Tithing in the Time of COVID: Churches, Wealth Gaps, and Giving Gaps

Most charities are struggling financially right now. But churches are not most charities. Churches run on a unique revenue model, funded by voluntary contributions from a group of individuals who tend to be socially and economically homogeneous. Which means that the economic state of the church looks much like the country: the haves are having more and more, while the have-nots discover new ways to not have.

The way COVID hit American households is the way COVID hit American churches. We know people with college degrees have been more likely to keep their jobs, and that white workers—who are able to work from home in greater numbers—are more likely than Black, Indigenous, and employees of color are more likely to keep their jobs.

This means churches comprised of educated and white members are likely continuing to meet their revenue projections or, if they fall short, are suffering more from the inconvenience of virtual worship (that is, Zoom’s not-yet-developed in-app “Pay Now” feature) than a lack of member funds. Churches comprised of hospitality, mobility, and service workers (where people of color are overrepresented) are likely struggling significantly to meet budget, and disproportionately relying on denominational emergency support funds or external donor relationships. These are the same churches where pastors are already more likely to be bivocational, and pastors as well as congregants may be struggling with unemployment.

COVID is exacerbating the same wealth disparities we’ve collectively exacerbated for the last several decades. It is critical–faithful–that churches that have remained financially stable over the last six months change their patterns of giving. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Partner with a local church that has greater financial need. Offer ongoing support for the duration of the pandemic by subsidizing a local pastor’s salary—particular of a predominately BIPOC-church. The best thing you can give is unrestricted cash, because churches, like individuals, tend to know what they need most, and adding restrictions to money adds stress to both the relationship and the finances.
  2. Create mutual aid funds for inside and outside the community. Many congregations have off-budget support funds for congregants in need. If you don’t, start such a fund now. If you do, start an additional Community Aid Fund. These are dollars that go to anyone who shows up at the church doors and ask for money, without vetting or paperwork or prayer requirements. People who show up at church doors—who have both the humility and the desperation to ask for money—tend to be people who have exhausted every other possibility, from failing to qualify for disability to reaching the Salvation Army after all rent relief subsidies have been disbursed. While scammers do show up, and tend to show up repeatedly, take it on faith that a one-time cash gift fund, at the pastor’s or the administrator’s discretion, is a faithful gift and an essential part of the social safety net. If you’re concerned about abuse, set an annual cap or agree to “no more than $100 per person” or go read your Bible because Jesus did not vet the worthiness of the people he healed.
  3. Develop ways of communicating this aid if your building is still closed, because a community aid fund is only as accessible as the staff and volunteers who manage it. Put a flyer on the door with a phone number or office hours. Keep masks and PPE on hand for folks in need who come in without safe accessories. Collaborate with other local congregations and direct people where to go and who still has Community Aid Funds available, so that no single congregation gets overwhelmed. If you do get overwhelmed, take it as an affirmation that you are offering the gospel where it is needed. If you run out of money, count it as a success, take a breather, and find a new way to support your neighbors.
  4. Tithe off the top. Contribute 10% of total monthly giving to a charity. Or put it into your external mutual aid fund. If your church is meeting budget goals, or close to meeting budget and expenses have dropped with COVID, commit to giving every month a percentage of tithes receives. Quick distribution maximizes impact, allowing your gifts to get to agencies sooner and minimizing congregational debate and approval of the perennial “What to do with the surplus?” question that will be resolved next March, a year after COVID began. (If you want to be extractive and transactional about it, ask the church’s administrator or facilities manager to calculate the savings the church has gained from sitting empty—in water, electricity, and other bills—and donate that amount every month to an agency directly serving people in need.)
  5. Start a little free food pantry. Don’t start a food pantry—something that requires volunteers, committees, organization, and is likely duplicative of other understaffed and under-accessible food security initiatives that other local churches are operating. Just build a box—a very large little free library of nonperishable goods and encourage a small group to look after it, while encouraging everyone to drop by and contribute goods to it.
  6. Adopt a social service agency. Channel your volunteer time and relationships into one significant partnership that gives you a bird’s eye view of COVID-through-the-lens-of-“X”-agency. As mentioned at the top, most all charities are struggling, and sometimes, viewing COVID through the lens of homeless children, domestic violence survivors, or folks with mental disabilities, in a sustained, collectively committed way yields a bigger understanding of the impact one church can make.  
  7. Support denominational camps and retreat centers. Not the established, endowment-funded ones but the barely-meeting-budget-on-a-good-year camps that pay their staff in kitchen-made retreat meals. These camps are often regional centers for diversity, bringing together congregations from rural, urban, and suburban demographics with different socioeconomic backgrounds. Supporting and maintaining camps through the pandemic maintains pathways of communication and witness across socioeconomic barriers.
  8. Lower the barriers for financial support to Millennials and Gen Z attendees, especially college students. Instead of care packages, send students cash. Give a scholarship, even a nominal one, to every college student. Support early-career Millennials. They are now in the second recession of their decade-long careers (give or take), and many were already at an economic disadvantage from graduating into a recession.

Churches that are financially stable cannot continue “giving as usual.” There is a louder, more plaintive, desperate cry for help, and giving can no longer be usual, it must be abundant.

Consider this: What would you have done differently at the peak of the Great Recession, knowing what you know now, and if the Great Recession was 5 times as bad?

Do that.

Bottom line: Give as much as you can, whenever you can.

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