Our parishes are getting by on too little from too few, but it wouldn’t take much to change that
It’s that time of year. Your new set of Sunday offering envelopes arrives in the mail, or you pick up the box after Mass. Maybe you’re still hearing echoes of last fall’s pleas for a renewed commitment to weekly parish giving. Or your parish is beginning the pledge process for the annual diocesan collection. Registration opens for next fall’s Catholic school classes.
You might catch yourself grumbling, “Money! Money! Money! That’s all Father ever talks about!”
Here’s a secret: Father dreads this even more than you do. And another secret: Whether it’s once or twice a year (which is standard) or more frequently (when driven by dire necessity), chances are that if Father has to mention money at all, he’s not talking about it nearly often enough.
Think about that first part. Your pastor is living out his priestly vocation to preach the Gospel, minister the sacraments, and bring people to Christ. Unless his was a late-in-life calling from the business world, it’s unlikely that he was ever trained in the branch management of a good-sized non-profit corporation, which is the equivalent of the pastor’s secular responsibilities. Your average diocesan priest hates talking about money even more than you hate hearing about it.
Fortunately, your pastor probably has more support to draw on now than pastors had in your parents’ or grandparents’ day. Diocesan stewardship offices provide guidance and resources, and many parishes have finance committees or parish councils with members who have business and finance backgrounds. Pastors have more help making wise financial decisions.
But here’s something that hasn’t changed in generations – and it’s the reason Father can’t talk about money enough. The average share of our income that we U.S. Catholics give to our Church (including not just weekly parish giving, but special collections and other Church-related charities) is a mere 1% – the same as it’s been as long as anyone’s been counting.
That’s the lowest percentage of giving of any major religious denomination in the United States.
The truth is that fewer than 1 in 3 Americans who identify themselves as Catholic attend Mass on a “regular” basis (defined as at least once a month). And of those regular attendees, only 30% give to the support of their parish. Of those, many are likely to toss the same 2 or 3 crumpled dollar bills into the collection basket as their parents did before them.
And this in a time when just keeping the lights on, the boiler heated up, the organ in tune, and the parking lot free of potholes costs more than ever.
Nobody wants to talk about the basic operating costs of a parish, but if they aren’t met there is no place for the community to worship, no support for the many ministries and outreach efforts that make a parish so much more than a building.
Father hates having to nickel-and-dime the congregation from the pulpit. But when so few of us have any real notion of or commitment to real parish stewardship, he often has no choice. That term, stewardship, has become more familiar in recent years, as Catholics are called to a more integrated, conscious discipleship. In parishes where real attitudes and practices of stewardship have taken hold, there’s a relatively seamless and widely shared commitment of time, talent, and treasure. It shows up in higher attendance levels, successful evangelization, and well-funded parish ministries. It also shows up in Father not having to talk about money all the time.
Too often, though, pastors get such blowback from parishioners about pushing the “treasure” element of stewardship that parishes settle for commitments of time and talent by the same small group of people who always volunteered them anyway. And because time and talent do not substitute for treasure, poor Father is back to nickel-and-diming. It makes parish giving, which should be a grateful response to God’s gifts and a regular part of Catholic discipleship, feel like being hounded to pay an overdue cable bill. That’s not pleasant for anyone!
So the hard truth is that our parishes are getting by on too little from too few. (That’s especially a problem, paradoxically enough, in our largest parishes, maybe because everybody figures everyone else must be giving.) The good news is that it wouldn’t take much from each of us to change that. Here are some things to consider as the new year begins.
Give consciously. Write your parish into your family budget. Whether it’s on a yearly, monthly, or weekly basis, make your parish offering a line item. Planning ahead will keep you from resorting to digging in your pockets for spare change as the collection basket comes by. Using weekly offering envelopes or participating in an online giving program, if your parish offers one, are two good ways to make your giving conscious.
Give off the top. When determining how much to give our parish, many of us look to what’s left over after other obligations have been met. We give out of scarcity and fear, rather than gratitude. Try (at least for a few weeks or months) putting your relationship with God and his people first. Whatever we have we owe to God’s generosity.
Give more than you think you can. People sometimes ask about whether there’s a biblical standard. The tithe, or one-tenth of one’s wealth or income, is often mentioned in the Bible, and many Christians today aim for a 10% level of annual giving divided among church and charities. (Parish giving, though tax-deductible, is not charity for Catholics. It’s a precept, a joyful obligation.) But Jesus told his rich follower to sell all that he had and give it to the poor – 100%! He praised the poor widow who gave her last two coins to the Temple. In your prayerful consideration, strike a balance between 1% and 100% — pledge to give what you really can and maybe a little more, and to give it gladly and regularly. Don’t compare yourself to others; your giving is a covenant between you and your family and God, and God is never outdone in generosity.
Give yourself. Consider ways to be more involved in the life of your parish this year. See your gifts at work in the various ministries. Explore new ways to use your time and talents in the service of others, not as a substitute for financial support, but as a way of living what that support symbolizes.
It would take very little, in practice, to move that 1% of annual income level of giving to 2%. For most people, that’s the weekly equivalent of a couple of large lattes or a gallon or two of gas. What could your parish do with twice as much financial support every week? And it wouldn’t take much to make it 2 out of 3, or even 3 out of 3, who give regularly.
You can make that difference, starting now. And then maybe you and Father can both stop dreading this time of year.
[ Editor’s Note: Parishes that wish to reprint this particular piece for their bulletin are free to do so, but are asked to include attribution to the author and to Aleteia.org ]