God and greed: a guide to religious giving

After politics, money is probably the most sensitive topic in religion, and one that gets much less media coverage than many other issues. Yet money is also the fuel that runs religion in the United States, and donating is a basic tenet of every religious tradition. How much believers donate to their faith communities, or to charity, and why, is only beginning to be studied in depth.

Reporting the details is challenging; government rules do not require many religious organizations to give public access to their records. Yet religious giving has profound implications for society, and studies show that American believers are making more money than ever but donating proportionally less than ever to churches and religious institutions and charities. On top of that, a greater share of those donations is going to support individual churches themselves rather than missions beyond their walls.

This source guide provides ample resources to help journalists report on financial giving – why people give, how much they give, and trends over time.

Background

Overview

In general terms, studies show that American believers are making more money than ever but are donating proportionally less than they ever have to their church or to religious charities and institutions. Moreover, a greater share of those donations is going to support the congregant’s own house of worship, rather than benevolences, the term used for money that funds overseas religious work or other missions beyond the walls of a single church.

The leading researchers on church giving are John L. Ronsvalle and Sylvia Ronsvalle of empty tomb inc., based in Champaign, Ill. Their studies tend to focus on Protestant denominations, which voluntarily provide the most detailed financial data. But empty tomb data does appear to hold true for many other denominations, and they collect some data on other church groups, including Roman Catholics.

Interpreting the data is, of course, the nub of all debates on this topic. Some argue that Americans are more materialistic and less attached to their churches than in the past; they buy more things and donate less. Other experts say that religion has grown more local than ever: Worshippers are more concerned with supporting their own congregation and are alienated from the wider denomination, if they are even part of a national or international faith group. Others say that economic uncertainty, rising costs and other financial stresses are leading Americans to withhold more from the offering plate.

Research from the Faith Communities Today 2005 survey from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found that 57 percent of congregations report that their financial situation is good or excellent. That was a notable drop since 2000, when 66 percent of congregations said their situation was good or excellent.

Journalists reporting on religious giving should keep several factors in mind. One is that most research focuses on Christian churches, largely because the large number of Christian denominations and their systematic approach to data collection provide enough information to draw sustainable conclusions. Many other faiths tend to be smaller and thus more difficult to research. Also, many (such as Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs) include a large number of relatively recent immigrants who may be reluctant to provide financial statements. At the synagogue level, Judaism is generally characterized by a system of annual dues for membership (which grew out of prohibitions on handling money on the Sabbath, when communal worship takes place). Jews donate in other ways as well, but there is little data comparable to the Christian tradition of passing the collection plate. Contact local and regional Jewish federations for information on Jewish fund raising.

Non-Christian faiths do have important and long-standing traditions of giving, and these merit exploration even if a quantitative picture of giving is elusive.

Why it matters

While religious believers often talk about most any topic related to their faith, money is rarely one of them. But the amount Americans donate makes it a topic too big to ignore. Studies estimate that Americans donate upwards of $100 billion to religious organizations and causes each year. That is an enormous sum, and it shows that religion remains the chief impulse behind charitable giving

Articles

National sources

Organizations

  • Hartford Institute for Religion Research

    The Hartford Institute for Religion Research at the Hartford Seminary is an excellent resource and includes a database of more than 800 megachurches in the United States. Contact Scott Thumma, professor of the sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary.

    It tracks financial trends in the religious sector through its Faith Communities Today survey. A 2006 FACT publication, “Insights into Financial Giving” provides an invaluable overview of charitable and church giving along with resources and experts. The report also provides a summary of different religious groups’ teachings on giving.

  • Resources for American Christianity

    Resources for American Christianity is a website funded by the Lilly Endowment that “seeks to assist leaders and participants in Christian communities, scholars and other interested publics in better understanding the impact, trends and trajectories of Christianity in American society.” Under the “Economics” category, the site has a series of excellent studies, papers and experts. They are under sub-headings that include: Church Finances, Giving, Materialism, Stewardship, Wealth and Work.

  • Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches

    The Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches is published by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB)and contains detailed financial data from most denominations. The data is self-reported.

  • Generous Giving Inc.

    Generous Giving Inc. is an evangelical ministry and foundation based in Chattanooga, Tenn., that seeks to encourage stewardship and financially sound practices among Christians. The group’s Web site includes a page of “Statistics & Trends” that provides data and context for this issue. Contact through the website.

    Contact: 423-755-2399.
  • GivingUSA

    Giving USA of Chicago, Ill., is the leading foundation dedicated to promoting overall philanthropy and ethical standards for charitable organizations. In its most recent annual survey, using data from 2006, Giving USA reported that Americans gave more than $295 billion to the nation’s 1.4 million charitable and religious organizations, with the largest single share—almost one-third—going to the religious sector. Giving USA includes “in kind” as well as cash donations, which is why their overall donation figure is higher than those of other groups, such as empty tomb inc. The media contact is Jean Bean.

  • International Catholic Stewardship Council

    The International Catholic Stewardship Council is a leading organization promoting increased stewardship in the Catholic Church. Research has shown that on average, Catholics tend to put less than Protestants — perhaps half as much — in the weekly collection plate. The ICSC, based in Dearborn Heights, Mich., is stepping up efforts to encourage giving. The group has an annual report on collections at the diocesan level.

  • Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities Inc (FADICA)

    FADICA (Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities Inc.) is a Washington, D.C.-based consortium of private charitable foundations and individual donors who try to foster stewardship and religious philanthropy. The organization has become increasingly interested in stewardship issues in recent years. Loretta Dees is the communications director.

  • National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management

    The National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management is a Catholic organization founded in 2005 out of concerns over financial mismanagement uncovered during the sexual abuse crisis. The NLRCM says its mission “is to promote excellence and best practices in the management, finances and human resources development of the Catholic Church in the U.S. by greater incorporation of the expertise of the laity.” Jim Lunholm Eades is the director of programs.

  • Material History of American Religion Project

    The Material History of American Religion Project was a Lilly-funded program, based at Vanderbilt University, that ran from 1995-2001. The program produced a series of papers and books on the topic of believers and money, and it still maintains a useful website with links to programs and participants. James Hudnut-Beumler was director.

  • Lake Institute on Faith and Giving

    The Lake Institute on Faith and Giving is a public forum for exploring connections between faith and philanthropy. It is part of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. David H. Smith is the chair of the Board of Advisors to the Lake Institute.

  • National Center for Charitable Statistics

    The National Center for Charitable Statistics, based in Washington, D.C., is the national repository of data on the nonprofit sector in the United States. It is a program of the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute.

  • Independent Sector

    Independent Sector is a leadership forum for charities, foundations, and corporate giving programs with headquarters in Washington, D.C. It published the 2001 study “Giving and Volunteering in the United States.” and posts links to recent studies on giving and volunteering. Kristina Campbell is the media contact.

  • Wall Watchers

    Wall Watchers is a evangelical-oriented ministry that encourages financial accountability and increased stewardship among Christian churches and organizations. Founded in the 1990s, Wall Watchers expanded with an adjunct group: MinistryWatch, which aims to provide “the donating public with access to organizational and financial profiles on 400 of the largest Christian ministries in the United States.”

  • Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability

    The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability was formed in 1979 in response to a wave of church financial scandals. Based in Winchester, Va., the ECFA has 2,000 member evangelical Christian organizations that adhere the ECFA principle, or Standards of Responsible Stewardship, which “focus on board governance, financial transparency, integrity in fund-raising, and proper use of charity resources.” Anna Hutsell is the media contact.

  • The Chronicle of Philanthropy

    The Chronicle of Philanthropy covers nonprofits.

  • Jewish Reconstructionist Movement

    The Jewish Reconstructionist Movement, previously the Jewish Reconstructionalist Federation, contains hundreds of resources based on the values, beliefs and history of Reconstructionist Judaism. It is operated by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Council. Email through the Reconstructionist Judaism website.

    Contact: 215-576-0800.

Experts

  • Dean R. Hoge

    Dean R. Hoge was a professor of sociology at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His books include, as co-author, Pastors in Transition: Why Clergy Leave Local Church Ministry (Eerdmans, 2005). Read a 2003 speech he co-authored, posted by Pulpit & Pew.

    He is a leading expert on money and giving in Catholicism and other denominations. Publications he has authored or contributed to include Money Matters: Personal Giving in American Culture and More Money, More Ministry: Money and Evangelicals in Recent North American History.

  • James K. Kelley

    James K. Kelley is director of development for the Diocese of Charlotte in North Carolina and president of the board of directors of the International Catholic Stewardship Council. Kelley is the author of “Stewardship Manual: A Guide for Individuals and Parishes Developing Stewardship as a Way of Life” and the book Sustaining and Strengthening Stewardship.

  • Mark Noll

    Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame and one of the most cited authorities today on evangelicalism in America. He co-founded the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College, where he taught for many years. Noll’s many books include America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln.

    He has written about the tradition of religious giving in American history.

  • Abdullah Saeed

    Abdullah Saeed is a professor of Arab and Islamic studies and director of Centre for the Study of Contemporary Islam at the University of Melbourne in Australia. He has written widely on the role of money in Islam.

  • Paul G. Schervish

    Paul G. Schervish is a director of the Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy and a sociology professor at the college in Chestnut Hill, Mass. He directed the studies “The Moral Biography of Wealth: Philosophical Reflections on the Foundation of Philanthropy,” “The Contradictions of Christmas: Troubles and Traditions in Culture, Home, and Heart,” and “The Emerging Material and Spiritual Determinants of Charitable Giving by Wealth Holders.”

  • Robert Wuthnow

    Robert Wuthnow is director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. He wrote the book Poor Richard’s Principle: Recovering the American Dream Through the Moral Dimension of Work, Business and Money and was the editor of the 2006 Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion. He is also the author of  After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion and Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America’s Heartland. He can speak about hot-button issues including abortion, the separation of church and state and gun control.

  • Charles E. Zech

    Charles E. Zech is a professor of economics at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. He wrote the article “The Value of Volunteers as Resources for Congregations” for the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (1998).

    He is a leading authority on finances in the Catholic Church.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Stephanie Clintonia Boddie

    Stephanie Clintonia Boddie is senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington. She specializes in the role of religious congregations in providing community services and has published two reports on giving for the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Center on Social Development.

  • Ahmad S. Dallal

    Ahmad S. Dallal is dean of Georgetown University in Qatar. His research interests include early modern Islamic societies, the causes of 9/11 and the relationship between Islam and science.

  • Peter Dobkin Hall

    Peter Dobkin Hall is a lecturer in public policy and a senior research fellow at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He does research on social welfare policy and civic engagement and has held a teaching appointment in the Divinity School.

    He is an expert in the history of religious philanthropy in America.

  • Sharon L. Miller

    Sharon L. Miller is associate director of the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. She is a sociologist of religion who specializes in evaluation research and data analysis. Miller co-edited a collection of essays on religious giving titled Financing American Religion.

  • Jonathan D. Sarna

    Jonathan D. Sarna is professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. He is co-author of Religion and State in the American Jewish Experience and author of American Judaism: A History, which won the Jewish Book Council’s Jewish Book of the Year Award in 2004.

    He can talk about Jewish attitudes and practices on religious donations and charity.

  • Ron Sider

    Ron Sider is founder and president of Evangelicals for Social Action, which promotes Christian engagement, analysis and understanding of major social, cultural and public policy issues. He is also Distinguished Professor of Theology, Holistic Ministry and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary in St. Davids, Pa. He is the author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America.

In the South

  • Mark A. Chaves

    Mark A. Chaves is professor of sociology at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He is an expert on religious organizations in the United States and leads the National Congregations Study.

  • James Hudnut-Beumler

    James Hudnut-Beumler is a professor of American religious history at the divinity school at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. He directed the Material History of American Religion Project, which focused on material objects and economic themes. He is an expert on the church, ethics, philanthropy and general money issues.

  • Steven Jacobs

    Steven Jacobs is a professor of religious studies and holds the Aaron Aronov Chair of Judaic Studies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He can comment on altruism as a scholar of modern Jewish thought and from a post-Holocaust perspective.

  • Timur Kuran

    Timur Kuran is professor of economics and political science and Gorter Family Professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He has researched economic issues involving Islam, and his books include Islam and Mammon: The Economic Predicaments of Islamism (Princeton University Press, 2004).

  • Charles McDaniel

    Charles McDaniel is a former businessman and now the associate director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He wrote God & Money: The Moral Challenge of Capitalism, and he writes and teaches on “the developmental parallels between Muslim economic thought and Christian economic ideas as they evolved over the course of Western history.”

  • David Schroeder

    David Schroeder is a professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock who has explored whether the motivations for helping other are egoistic or altruistic. He co-wrote The Psychology of Helping and Altruism: Problems and Puzzles (McGraw Hill, 1995).

In the Midwest

  • Michael David Bonner

    Michael David Bonner is a professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He has written on money and Islam, including the entry “Wealth” in the Encyclopedia of the Qur’an.

  • Roger J. Nemeth

    Roger J. Nemeth is a sociology professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich. He has written about finances and congregations, including an essay, “The Religious Basis of Charitable Giving in America: A Social Capital Perspective” for the volume Religion, Social Capital and Democratic Life.

In the West

  • Craig Blomberg

    Craig Blomberg is a distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary in Colorado and author of Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions, a study of prosperity theology. 

  • Alicia McNary Forsey

    Alicia McNary Forsey is a research professor at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, Calif. She authored an essay, “Attitudes About Money in Theological Schools.”

  • Gregory Schopen

    Gregory Schopen is a professor of South Asian Buddhism in the department of Asian languages and cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has written on the role of money in Buddhism, especially in India.

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