Acton Institute Powerblog

The right attitude about tithing during COVID-19

COVID-19 has caused thousands to lose their jobs and other regular sources of income. As a result, many have had to cut any extra or unnecessary spending to make ends meet. Some of these “extra costs” included donating money to their local church, house of worship, or favorite charity. Whereas many businesses could generate income by moving online during the pandemic, most churches do not have the luxury of going completely “virtual.” In terms of donations, the faithful could certainly wire money, and many others were able to begin tithing online. Yet even such efforts would not offset the losses of parishioners’ offerings made in person during Sunday services.

Now Christian churches of every denomination are finding it ever harder to cover basic costs of running parishes and outreach ministries. About one-third of U.S. churches have no savings, relying heavily on members’ donations to survive. Some denominations and nonprofit organizations reported that donations remained steady or increased in April 2020 compared to April 2019. However, as the State of the Plate poll indicates, more than half of U.S. churches saw great decreases in donations during the pandemic, forcing some churches to cut staff, cut salaries, or dip into emergency endowments.

During the quarantine period, many churches offered parishioners the opportunity to donate through popular online applications. According to the website Tithe.ly, roughly 60% of American church-goers say online giving is a positive and safe experience and that they are willing to continue donating this way. However, many churches are not seeing an increase in online giving, despite this positive assessment.

The fact is while some technologically savvy churches and saw their donations remain stable or increase during the lockdowns, many other churches struggled with the shift to online giving and were not as successful in maintaining their pre-coronavirus contributions. Some pastors could not make the shift due to lack of resources, while others simply could not meet the challenge of the required technology. As a direct result of poor funding, many parishioners found themselves without their local Sunday services, because the livestream could not be financed.

This had a further ripple effect of reducing tithing even more, since many “old style” parishioners found themselves progressively disassociated with parish life in general. Simply put, without virtual services and in-person events, parishioners may not have seen the need to continue giving. And, for those whose giving came through a weekly envelope, not attending church services meant not giving at all.

Churches are a primary example of the interconnected nature of human beings. Some are more obvious in everyday life, like the forces of supply and demand in industries or our reliance on farmers for food. Churches and people are also a prime example. It is clear that religious institutions provide spiritual needs to parishioners through worship services or Masses, spiritual guidance, and church charity. These institutions provide the moral instruction and support on which many people depend. The faithful, in turn, respond by financing all these good initiatives. There is a lot of truth to this quid pro quo mentality which we learn in market settings.

While it is perfectly understandable that some people are struggling financially during a global pandemic and simply cannot afford to financially support their local church like they used to, others have chosen not to donate based on “transactional attitudes” because they are not receiving services. This is not what the faithful should be thinking. The church is not a marketplace where only services that are actually rendered deserve to be paid.

Giving without expecting anything in return is an essential part of being human. It teaches us about the gratuitous generosity we are called to in the deepest human relationships. It is what helps us look beyond the useful and transactional to the transcendent, empowering us to fulfill our higher missions on earth. Tithing takes this step higher, as it requires stable giving in good and bad times. Tithing weds our hearts to the Church, which gives us more than we can possibly understand. Our needs might not be met now, but they will in the hereafter. Storing up treasure for that day is the best investment we could ever hope for and one we should cheerfully make.

(Photo credit   Glendale United Methodist Church – Nashville. This photo has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.)

Kielce Gussie

Kielce Gussie is a Church Communication graduate student at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.