Many congregations set aside a Sunday each October or November to encourage their church members to pledge financial support for the upcoming year. Such an undertaking usually produces some dread for clergy and laity: it is difficult to find laypersons to organize this effort; pastors and laity often have little time or enthusiasm for the effort and some suspect that attendance is lower on “stewardship Sunday” even when the congregation offers a meal or other enticements to increase participation.
Some congregations get along without this annual fund-raising effort by consistently teaching and preaching the obligation of followers of Jesus to give sacrificially, thus rendering an annual pledge Sunday unnecessary. These congregations say they usually have all the money they need without the thankless task of fund-raising.
Other congregations, even if they dread going through the annual process, recognize great value in specifically challenging followers of Jesus to step forth with a signed card indicating financial faithfulness and sacrifice as a specific sign of loyalty to Christ and church.
I am not advocating for one approach over the other, although during my ministry I encouraged congregations to conduct a pledge campaign annually. Sometimes, depending on the circumstances, we might have had two campaigns the same year to meet special needs outside the annual church budget. I confess that — in the weariness (and wariness!) of some of these campaigns — those churches that boasted of never conducting a stewardship emphasis looked very attractive.
There is a larger point I want to make, however, and it is that we not take for granted this wonderful system of church governance whereby all contributions are voluntary. Even in those congregations that insistently demand their members give 10 percent (tithe) of income to the church, every contribution is still voluntary.
Consider the difference between this voluntary giving with the relationship of church and state in Europe where many countries continue to tax their citizenry for support of the church. This system of taxation has evolved over the years, offering citizens the right to opt out of the tax or to designate their tax to a church other than the state-supported body. Even with these modifications, though, the church taxation system remains in place, insuring the church a steady, reliable flow of income.
In a season when church financial contributions here in the United States are declining (surveys show that such gifts are at historically low levels) it might be tempting to advocate for the European model with its predictable income stream.
But the church taxation system is a Trojan horse of a solution. Once people are no longer responsible for their own congregational support, the sense of church participation and ownership is lost. Clergy will be more tempted to abuse power and laity will be less attracted to support the congregation’s ministry. American congregations might expect a temple tax from every follower, but it is up to each religious organization to make its best case for the giving.
Creede Hinshaw of Macon is a retired Methodist minister.