To tithe or not to tithe? Black churches vulnerable in economic downturn

theGRIO REPORT - Tithing, or giving 10 percent of your income to support the ministries of your church, is vulnerable during the slow economic recovery...

To tithe or not to tithe, that is the question.

Tithing, or giving 10 percent of your income to support the ministries of your church, is vulnerable during the slow economic recovery. As the national unemployment rate trends downward, currently at 8.5 percent, the opposite is true for African-Americans. Since October 2011, black unemployment has increased from 15 percent to 15.8 percent in December, according to Bureau for Labor Statistics.

The jobs crisis has impacted giving. The non-profit, Faith Communities Today, says 80 percent of congregations in a recent survey said they took a financial hit during the recession.

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Dr. Thomas Johnson, Sr., Senior Pastor of Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem says many of his members were impacted by cuts on Wall Street, public education and public transportation. “We see a difference in our tallies on Sunday when we count our tithes and offerings that there has been some decline,” he says.

Some of the funds from tithing and offerings are used for building maintenance and infrastructure. But despite the dip in giving he says members expect the type of ministries they are accustomed to. “People still expect the same level of passion, and energy and resources and opportunities in worship.” Dr. Johnson says.

Giving by the numbers

According to Giving USA, religious charitable giving accounted for 35 percent of the $290.89 billion in charitable contributions in 2010 or about $100.63 billion. Approximately 87 percent of donations came from individuals and family foundations or an estimated $87.5 billion. This includes contributions to houses of worship, national offices of denominations and faith groups, ministries, and religious communities.

Overall, giving was up 0.8 percent from 2009 to 2010, but if you adjust for inflation giving was down 0.8 percent. 2010 was the 56th year religion received the largest share of charitable dollars, but giving to religion has been decreasing as a share of total contributions since the 1986 to 1990 period, according to the Giving USA report.

Houses of worship are feeling the pinch.

According to non-profit Empty Tomb which gathers data from thousands of houses of worship in the U.S., per member giving as a percent of income was 2.38 percent in 2009, this is the lowest since data tracking began in 1968. Sylvia Ronsvalle, Vice President at Empty Tomb, says contributions have been declining whether the economy is good or bad. “Church giving is close to the family, it’s not the first place people will cut,” Ronsvalle says.

Per member giving in dollars was $854.25 in 2009 after peaking at $863.81 in 2007, according to Empty Tomb. It declined for the first time in 2008, since tracking began in 1968. “As we become richer are we not giving more to the church, if that happens over time, it can weaken commitment,” Ronsvalle explains.

“Church giving may have been more vulnerable during the last economic downturn, versus in the 1970s when people were still more committed and resisted decreasing giving until they had to,” she says. “I wouldn’t say it’s only the economy, it’s also that commitment to church.”

Balance tithing with the budget

Many worshipers try to balance obedience to tithing with trying to pay their bills.
“We need to get away from thinking there has to be a set number on what you need to tithe,” says Sharon Epperson, CNBC Senior Commodities and Personal Finance Correspondent.

Epperson says financial obligations should be paid first and tithing is a financial obligation. Church members “need to figure out how to budget and how to figure out how much to give each.”

If people are looking for extra money to put in the collection plate on Sundays, Epperson suggests they look at ways to trim their budget such as cutting their cable, switching to a cheaper utilities provider and cutting transportation costs.

A person giving of their time and talents should also be factored into contributions to houses of worship she says.

Tithing talk

There are two sides of the tithing debate, spiritual and practical.

Dr. Johnson says church members have an obligation to tithe. “According to the bible to the tithe belongs to the Lord. If you have $1 you bring God a dime, if you have $100 you bring God $10 and so forth,” he explains. “The expectation that everybody will tithe with what they have is still there.”

“I like a lot of Amens, but on tithing I don’t get too many Amens on that, but I’m still obligated to do it.”

Dr. Johnson says Canaan is receiving adult disciples who have no understanding of how Christianity functions. As a result for adult Christians tithing can be a strange request. Dr. Johnson says God entrusts us and we should be a good steward of our income.

Although referenced numerous times the Bible, tithing has its critics.

”[Preachers] use trickery and gimmicks to manipulate the congregation into paying 10 percent of their income,” says R. Renee, co-author of The Tithing Hoax book and blog. She says tithing has placed a financial, emotional and spiritual burden on people.

“People or congregations feel compelled to pay this money even if they can’t afford it,”
she says.

R. Renee says church members should support the church financially, but it should be voluntary or through free will offerings. “Even if they can’t support with their finances, they can support with their time and skills.”

Pastor Marc Royster of the Harvest for Christ Church & Ministries in Miramar, Florida says his church has seen a pretty consistent level of giving. He said some of his members are feeling the effects of a slow economic recovery. “Several people are on the bubble, if I can use that term. Threats of layoffs, threats of furloughs, so it’s a scary, scary time,” Pastor Royster says.

“It would be irresponsible of me to vilify or ostracize a person because they are unable to give,” Pastor Royster suggests.

He says he does not have to look at a balance sheet get any indication that things are going wrong. “My congregation comes directly to me and I know the stories of how mom is doing bad, a brother or a sister is having some struggles so I hear these stories all the time,” he says.

Congregations, especially, those in hard hit communities must learn how to serve more people with fewer financial resources.

“When the economy starts getting better the African American community tends to be the last layer of citizens to feel the effect of that,” Dr. Johnson says.