Tag Archive: Church Budget

Understanding Evangelical Christianity: It’s All About the Benjamins

free-money-for-pastor-walt

Warning! Snark and pointed commentary ahead. Easily offended Evangelicals should avoid reading this post lest it “trigger” them.

Every time I write about Evangelicalism and money, I get emails and comments from angry “Spirit-filled” Evangelicals who object to my characterizations of their churches, pastors, and beliefs. Evangelicals have convinced themselves that their churches serve some higher moral purpose and that their ensconcement in their local communities is essential to the welfare of locals, Christian or not; that their churches are bastions of morality and ethics, and without it, their communities would slide into immorality, unrighteousness, and decay. In their minds, they are the bulwark holding back Satanic, atheistic, socialistic Mongols intent on destroying Western civilization. That none of these things is true matters not. Perception is reality, and when it comes to Evangelical churches, they delusionally have a bigger-than-life view of their place not only in their local communities, but in society as a whole. The fact remains, however, that if every Evangelical church closed its doors tomorrow, most communities wouldn’t even notice. Sure, members of those churches would be adversely affected, but since Evangelical churches do very little meaningful charitable work, it is doubtful that people outside of the closed churches would notice their closures. I know, I know, ouch, but, as I will show, Evangelical churches, compared to the amount of money they take in, do very little, dollar-for-dollar, to “minister” to people who aren’t members of their clubs.

Evangelicals love to tout the notion that they give more money to charitable causes than secular people do. Take that, Bruce! Well, here’s the problem with this “fact: Evangelical charitable contributions include the money they donate to their churches and other religious organizations. If, as I assert, Evangelical churches are fundamentally clubs, and that congregations pay their membership fees weekly by giving money to their respective churches, then most of the “dues” stay inside the church. Take a look at the average church’s financials. Not the annual generic bullshit summary they put out, but the actual income/expense statements. What you will find is the most church income goes towards buildings, utilities, insurance, salaries, benefits, equipment, and programs that typically only benefit club members. It is not uncommon to find that a church spends less than ten percent of its income on actual ministry outside of the four walls of their sanctuary. The bigger the church, the less percentage-wise that is spent on doing meaningful work in the community. A megachurch might talk up the fact that they spent $1 million helping the “least of these” — laudable, to be sure — but $1 million out of a $25 million budget is what? Four percent of the church’s budget. In other words, ninety-six percent of the church’s income is spent in-house. Which is their right to do. Clubs have a right to spend their monies as they see fit. After all, clubs exist to benefit members, not people outside of their memberships. The issue I have is the unwarranted trumpeting of all the “good” Evangelical churches purportedly do in their communities. (If you are inclined to fire off an angry email to me that says your church and pastor are “different,” please send me copies of your church’s income/expense statements — full statements, not a summary. So far, not one Evangelical has done so, but, hey, maybe you’ll be the first.)

If Evangelical churches are clubs — and they are — then success is measured thusly: the more asses in the pews/chairs, the more money in the collection. Asses=money. No asses, no money. What are the two statistics that every congregant and prospective member wants to know? Attendance and church income. Take a look at the average church bulletin or attendance board. What two numbers do you find, regardless of the denomination? Attendance and offering. Churches in the United States — particularly Evangelical congregations — operate much as businesses do. What are businesses most concerned about? Customer counts and revenues. Granted, businesses are also concerned about profit and loss, but churches are given billions of dollars’ worth of tax exemptions and are wrongly considered by the IRS and state tax authorities as tax-exempt non-profits. And even here, churches get to play by special rules that don’t apply to “worldly” charitable organizations. Those organizations are required to file quarterly/annual tax returns, but churches are not. Why should churches and clergy receive these tax benefits? Evangelicals scream about federal tax money supporting Planned Parenthood, yet the taxes paid by non-Christians directly support the operations of Evangelical churches and their ministers. Why should atheists, agnostics, humanists, and other secularists be forced to support Evangelical (and other Christian) congregations? Perhaps, it is time to pull the tax teat away from Evangelicals. Just because a church says it is a charity doesn’t make it one. And why should non-Evangelicals pay for clergy housing and living expenses? Man, all this talk of tax exemptions makes me want to go out and plant a new church: The First Church of the Latter-Day Dude — Ney Branch. (Please see How American Taxpayers Subsidize Churches and Ministers and Should Church Donations be Tax Deductible? and The Johnson Amendment: I Agree With Donald Trump and 21 Things You Might Not Know About Evangelical Churches and Pastors)

dudeism

I have participated in countless church business meetings and board meetings over the years. What’s the number one thing talked about at these meetings? Money. How to generate more income and on what to spend it on. Some churches take in far more money than they could possibly spend so they “invest” the money. It is not uncommon for older, established churches to be sitting on piles of cash. I pastored two such churches over the years. Both were sitting on large sums of money. Yet, when I suggested spending some of the money to renovate buildings, expand ministries, increase salaries/benefits, or fund new outreach ministries, why, you would have thought I had asked them for their first-born sons. Come on, that was God, not Pastor Bruce.

Regardless of whether Evangelical churches spend the money as fast as it comes in or squirrel it away in bank investment accounts, the fact remains that church life revolves around money. One the one hand, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Life, for all of us, revolves around money. The difference, however, for Evangelicals is that they purport to believe and practice the teachings of the Bible and set themselves up as some sort of moral authority. If you take the higher moral ground, then you should expect that people are going to hold you to a higher standard. And if you say your life is governed by the Bible, people are going to look at how you and the churches you attend handle money and ask, where is your treasure?

 Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness! No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. (Matthew 6:19-34)

First century Christians likely met in homes. Two thousand years later, expensive Christian churches sit on countless street corners. First century preachers were likely bi-vocational. Two thousand years later, full-time pastors make good money, complete with benefits and vested retirement plans. First century Christians likely spent significant time ministering to the least of these. Two thousand years later, churches spend most of their money on making fat sheep fatter. It can be argued, then, that the Christianity of Jesus and the early church has long since died, and that whatever people call Christianity today bears little to no resemblance to the church that Jesus built.

Want to change my mind about Evangelicalism? Start spending those Benjamins you worship. Start meaningfully ministering to the poor, immigrants, orphans, and the other hurting people. Fire your pastors and staff and tell them to get real jobs. Remove the golden idol from the center of the church, and then you’ll see what people are made of. As it stands now, I don’t see a Christianity that matters. It is unlikely that I will ever darken the doors of a church again, but how about living in ways that would cause me to admire you and the work you do from afar.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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How Evangelicals Convince Themselves That What They Do Matters

fat sheep

I recently attended a sporting event for one of my grandchildren that brought me in close contact with a large group of Evangelicals. Over the course of ninety minutes, as I stood there photographing the game, I listened to these Evangelicals talk about their churches, other churches, summer missionary trips, and helping the poor, homeless, and downtrodden. I later told my son about my eavesdropping and how their discussions were very much like the discussions we would have had a decade or two ago. These Evangelicals spoke as if they and their churches were doing monumental works that were making tremendous differences in the lives of those they came in contact with. And from their seat in the pew, I’m quite sure it “seems” like they are doing things that matter, but when considered in a broader context, their mighty works for Jesus amount to little or nothing. Certainly, to the person given a meal or coat, their acts of charity made a difference, but when taken as a whole the charitable works performed by Evangelicals are little more than a drop of rain in the ocean. Within the Evangelical bubble, these acts of compassion often become larger-than-life. Evangelical teenagers raise money to take mission trips to third world countries. While no one would say that nothing good comes from these mission trips, when the work done is compared to the money spent, it becomes quite clear that money spent on travel, meals, and entertainment would be better spent by locals instead of Evangelical do-gooders from afar. The returning teens and adults have wondrous stories to share, but rarely will anyone bother to consider if any real, lasting good was done.

On the home front, Evangelical churches proudly speak of their ministries to those whom the Bible calls “the least of these.” Again, my purpose here is not to criticize Evangelicals for the good that they do, but I think is important to view their acts of charity in context and judge them according to overall church and ministry budgets. Jesus made clear in the Gospels that what Christians spend their money on shows what really matters to them. Matthew 6:19-21 states:

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

And in Matthew 25:31-40, we find these words:

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

While Evangelical churches have food pantries, clothing rooms, and ministries that help the poor and homeless, when the money spent on these programs is compared to the overall budgets, it becomes clear that what matters to Evangelicals the most is salaries, benefits, insurance, utilities, buildings, and programs geared towards keeping well-fed sheep comfortable, content, and happy. The overwhelming majority of budgeted money is spent within and not without the walls of the church. And this is fine if Evangelical churches are what I have long claimed they are — social clubs. However, most Evangelical churches, pastors, and congregants believe that the works they do in Jesus’ name are monumental in nature. So, because their works are often viewed as larger than life, it is fair for us to judge their actions in the larger context of how church offerings are spent. Churches are, by default, considered charitable, tax-exempt institutions. The difference, however, between churches and other charitable organizations is that churches are exempt from reporting requirements. When charitable groups are granted tax exemptions, we as taxpayers have a right to know whether they are actually spending most their money on acts of charity. Most people likely think that religious institutions spend most of their money helping out the downtrodden, but the fact is very little money actually goes towards caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, paying utility bills, or providing clothing and shelter to those in need. Over the years, I have touched on the issues raised in this post numerous times, often raising the hackles of offended Evangelicals. How dare you say that Evangelicals don’t do much for “the least of these.” Why, my church does ________________ . Fine, I say to them. Show me your church’s budget. Not the generic, one page summary. I want to see the entire budget, complete with statements of income and expenditures. I want to see exactly how much money is taken in and the percentage of that money that is spent doing actual works of mercy and charity outside of the four walls of the church. I’ve yet to have a church or a pastor provide me with these documents. Why?  Because they know, truth be told, that very little of their income actually goes towards helping those in need. The overwhelming majority of income keeps the machinery running. This is why it is laughable when Republican Evangelicals suggest that churches can take on meeting the needs of the poor. Cut taxes, they say, and let God’s people care for the sick, hungry, and impoverished. Imagine how much higher the poverty rate would be if it were left up to Evangelicals to take care of the welfare needs of others. They can’t even take care of their own, let alone those who live outside of their four walls.

Our local mall is in a steady state of decline, with store after store closing its doors or moving to cheaper locations. I told Polly that perhaps Evangelicals could get together and purchase the mall, turning it into a multi-denomination worship center. Every sect could have its own storefront. People visiting for the first time could choose from any of a number of ice cream flavors. Wouldn’t such a facility be a wonderful testimony to the unity that Christians are supposed to have? Expenses could be shared, and there would be no need to keep up one hundred separate buildings, each with its own pastor. Think of how much more money these churches would have to minister to the disadvantaged and marginalized. Yet, I know that having a one-stop church shopping center would never work. Why? Because every church thinks that they are special, and without them, bad things would happen in their communities. I have had more than a few Evangelicals argue that without churches, communities would become dens of iniquity and immorality. Churches are lighthouses in their communities, these Evangelical defenders say. I am convinced, however, that most churches could close their doors and no one outside of the membership would even notice. There are six churches within three miles or so of my home. These churches are filled with decent, kind, loving Midwestern farm folks, much like the people I mentioned at the start of this post. To them, their churches matter, but for those of us who sit outside of the church, we wonder what community good is being done by these churches? I suspect if these six nearby churches closed tomorrow, there would be no qualitative difference in the community in the weeks and months that follow.

For Evangelicals who stumble upon this post, I would ask them to be honest. Take a hard look at what your church does ministry-wise, and ask yourselves, are we doing anything that really matters? Are we doing anything outside of the four walls of our churches that justify us receiving a tax exemption and being financially supported by taxpayers? Well, indignant Evangelicals might say, our churches are focused on getting people saved. We don’t worry about temporal needs. Better to go to heaven hungry, then to hell with a full stomach. But even here, most Evangelical churches fail in their mission. Church baptismals are used to store Christmas decorations, with many churches rarely baptizing new converts. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest non-Catholic denomination in America — largely Evangelical — is known for its evangelistic efforts. Yet, most SBC churches baptize a few or no new converts. When new Evangelical churches are planted, most of their attendance growth comes, not from people getting saved, but by people leaving their churches and joining the new one. In nearby Defiance, there are several hot-to-trot Evangelical churches that are growing by leaps and bounds. Most of the people flooding into these churches come from nearby established congregations. We Americans are never satisfied with what we have. We are always looking for the latest and greatest whatever, and this applies to churches too. Bored Evangelicals seek out new thrills, using excuses such as “my needs are not being met” or “I’m not being fed” to justify their wanderlust. New churches grow, and established churches decline. While it seems that God is “moving “in these new churches, what’s really happening is that people are just changing pews.

While there certainly are a small number of churches that take seriously Christ’s command to minister to “the least of these,” most are social clubs that exist for the benefit of their membership. I don’t have a problem with this. People should be allowed to belong to whatever club they want. But I do object to taxpayer money being used to support these clubs. Churches should be required to fill out annual reporting forms that justify the tax exemption they receive. If most of their income is not being used for charitable means, then they should not be tax-exempt. Personally, I would like to see the Johnson amendment (please read The Johnson Amendment: I Agree With Donald Trump.) revoked. Churches and their ministers should be treated like any other business, with their income subject to taxation. Only congregations that can demonstrate that they exist for charitable purposes would be granted tax exemption. Like other charities, these churches would annually be required to justify their continued tax exemption. I suspect that less than ten percent of churches would qualify for tax exemption. Out of the almost three hundred churches in the Tri-County area where I live, I don’t know of one church that would qualify. No matter how many youth groups return from mission trips with stories of mighty works done for Jesus, and no matter how many “ministries” churches list on their website, the fact remains that most of the money collected goes toward making sure pastures are maintained and sheep are well fed.