Why Offerings Are Killing the Local Church

OfferingPlateInfographicDenominational structure is something like this. Imagine the congregational offering plate as a big juicy pie. That pie feeds the entire church.


The congregation keeps a large percentage of the offerings. There is usually little more than what it costs to pay a pastor and maintain a property. (These costs are similar for every church with a moderate size building regardless of size.) If a congregation wants to expand programs or build, they typically have fundraisers. During economic downturns, costs remain the same, but offerings dip. That means trouble for everyone.


A sizable slice of pie is sent to a regional body.


The regional body pays its salary and office expenses with this money and allocates a portion to agencies working within its geographic borders. They also send a portion of the congregation’s offerings to a national entity. Lutherans call it churchwide. Grander sounding.


From this smaller piece of pie, the national entity pays its salary and office expenses and also sends money to denominational agencies serving nationally or worldwide. Their small piece of pie is enough because thousands of congregations are sending pieces of pie. These slices of pie, though small, pay hundreds of salaries, office expenses, seminaries, local charitable agencies and worldwide relief organizations.


All of these entities are hungry for more.


So what do the hungry national and regional offices, seminaries and church agencies do?


They go back for seconds.


But there is only ONE pie!


They sweep past the wait staff—the congregations. They head for the kitchen—looking for members with the deepest pockets. Someone has to bake another pie!


Contributions of the local churches are used to create development offices. Hundreds of church entities, starting with regional bodies, but including, retirement homes, seminaries, special services, relief agencies, colleges, camps, etc. hire an expert in fund-raising, who hires a staff.


All of these entities compete with one another, hoping to find bakers of additional pies.


The pie-bakers, so to speak, are the same people giving to the local neighborhood churches.


Organizations with development offices have some advantages. They can appeal to members with poignant stories of how their dollars benefit needy causes. They can afford sleek, professional communication. (Development and Communication Offices work together so closely that they are often the same thing!) They can maintain a growing database and contact members directly.


Congregations have spent spare dollars that they might use for development and their own mission to others.


The appeals are enticing! They make the congregations feel that paying for a pastor and a building is enough. Send the rest their way.



The ultimate target? Estate gifts! Pie in the sky!


The wining and dining begins. How can these agencies gain the support of church members outside of congregational giving?


Assistance in estate planning is a favorite offering. Lifetime status in some sort of giving “club” is another. (I gave to one once. A few years later, they discontinued the “club”—well before the end of my lifetime!) A room or wing of a new building dedicated in the donor’s name is yet another. Names listed in the annual report carefully stratified is yet another. Are you a silver, gold, or platinum angel?


And there is also the lure of popular and very well managed secular mission efforts such a Habitat for Humanity. These totally bypass the ecclesial support funnel but they nibble at the same pie.


Innocent tactics, for sure. But are they wise?


They erode the financial foundation of the neighborhood church. They are probably hurting the regional and national offices, too. The denomination support funnel implodes. This may be why denominational leaders are so eager to grab small church properties.  They need to get to congregational wealth before all the development officers do!


This affects mission. Churches have little voice as it is. Now, they dare not vote with their pocket. 


Seminaries face the greatest need, perhaps, because they have little direct contact with the people who fund the offering plates. They exist in a clergy-dominated world.


Religious charitable agencies may be in better shape than the regional and national bodies. They forsook church-related mission for the Almighty Tax Dollar long ago. They still get Church funding, but they are not dependent on it. Ken-Crest, a Lutheran agency serving the developmentally delayed rented space from our congregation. They turned our mural-sized painting of Jesus and the children to the wall.


Why consider this? After all, these entities are doing good work. Kudos if they can find ways to fund more.


But so are the local churches. We directly represent the Word in the communities. We do it with less and less every year. All the development expertise our offerings pay for competes with (rather than complements) mission. Developing the neighborhood congregations might be a way of baking a bigger pie! That takes time. Everyone is hungry now!


It is almost guaranteed—neighborhood churches eventually will be devoured with the last crumb of the last piece of pie.


Feel that? The Church is biting the hand that feeds it.


As for us little churches—Stick a fork in us!


Maybe it is time to reevaluate church structure in relation to mission!


“They [faith communities] must also recognize that their job

is not simply to maintain institutions,

but instead to lead and strengthen communities

with shared mission and purpose.

This will require reinterpreting the models

we have inherited from the past,

building new professional skills,

and experimenting with new approaches.”

—Lianna Levine Reisner and Lisa Colton