Bishop Will Willimon: Passing the Plate

The poor widow who gave out of her poverty rather than her wealth (Mark 12:42) and the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-30) who refused to give anything out of his both typify American church giving.  Sociologists Christian Smith, Michael Emerson, and Patricia Snell have recently published a study on Christian stewardship, Passing the Plate (Oxford University Press).  Their findings are a call to action.  More than one out of four American Protestants give away no money to their churches. Evangelical Christians tend to be the most generous (giving the lie to the misconception that liberal Christians are more liberal in their concern for the less fortunate), but even their giving is nothing to brag about. Thirty-six percent of the Evangelicals report that they give away less than two percent of their income.  Only about 27 percent tithe.

Passing the Plate’s researchers estimate that American Christians who say their faith is very important to them and who attend church at least twice a month earn more that $2.5 trillion dollars every year.  If these Christians gave away 10 percent of their after-tax earnings, they would add a whopping $46 billion to ministry around the world.

Tithing is practiced by few.  The median annual giving for an American Christian is about $200, just over half a percent of after-tax income.  5 percent of American Christians provide 60 percent of the money churches and religious groups use to operate. “A small group of truly generous Christian givers,” say Passing the Plate’s authors, “are essentially ‘covering’ for the vast majority of Christians who give nothing or quite little.”

Most Methodist preachers already know that America’s biggest givers-–as a percentage of their income—are its lowest income earners.   Americans earning less than $10,000 gave 2.3 percent of their income to churches.  Those who earn $70,000 or more gave only 1.2 percent.

The amount of money we have appears to be a negative influence on generosity.  Church giving as a percentage of income was higher during the early years of the Great Depression-–around 3.5 percent—than at any point since.  When income went up, we began to give less.

The causes for these miserly patterns.  First, researchers say that the Bush years have been particularly tough on the Middle Class.  Fixed costs in households have increased from 54 percent to 75 percent of family budgets since the early 1970s.  (Our Asbury Church at Madison has a great program that trains families in Christian financial management.)

Second, some givers say they don’t trust their churches’ use of money.  Third (and I found this fascinating) individual Christians are acting much like their churches.  “Relatively little donation money actually moves much of a distance away from the contributors,” Smith, Emerson, and Snell write.  The money given by the people in the pews is mostly largely spent on the people in the pews.  Only about 3 percent of money donated to churches and ministries went to aiding or ministering to those outside of the congregation.... 

Passing the Plate says that a major reason Christians do not give is because they are not asked to.  Tithing is seldom mentioned.  Pastors are reluctant to bring up stewardship because the issue is so closely tied to their own salaries.  And the study found that pastors themselves are often not great models of financial giving which can exacerbate their reluctance to preach on it.  I am appalled by how many of our pastor’s tithe.  Poor leadership by the pastor always results in poor congregational giving.  Faithful giving begins with every pastor, D.S., and Bishop saying, “I have discovered the joy of cheerful tithing, and you can to.”   

...Passing the Plate suggests we could all do better.  We don’t talk about money as much as the Bible talks about the subject.  No church that expends 90% of its money on itself is a faithful congregation.  There is no way to follow Jesus with a closed hand.  Jesus’ great gift makes givers of us all.

_ --William Willimon _


By Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

  1. Immediately make sure your personal giving is what it should be.

  2. Immediately say "thank you" and find ways to do so regularly all year.

  3. Tell people regularly what was accomplished through their giving.

4.  Immediately do something concrete to assist those in economic distress.

5.  Ask lay professionals to conduct workshops on budgeting and personal finances.

[Adapted from the 'Weekly Message from Bishop Willimon,' 4/27/2009]