Growing up active in the church, I often heard a version of the following joke. It was usually told in Presbyterian circles, but I have a feeling it’d work in other denominations as well.
Question: How many church leaders does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: Change! What’s that?
Or, an alternative punchline includes, well…first we have to elect a nominating committee that will elect a study committee to consider things and, after months of careful discernment, bring a recommendation to council.
Well, it turns out that the church stewardship world has changed a lot over the years. In today’s article I’ll share a few of these changes. Next week, I’ll report on a new study on churches and electronic giving.
Adam J. Copeland, Director, Center for Stewardship Leaders
Have We Always Done it This Way?
Adam J. Copeland
It may be a surprise to many readers that early American churches received funds in two ways that, today, would be non-starters in most congregations. From the country’s founding until the early 1800s or so, many congregations were supported by taxes. In his book, In Pursuit of The Almighty’s Dollar, James Hudnut-Beumler refers to this move towards “religious disestablishment” as “the largest instance of privatization in all of American history; it moved a large part of the traditional public sector into the private marketplace in a relatively short period of years.”
Now that churches were no longer supported by tax dollars, church leaders turned towards other regular forms of income. Renting or selling pews was common, a practice in which families would pay an annual fee to use a particular pew. The more expensive ones were often found near the heater. “Free” pews were available in the back or balcony, setting up a clear hierarchy of membership. Churches also held suppers, socials, and raffles to raise funds for their work and ministry.
By the late 1800s, searching for new ways to support the church and its mission, many pastors explicitly taught tithing to their members, though the practice never fully caught on. Hudnut-Beumler describes their approach: “tithing was attractive as a source of funding to the degree that clergy could convince themselves and others that it was a spiritual law, as unappealable as the laws motion, force, and gravity.” Clergy often emphasized that these funds would go to support Christian missionaries. Giving to the church was understood as a moral duty prescribed by scripture.
Such an emphasis on giving spawned interesting practices. For example, the son of a Methodist pastor recalled that prominent members of his father’s congregation would elect to give their pledge not to the treasurer, but straight to the pastor. That way the pastor would know that they were faithful givers. The pastor always carried an account book for this purpose.
In the early 1900s, congregations embraced a new technology: the offering envelope! As church publishing companies races to produce enough envelopes to supply the growing demand, pastors welcomed the opportunity to move towards unified giving. If all the funds to the church were received in one envelope, the congregation could build a more reliable annual common budget.
Soon, the envelope technology shifted again, and the church welcomed a two-pocket, “duplex envelope” system in which members could put funds to the local church in one pocket of the envelope, and funds for missions, world missions, and benevolences in the other.
The Reverend Samuel Stein, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Springfield, Ohio praised these new envelopes for they allowed people to give fifty-two times a year rather than saving up for an annual gift. Further, the envelopes supported regular giving, by which Pastor Stein explained, “regularity here means good order.”
Another church, in 1924, announced about their monthly duplex envelope system: “Thus the habit of regular, joyous giving is formed and the givers are conscious that they are real members of the church and not occasional visitors, who come and go as their comfort and desire may dictate.”
Alas, I don’t have space here to write about the changes in the way pastors preached about money, or note shifts in how congregations addressed money in worship and collected the offering itself. But I hope appreciating even this brief history might open us to exploring how we are funding the church — and God’s broader mission — today. Next week, I’ll turn specifically to electronic giving, a technology unimaginable to the church of the early 1900s, but essential to our church leadership of the early 2000s.
Much of today’s article is drawn from James Hudnut-Beumler’s fine book, In Pursuit of The Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2007).
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