Our trickle-down congregational economics

Dec 7, 2017 by

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A proposed congregational mission statement: To be good news for the poor, to heal the broken, to proclaim release for prisoners, to restore sight to the blind, to advocate for the oppressed, and to celebrate God’s jubilee for all.

If we were to truly represent Jesus’ inside-out kingdom, how would that be reflected in our congregational budgets?

Church budgets are moral documents, a reflection of our actual values. Follow the money, we are told.

This is not to say that alleviating the needs of the homeless and destitute is the only thing Jesus’ followers are about. We also need to help support, as needed, those in teaching, pastoral care and other church ministries. And if we own a building, we need to maintain it and pay the utility bills.

But how can our budgets better reflect Jesus’ primary mission as announced in Luke 4?

Here are some current budget percentages typical of Mennonite churches in our community:

40 percent — staff salaries and benefits
20 percent — utilities, maintenance, repairs, supplies, capital costs
15 percent — tuition grants for those attending church schools
15 percent — support for missions and other church related institutions and organizations
10 percent — support for relief agencies and charitable organizations

Of course not even the 10 percent (?) we send to agencies to which we outsource our food and relief aid all goes to the poor. There are administrative and other personnel involved who are paid well and who are well cared for.

But some of our giving does eventually reach the truly needy, for which I am sure they are truly grateful.

And to be clear, my concern is not just about developing alternative budget pie charts, but about our being able to vastly enlarge the charitable pie itself. Like most Americans, we carefully calculate our giving so it doesn’t interfere with our goal of amassing more wealth every year of our working life. Can followers of Jesus really find any support in the gospels for that kind of entitlement?

According to a 2005 study, U.S. Mennonites, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, don’t even give a tithe of their incomes to charity, much less sell their surplus wealth, downsize their homes or adjust their spending to be more like that of their sisters and brothers in the rest of the world. Were we to do so, most of our congregations, in the spirit of Pentecost, could easily triple the size of their church budgets without experiencing any real hardship.

Plus it would be a powerful witness to a skeptical world, and a source of great joy to everyone concerned.

Harvey Yoder is an ordained pastor and member of Family of Hope, a small Virginia Mennonite Conference house church congregation. He blogs at Harvspot, where this first appeared.


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  • Walter Bergen

    I first heard a version of this post 40 years ago, and it was a flawed piece of thinking then as it is now.
    Bot all adherents to Mennonite congregations are deeply committed Christians. To expect nominal adherents to give as Mr. Yoder outlines is sheer foolishness… isn’t ever going to happen.
    Secondly, committed Christians are increasingly skeptical of giving to institutions where these institutions are effective in their mandate even as they contribute less and less to the vibrancy of congregations. I reference MCC and MEDA as agencies remarkably successful in acquiring dollars even as they drift from their core mission and values. As they are institutionally successful they in fact contribute less and less to a vibrant congregational life. The same for too many of our schools.
    Thirdly, not all mutual aid or charity flows through congregational coffers. Committed believers contribute to needs, and never receive a tax receipt, because our lives of faith are not just expressed through institutions. As a member of a house church, our brother ought to know that.
    MC USA and MC Canada are seen by many donors as not responsible stewards of charitable gifts, and so donors gift elsewhere. An unpleasant truth that gets explained away, but in fact, is what it is. Here in Canada, MC Canada is a textbook case for how to alienate donors and do fundraising badly. Sort of like having a clown convention, and only actuarials show up. Criticize me if you wish for making the observation, the facts are what they are, and they are unpleasant.
    Lastly, giving money is not a substitute for a life of faith. It is one attribute among many. Yoder’s reductionist observation may be satisfying to those wish wealth given to the church to be the measure for faithfulness: alas, as Christian faith becomes deinstitutionalized and church buildings close, it is not a measure of faith but an indicator that Anabaptist faith is being transformed once again into a lay movement where institutions will be much less relevant for faith expression than they are today, or were a decade ago.
    So thanks for the observations on trickle down economics. They just don’t add up

    • Harvey Yoder

      Thanks for your response, Walter. It sounds like you are actually saying that too few of our charitable dollars “trickle down” to those who really need it, so on that point I probably have more faith in, say, MCC, to be “responsible stewards of charitable gifts” than you do, At any rate I don’t think of my giving as being TO the congregation (we have very little overhead) but as giving THROUGH the congregation.

      • Walter Bergen

        fair comment.
        mcc and meda are excellent organizations, but they have in pursuit of their mission neglected the benefit of having our sons and daughters serve, and then return as visionary Christians with life and vocational experience. that hurts congregations in a long withering…
        your comment of through the congregation rather to the congregation is an important nuance which I afirm

  • Benjamin Janzen

    Harvey, thanks for this. If your proposed mission statement holds true, I suggest it’s not the budget that should change but the behavior of the budget allocations (and church people): paid staff should be told “spend your time outside the church or welcome the poor in!”; the facilities should provide shelter and food; the church schools should be asked to teach students how to serve; etc. If this were done, the budget would be a non-issue.

    • Harvey Yoder

      I like this. And the paid staff would be showing the rest of the congregation how to “spend your time outside and welcome the poor in.”