Recently two things happened which got me thinking about the effectiveness of the organized religion. One was the Haitian earthquake and the other was a newsletter I received from my church. Because of the devastating earthquake, there were hundreds of appeals to donate to charitable organizations proclaiming to help. And quickly there were emails and news stories about how to evaluate whether a charity was effective and where your money would be spent.
So what is the goal of organized religion? To bring people into a building to worship and hear the word of God as a community, or to go out and feed the hungry and clothe the poor as it seems Jesus taught? And how do churches measure up? Here are some questions from Charity Navigator:
Is the Charity efficient?
The financial health of a charity is a strong indicator of the charity's programmatic performance. The most efficient charities spend at least 75% of their budget on their programs and services and less than 25% on fundraising and administrative fees.
My church newsletter stated that $200,000 was pledged for the year and that 10% of that would go to missions. Ten percent ??? Looking at last year’s budget about $70,000 was for the pastor’s salary and benefits, another $53,000 for other staff and about $46,000 to maintain the building and grounds, and the rest miscellaneous expenses. Wow, 90 percent of the money collected goes to administrative fees, mostly salaries !!!.
Martha and I used to be regular and fairly generous contributors to the church. Until we found out how homophobic the parent organization was. We decided that we didn’t want one penny of our money to go to an organization who was going to spend it creating “dialogues” about the role of homosexuals in the church. Instead we took that money and put it in an envelope. And whenever we heard of a person or family in distress, we made a direct contribution. We found this to be a hundred fold more satisfying. In fact, we found that there was so much need in our community that the envelope had to be replenished numerous times throughout the year.
And quite frankly, the place I work (government) does far more in terms of charitable giving than I ever saw from my church. We have a box for donations to the food pantry that is constantly overflowing, we have a box for donations to those serving in the military, we adopt families at Christmas time and require numerous trucks to have all the gifts delivered. Our police and fire personnel are usually the first to know of a need and monetary donations are quickly raised and distributed to the affected family. And every co worker I know of donates time to other organizations and causes. So we obviously don’t need a church to do good deeds for us. In fact, at only 10%, churches are incredibly inefficient at it.
And they are wasteful at administration. In my denomination, there are three churches within 7 miles of each other, not even half full on Sundays. Why aren’t they consolidating buildings and staff? The savings would be huge. In fact, even a full church is only used a small percentage of the time. It seems an enormous waste of resources.
A friend of mine theorizes that churches would never willingly consolidate because everyone wants their own private clubs where they can control the rules. I would have once argued that churches are not “private” clubs because everyone was welcome. However I learned last year that that is not true. My church can decline membership to a newcomer, deny a baptism unless one parent is a already a member, and they can revoke the membership of someone based on any unsubstantiated complaint without any fair hearing. Not much different from the country club down the road.
Can your charity tell you the progress it has made (or is making) toward its goal?
My church’s mission statement is this: “to glorify God by bringing people to Jesus Christ in an atmosphere of love through involvement in our community of worship, education, fellowship and mission.”
Their mission is to bring people to Jesus Christ? I can point to quite a few people, including myself, who were continually ignored, bruised, and kicked to the curb by the church leadership. In fact, my church seems to be very successful in disenfranchising anyone who does not meet their economic, ethnic or orientation standards. If they don’t like you, they ignore you. And this seems to be a common story among the disenfranchised and marginalized (ironically the very people that Christ chose to hang out with and minister to). Churches talk a lot about church growth. But with the enormous decline of church attendance across all denominations, it seems that churches are woefully failing at this goal also.
So why do people continue to contribute to such a ineffectual cause? What does church giving support? Do they mistakenly believe (as I once did) that their giving goes to charities and feeding or clothing the poor? Or are they basically paying dues to belong to a club whose members are guaranteed to be just like them?