Patterns of giving in Orthodox parishes tend to be influenced by three key factors. The first one is custom and tradition. For many people, especially those who are Orthodox by birth, their approach to giving to the church is often influenced most by practices their families and their parishes have followed for years. For long-established parishes, systems of giving may have been in place for generations within the community. As much as parish councils talk about encouraging people to give more, the customs and traditions of the past work to perpetuate an ongoing mind-set. The faithful of the community become locked in to giving what they have always given, often without thinking much about the amount in relation to other considerations.
Second, giving is often influenced by parish needs. The parish council builds a budget for the coming year, publicizes the information to parishioners, and encourages the faithful to offer their “fair share” for the coming year. In this same vein, a parish building program or some other special parish project can inspire parish members to give a one-time donation or a multi-year pledge toward the advertised campaign. This kind of need-based giving is a very common guideline used by individuals to decide how much to offer at a specific point in time.
A third factor comes into play when giving is guided by faith, by Holy Scripture, and by the witness of the Holy Orthodox Church. Recognition by an individual that God has blessed them with everything they have results in an offering of thanksgiving for all of these precious gifts. Giving which stems from this third factor is what can motivate Orthodox Christians to give sacrificially and proportionally in relation to all the ways God has blessed them in their lives. This is also the basis upon which some give through the principles and practices commonly known as tithing. All three factors, custom and tradition, parish need, and faith-based giving, are at work to varying degrees in parishes throughout North America.
In many communities with long established parishes, a dues system of some sort was used in the early days of the community to guide member giving. Each adult member or each family was asked to give a specified amount to the church per year in order to be considered a member. This system, in one form or another, became entrenched in most parishes and is still used by some to this day. It is still referred to by some as the “member dues system,” while other communities have evolved into referring to these annual offerings as “pledges.” By whatever name, if the parish advertises a specific amount it expects each adult member or each family to give per year, this is usually all it receives. To give beyond this amount is often not even considered by families and individuals. If the parish has a special need, they may solicit additional donations for this purpose, but the basic amount expected from each parishioner becomes a matter of routine repetition from year to year.
Many Orthodox communities have tried to move beyond this traditional system of making an annual offering to the church based on an announced dues amount or a prescribed minimum pledge. In these cases, parishioners are asked to make their own decision about how much to give to the church each year. While this system can result in some movement toward a truly proportional or sacrificial gift, more often than not, individuals and families still give based on what they have always given and/or on what they feel the church needs. Even when parish leaders and stewardship committees produce programs that talk about the need to give based on how much we have been blessed by God, people tend to give not much beyond what they have always given. It becomes quite difficult to break these trends, so parishes are forced to rely on yet another long-standing tradition when it comes to generating the funds needed to operate the parish and to underwrite identified parish projects. Fund-raising is the other mainstay of parish life that is so entrenched that we view it as a standard and accepted part of parish operations.
The fact that member giving programs have not traditionally generated enough money to cover the cost of parish operations and special projects has led to reliance on fund-raisers to make up the difference. Communities have, over the years, proved to be very creative, resourceful, and imaginative when it comes to planning and implementing fund-raising projects. Everything from festivals, dinners, luncheons, dances, fashion shows, cotillions, and merchandise and food sales of all types have been used to raise money for the church. Script sales, rummage sales, bake sales, toy sales, and sales of just about anything people might buy have been tried at one time or another. In recent years, it has become quite common for parishes to utilize their facilities during the weekdays for day care centers and preschool programs. These not only generate significant revenue for churches, they also give parishes a positive presence in the surrounding community by providing a muchneeded service to families in the immediate vicinity of the church. There are even communities who own real estate that generates revenue in some fashion. Senior citizen housing and even businesses of one sort or another on these parcels become major and ongoing stems of income for parishes. In addition to the financial assistance parishes realize from the myriad of fund-raising endeavors they sponsor, there is a certain amount of fellowship which comes along with the planning and implementation of these projects. Members of the parish enjoy working together to make these events successful. This offering of time and talents is part of a faithful Orthodox Christian’s stewardship. After all, the giving of time, talents, and resources is what Christian stewardship means.
So, this combination of giving through dues, pledges, and fund-raisers has brought parishes to where they are today. Many are doing very well by following these practices. They have solid membership cores, beautiful church buildings, social halls, and classroom facilities, and out-reach programs of various types. While some parishes struggle under the burden of financial limitations, we seldom hear, thank God, of parishes failing due to lack of funds. The dedication of our clergy and the commitment of our faithful laity give our communities throughout North America a vibrant presence in cities, states, and provinces in the north, south, east, and west.
Yet, there is a major flaw in this picture. Of the three factors that influence our patterns of giving, only one is founded in scriptural teachings. Furthermore, while there is nothing inherently wrong with fundraisers, relying on their revenue to allow individual members to give less is not consistent with Church teachings. The only method of giving that is consistent with Church teachings and traditions is that which comes from the belief that all we have is a gift from God. Our offering to the church is in thanksgiving fro those blessings. Through baptism we are Orthodox Christians. Paying dues or minimum pledges are not needed to establish that commitment. What is needed is to offer our time, our talents, and our resources in recognition of the fact that they are gifts from God. Looking to the money generated from fund-raisers to help cover the obligations of parish operations is not consistent with Church teachings. The Bible is clear in its guidance about how faithful Christians should give of their resources to the church. In 1 Corinthians 4:1-2 we read, “This is how one should regard us, as stewards of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.” It is not easy to be a good steward. God holds us to a high standard because He has given us so much by virtue of His faith in our ability to utilize those gifts to glorify His name. Stewardship begins with our profession of faith in God and in His teachings. Following this expression of faith, we are required to be trustworthy. This means the giving of our time, talents, and resources. Not two of the three, not a lot of our time but very little of our talent and resources, not a lot of money but none of our time. We must give generously of all three to be true to our expressed belief in God and faith in His teachings.
In Genesis 2:15, it is written, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” It is our responsibility to care for our churches, not the responsibility of others to fulfill our obligations. Our offerings must be sufficient to cover parish operations. Fund-raising revenue has its place, but it must never be thought of as a way of reducing the commitment God expects from us in terms of the giving of our resources to the glory of God. “Honor the Lord with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.” This message from Proverbs 3:9-10 reminds us that our offering to God must come first in our yearly, our monthly, or our weekly financial planning. Considering all of the blessings we have received from God and determining how to show our thanks through the offering of our time, our talent, and our resources takes careful planning and serious prayer. In terms of our resources, thinking about how we spend our money and how we allocate our resources is required. First we must decide how much we should offer the Lord to truly show our thanks and appreciation. Then we need to put our financial house in order to meet our needs and those of our family while we offer to God what we feel is right and necessary.
Scriptural-based giving is very different from the practices of paying annual dues and pledges, deciding how much to give based on parish needs, and fund-raising to help pay the church’s bills. Sacrificial giving and giving in proportion to what we have received from God leads us toward the concept of tithing. In the minds of most, this means offering ten percent of our gross revenue to the glory of God. Parishes and individual Orthodox Christians who commit to begin this journey need not focus too heavily on the word “tithing” or on the ten percent level of giving right from the start. While it is clear to many that this is what the Bible and Church tradition dictates, thinking in terms of a percentage and giving 1% or 2% or 5% as a first step will mark an important break from the patterns of giving so common in many parishes. Examining the patterns of giving at work in our parishes is something parish councils and stewardship committees should do as they make plans to move their community forward toward the goal of proportional or sacrificial giving. Encouraging parishioners to give as a measure of their faith and not according to set minimums, the amounts of past pledges, or parish needs will take time to implement fully. The first step in this process, however, must be to recognize that faith-based giving is the desired goal. The patterns of giving followed by so many for years and years, while well-intentioned and based on faithful devotion, need to be changed if our churches are to grow and progress to their full potential. The time to start is now and the way to start is to launch an open-minded, patient, and loving look at what has motivated our past practices. Comparing these findings to what is really prescribed in the Bible will reveal the path we need to begin following. May God be with you on your journey.
Ron Nicola is Chairman of the Archdiocese Department of Stewardship.