Passing the Plate

The poor widow who gave out of her poverty rather than her wealth (Mark 12:42) and the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-30) who refused to give anything out of his both typify American church giving. Sociologists Christian Smith, Michael Emerson, and Patricia Snell have recently published a study on Christian stewardship, Passing the Plate (Oxford University Press). Their findings are a call to action. More than one out of four American Protestants give away no money to their churches. Evangelical Christians tend to be the most generous (giving the lie to the misconception that liberal Christians are more liberal in their concern for the less fortunate), but even their giving is nothing to brag about. Thirty-six percent of the Evangelicals report that they give away less than two percent of their income. Only about 27 percent tithe.

Passing the Plate’s researchers estimate that American Christians who say their faith is very important to them and who attend church at least twice a month earn more that $2.5 trillion dollars every year. If these Christians gave away 10 percent of their after-tax earnings, they would add a whopping $46 billion to ministry around the world.

Tithing is practiced by few. The median annual giving for an American Christian is about $200, just over half a percent of after-tax income. 5 percent of American Christians provide 60 percent of the money churches and religious groups use to operate. “A small group of truly generous Christian givers,” say Passing the Plate’s authors, “are essentially ‘covering’ for the vast majority of Christians who give nothing or quite little.”

Most Methodist preachers already know that America’s biggest givers –as a percentage of their income—are its lowest income earners. Americans earning less than $10,000 gave 2.3 percent of their income to churches. Those who earn $70,000 or more gave only 1.2 percent.

The amount of money we have appears to be a negative influence on generosity. Church giving as a percentage of income was higher during the early years of the Great Depression –around 3.5 percent—than at any point since. When income went up, we began to give less.

The causes for these miserly patterns. First, researchers say that the Bush years have been particularly tough on the Middle Class. Fixed costs in households have increased from 54 percent to 75 percent of family budgets since the early 1970s. (Our Asbury Church at Madison has a great program that trains families in Christian financial management.)

Second, some givers say they don’t trust their churches’ use of money. Third (and I found this fascinating) individual Christians are acting much like their churches. “Relatively little donation money actually moves much of a distance away from the contributors,” Smith, Emerson, and Snell write. The money given by the people in the pews is mostly largely spent on the people in the pews. Only about 3 percent of money donated to churches and ministries went to aiding or ministering to those outside of the congregation. (I am ashamed that we have dozens of pastors and churches in our Conference that do not pay their fair share of Conference mission and benevolent apportionments – apportionments run only about 10% of a congregation’s receipts.)

Passing the Plate says that a major reason Christians do not give is because they are not asked to. Tithing is seldom mentioned. Pastors are reluctant to bring up stewardship because the issue is so closely tied to their own salaries. And the study found that pastors themselves are often not great models of financial giving which can exacerbate their reluctance to preach on it. I am appalled by how many of our pastor’s tithe. Poor leadership by the pastor always results in poor congregational giving. Faithful giving begins with every pastor, D.S., and Bishop saying, “I have discovered the joy of cheerful tithing, and you can to.”

Alabamians give at a higher rate than other Americans and congregations in North Alabama are generally more generous than many segments of contemporary Methodism. Still, Passing the Plate suggests we could all do better. We don’t talk about money as much as the Bible talks about the subject. No church that expends 90% of its money on itself is a faithful congregation. There is no way to follow Jesus with a closed hand. Jesus’ great gift makes givers of us all.

William Willimon


By Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

1. Immediately make sure your personal giving is what it should be.

2. Immediately say “thank you” and find ways to do so regularly all year.

3. Tell people regularly what was accomplished through their giving.

4. Immediately do something concrete to assist those in economic distress.

5. Ask lay professionals to conduct workshops on budgeting and personal finances.

11 thoughts on “Passing the Plate

  1. Thank you for such a frank post. My husband is a pastor, and I am regularly frustrated with the low amount of giving in our “wealthy” church where many congregants are proud to display their material wealth in the cars they drive.I will be teaching a personal finance class this summer at the church and will challenge the participants to give, at a minimum, 10%. The class will also require participants to disclose their income, debts, giving, and regular expenditures in an effort to hold one another accountable for how we are using the monetary wealth that God has provided us with.


  2. I’m still in my first year at my first UMC pastorate. I discussed a stewardship campaign with my church leaders last fall (i.e. in my first few months). I was met with a few statements:1) “Our people are really giving all they can.” The presumption of that statement is astounding. 2) “Every church in this area is facing hard times. We’re all in the same boat.” And everyone tries the same old tired strategies for outreach. No wonder we’re all in the same boat.I made it known to my leaders that my family tithes. We made that commitment upon leaving divinity school. From henceforth, we tithe. No debate. We don’t even act like it’s there for us to spend. I feel like it has made me a more generous person all around.One other thing I communicated to my (largely older) church: you have no idea what a blessing it is as a young person today to have someone love you enough to instruct you how to spend money wisely and compassionately. My wife and I had to learn in the school of hard knocks how to avoid debt, budget, and give. What I wouldn’t give to go back and introduce my younger self to Dave Ramsey’s FPU! Teaching stewardship is an urgent need for today’s young adults. The need to become generous disciples of Jesus Christ is part of that.


  3. Below is a quote from Nelsons New Illustrated Bible Dictionary:In the New Testament the words “tithe” and “tithing” appear only eight times (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42; 18:12; Heb. 7:5–6, 8–9). All of these passages refer to Old Testament usage and to current Jewish practice. Nowhere does the New Testament expressly command Christians to tithe. However, as believers we are to be generous in sharing our material possessions with the poor and for the support of Christian ministry. Christ Himself is our model in giving. Giving is to be voluntary, willing, cheerful, and given in the light of our accountability to God. Giving should be systematic and by no means limited to a tithe of our incomes. We recognize that all we have is from God. We are called to be faithful stewards of all our possessions (Rom. 14:12; 1 Cor. 9:3–14; 16:1–3; 2 Cor. 8–9).Since the new testament doesn’t call for, shame into or demand 10% of our income where does the church get the authority to do such?


  4. I recently heard a pastor – I can’t remember his name – deliver some advice on giving that struck me as right-on. Not that it was easy to hear. He said (1) every Christian should have a separate checking/savings account solely devoted to resourcing charitable giving; a kind of ’emergency fund’ for charity, and (2) that a Christian’s spending on personal wants and needs (i.e., house, car, clothes, food, etc.) should never threaten the limits of their financial means, but that a Christian’s giving (tithes, alms, etc.) should consistently ‘stretch’ them. I wonder what you think of that? Thanks for the blog.


  5. Thanks, Bishop Will. Few subjects seem to generate as much resistance and irritability among Christians as discussions of giving and stewardship with regard to money, however compassionately expressed; and few leave me with as much inner tension, so whatever this phenomenon is, I’m a participant, not just an observer. The comments here touch on this: when the topic is money, we Christians seem to become prickly and uncomfortable with one another, particularly with anyone who directly or obliquely challenges or presses us to give more or differently–or even to think about giving differently. The data and centuries of experience suggest no formula or program will fix this, but we know that God won’t give up on us, and we seem to agree that generosity with money as with any resource, is godly. With His grace, the sharp twinges associated with financial giving (or even the discussion of giving) could be growing pains.


  6. In response to B’ham Billy I just recall from the Gospel of Luke that story about the Widow’s Offering. Jesus saw all the wealthy people putting their coinage into the offering plates and a widow shows up and tosses in the only pennies to her name. “Well,” says Jesus, “I tell you the truth, this widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4). It is clearly evident by Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles that tithing is not enough. Jesus isn’t asking for 10% in the New Testament. He’s asking for everything.As Acts tells the story, “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods they gave to anyone as he had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)Furthermore, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.” (Acts 4:32) and also “There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.” (Acts 4:34-35)Perhaps in the Old Testament God is asking for 10%, but it looks like the Gospels are asking for 100%


  7. Hey Adam just a couple of thought I’d like to share…..I think the lesson with the widow may be about the amount of faith that she had while the amount of money that she gave only becomes important when viewed through that faith. Great faith can compel us to give when conventional wisdom might say things like “what’s the use” or “ I’m in poverty” or again “the temple has plenty of money already and I don‘t trust those scribes and Pharisees” It may be that faith comes before sacrifice and can be the only thing that will free us from the tension that Dr. Hensel described and can convert us into the cheerful giver that Paul describes. I need faith like that. Where do I get that kind of faith? Also I’m a little cautious discerning Acts as a pattern for my giving standard because that system (which reminds me of W2K in our own time) was broken and didn’t last very long probably because it was built out of fear and not faith. And the thing that I’m really cautious about (and the bishop might like this part, ha ha) is that Peter whacked a couple of folks because they didn’t meet their pledge promise. Jesus calls us into the people raising buisness not the fund raising buisness. And Adam I do agree with you, Jesus calls for 100%


  8. I agree that we’re into the ‘people-raising’ and not the ‘fund-raising’ business. But I must say that what we do with our money not only reflects who we are, but also determines us. Giving is a life-shaping discipline, as surely as fasting, meditation, and study are.


  9. “Evangelical Christians tend to be the most generous (giving the lie to the misconception that liberal Christians are more liberal in their concern for the less fortunate), but even their giving is nothing to brag about.”This statement seems to me to be sloppy reasoning. While it’s possible that Evangelicals are more concerned about the poor than liberal Christians, there are other possibilities as well, including:1) Evangelicals self-report their generosity at higher levels than do liberal Christians because Evangelical churches, being more biblicist, emphasize tithing more; some Evangelicals (notorious for inflating attendance numbers) over-report their giving because they know the “right” answer (10%).2) While Evangelicals give more to their churches (churches that may or may not contribute generously to “the less fortunate”), liberal Christians give more to other organizations and agencies that assist the poor.The comment quoted above (1) assumes accurate self-reporting (self-reporting is notoriously inaccurate), (2) assumes that liberal Christians do not give generously to the poor through means other than churches, and (3) assumes that churches to which Evangelicals give redistribute the money generously to the poor.


  10. Bishop Willimon – Thanks for the post. Almost every congregation is experiencing some financial trouble and the 80/20 rule for giving has always seemed to apply i.e. 80% of funds come from 20% of the givers.I have one question. A congregation’s budget does overwhelmingly get dedicated to the minister’s pay. In my experience from 55% – 85% of the budget. You mention that little of a congregation’s budget goes far beyond its walls. The question is, do the two intersect? Carol Merritt over at has been discussing if we can afford an “educated clergy”. ( You have also commented on the debt loads of new ministers. Especially for smaller congregations, don’t the two interact? We should encourage more faithful use of funds, but should we not also consider how faithful we have been in the funds given? (The second reason you list is distrust as to how donations are used.) Maybe the church needs to consider how well the institutional-educational system actually serves the church at large. That is a big chunk of change that the church demands upfront, and those small churches that probably don’t pass along their 10% bear that burden the highest, usually to see that minister move in a relatively quick manner.


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