Rather than a Jerry Maguire demand of “show me the money,” denominations often find themselves asking “where has all the money gone?”
Depending on the denomination, funds to denominations began declining between 30 and 50 years ago. However, it took a while for it to show obvious impact on core programs and emphases.
Many denominations through much of the 20th century sought to promote a primary funding stream whereby churches would contribute a dollar amount or a percent of their undesignated tithes and offerings to the denomination. In denominations where churches are autonomous, this was typically voluntary. Yet, at the same time, a culture of commitment and loyalty was promoted. Faithful congregations were seen as those who gave a certain dollar amount according to their size or a certain percentage of their tithes and offerings.
Congregations in denominations with a connectional authority system generally had an assessment or allocation funding rate they were requested to meet. Meeting their annual assessment or allocation was regularly a challenge for congregations.
Some denominations still have a certain level of financial commitment that is expected of congregations. Whether they get it or not is a different issue. This primary funding stream was once a financial growth vehicle. Later these funding streams barely matched the rate of inflation. Now in many denominations these streams are a diminishing source of income.
Also income from these primary funding streams is a decreasing percentage of the annual operating budget of denominational organizations. Other funding streams are an increasing percentage of the operating budget. But, make no mistake, the overall undesignated funding for many denominations does not purchase what it once did, and is often the subject of annual cutbacks.
Beyond a primary funding stream, denominations typically have one or more special offerings. The vast majority of these focus around global or local missional engagement efforts. Cutbacks, refocusing of priorities, and downsizing of staff in areas funded by these special offerings is a regular occurrence.
With the squeezing of these two core means of funding has come a competition for funding between national/international, regional and local denominational organizations. Each seeks to claim they are the best dimension of denominational life to support. It continually creates winners and losers in these denominations. No, that is not right. It creates losers everywhere.
One of the places where many denominations have been late to the party is in the development of multiple funding streams that could support long-term their vital programs and ministries. Parachurch and other similar organizations beat denominations to this party and in many situations developed a loyal base often not available to denominations or congregations.
Congregations Took Their Ball and Went Home
The movement to decrease funding to denominations started with the transition into a congregational era and away from a denominational era. If there is such a thing as the post-denominational era, the first step was not the diminishing of denominations, but the ascendency of congregations.
Powerful economic forces began impacting congregations in the 1970s and launched a significant shift in what they funded. The general growth in congregations that had begun following World War II began to wane, and their changing demographics resulted in many existing congregations becoming plateaued and declining. To deal with this situation, many congregations began keeping a larger percentage of their income in the congregation to pay for various types of revitalization and transformation efforts.
Inflation and multiple economic recessions began to impact the growth of income in congregations, while at the same time the cost of staff and facilities increased faster than did the income. Take medical insurance as an example. It is not just in the past decade we have seen these costs escalating. It has been happening for multiple decades.
Show Me the Money
All of this is to say that when denominations approach congregations and ask them to show them the money and make more sacrificial gifts to and through the denomination, primarily people who learned their loyalty to denominations before the 1970s fall in line.
Congregations are saying they can better spend their own money in prophetic missional efforts outside their congregation than can their denomination. Therefore, they have less money to show the denomination. Congregations, instead, say show me how you can do the compassion and missional things in the current era with excellence better than they can be done in and through local congregations and we will consider it.
Another issue congregations raise is that one resource they wish they had gotten more of from their denomination is assistance in increasing the stewardship and generosity within their congregation. Instead their denomination just kept coming to them and saying “show me the money”.
Previous posts in this series: This Kind of Denomination IS Dead. Denominations Now Provide Fewer Resources for Congregations.