Church financial scandals in recent decades have led many to view fundraising as an example of religious hypocrisy: if religious people really want to make the world a better place, why don’t we give all our money to help the homeless instead of paying for expensive church buildings and exorbitant salaries for ministers?
We live in an era of great mistrust of institutions in general, and religious institutions in particular.
Many of us, however, view robust institutions as critical to making the world a better place. I do give money to help the homeless. And I also give money to my church because the church will help fight homelessness for generations to come. My church will help nurture children to become adults who fight homelessness. My church will be vocal in our community on behalf of issues effecting the homeless. And my church will offer support and care to our congregants who may be facing or dealing with homelessness.
As for expensive church buildings and exorbitant salaries for ministers…I’m sure there are examples of both, but they are not the norm. Ministers deserve a living wage (clergy overwork is so common it has been written about in the New York Times), and vibrant bricks-and-mortar congregations need a bricks-and-mortar place to gather.
Most people who attend church–whether you’ve only attended once or have been attending for years–understand that the church needs financial support. And not just for staff and the building, but also to support the mission of the congregation. Church operating budgets often include money for social justice work, donations to local charities, and expenses related to worship, hospitality, and pastoral care.
When you first start attending a church, you may find that your primary way of giving money is to place some bills or a check in the Sunday offering basket (assuming you attend a church that receives an offering). At first, this may feel like a transaction, like buying a ticket for a movie: You are attending the worship service, so you feel like you should pay some money in response.
But if you continue to attend a congregation, the time will come when either you realize you would like to give more meaningfully and/or you are asked to give more meaningfully, a.k.a. asked “to pledge.”
A “pledge” is your commitment to give the congregation a certain amount of money (the amount you designate) over a certain amount of time, usually the coming fiscal year (some churches start their fiscal year in January and some start in July; this should be clear to you when you make your pledge).
While any congregation is always grateful to receive any amount of money at any time, it is our pledges that allow us to plan the operating budget for the coming year. Pledged money–and the follow through of our congregants in giving that money–is what enables us to exist.
And just as importantly, pledging is an important spiritual practice. I’m not saying that as a minister; I’m saying that as a congregant. My life changed when I began including the church on my list of monthly payments. It feels similar (to me) to making a commitment to regular exercise or healthful eating; it is saying, “this aspect of my life is important enough to me that I am willing to make it a priority.”
Next: Giving Money (Part 2 of 2).
“Church 101″ is an ongoing blog series to help orient new churchgoers to some of the intricacies of congregational life. If you have a topic you’d like to see addressed in the future, please post your question in the comments section.