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How Evangelicals Give

The most fascinating article I’ve read recently (on a per-word/per-number basis) appeared in Monday’s Christianity Today web feed; it’s a little infographic called How Evangelicals Give [link, PDF]. It’s a presentation of three collections of data: one from the Chronicle of Philanthropy/Giving USA [link], underlining the importance of religious charitable contributions as a portion of overall charitable giving (hint: religious charities are the most popular at 33%, followed by education charities at 13%, and ten other categories; the study included criteria that classified e.g. World Vision as International Affairs and Catholic Charities as Human Services; equally good criteria would produce different pie charts), and one from something called Empty Tomb Inc [link] on how different denominations fund overseas missions. The numbers on historical trends in individual giving came from Empty Tomb Inc as best I can tell.

From what I can read of the Empty Tomb Inc report, they calculated individual percentages based on disposable (after-tax) income using published government figures; this part of their analysis was included in the Amazon preview of their $34 report. This number is harder to grasp for a given church member (we can look at our paycheck and figure what 10% of the gross is, or even 10% of the takehome, but neither of these is necessarily the number the report uses), but more meaningful in an economic sense. They do inflation adjustments as well, so they’re effectively talking about transfer of buying power from donor to church.

The bottom line: well, they distinguish regular giving from special offerings, and say that in 2008 (their most recent year) church people gave 0.35% of their income to churches as special offerings, 2.07% as regular giving. This is a pretty useful distinction: regular giving usually forms the basis of a church’s annual budget, while special offerings are one-time items that may not contribute to the financial health of the church. They may go into a reserve fund, they may be spent immediately on a special project, or they may be one of the “love offerings” that featured so prominently in the recently concluded Grassley investigation.

Disposable income is just household income (the number you see in e.g. census figures) minus taxes; that’s income tax, not property tax, sales tax, etc. So if your household income is $42,000 your disposable income would be your total less your real tax rate (federal, state, and city, as applicable), not your marginal tax rate, or say $31,500 at 25% total tax. In yesterday’s hypothetical church example, an average family would at the 2.45% level give their church $31,500 x 0.0245 or $772 annually. At 3 people per family that’s $257 per person per year; scaled to 150 people that’s less than $40,000 a year, or about 15% of a hypothetical $230,000 annual budget.

There are a bunch of assumptions here, but if I picked different values from their various ranges (slightly higher giving levels, slightly larger or smaller families, slightly more affluent typical families, etc.) it’s hard to make the numbers sensibly double.

At first glance I think this suggests what anyone who has spent time in a smaller, older, mature church suspects: a handful of donors give most of the money, and most of the people who attend church give very little. I guess it’s no surprise, then, that the same handful of people end up in positions of authority year after year, making most of the spending decisions.

 

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  1. February 2, 2011 at 9:16 pm

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