The End of Benevolence? Alarming Trends in Church Giving

By Ronsvalle, John; Ronsvalle, Sylvia | The Christian Century, October 23, 1996 | Go to article overview

The End of Benevolence? Alarming Trends in Church Giving


Ronsvalle, John, Ronsvalle, Sylvia, The Christian Century


When Marine biologists announce that all life in a lake will be dead in 50 years if the nearby chemical plant continues to dump materials into the lake, do they have something against fish? or do they want to cause trouble for the chemical factory? Most likely the biologists feel they have gathered useful information that other people should know.

Having learned of the scientists' findings, those who live around the lake must then make a choice. They may decide that they'll learn to do without fish. Or they may decide to organize an effort to end the chemical dumping. Or they might choose to wait and see, hoping that the fish will develop a resistance to the chemicals and survive. The information only makes choice possible. Making a particular decision is up to the parties involved.

It is not clear what choices church leaders in the U.S. will make in the next few years, but information on giving patterns raises serious issues. In 1988 we began a trend study of giving patterns in a variety of Protestant communions. The patterns we have discerned are alarming. Giving as a percentage of income--the portion of income that church members share with their churches--is declining. Indeed, if the patterns of the past quarter-century continue uninterrupted, by the middle of the next century many of the church structures we are familiar with will no longer be receiving significant financial support from church members.

Business, science and city planners have long known the value of trend analysis. How many potential eyeglass customers will there be when baby boomers hit 50? How long will the ozone layer last with the present level of fluorocarbon use? How many kindergartners will we have 15 years from now--should we be closing schools or building new ones? Numbers based on present conditions can serve as guidelines to help us craft how we intend to live years from now. Churches, too, can benefit from considering what numerical patterns suggest about future trends. We have pursued our research in the hope that our findings will provide churches with useful information that will help them make choices on which their institutional survival may depend.

The set of denominations we began to study in 1988 have regularly published data about membership and financial giving in the annual Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. The Yearbook divides denominational data into two subcategories: "congregational finances" and "benevolences." Congregational finances involve the internal operation of congregations. such as clergy and staff salaries, utilities and Sunday school materials. These activities directly benefit members of the congregation.

Benevolence monies consist of funds earmarked for church activities whose focus lies beyond the congregation, such as support for denominational work at regional and national levels and funding for seminaries and international and domestic mission programs as well as local mission projects. In 1988 we noticed that of the two categories, giving to benevolences declined faster than giving to congregational finances for the period from 1968 to 1985.

As additional data became available, we expanded the original study; the most recent analysis considers data through 1993. The trends we noticed in 1988 were Still evident: the decline in giving as a portion of income was continuing, and benevolences continued to absorb most of the loss, declining at a faster rate than congregational finances.

While The numbers in themselves were disturbing, the disquieting reality they represented became clearer as we talked to regional and national denominational officials. They spoke of "cutting into the muscle" of church programs. They struggled with agonizing decisions about which denominational services to continue and which to cut. The figures that pointed to declines in giving were not "just numbers." They drew a stark picture about church institutions in distress. …

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