, they want to know just what their money is used for, and if they don’t receive answers to their questions, they may well do one of three things—stop giving, lessen their giving and channel some of their funds elsewhere, or demand more attention as donors—and yes, that word, “donors” is not just relegated to secular causes. The habits of giving by most church members and their expectations of information and recognition have become nearly parallel with those whom we have traditionally labeled “donors.”
Although religion is still the largest recipient of overall donations in the U.S., at about a third of the total giving ($373.25 billion, according to the report Giving USA), that is down from around 50% in the middle eighties to the early nineties. And it should be clarified that this category of research refers to churches, not organizations like Adventist colleges or even community service organizations.
Some of the reasons why members used to give generously in the past are that there was a certain level of trust in the church as an institution, people had more “blind” faith and didn’t question as much, and in spite of some conflict or decisions made that weren’t always compatible with everyone’s belief system, people still remained loyal. Giving was engrained in the church member, and was seen as an obligation or duty.
These qualities of generosity have changed. So what’s a pastor to do? Here are some suggestions, from a practical viewpoint based in biblical perspectives.
· Be transparent in the management and reporting of funds.
· Ensure that promises are kept. If someone gives to a specific aspect of the church, that money MUST be used for that purpose.
· Don’t take giving for granted, even though it is a biblical injunction and principle.
· Involve key individuals in the reporting and management of funds, not just the treasurer or pastor.
The good news is that “The more important religion is to a person, the more likely that person is to give to a charity of any kind, . . . . Among Americans who claim a religious affiliation, the study said, 65 percent give to charity. Among those who do not identify a religious creed, 56 percent make charitable gifts.”[ii]
Religion does motivate generosity, both to the church and to good causes. We just need to be conscious that the “good old days” of giving are gone, and move with the proclivities and attitudes of our members today.
Tom Evans is treasurer for the North American Division. Lilya Wagner is the director of Philanthropic Service for Institutions for the North American Division.
[i] Alina Tugend, “Donations to Religious Institutions Fall as Values Change,” The New York Times, Sunday Nov. 6, 2016, in the Giving Special Section.
[ii] Alex Daniels, “Religious Americans Give More, New Study Says,” Chronicle of Philanthropy November 25, 2013