Monday, November 28, 2011

Changing Priorities in Giving

Let me tell you a story about some friends of mine.  This Christian couple are longtime church members. The husband’s family practiced the tithe (ten percent of one’s income BEFORE taxes, of course), believed that the church was the “storehouse” of God’s tithe, and taught him the same. The wife’s family were church donors but not tithers, but when they married, the couple decided to be regular contributors to the church, always giving ten percent of their income.

The church they have attended for years was a generous supporter of the denominational missions program at one time, usually sending more than ten percent of its undesignated gifts to the denomination for “missions” (that included not only domestic and foreign field personnel, but seminary support, benevolences, etc.).  In fact, their church was one of the largest supporters of the denominational work in the state.

Something interesting happened several years ago, however. The church found that it needed more money for church-based ministries, so the decision was made to cut back in missions giving.  The cut was small at first, but once the change was made, it was easy to continue reducing the amount that went to “mission causes.”  This really had nothing to do with changes in the direction of the denomination but was determined more by local needs.  Today, the church gives about 2.5% of its undesignated gifts to “mission” causes outside the immediate community.  Members have the choice of giving plans and can support the missions program with which they are most comfortable—the old-line denomination or a new organization of moderate churches.

There is another interesting twist to this story.  My friends still give more than a tithe of their income, but only a small portion of that funding goes to the local church—about 35% and part of that goes to a capital campaign.  It seems that when the church felt that its support for external missions was optional, my friends decided that they had permission to redirect some of their gifts to what they perceived as worthy mission causes.

I thought of my friends when I read a short item in “Century Marks” in a recent issue of the Christian Century.  The article discussed charitable giving and closed with this observation:

“[C]hurch members are not likely to increase giving toward institutional maintenance.  To stimulate increased giving, church leaders need to convey a vision that engages people both inside and outside the congregation.” 

These words certainly seem to address the decision made by my friends to support causes that have a greater vision for mission and ministry beyond the local congregation.  I wonder how many people are like my friends.

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