Robert E. Lemon has been the treasurer of the Seventh-day Adventist world church for the last six years. He recently reported tithe takings of $1.78 billion for the last fiscal year – as well as a multimillion “extraordinary tithe”.
In a wide-ranging interview with Spectrum, he shares his insights about how giving trends are changing, how the Church spends its money and why endowments aren’t always a good idea.
Question: Is the way that Adventists give changing? Do Adventists prefer to give directly to causes, rather than through tithes and offerings at church – money that goes into the general pot, so to speak?
Answer: With increased communication through the Internet, television and direct mail appeals, as well as many members going on short-term mission trips, members have become personally aware of specific needs and projects. This has affected their giving patterns.
The change can be very positive as long as there is also an understanding that the long- term success and effectiveness of these projects is still dependent on a regular support structure. A structure is needed to keep and nurture those who are brought to Jesus through these initiatives.
If you study the history of the expansion of the Adventist church into over 200 countries and compare it to the much more regional reach of most other denominations, one can easily see that God has led in the design of a system of shared resources. This system has made it possible to enter, nurture and sustain the work in new areas where we have few or no members.
In your question you refer to tithes and offerings. The Adventist church is one of the few churches that makes a distinction between tithes and offerings. The distinction is based on scripture and the counsel found in the writings of Ellen G. White.
While God owns everything and has made us stewards over it, He has laid special claim on the 10% tithe. He says the tithe is His.
We return tithe but we give offerings. What is important is to be sure that we are returning tithe where God has designated. The Adventist church – through study and seeking the widest input possible from the Church, and as illustrated in the Old Testament model where the “storehouse” was the central place where tithe and offerings were collected and disbursed – has designated the local conference as the “storehouse” where the Lord’s tithe is to be returned, since it is the place where the majority of the tithe is used.
There are substantial sums being donated for special projects both through the normal denominational channels as well as to supporting ministries. It is not possible to know the exact amount, but – in the context of the United States, for example – from the information publicly available through the IRS form 990, it is clear that the vast majority of the members still see support of the Lord’s work through the regular Church channels as the most effective way of carrying out the gospel commission.
Question: Do Adventists prefer to give directly to causes that are Adventist-related (ie Adventist educational institutions, Maranatha, ADRA) rather than to non-Adventist charities?
Answer: I am not aware of any definitive studies on the matter but my sense, from discussions with members, is that most prefer to give the majority of their donations to Adventist charities, but that they also support other charities.
Question: How do laws regarding tax breaks benefit the Church, and change giving patterns?
Answer: Certainly the fact that tithe and offerings are tax deductible in some countries benefits the Church.
Although the tax deductibility of my tithe does not change the amount I return, it does allow me to give more in offerings than I would otherwise be able to if it were not deductible.
In many countries of the world there are no tax breaks for charitable donations. In those countries we still see about the same giving patterns as in the countries with tax breaks. But, where people are used to the tax breaks and have built them into their thinking and expectations, there would likely be some affect on giving patterns – at least in the short run – if the tax breaks disappeared.
Question: Has the way that the Church distributes tithe money changed in any meaningful way over the years?
Answer: Yes. We have a system of tithe sharing where the tithe received at the local conference level is shared with the union, division and General Conference. These funds are used to cover the costs of administering the Church at those levels, for reversions back to the conferences for education and other ministries and for evangelism and reaching unentered areas.
The percentage of tithe coming to the General Conference from the North American Division has decreased from 11.72% to 8% since 2000. This, and a corresponding decrease in the percentage coming to the Division and the unions in North America, has meant that more is available for work in the conferences.
Question: Mission offerings in North American have increased. What do you think accounts for this?
Answer: Even with increased emphasis and promotion of project giving, many individuals want to be sure that we tell the “whole” world. People respond when they understand that there is a real need.
We have probably done a better job of telling the stories of successes in the far flung parts of the world than we have of keeping before our members the fact that half of the world is still virtually untouched with the gospel message. The Office of Adventist Missions has been focused and intentional in its efforts to get a balanced message out of both encouraging news of successes and, at the same time, pointing out the challenges we face in reaching the “whole” world.
Question: How is the weak US dollar impacting the Church’s financial position?
Answer: Almost half of the total tithes and offerings from all the members around the world come from the US. Over two-thirds of the funds that come through the General Conference’s budget for appropriations and projects around the world come in US dollars.
The recent decline of approximately 25% in the value of the US dollar against the average of the world currencies has definitely affected the work in many parts of the world.
Question: The Church has made it possible for people to pay tithe online. Are there other technological advances the Church is using to encourage giving in the 21st century?
Answer: The online giving that the North American Division has set up, which makes this service available to their churches, will go a long way towards helping those of us who have moved to making most of our payments through the Internet.
A number of our ministries and the South Pacific Division (for Australia) have had this available for some time and it has worked well. Some have been surprised that it has not been just the younger generation who are using this facility. There are many in the over-70 age group who find it very convenient.
Although I have read articles about some other denominations that have experimented with putting ATM machines in their churches, I am not sure we want to move in that direction. In some countries, the automatic transfer of funds can now be done through cell phones so you don’t even have to swipe your debit or credit card. I have seen people get soft drinks from vending machines by dialing the number on the front of the machine and transferring the amount for the drink. I am sure that as new technologies become available we will make appropriate use of them.
Some of these technologies have a cost to the recipient organization that needs to be kept in mind. When one makes a payment by credit card, the recipient (business or charity) does not receive the full amount because there is a fee that can run from one to three percent. The payment by electronic check transfer, included in the North American system, does not have this downside and allows members to still make their payments online. I am not sure, personally, that I want to tell the Lord that He only got 98% of His tithe because I wanted to pay it by credit card to get the frequent flyer points.
Question: What kinds of steps does the Church take to ensure that its financial situation is as transparent as possible?
Answer: There is always a tension between people’s need to know and individual donors’ and employees’ rights to privacy. The Church strives to find the best balance on these issues.
We have an audit system that is the envy of many not-for-profit organizations. Although no system is perfect, it is constantly being improved. In addition, we have a number of other policies and practices that are aimed at increased transparency, some of which are listed below:
1. Financial Statements - Regular presentation of financial statements to the various boards, executive committees and their constituencies.
2. Auditors Opinions and Management Letters - The report of the auditor, in the form of the audit opinion, is presented to the various boards, executive committees and constituencies.
The auditor’s “Management Letter” which covers items that do not rise to the level of appearing in the “Audit Opinion” is shared with management of the organizations and the officers of the next higher organization. Many organizations, including the General Conference, share the “Management Letter” and the administration’s response to the issues in the management letter with the full board or executive committee.
3. Audit Committees - Recently we have begun the process of adding Audit Committees that work directly with the auditors and are composed entirely of individuals who are not employees of the organization being audited. The Audit Committees review the audited financial statements and all reports of the auditors and meet with the auditors without management being present and then make their report to the board or executive committee.
4. Salary Audit Committees – The Church’s salary and allowance policies are outlined in the GC and Division Working Policy. Although the wage range for any position in the Church is not confidential, the exact amount paid to any employee needs to be kept private to the extent appropriate.
Not all individuals are paid at the maximum for their category and that may be because they have not had enough years of service to reach the maximum or because of performance issues.
We desire transparency, so we have a review of the salaries and allowances paid to employees by the Compensation Review Committee. It is composed of board or executive committee members, including lay members, who are presented a spreadsheet showing the actual salaries and all allowances paid to each employee for the previous year. It is reviewed page by page and questions answered. It is then signed by each individual and returned to be kept with the materials for the auditor’s review. Since these totals must agree with the amounts reported to the government on the tax filings, it is a good way to make sure there is transparency in our remuneration system and yet not have personal private information inappropriately disclosed.
Question: What is the biggest single gift to the Church ever, to your knowledge?
Answer: Two mites.
Mark 12:41 And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much.
12:42 And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.
12:43 And he called [unto him] his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:
12:44 For all [they] did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, [even] all her living.
Question: What kind of influence do big givers have on the Church?
Answer: In a discussion I had a couple years ago with the chief financial officer of another denomination, he brought up the challenge it faced with undue influence of major donors over the life of the local church and the independence of the pastor to deal with issues within the church. The denomination’s pastors were paid by the local church and their salary depended, in many cases, on the donations of a small number of major donors.
I explained to him how our pastors are paid from the conference out of tithe received from all the members of the conference and not just the tithe of that local church. He expressed the wish that their denomination had such a system that would free the pastors from such undue influence.
Although there are no perfect systems, I believe the system that God has led the Seventh-day Adventist Church to use has allowed major donors to participate fully in the life and support of the Church without being perceived as preventing the Church from addressing issues within the Church appropriately.
Down through the ages, God has entrusted some individuals with great wealth. To some He has given very specific instructions as to what to do with those funds. He told Noah to build an ark for the saving of the Church. (I am not sure how successful a fund drive for money to build the ark would have been.)
God does not often name such specific projects but does expect those whom He has blessed to use their means to bless others. As Pastor Jan Paulsen, the General Conference President, has said in relation to faithful members to whom God has entrusted much: “I have never met any who wish to meet the Lord with their bank accounts intact.” Many of these individuals have a great burden to see the work finished and support specific areas of the work. Most desire and seek counsel as to where they can most effectively help in finishing the work.
Question: Will the Church accept money with strings attached?
Answer: Tithe is returned to God and we cannot attach strings to money returned to Him; but when it comes to donations, the Church regularly accepts funds with restrictions. As a matter of fact, the whole accounting structure is specifically designed to track funds by category of restriction and to assure that they are spent according to the restrictions.
When a church member designates on the offering envelope that the offering is for AWR, Disaster and Famine Relief, 13th Sabbath Offering, etc., these funds are then restricted for that purpose. Individuals may designate offerings for special projects and we do our best to see that they get used in accordance with the wishes of the donor. There are times when funds are designated for special projects in places where it is not possible to transfer funds, but that is infrequent. Sometimes the political or local situation may make moving ahead with some projects impossible or unadvisable. In such cases, we try to contact the donors and seek their desire relative to the use of the funds.
Church members, who give through the regular offering appeals, including the mission offerings and the Personal Giving Plan, expect that the various committees and administrations will use them for the items that will be of the greatest benefit in finishing the work. Proverbs 11:14 says: “Where no counsel [is], the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors [there is] safety.”
One of the challenges faced by many administrations and committees is how to relate to special projects that individual donors or local promoters feel are important but that may not be the highest priority in the view of the administrations and committees responsible for allocating the general funds of the Church. Often these donations are not sufficient to complete the project or provide for the ongoing operating costs. Even though the projects may be good, they may not be the projects to which the committee would assign the limited general funds available. The expectation of some who donate to special projects is that the “Church” will provide the balance of the funds and pay the operating costs. The challenge comes in balancing the fiduciary responsibility of using the general funds in a way consistent with the expectations of those who gave to the general fund and not have the donors to special projects set the agenda for use of those funds.
Question: What kind of guidelines does the Church have to govern the spending of extraordinary tithe?
Answer: Extraordinary tithe is not a general category of tithe. There are occasions where a local conference receives a one-time large sum of tithe from a member which would skew its budgeting for the next year if it were included as the basis for building the next year’s budget. In those cases, most conferences adjust their budgets for the next year to reflect the fact that they don’t expect to receive that extra amount.
The case you are referring to is a one-time amount, large enough that it was agreed it should be handled by the General Conference on behalf of the world field. In this case, the General Conference Executive Committee authorized the General Conference Administrative Committee to set up guidelines and make the allocation of the funds.
These are tithe funds, so they will only be used for items that are appropriate for tithe. The funds will be allocated in two broad areas: Funds To and Funds Through. The Funds To means the areas or types of work that will benefit from the funds, and include: the 10/40 Window (the half of the world that is basically non-Christian), Big Cities, and reaching the secular mind.
The Funds Through area refers to the major mediums through which the message will be delivered: Internet, Hope Channel Satellite TV, and Adventist World Radio.
Each division has been asked to make proposals as to projects in their territories that could benefit the most and also to work with the Hope Channel and AWR on how to best reach their areas, as well as develop new initiatives on the Internet. There is a small committee working on evaluating all the proposals and making recommendations to the General Conference Administrative committee through the GC Officers. The funds are expected to be spent over a period of five to eight years and proposals must include information on how the work will be carried on after these funds are finished.
Question: Last year a man left the Church about $50 million. There was disagreement about how the money should be spent. What were the main differing ideas people had about how to spend it? Why was some not put into an endowment?
Answer: As you can well imagine, there are plenty of suggestions on how to use the funds. I’m not sure I would use the word “disagreement,” as there has probably been more agreement on how these funds should be used than there is on how the regularly-budgeted funds of church should be allocated. It is always good to have vigorous input into the process and a variety of opinions.
These are tithe funds and so their use must be consistent with our policies on the use of tithe. Probably the greatest discussion was on whether the funds should be restricted to mainly the 10/40 Window area or opened to a much wider variety of projects.
There have been individuals who have suggested putting these tithe funds into an endowment. Although there are circumstances where endowments are appropriate, specifically in the area of education, I don’t believe it is God’s desire for us to use the operating funds He has provided in the form of tithe to set up an endowment.
The tithe is provided by the Lord to the Church for the preaching of the gospel and needs to be used prudently but with all haste to complete the work. The Lord does not want us to build up big sums of money in endowments so that we will no longer be dependent on His blessings through His children.
We need enough for working capital and to buffer against the normal fluctuations in receipts, but not so much that it lessens our dependence on Him. He provided the children of Israel with sufficient manna each day to meet their needs and it spoiled if they collected more than needed. He only replenished the widow’s flour and oil with enough for one more day each time she showed faith by sharing her last cup.
Question: Other than the extraordinary tithe money going to some specific areas of ministry, you are also taking proposals for where the remainder of the money should go. What kind of proposals are you getting?
Answer: There is a great variety of proposals but most center around using the Internet and television for reaching large numbers of people with the message. Others are focused more on new ways to reach people on a one-to-one basis. The personal contact method is the best but cannot reach the large masses in areas where we don’t have members.
Question: What kind of criteria are you using to evaluate the proposals and decide where the money should be spent?
Answer: The small committee working with this is seeking God’s guidance as they evaluate the proposals. It has created a matrix of the points listed above as well as some other criteria and are evaluating how each proposal fits the objectives. These individuals are also very familiar with the world field and bring to the evaluation a global perspective.
Question: What kinds of strategies does the Church use to encourage giving? Is your office responsible for encouraging giving/increasing tithe payment?
Answer: Returning tithe and giving offering are spiritual matters. This is very different from fundraising for a charity. 2 Corinthians 9:7 says “Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, [so let him give]; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.”
It is not the amount of the funds, but the spirit with which they are given, that blesses the giver and the Church. Jesus could use the five loaves and two small fish to feed the multitude because it was given generously, yet He could not do anything with the wealth of the rich young ruler because of the selfishness in his heart.
We need to continue to encourage our members to be faithful and generous with the Lord. We need more sermons on stewardship, not from the point that God or the Church needs our money, but from the point that we need to look at our lives and see where our hearts are. Too many of us have our hearts rooted very deeply in what we have and want on this earth and not on where we want to spend eternity. We are not only losing our own souls in the process but will also be accountable for the loss of our children and families. When our priorities are right, there will not even be the need for an offering appeal.
The work of encouraging members to set right priorities is everyone’s responsibility – lay members, pastors, administrators – and the place for each of us to start is with ourselves. Some of the saddest words in the whole Bible are: “But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.” Matthew 19:2
See http://adventist-stewardship.com for more about giving.
Robert E. Lemon was elected treasurer of the world church in 2002. Lemon replaced Robert Rawson, treasurer since 1995, who retired.
Lemon served as undertreasurer of the world church from 1998 to 2002, and has served the church in finance-related positions for more than 30 years. From 1995 to 1998 he worked as associate world church treasurer.
Lemon spent more than 10 years of his career in Africa, first based in Zaire, and later the Ivory Coast.
He and his wife Sherry have two grown children, Tami and James.