Churches Versus Synagogues: Voluntary Donations Versus Dues

Christian churches and Jewish synagogues rely on very different financing models, yet both “appear to raise about the same amount per member,” according to a survey conducted by?the Jewish newspaper The Forward (article by Josh Nathan-Kazis). While synagogue members pay annual dues, churches rely primarily on voluntary donations from members.

The Forward interviewed church and synagogue officials at institutions in Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York, and Tulsa. Consider a comparison between a Conservative Jewish synagogue in Atlanta (Ahavath Achim) and an Episcopalian church in Manhattan (Church of the Heavenly Rest):

The two congregations are broadly comparable: Both serve slightly more than 1,000 middle- and upper-middle class households, have a multimillion-dollar endowment, employ about a dozen people and operate on an annual budget of $2.7 million.

Both draw around half their income from regular fees paid by members. But, like virtually all American churches, Heavenly Rest does not charge dues. Like most synagogues, Ahavath Achim does.

At Ahavath Achim, those fees are assigned by the synagogue, with each family paying up to $2,100 per year. Annual pledges at Heavenly Rest? As much, or as little, as you can give. While only one-third of member families participate in the church’s annual pledge drive, those that do give an average of $2,700 – far more than the cost of dues at Ahavath Achim.

So one big difference between the two models is that giving in churches is much less evenly distributed than in synagogues. That said, a significant number of synagogue members give extra, as the charts below (where the orange represents voluntary giving) demonstrate. In fact, the executive director of a Conservative synagogue in Boston estimates that 95 percent of members give more than required.

DESCRIPTIONGraphs courtesy of the Forward.

Given how easy it is to attend church services without donating anything at all, it’s interesting that members of Christian churches give so generously. Do they do it for the “warm glow,” or do churches have a different, less obvious, means of persuading people to donate?

The Forward has also put together some interesting statistics on how churches and synagogues spend their money. Here’s a preview: your parents will probably worry less if you become a rabbi than a priest …


I think part of the reason for the difference in methods is the fact that Christians tend to prosthelytize, while Jews do not. If you're trying to attract more people, voluntary donations are better because they don't turn people away. Jews generally don't care about that. One exception would be Messianic Jews, such as the commenter above, who attends a synagogue that uses the church model.

Fair economy

I don't see what its got to do with how they get their money.? Two institutions in the same neighborhood are are likely to have similar costs.? If they are solvent, then their their revenues are comparable to their costs - whether the money comes from fees or donations, or from organized crime, or spontaneous generation, or they find it under a rock...? It's the costs that determine the revenues in a successful, competitive enterprise.


Catholic churches will sometimes raffle off or auction off the front pew and a reserved parking space for First Communion, Christmas, etc. as a fundraiser for the church or school.

Envelopes are also a way for the church to total your donations and send you a receipt for your taxes.

Lynne Arons

@JP-Christian Churches are all "top down" the Priests and ministers are assigned by a Diocese/Parish, monies are gathered and spent up and down the line, so if a church is having trouble, there is someplace 'up the line" to appeal to. Judaism has no "Vatican" that has been collecting money for a thousand years.
Synagogues are all self sustaining. the congregation hires the Rabbi maintains the building, pays the Hebrew school teachers (most are certified educators, not parents of the kids going to school) maintains charitable funds, does all of their own marketing with no help from an over arching organization. The tickets for high holidays are sort of like temporary memberships, if you have not been a member all year, but you want to come for The High Holidays, paying the fee is your way of helping the congregation you choose to pray with. Members of course are not charged another fee. High Holidays are included in membership. And Anyone can come to any other service, member or not. They don't get to vote on Synagogue matters though.
The congregation has a lot of extra expense in "hosting" all the extra people that come out for those two/three days a year , but have no interest in helping maintain the community the rest of the time. My congregation gets over 400 people on the high holidays that are not members, that means we need to rent a larger space, bring in chairs, and sound equipment, insurance, security (there are threats every year) food for after the service etc. And even so, if someone is not able to pay, we never turn them away.



The disparate practices reflect different beliefs about giving. Christians emphasize how donations are more worthwile where they are voluntary, given from the heart. By contrast, Judaism elevates the performance of an act done out of obligation over one done out of choice.

For the woman who asked why one should need to pay to pray---you don't, you can pray by yourself at home for free. But if you want to pray in a buiding with others, that costs rent. If you want air conditioning or heating while you pray, that also costs money. If you want to read from prayer books, those cost money. If you want to have clergy facilitate the services, that costs money. Not to mention wine, bread etc.


As someone not from America, and not religious, all I can think is "What a waste of $2.7 million dollars."

Is it common in the US for churches to raise and/or spend THAT much money? It seems ridiculous when considering the complete pointlessness of church services when compared to charity work. I hope a lot of those funds are actually ending up in soup kitchens or something.


Why not just call it miraculous?

Ben Franklin spoke of the power of George Whitefield that moved him to such contrition that though he began certain that not a penny of his would end up in the plate, he ended up emptying his pockets for the cause.

Maybe an interesting comparison is the difference between general fund giving (the operating budget), Church projects (like a building fund) and then special events (such as funding a missionary). These might each have different pass-the-plate type collections and might have distinctions in effectiveness.

I'd be curious how transparency affects giving. If you lay out the budget on powerpoint on a quarterly/yearly basis to talk about what's needed to run the church, is that more or less effective than just talking about a need or the size of the need to make budget when it's looking dire?

SF Michele

@JP:Throughout the year, the synagogue to which your BF belongs most likely does assess a fee for "membership" -- to pay for clergy and services and programs.

A separate fee, as in your BF's shul, charged for High Holidays is not universal in Jewish congregations. Please know that.

Some congregations don't charge a fee at all for anyone to attend at HH.

Also, I wouldn't call either the dues or any charge for tickets at HH "praying fees," as (others have said) it would be very unlikely that anyone at all would be turned away because they couldn't afford them.

If someone begins attending services and programs at a synagogue, at some point, yes, they'll be invited to become a member. That's not just to get $$ for support but because the congregation would truly love to have you get involved and be a part of the community.

Oh, it is a different method of financing a religious community. When I was much younger, and learning only bits and pieces about Judaism, I thought it was pretty wild and just plain nervy to be so open about the cost, the "price" of providing spiritual care and programs, and call this "membership" as I grew up with what I considered a more "tasteful" Sunday collection basket system as a Catholic.

However, along the way, I met up with Protestants. I also was, over the years, on my journey to Judaism, a Unitarian-Universalist and an ELCA Lutheran. And that's where I learned about the true cost of caring for each other and assisting people outside of church in the wider community.

These churches had strong finance committees, published budgets, and congregational approval required every year for those operations plans.

They also had good programs, happy clergy, good Sunday attendance, and sound buildings used not only by their congregants but other groups and organizations.

It was a decidedly pragmatic approach involving planning and the necessary recognition that Baby Jesus did not make the lights come on and get the minister to the church on time.

In those churches, the institutionalized Pledge Committees and ultra-organized annual fundraising drives - at first - just took my breath away! Man, were they organized!

Many Catholic churches have adopted similar programs and even they now organize and send out pledge committee members to visit parishioners and collect annual financial commitment paperwork from families.

The days of tucking $5 into the Sunday Collection Envelope and figuring a. "it's just church" b. no one will notice c. it'll all work out simply have to be over.



It always strikes me as bizarre that thinking people would entertain any of this bronze age rubbish. Going to church is a social occasion, and that's all. I especially like the potlucks.

Love you Bellyroll. We'll have some beers and sliders someday at the third circle bar near the Glotony Firepit in Hell.


Todd Fox

From a practical point of view, it may be a "house of God" but there are still expenses. Rabbis and ministers need to earn a salary in order to live, just like anybody else. Buildings need to be maintained and heated. And until Jesus comes back and feeds a thousand from one loaf of bread, somebody has to buy or make the bread and wine for communion. We're a long ways from the days when a clergyman could be paid in apples and eggs.

Thomas in Watertown

Simply because something can be measured doesn't make it good science. This study is flawed on all corners, as the cohorts are not comparable on many levels.
At the very best, I would rate this article as curious artifact.


Caitlyn and ADMC pointed out that Messianic Jewish congregations are more similar to churches then to synagogues in their financing models.

I'm not trying to get into a religious debate, but the reason is quite simple. While the word 'Jew' is in the title, the Messianic Jewish doctrine is much more similar to Christian theology than Jewish theology. This can be just one manifestation of that similarity to Christianity.


As a Jew, it always struck me as bizarre that churches pass a collection plate during services. Jesus, after all, objected strenuously to people providing animals to use as offerings -- when they did so for cash in the temple. Isn't paying for an offering morally similar to paying the church itself?


Well aside from the outright offensiveness of this article, the (protestant) church is not about money. It's about changing the world. That being said, not demanding still gets the bills paid. Tithing is biblical, though people tend to ignore it. Somehow, enough people though still give enough to keep the church alive.

Valerie Hoyle

The thing is... most religions have a tax exempt status which means the donations are not taxed... if they do 'business' with the money then that status can be taken away.. like in England the Scientology 'religion' is taxed because England doesn't recognise Scientology as a religion. Most religions invest the money they get.. like the mormons who have a huge income and various businesses all associated with 'the corporation' .. IF the religion interferes between church and state... like Proposition 8 in california... they could loose their tax status..
no religion wants this... so its all a crock... in my humble opinion...

The Nun's Priest's Dogsbody

This is like arguing the relative merits of crock-pots versus woks. They're entirely different methods of cooking, yet both get dinner to the table.

There's usually more than one way to solve any given problem. Why should that be any more surprising in church than in the kitchen?


I know some Catholic and Lutheran churches do the "weekly envelope" thing. My parents' church does not. They have envelopes available, and if you want one, you take one. You can make a pledge, but you don't have to.

How does the church get people to give money?

They have board meetings at which they discuss their annual goals. The goals are found to be worth promoting, and each member gives out of their desire to promote those goals, with a mind towards what they can afford.

It works pretty well there - The church usually has excess funds, which it can use to pay down mortgage debt or better fund one of their causes.

Maybe the Jewish synagogues want to stick with the annual dues, but I think it's better if people give because they want to, not for fear they might get kicked out of their house of worship.


The Church of Heavenly Rest is next to the Guggenheim. Can you imagine the rent there? I bet the rent is too damn high.

The question isn't whether churches with similar budgets and a similar audience collects money similarly. The interesting question is how to churches that grossly outperform others work?

Everyone understands that you have to pay rent, power, church worker salaries, etc. So it's no surprise that people who are involved are giving.

I want to know what methods the richest churches use for collection, and why the people there give more freely.


>>>Do they do it for the "warm glow,"...?

It's really pretty simple. If you're a Christian, and you really believe that all good things (including your salary) come from God, and then God asks you (via the Bible) to demonstrate that belief by giving at least 10% back to Him (primarily through your home church,) then there's no reason not to do it.

If some Christians don't tithe, then it's a private matter between them and God. But you it should make them question whether they really believe what they say they believe.


In Judaism, giving money to the poor and to the community (represented in part by the synagogue, which performs many services for the community) is a mitzvah (commandment). It is therefore an obligation, and unlike the idea of charity, which has a voluntary character (give if you want, whatever you want). Some people mistakenly see synagogue dues as a "pay to pray" policy, because their only connection with Jewish communal life is during Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur. If one has a greater involvement with the synagogue, he/she will see that paying dues is a sensible way to support the community. Moreover, it instills a sense of obligation into a world which is increasingly centered on the individual's rights and not his obligations to society.