A View from the Pew: The Case for Undesignated Church Giving

Every Sunday before I wake my boys, I have a ritual: I go to their box of offering envelopes, remove the one for that date for each of them, get pens from the drawer and their pre-determined amount of cash from their stashes and set them at their seats for breakfast.

I barely think about this routine anymore, and often, neither do they. One recent Sunday, my youngest asked about the boxes on his envelop: budget, building fund, missions, special, or other. He asked me why I always tell him to check “budget.” I explained that for his weekly tithe, it was best to give to the budget because then the church could use the money for what it needs most.

That sparked a surprisingly in-depth conversation that spread to his brothers, who have no shortage of opinions on anything. It was a challenging discussion. I was always taught that you give “tithes and offerings.” Tithes—10 percent of your gross income—go to the church’s budget. Offerings—whatever you feel led to give—go to special collections like a missions offering or building fund. In fundraising parlance, tithes are undesignated giving, offerings are designated.

But until I had the discussion with my children, I hadn’t really thought about it in depth. One opinion they voiced was what I hear a lot of today from those inclined to make charitable gifts: don’t give to employee salaries or administrative costs. I understand the source of those feelings. People don’t trust nonprofit organizations or even their church anymore to make good decisions with the money. There have been too many instances where the members’ trust has been betrayed.

Donors would rather designate their gift and force the organization’s hand on how the funds are spent. That’s fine in most cases of charitable giving, but when it comes to church, there are a number of fixed expenses that have to be met regardless of the cost of ministry. It’s not optional to pay the electric bill, the internet provider, the alarm company, or the administrative assistant. In order for the church to function, you have to make undesignated gifts that can be applied where the funds are most needed.

I served on the missions committee at my church for six or seven years, and I was always conflicted by our bi-annual appeals. I was afraid if we made too strong a case for the missions offering, people would re-direct their giving from the budget to the missions offering rather than make an additional gift on top of their giving to the budget. That message was always a part of the appeals we made, but I don’t know if it resonated or caused resentment.

Having worked at a faith-based nonprofit, I know the power of designated giving. Truly transformational gifts can change lives. Designated giving, when prayerfully considered and strategically applied, can make organizations more effective and enable impactful ministry for years to come.

But the church’s mission is both general and focused. General ministry requires mundane budget line items. The feeling you get from designating your gift for ministry has to be expanded so that you feel just as good about gifts that keep the doors open.

Of course, as faithful Christians and dedicated church members, we should give. And no church staff member I know would turn down a financial gift regardless of whether it’s designated or undesignated. But I would challenge you to consider your giving. If you like the feeling of giving to specific causes, then make those gifts your “offering” while keeping your regular gift consistent to meet the church’s budget.

We would all do well to remember that sometimes the power of a gift, financial or otherwise, is surrendering control of the outcome and trusting God. I’m not advocating unquestioning or foolish giving to clearly fraudulent purposes. I am saying your church needs both kinds of giving.

Next time you pull the envelop from the box, take a moment to say a prayer about the different boxes you check. You might just find that week’s offering is a little more meaningful as a result.

Lance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA, does media relations and issues management at his day job, and blogs at newsouthessays.com.

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