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I'm interested in answers from all religions/denominations. (Please identify which you're talking about.)

I grew up going to a Roman Catholic church. Collection baskets were passed at Sunday services -- once for the church and, often, a second time for a special purpose (ranging from helping $disaster victims to buying a pipe organ). Members of the congregation were issued envelopes with an identifying number (not name) on the outside, so you could put cash in and still get a tax receipt at the end of the year. Children in religious school were also issued (small) envelopes; they were also numbered and I assume our coins were tallied with our parents' envelopes, but I never asked. Of course, some people (like visitors) just put cash directly into the basket, too.

This always struck me as dicey; how could an organization with regular expenses like heat and salaries and a building manage finances that way, other than by assuming that this year will be like last year? It occurs to me now that there might have also been a pledge system that I, as a child, never saw, but I'm just guessing here.

One of the things I found really refreshing about synagogues is that they have dues. When I found out about this I did a little happy-dance. Yay, no more guesswork! Join the congregation, get a bill, pay it, and everything's good. Right? (Aside: we couldn't pass a basket at Shabbat services even if we wanted to, because doing business and handling money are forbidden on Shabbat.)

Now that I've been part of congregational life for a while, though, I've realized that that's not the end of it by far. There are still special appeals, of course (we help $disaster victims too, after all), but there are also endowment campaigns, special appeals to supplement dues, fancy fund-raising dinners (with ad books, to draw contributions from non-members/businesses), and a myriad of other fund-raising activities. (I know that some congregations have a building fund with its own rules for member payments; we don't, so I don't really know how this works.) There are also fees for certain activities; the biggie here is religious school, which is a separate payment on top of dues.

My congregation -- and I assume this is true pretty much everywhere -- never turns anybody away for lack of ability to pay dues. We'll negotiate a reduced rate, sometimes quite nominal. Some of the other fund-raising is specifically to offset that. A draw from the endowment each year also offsets some expenses. I don't know if the proportion of our expenses paid for by dues is public information so I won't say, but we try to reduce that proportion by building the endowment -- through fund-raising, of course.

All of this makes me wonder when we risk hitting the point of "fund-raising fatigue" for members (I didn't grow up with this as normal so my perspective is unreliable), and what the mix of dues to fund-raising tends to be like elsewhere, and what other (fiscally-responsible) approaches are out there. What do others do? Are synagogues unique in having dues, or do churches have that too (perhaps packaged differently)? If you're a member of a church, does someone sit down with you and say "we expect you to donate $X this year"?

So, readers who belong to congregations of any sort, how do your congregations pay for expenses?

Interesting question. And my answer is going to be quite dated, because although I continued giving to the church I grew up in long after my belief went away, I still sent money their way.

I never considered any donations as tax-deductible or asked for receipts. A tithe is a tithe, and church and state are supposedly separate. I paid in cash or check and just thought "hey, they helped bring me up, so all is cool". Mostly, though, the idea of separation made me not even think of donations to any charity as different from money I simply spent.

And the donations were always optional (even if they sent out letters you could pretend not to have seen them or simply ignore them). They were never a tax, just a chance for an offering.

Methodist, if that adds any context.
Thanks for the reply. The tax angle never occurred to me when I was a kid; I knew that my parents got a statement at the end of the year but I didn't know what they did with it. Since, in the US, churches are tax-privileged (so long as they don't violate any rules, like engaging in partisan politics), it makes sense that people would deduct donations from federal taxes. If you're tithing, that's a significant difference. (There are many things I would like to see change about the tax code, but while the option is there I'm not surprised that people use it. I deduct my synagogue dues alongside my donations to the animal shelter and the local food bank.)
Tax code is very strange. I've never itemized because with no mortgage and most health stuff taken care of by work it only came close to being beneficial one year. I'm not even certain if church donations count as tax-free; it might depend on whether they are a 501-C? No idea. *googles* Okay, they count as tax deductions. Makes sense.
Yeah, deducting charitable donations only works if you're itemizing, which (for most of us) only happens if you have a mortgage. Either that or you've got complicated business/health/childcare stuff going on, I guess, but fortunately I wouldn't know about that.
Or if you live in some place like New York City, where the state + local taxes can add up to quite a bit...
Well, I grew up Roman Catholic, too, and I had the same experience as you, complete with my own tiny numbered envelopes. But I'm commenting on Ben's mom's experience. It's not illuminating for your question, I think, but interesting:

Ben's mom's father was the pastor of a very small Christian and Missionary Alliance Church (protestant) in East Nowhere, PA. When he died, we were up at his tiny, poorly made house to clean it out. I came across a giant drawer full of hundreds - literally hundreds - of tiny little notebooks. On each page were names and an amount a money next to each, usually within the $1-$10 range. His salary, meaning all (ALL!) their income from his job was by weekly donations from the congregation.

Ben's mom says that the side effect of this was that if he preached an unpopular sermon, they ate beans for a month. Or if they did fundraising for something else (like housing a returning missionary for a period of time), they ate beans. If a family in the church moved or switched churches (common in small-town protestant communities during disagreements), it caused them hardships as well.

Their family offset this by the pastor also doing carpentry and odd jobs. Which the congregation also didn't like. They wanted their pastor to just be the religious guide, not have other jobs. It was, however, necessary, and carpentry was sort of OK, for obvious reasons. But growing up very poor as a child of a pastor (as did Ben, in his own turn), results in some interesting behaviors. This comedy article (http://www.cracked.com/blog/the-5-stupidest-habits-you-develop-growing-up-poor/) describes their family to a "T". Like, weirdly accurate.

Just thought you might be interested to hear about the poor side of church finances, and how it affects the employees and their families.
Wow, that Cracked article was totally on point. I grew up in a dirt poor family too, and that totally has it right about what it's like when you're poor, and the things you have to relearn once you're not.
Wow. Thanks for sharing that. That sounds like a really uncomfortable position to be in -- especially for a religious leader who almost certainly feels called from time to time to challenge his congregation and not just give the easy warm fuzzy message. Sometimes people need to be stirred up, but if it means eating beans... what a deterrent. :-(

(That Cracked article made quite an impression on me the first time I saw it.)

YOu might find the following podcast of interest:


It talks about how various religions fund themselves. Judiasm doesn't always have fixed dues: some congregations use a fair share plan based on income, others do set dues based on categories. I think there was an article recently in Reform Judaism on the subject; I know there was a letter to the editor on the subject in the issue I just received.
I really liked that podcast. It was quite enlightening.
Thanks for the link. Interesting stuff.

I saw the article in Reform Judaism; reading that letter yesterday, and wanting to respond to it, is what led to this question. I know my perspective is narrow, and I want to broaden it.
Our temple (Reform Judaism) charges dues, but we don't have a whole lot of cushion. We don't have our own building. We share our rabbi with another congregation because we can't afford to pay for full-time rabbinical services.

We have annual dues. If I remember correctly from last year (the pledge paperwork should be coming around again soon), there are suggested dues levels based on income gradations. But nobody needs to submit a pay stub, so that's all based on honor system. We don't turn anyone away for being unable to pay more than a nominal amount, but if I understand correctly, you still have to fill out the paperwork annually or it is assumed that you are no longer a member.

We also do silent auctions and annual used-book sales and other things like that.

We did have a financial crisis not all that long ago (I think it partly stemmed from people being behind on their pledges), and there was a big mandatory meeting where we had to vote on whether to pay more or make a hard choice of which painful cut to make. But instead people stood up and offered to pay X amount on top of their pledge, and other people seconded that offer (and I suspect a lot of people who weren't paid up, paid up PDQ). So there was enough extra money raised that no hard choices needed to be made.

Edited at 2012-03-18 08:23 pm (UTC)
Thanks for sharing that. We, too, now require people to send in the form every year if they're asking for reduced dues. If you do send in that form, though, only two (or possibly three) people know about the arrangements made with you -- the financial officer who talks with you about what's possible, (possibly a financial officer in training), and the bookkeeper who does the billing.
Oh, absolutely. It's highly confidential. I've had good friends who'd made such arrangements share that fact with me, though, which is how I know.
Interesting to hear your take on this, I'd never thought about it this way. To me it seems natural that we trust God for the finances, and I love hearing the finance report every year and seeing how He has provided. We're there to do His work after all.

My experience over the years includes various churches in the UK (Lutheran, Anglican, Baptist, Evangelical Free Church) plus a Messianic fellowship in Israel - in all these places it's been up to each person to prayerfully decide how much they give, whether it's in regular giving (which can be through the weekly collection or through a bank standing order) or in one-off special donations to specific causes; but some teach about the importance of tithing and suggest a minimum level (I've heard 10% and also 5%); and in the Lutheran church people were encouraged to make an annual pledge, which I found very off-putting at the time but this feels like a lifetime ago so I don't know how I'd feel now. I'm currently in an Evangelical Free Church and there is encouragement to tithe but absolutely no pressure and no one keeps track of how much each individual gives, it's considered to be something that is between the individual and God. There are collection bags that are passed round and no one else sees what you put in.
Trust in God but row for shore? :-) Thanks for commenting!

I wonder if there is some variation based on whether there's a building. A synagogue, if it owns a building, is solely responsible for that; it can draw from its members and whatever other fundraising it can do to pay for that, but the parent organization won't help. With the Roman Catholic church the diocese owns the property, so they can move money around (and merge congregations) as needed. I have no idea how other Christian denominations manage that. Have you noticed differences in how finances are handled between those with buildings and those without?

I'm curious about one aspect of tithing. Christianity (as I understand it) calls for tithing (usually) 10% to charity. Is it assumed that you give all of that 10% to the church and they'll distribute it from there? In Judaism (as I understand it) you are also expected to tithe, but it doesn't all necessarily go to your congregation, and we're often called on to support other Jewish causes -- local federations, schools, organizations working against poverty and hunger, and so on.

Bank standing orders sure sound like a convenience compared to those envelopes I grew up with! Though I wonder if other people put in less if fewer people are seen putting stuff into the basket each week.
Trust but row - I guess that sums it up pretty well, as long as your rowing is panic-free :)

Interesting question regarding building ownership. I'm not sure I even know the exact situation in each of the different congregations I've been part of. In the Anglican church it's more complex, I think the buildings are owned by the church as a whole, not by the specific congregation; and then they have a requirement for each congregation to send money upstream. Where I am currently, we own the building and it means lots of maintenance costs as it's an old building. I know of congregations that meet in schools (premises not in use on a Sunday) so they don't have those issues to deal with. (My fellowship back home uses a building and I don't remember if it's owned or rented.) Another difference between different congregations is salaried staff - I know of churches where the pastor's role is unpaid and he'd be doing something else for a living; in the Anglican church again I think it's centralised, I don't think the congregation pays the clergy's stipends directly; in my current fellowship we do have a few salaries to pay.

I've come across a variety of different takes on the question of tithing, it's not a clear cut thing. Some do assume that you must bring the full 10% to the church (and the church does support other causes, so it's not like it all goes just to keep the church going); and then out of the 90% you've kept you can give to charity, as a separate thing. But that's not the only view, and my understanding from the Bible is that part of the tithe went to charity. I see the principle as something like this: show your gratitude to God by regularly giving back to Him a regular part of what you have received (and it's also a way of practising our trust in Him; support your congregation by giving regularly; giving back to God doesn't necessarily have to mean giving to your congregation, if you see someone in need and you feel God wants you to give him something then that can also be part of the equation.

I don't think people put in less due to less people being seen putting stuff in - because we don't see who is or isn't putting stuff in. The bag is passed round whilst we're singing, we're all focused on the song and nobody is going to be looking around to see who is or isn't putting something in the bag.
In the paragraph about tithing, it should be:

(and it's also a way of practising our trust in Him); support your congregation...
I've never been certain about tithing either. Clearly the church wants and needs the money, but if you give enough away to good causes, could there be any complaint? My take on it is give as much back to the community, and if it's easier to go through the church than do so, but if you personally see those in need they count. I cannot speak as to whether that is canon or not.
The property ownership situation is a bit more complex for the Diocese of Pittsburgh to meet various requirements in civil and canon law. Other dioceses probably have different arrangements based on local laws or administrative decisions. As best I can recall, there is a non-profit institute that owns all of the property. Parishes have at least one checking account at a bank of their choice for every day expenses. All savings must be deposited at a sort of credit union for the parishes. All borrowing also comes from there. One of the issues avoided by this arrangement would be if a parish couldn't pay it's mortgage, it would be a problem if a bank repossessed it before everything sacred was removed. Regarding ownership of money, it's the policy of the diocese that money stays with the parish. If a parish is merged, the surplus or debt of that parish goes to the new one.

The envelopes basically work as you recall, and believe it or not, the numbers are fairly stable week to week. There are fluctuations, of course. There are also seasonal differences (people often don't donate an envelope or make up the difference if they are away on vacation), and year to year trends. Each year, there is a campaign to assist each parish to pay it's part of the diocese's expenses, and it looks like there will be a multi-year capital campaign coming down the pike to help with more strategic goals of the diocese and the parishes (diocese coordinates, parishes raise money, certain percentage goes to diocese, rest goes to parish).

Fund raisers of various kinds are common depending on the parish. My current parishes do a lot of fund raising (bake sales, a huge festival, pierogi sales, fish fry, pancake breakfast, etc.), while my parish when I was a deacon did little. The fund raising is actually riskier than the weekly collections. Bad weather can severely impact the festival and we can lose a lot of money all at once. A local bridge is going to be closed for 9 months of construction, so we'll feel impact from that as far as fund raisers because people who might otherwise come to the various events now have to drive 20 minutes out of their way. Most of our parishioners already live on this side of the bridge so that doesn't affect collections the same way.

Many larger parishes are starting to have online giving programs where you can set up an automatic deduction from your checking account. Clearly, that stabilizes the numbers even more. Online giving hasn't (and in my opinion won't) completely replace passing the basket or equivalent.

Edited at 2012-03-19 05:28 am (UTC)
Thanks for explaining that. I hadn't realized that I was seeing local variation. (I only ever had experience with the one diocese, which basically boils down to childhood memories + more-recent local news that talks about church closings and stuff like that.)

Do you have a sense of how much of the income tends to come from the collection/envelopes verses the fund-raising activities like pierogi sales and fish fries? (I'm not counting campaigns in the latter; they're a different sort of thing and presumably less frequent.)

I agree that replacing the baskets with online giving would be a bad idea. Online giving can supplement, but a physical collection does a few things: (1) gives you access to irregular contributions (visitors etc who won't go online), (2) makes the activity visible (particularly important for educating kids), and (3) acts as a "feeder" for kids (envelope with coins now, substantial recurring donation later when you grow up).
At the one parish, fund raising is probably around 20% of income, and we need it to cover expenses (which is a problem due to the uncertainty of fundraising). For the other parish, I only have anecdotal evidence. My mother, who lives on the other side of the state, encountered a lady whose mother used to belong to the parish. Her statement was, "That church was built on pierogi." I believe it. They've been selling pierogi for decades, and their pierogi is excellent.

Catholic schools are expected to raise a certain percentage of their funds through tuition, and a lesser percentage through fund raising (maybe 15%?), a parish that sponsors a school is only allowed to use about 35% of it's funds toward the school each year. The idea is that it is great and right for the parish to support the school, but the school shouldn't take so much money from the parish that the parish itself ends up in financial trouble.

Those are good reasons for continuing the collection basket. I would also add that there is a theological reason. The part of the Mass when the collection takes place is no accident. It is when the altar is prepared for the sacrifice, so the bread and wine is brought up. Each of us is really supposed to spiritually place our troubles and blessings on the altar also so as to offer them to God. Taking the the collection at that point adds a physical dimension that helps point to the spiritual reality. A thousand years ago (and more recently than that in various places I'm sure), people would bring up farm animals and products to give to the church for their use and for distribution to the poor. The new translation of the Mass that began this past Advent brings the individual aspect of the shared sacrifice out more clearly because the priest now says, "Brothers and sisters, pray that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father." (Before he said "our sacrifice".) You lose something from that if you donate online and aren't making some kind of sacrifice at that point. But in some areas, the losses due to vacations can be significant, and online giving catches that.
In the Mormon church, we pay 10% tithing (it's supposed to be 10% of increase, but how you define it is up to you; you'll find contentious debates online on whether that means net or gross income and that sort of thing, but the only official thing from the church is 10% of increase, so use your own best judgement and thought and prayer about what that means to you). There are envelopes in a little cubby thing that is usually next to the bishop's office, so you just grab one and fill out a little form and hand it to the bishop whenever you cross paths with him (I usually track him down in the hallway after church) or mail it to him. [I'd love it if the church would set up an easy way to do it online; tithing is the only thing I write checks for anymore ;-)] There's no assessment or anything like that, so it's just up to you to pay or not or pay some. In addition to tithing, there's other things like a fast offering, which is however much you want to donate during the monthly fast to help the poor and needy within your own congregation (this was the fund my bishop pulled from to help me get above my medical bills last year). Those two, tithing and fast offerings, are the most common ones, but there are other things too, like the humanitarian fund (like for disaster relief stuff), or missionary support, or smaller things like summer church camp for the congregation's teenagers. All of those go in the same envelope with the slip filled out showing how much should go where.
Thanks for sharing. I think I only know two Mormons and appreciate getting that perspective.

Does the Mormon church call for 10% specifically to the church? If so, are you also taught to donate to other charities (and is there a recommended amount)? Or do you fulfill your humanitarian (etc) obligations by donating to the church which then spends some of that money for that purpose?

The fast offering is interesting. On fast days our rabbis encourage us to donate whatever we would have spent for nice meals that day to hunger organizations instead, but I don't know if this is common or just something he does. "Donate the money you would have spent eating" seems like it would be a powerful model, especially if you have a monthly fast (often enough to form habits).
The fast offering is exactly like that: donate what you would have spent eating, but we're encouraged to donate more if able.

The 10% is specifically to the church, but we are also encouraged to donate (money or time) to other charities/organizations. There is no recommended amount for that, though. It just falls under the teaching to go out and do good in the community.
My mom is on the board (they call it something else) for one of the oldest Episcopal churches in the US.

They have the advantage of a) a significant endowment, and b) property owned by the church not currently being used by the church. None of the money they collect over the course of the year (except for special appeals - disasters, etc.) actually gets spent in the year they collect it. Instead, they budget forward using in the money generated by the endowment + projected rental income + a percentage (I think it's 60%) of last year's collection income as a guide. All collection income (including pledges) over a certain annual threshold gets rolled back into the endowment.

This way of planning served them well for decades, until the past five years when they had to deal with a combination of the stock market crash + sky high heating bills + the priest getting sick (he needed an organ transplant) and the church needing to suddenly pay all the living expenses for their regular (ill) priest (who was living in the rectory with his family) plus a long-term interim priest. (Note: if you pay the Rabbi's living expenses, get long term disability for him/her. They didn't and it ended up costing them much more than 15 years of premiums would have.)

Fund raising: Her church does pass the collection plate, but also has the regular congregation make an annual pledge that is done quietly, by mail, and is above anything that might be put in the collection plate. A lot of families only pledge a dollar or two per week, and that's fine. They also do special appeals (they sponsor a town in Haiti), but all their other fundraising is events - so, a church fair, a book sale, an easter-egg event, a big dinner, etc.

If you have questions, feel free to ask. They're actually very solvent, despite the recent 'perfect storm' of events that caused their budget to be a mess the past few years. One issue is that they are unable to touch the principal of their endowment, only the interest, so there is reliable income, but zero temptation to do a big thing they can't afford by drawing down the endowment. Also, the diocese can step in and help (they ended up assisting with the cost of the interim priest) if things get really dire, and I don't think that you have that extra management level.
Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox.

Both the churches I attend regularly send the little basket round during Sunday services. There are little Gift Aid envelopes available - Gift Aid is some kind of tax relief scheme, by which the tax you would have paid on the money you give goes to the gift recipient instead, or something.

No basket during super quick weekday services.

There ae little iron boxes marked 'candles', and 'St Francis mission to the poor' and suchlike - you put your money in there if you've either bought a candle/pamphlet or want to give for a specific mission or cause.

I have always assumed the church makes its proper money from the tithing of its more reliable attenders, because I know a few people who do this, rather than chucking a few coins in the basket.
The synagogue I went to when I was a kid also sold tickets for seats at the high holiday services. I think this is typical, but I'm not sure.
At least in New York City, *most* synagogues require tickets for seats at Rosh Hashannah/Yom Kippur. For my (Conservative) shul, those tickets are included in the membership dues (which vary somewhat based on income, with an option to pay less due to extraordinary circumstances -- and based on the honor system). The tickets at my shul by themselves cost less than the membership, so if you want to just do that, it's fine.

At my shul, in addition to the dues there are several other fundraisers over the course of a typical year. We're lucky that we're able to raise some additional money by renting space in the building during the week, but I think the budget assumes that there will be money raised from fundraisers to cover everything during the course of the year. Occasionally (every 10-25 years?) there are "building fund" campaigns to raise money for more major work on the shul. I'm not sure, but I don't think we have a significant endowment -- but I have missed the last couple of annual meetings where the overall finances were described.

My impression is that this is fairly typical for shuls in the US, but thinking about it I really don't have a wide range of experience.