Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Church - charity or private club?

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?


  1. I think if they changed their mission statement to

    “to glorify God by bringing people we like and who will never question us to Jesus Christ through their involvement* in our community of worship, education, fellowship and mission.”

    * involvement meaning you give the right amount of time and money

    they would be representing their mission in an honest light.

  2. I wish that organized religion were different. I wish that organized religions all over the world believed that the greater good was served by working together to end poverty and hatred. I wish that leaders of organized religion left their egos at the door and did the right thing because it was right, not because it looked good.

    Thank goodness ordinary people like us have the ability to rise above organized religion and address problems pragmatically.

    Keep doing what you are doing!

  3. Wow - this was a very interesting post. I will definitely read up on this a bit more.

    It does make you think.

  4. It would be sad if only 10% is the standard that charities receive from all organized religions but sadly, it would not surprise me. I have often wondered why organized religions build such large elaborate churches. It has always seemed like such a waste of money to me.

  5. I seriously doubt that Christ would recognize any modern church as having anything to do with what he taught. He was angry at the pharisees and hypocrites then. I can't imagine what he would think now.

  6. i do donate to church for the purpose of paying the pastor/leader here. i think that's important. of course i would feel like you about it if the larger church was prejudiced. i'm actually proud of what the elca has stood for.

    but i also contribute separately to god's storehouse (sending livestock thru the world church) and making blankets for lutheran world relief so that folks under the radar most of the time receive those (landmine victims the world over. i would trust lwr in the haiti situation not to go in and proselytize but help rebuild and feed people.

    and the local food bank has a basket at our church that we fill--of course i also appreciate that some of our members and esp. our pastor spends her time volunteering there.

    i do agree with you that church can be a bad charity. but also that christians within it have a responsibility to guide church organizations so that they are working members of Christ's body and not pharisees with the tsk, tsk tsk liturgy.

  7. Right before I was fired from my job at the church I grew up in (another church mission gone awry), there was a decision to "remodel" (essentially, gut and rebuild) the sanctuary after already adding a brand new classroom building and a three-story nursery within the previous two-years. At the time the decision was made to invest 4 million dollars into the sanctuary, the church pulled resources from local homeless outreach and other community investments. The remodel was completed almost 1 million over budget...and of course this was all done "for the sake of the congregation and community". The project was finished over two years ago now...and the church has yet to re-establish involvement in the homeless community it abandoned. So much for church charity.

    With that said, I have become a part of a church community (and now know of others, as well) that invests much into the local and global community. Thank God we have the choice to join churches that are healthy (for us individually and the world).