The Congregation’s Example

  • In the ELCIC, the ministries of the wider church beyond the local level are financed by a system we call “benevolence”.  The system is voluntary; each congregation decides for itself how much it will contribute to synodical, national and international expressions and ministries.

    It wasn’t always this way.  Prior to the 1970s, we used an apportionment system.  The total spending budget of the synod (which also includes contributions to the national church) was apportioned out to congregations.  Each congregation was assigned an amount which it was expected to contribute.  The apportionment was based on membership, so of course there was much debate on how to count members, which membership category to use, and why membership by itself was too crude a measure on which to base such an important decision.  These arguments were largely about fairness, about an equitable distribution of the burden of financial support.  When debate didn’t work, some congregations resorted to playing games with their membership numbers in order to reduce their share of the burden.

    After years of complaining, debating and creative accounting the Eastern Synod decided that a voluntary system would be better for a variety of reasons.  One of those reasons was consistency.  Congregations would be expected to contribute to the ministry of the wider church in exactly the same way as they expected their own members to contribute to local ministry.

    I don’t know if it was pointed out at the time, but one of the consequences of adopting a voluntary benevolence system is that congregations now model behaviour for their members.   The congregation’s relationship with the synod is analagous to the member’s relationship with the congregation.  The way a congregation decides how much to give as its benevolence offering, and the spirit in which the decision is made and carried out, speaks volumes about the culture of giving in the congregation.  And for that matter, synods — which make voluntary contributions to the ELCIC — model behaviour for congregations.

    “We follow the first fruits principle.  In other words, we establish our goal for ELCIC benevolence first and shape the rest of the budget around this, rather than the approach of ‘sending the ELCIC whatever is leftover’ after our other programs are funded . . . Our practice in recent years has been to increase the $ amount we give to the ELCIC by 1% each year . . . Although the % increase has not been steep, it has increased from 17.8% in 2004 to 18.5% in 2008 to the 19.6% [of revenue] that is budgeted for 2012.”

    Keith Myra, Eastern Synod Treasurer

    An informal poll a few years ago revealed that there are three methods used in congregation for determining the amount it will contribute to benevolence:

    • Offering envelopes are printed with a line labelled “benevolence”, along with lines for “current”, “capital” and other categories.  Members apportion their offering among the categories as they see fit.  Whatever members designate to benevolence, that’s what the congregation remits.  Roughly 40% of congregations follow this method. [I remember from my days counting the offering in my church that an awful lot of people either don’t split up their offering at all, or else they put the entire amount in the “current” line.  And my congregation had a policy that if an envelope doesn’t specify otherwise, everything goes into current.]
    • Offering envelopes have only one line.  The decision on how much to spend on benevolence is made when the annual budget is approved.  In some congregations the amount is sacred and the commitment is met no matter how much income is received.  In other cases it’s the percentage that is applied. Another 40% of congregations follow this method.
    • Offering envelopes have multiple lines, and the congregation remits whatever people designate.  But if the total received is less than the amount approved in the budget, Council may decide to “top it up”.   The top-up decision may depend on any number of factors; there are almost endless variations.  Roughly 20% of congregations use some version of this hybrid method.

    Often a member will stand up in a congregational meeting and argue that the annual budget can be balanced only if the benevolence contribution is reduced.  While such people usually claim to be representing the voice of fiscal reason (“the church needs to be run just like a business”), perhaps they are just trying to quiet their own conscience.  If the budget total is increased, I may feel some obligation to increase my giving.  But if I don’t want to increase my giving or feel guilty, the natural solution is to argue for a reduction in congregational spending on “non-essentials” like benevolence.

    Over the past 25 years total congregational income in the ELCIC  has increased while benevolence giving has declined.  The proportion of congregational income allocated to benevolence offerings has fallen from around 10% to just over 6%.  With a small number of notable and praiseworthy  exceptions, congregations seem to be sacrificing the ministries of the wider church in order to cover local expenses.

    We will never establish a culture of generosity in this church until synods set a good example for congregations and congregations set a good example for individual members.  A congregation cannot claim any integrity if it asks its members to increase their giving while cutting its benevolence offering to the wider church.

    What kind of example is your congregation setting for its members?

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