Problems With Tithing

An Los Angeles Times article reported on the difficulties of religious organizations in the recession. Contributions are down, and an unusually large number of religious-based schools have closed.

My initial thought was that those religious organizations that encourage tithing would have fewer problems; but a bit more reflection might suggest the opposite.

If every member of a religious group always tithed, the income elasticity of demand for religion would be plus-one. So while tithers donate a large share of their income, the organization’s finances will vary perfectly with the state of members’ incomes; those organizations are by no means immune to macroeconomic fluctuations. There is even some evidence (Dahl and Ransom, American Economic Review, 1999) that suggests that even in tithing religions, in bad times the likelihood of tithing decreases and the income elasticity exceeds one.


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  1. Jim says:

    The problem with tithing is that many don’t practice it. The Mormons may be a possible excpetion to that.

    I’m the chair of my church’s finance committee. I used to be the stewardship chair as well. By my estimates, our congregation gives on average about 2.5%, possibly a bit more, which puts us right within the national norm.

    I’ve also read that churches tend to receive about $1,000 per year per member. Again, my church is right in that ball park too.

    If we received the traditional 10% tithe from our congregation, we’d have more money than we’d know what to do with.

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  2. Aaron says:

    As someone who tithes, I find great comfort in the financial management of my church. Not only do the church leaders plan for lean times, which planning has paid off during this recession, but they have also consistently encouraged our members to do the same. Even when we’ve had times of plenty, they’ve reminded us to prepare for unexpected setbacks with savings, food storage, and 72-hour emergency kits. It’s comforting to be taught by word and example.

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  3. Brian says:

    My opinion of tithing (which I don’t do) is a bit mixed. First of all it is a flat tax, which now-a-days is considered regressive.

    Secondly, in the past the division between church and state wasn’t so great. Specifically the church provided the social safety net, the primary source of social interaction, funding of the arts… Many of the things the church used to do when the 10% rate was establhished have now been usurpped by the state (which obligates taxation).

    I think someone should do a study to to compare what services we are obliged to pay for through the state (that the church would have otherwise done) so we can subtract those contributions from what would have gone into the tithe.

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  4. Milton Friedman's Ghost says:

    As a FORMER deacon of a tithe-preaching, capital campaign driving, mission’s-giving (give me a break aready) church I can echo the comments of Jim. Traditionally, most congregations give about 2-3% which I have seen and also in research.

    I can only assume giving is affected by how hard your region has been hit economically.

    As an academic privy to some church data I have been able to run some modeling on past giving and I have found something interesting. As attendance increases, the giving per capita declines on a percent change basis.

    My theory is one of the pyschology behind the belief that the more people you see for a “free” good the more you will free-ride. Additionally, between pastoral/board mismanagement, ignorance and greed I think many people do not give, despite what their bible says. (Awaiting good christians to flame this…)

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  5. R California says:

    Poor people give a higher percentage of their income to charity.

    In 1993, the highest proportion given to charity was from people with incomes under $10,000.

    Poor donors donate to “poor” charities like the Salvation Army, and rich donors give to “rich” charities including arts, humanities and sciences. One percent of a rich person’s income is still more than two percent of a poor person’s income, so very little money winds up in the hands of charities that help the very poor.

    If people are laid off, will they reallocate toward the poor, or just stop giving?

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  6. Gdub says:

    This caught my eye, being a member of a church that heavily preaches Tithing (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).

    I’ve held positions as a financial Clerk and general Clerk and from my experience I’ve seen tithing be very inelastic. It seems a matter of dedication and so those whoa re going to contribute seem to to it rain or shine.

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  7. AaronS says:

    Here are some interesting thoughts about tithes that I’ve come up with over the years….

    Tithing was done by Abraham BEFORE the Law of Moses. Some Christians argue that even if the Law was done away with for Christians, tithing still stands, since it was prior to the Law.

    …to which I answer, so was polygamy…so was circumcision. We KNOW that circumcision is not required of Gentile believers–and presumeably polygamy is not accepted by the church (at least in America)–so shut up already.

    No where in the New Testament is tithing commanded for Gentiles. NOWHERE. But you’ll almost never hear a pastor say that–after all, his salary often depends on you not figuring that out.

    After living in a church parsonage for most of my life (I’m still a conservative Christian), it occurred to me that so many alike churches–some of the same denomination–are within nearly spittin’ distance of each other, but each feel it vital to spend hard-earned tithe money–THE LORD’S TITHE–on a SEPARATE mortgage, insurance payment, utilities, maintenance, staff salaries, and so forth.

    Why, God forbid that the church world actually became–gasp!–ONE.

    Consider what would happen if like churches “merged.” A lot more money could be allocated to actually do “Jesus stuff” like feed the poor and help the needy. Critical mass in attendance could ensure that more and better ministry was performed. Unused church properties could be sold and the money used for doing the actual work of the ministry. Pastors that have faithfully labored bi-vocationally could perhaps become full-time ministers, serving more people.

    But as long as pastors and parishioners continue to believe that God demands 10% of their income–enough to keep the program running–there is no strong incentive to lay aside our differences and become unified fully.

    I finally got tired of paying for “totally rockin'” sound systems and light shows–and even lesser, unneeded, things…and started sending my tithe to widows, certain retired men of God, etc.

    Have you ever just KNOWN that you were doing the right thing? That’s how I feel now. Yeah, I still give to my church, but not ALL of my tithe.

    I am convinced that, for the Christian church, we ought to be led by our hearts and by the Holy Spirit as to where to place our resources. If we were, churches that didn’t need to be in business would go out of business…or merge with other churches.

    And a lot more needy people could get helped.

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    • Timothy Bisgop says:

      Very well said!! Agreement here 100%.

      Time to hear for yourself , and not go just by what is being pushed in church. God wants more than that.

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  8. Robbo says:

    I look at tithing as a very high membership fee, not a charitable donation.

    I give 1%-2% of my income, national average, to charity through on-line donations wherever I see fit — ask your church if you can give your 10% to whoever you want– if they say no, it’s a membership fee.

    I get to choose where my money goes: I like NPR, so I give them some money (sorry, R California); I’m a Marine, so I give to the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund; etc., etc.

    You just can’t tell me that the church is the best decider on where to put 10% of my income. Maybe the reason some of those people are so poor is because they didn’t put away 10% for their own retirement.

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