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Church giving tied to gratitude and a sense of mission

Worshippers want to feel their contributions are making a difference. The tithe may no longer be the norm outside conservative Protestant churches, but members who feel connected to their church and confident it is contributing to God’s work still give financially.

The second wave of the U.S Congregational Life Survey shows that, on average, worshippers contribute $1,500 a year to their churches. In Roman Catholic congregations, the average is lower — about $727 a year — and among mainline Protestant churches the average is higher — about $1,627 a year.

In small congregations, more people give; in mid-size and larger churches there tends to be a “free rider” ethic that allows more to get away with less.

But the factors that contribute to people’s church giving habits have remained the same since Dean Hoge published his 1996 book Money Matters.

Of them, gratitude may be the most important.

“If people are connected to their congregation, if it’s giving them what they need to face the complex factors they confront during the week, that’s very reinforcing,” says Deborah Bruce, research manager for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and project manager for the survey. “In gratitude for God’s abundance and for what their congregation offers, people will put money into the plate.”

The latest survey, conducted in 2008-09, included responses from nearly 65,000 worshippers in 256 randomly selected U.S. congregations.  It provided a wealth of information about the differences in giving among Catholics, mainline Protestants and conservative Protestants, as well as information on gender, age, income and degree of church involvement among givers.

As expected, conservative Protestants who believe in the biblical principle of tithing far outpaced mainline Protestants and Catholics in the percentage of their net income they said they contributed to their church.

About 43 percent of conservative Protestants said they gave 10 percent or more of their net income. Among mainline Protestant churchgoers, 18 percent said they tithed their net income, and among Catholics, 11 percent said they tithed.

Overall, half of American churchgoers said they give 5 percent or more of their net income to the church, the survey found.

Cynthia Woolever, chief investigator for the survey, said she wasn’t surprised mainline Protestants and Catholics tithed less.

“The tithe isn’t emphasized as much in those churches,” she says.

Instead, mainline Protestants and Catholic churches conduct annual stewardship campaigns, inviting church members to pledge a designated dollar amount per year. Well-executed campaigns yield good outcomes. The study showed that among mainline congregations, per-person giving is significantly higher in those churches that conduct annual campaigns than in those that don’t.

About 70 percent of mainline Protestant churches and 50 percent of Catholic churches hold annual campaigns.

Theology can predict higher levels of giving too. Those who agree that only followers of Jesus can be saved said they give more to the church.

Finally, a congregation’s sense of mission may also correspond with heftier collections. Churches with a ministries to people in the community or a mission to evangelize non-churchgoing people tend to give more.

If there’s a giveaway to pastors worried about how to increase church giving, Woolever says identifying the congregation’s mission may be key.

“Many congregations have no idea what’s important to them, what they’re called to do,” she says. “It’s hard to give to something vague. Why do it?”

Woolever found that congregants tend to give if they know their clergy devote a significant percentage of their weekly schedules carrying out the church’s mission.

Ministers who spend their days teaching, counseling, meeting with community leaders, visiting the sick and reaching out to the needy are rewarded over those who simply profess orthodox beliefs.

“I thought the theological beliefs of the pastor would be important,” says Woolever. “But it isn’t. It’s not what the pastor believes; it’s what he does. Actions speak louder than words.”

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