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Our Complicated, Confusing, Competing Church Finances


This happened about 25 years ago, when I was still a young pastor. We’d just placed a new member, a Certified Public Accountant, on the congregation’s finance committee. One of the items on the agenda was how we could build up the lagging local church budget. I remember the new committee member said, after his first quick glance at the financial statement, “I don’t know what the problem is. This shows we received a lot of tithe.” The rest of us quickly explained his misunderstanding. “Wait a minute,” he said. “Do you mean when I pay my tithe, none of it goes toward the local church and school expenses?” I thought I’d made that clear in the bulletin and in other comments in church, but I again explained about tithe and pastors’ and teachers’ salaries, and that our treasurer only got to spend what was indicated on a lower line of the envelope that said “local church budget.” I remember him saying, “If it’s that confusing to a financial professional, imagine what it’s like for other people, like new church members.”

It’s a good point: you’ve got to be an insider to figure out how to give knowledgeably to the Seventh-day Adventist church.

We’ve done some bragging through the years about what good givers Seventh-day Adventists are, and how effective we are at keeping our coffers full. That’s become less true, for a variety of reasons from theological to economic to demographic. To their credit, our current NAD leaders have recognized that there are problems to be addressed. But one factor I’ve not heard talked about is how complex and confusing our finances are to the average giver.

The rule in fundraising is this: make giving as easy and rewarding as possible. Give people a sense that they know where their money is going, and how it’s being used. At the same time, don’t ever sound mercenary or greedy. And above all, don’t make giving so complicated that they throw up their hands in despair, or feel bamboozled.

We pastors spend probably too much effort trying to communicate clearly to our congregations about stewardship. That’s because it the system is by its nature confusing. If you want an illustration of that, just look at our tithe envelope. Most members know about tithe, the required 10% at the top of the list. But what are all those other lines that have accumulated through the years, all of which go under the general heading of “offerings”? I’m an educated person, a lifelong Seventh-day Adventist, and a pastor, but I still find it confusing. Most of the lines on the envelope are used seldom, yet they’re listed as permanent categories. I remember trying to explain the envelope to a new member once. He shook his head in exasperation and said, “I’ll just mark it all to tithe and let you figure it out.” I then had to explain that what he selected on the envelope our treasurer had no discretion to redirect. He was the accountant of his own gift, and if he wanted to give intelligently, and include his local church, he had to select what he wanted funded. (In the end, the treasurer told me, he’d put $20 on each line all the way down!)

Until just a few years ago, the Ohio Conference tithe envelope had the conference office’s accounting numbers next to each line. That’s been changed (though the envelope is still crowded with all the “legacy” offerings that most people don’t use and the envelope doesn’t explain) but it illustrates that we tend to design our fundraising materials around the machinery of the church, not the giver. The giving in my congregation increased when we printed our own much-simplified envelope. At the time, we were building a new church and a new school. When the conference told us at a pastors’ meeting that they weren’t getting enough tithe to pay all of us, I felt torn. On one hand, I want people to give to tithe, because my staff and I got our salaries from it. On the other, there was no way we were going to pay for a 6 million dollar church building just by telling the congregation, “Pay your tithe, and by the way, if you have anything left over, you might have noticed we’re building a new church complex.” We certainly didn’t discourage tithe, but we were conscious that we were in competition with the conference for people’s money.

Though it’s not exactly a fair competition. Theologically, tithe is the holy part, the mandatory part. The part you have to give to get to heaven. (In the Old Testament context it sounds more like a tax than a freewill offering.) Offerings—what congregations get to pay local bills—are, well, optional. Even the name—“offering”—sounds like a discretionary act, something which you can “offer” if you feel inspired toward an outpouring of generosity.

Some of you might be surprised to hear how much donated money gets sent away from your local church each week, and even more surprised by how much doesn’t even stay in the conference. People sometimes wonder why there aren’t any Seventh-day Adventist megachurches. There are several reasons, but at least one is that big, fast-growing churches make massive local investments in church programming for growth, including heavy staffing. That’s not something our congregations have the discretion to do.

This confusion isn’t really anyone’s fault. It’s how giving developed back when we were a movement held together by traveling evangelists and printed materials. It earned a theological justification—that the “storehouse” of Malachi 3:10 was the denominational treasury. And it seemed to work pretty well, although someone might have noticed that at certain periods in our history we invested relatively more heavily in the conference-union-division-GC structure than the returns we got from it. The church isn’t held together by publishing houses and traveling evangelists anymore. We’re a business, nominally democratic but more hierarchical than we want to admit. Now that the publishing houses are mostly kaput and few conferences have evangelists anymore, and the future of the church seems to belong to hospitals and universities that have better business plans than do our congregations, perhaps we could revisit how we raise and distribute money.

Or perhaps not. I’ve sat in on a few meetings where the leader asks, “How are we going to make the congregations in this conference flourish and fund everything else we think is important on into the future? C’mon, folks, let’s brainstorm. Everything is on the table.”[1] Some participant will invariably chip in with, “I’ve got an idea: let’s keep more of the money that gets sent out of the conference!” To which the leader responds, “Everything is on the table except that.”

I haven’t even mentioned the complicated life of tithe money once it goes to the conference. It’s distributed to the union and beyond according to nearly incomprehensible formulas that occasionally involve things like “tithe exchange”—exchanging holy money with upper church echelons for not-quite-as-holy money, that can be spent with more local discretion.[2] Nor have I mentioned the competition with independent ministries that I’ve seen grow during my years in ministry. If you don’t like how things are run in the church hierarchy, you’d be more troubled were you able to see the financials of some of the independent ministries that fundraise our members under the church’s name, without operating by the same rigorous rules.

“It’s your responsibility to educate everyone about stewardship, pastor,” someone will say. And I do. But I will tell you that if I were to explain it as thoroughly as it needs to be explained to counter the complexity and confusion, I’d be accused of talking too much about money in church! (A complaint every pastor has heard.) The split between tithe and offerings, and the obligation of the one over against the optionality of the other, the competition between local work, administrative work, and independent ministries, new offerings added to the list of the old, keeps us a little off balance. I wonder whether we’d have done better if we’d only asked an honest tithe of everyone, rather than a tithe plus offerings from a few. But that’s speculation—an idea that’s its probably too late to try.

[1] I’ve seen situations where the solution was to create another offering for people to give to—one targeted toward certain conference needs—and add that to the tithe envelope, too!

[2] Let me make it clear that I’m not saying that conferences and unions are dishonest with donated money. I’ve been on many committees in the church structure, seen the financials, and can say that (with few exceptions) we have as competent treasurers and bookkeepers, and we do as good a job at being transparent and auditing ourselves, as anyone. What they spend the money on may not be to the liking of some, but those expenditures are voted by committees—committees that are, admittedly, composed of more insiders the farther up the system you go. Still, situations where irregularities are buried, or church money is dishonestly siphoned off to unapproved projects, or into someone’s pocket, are rare, and in my experience more likely to happen in a local church treasury than a conference’s.


Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.

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