Change in Habit

Offering PlateWith a little help, churches for centuries amassed wealth like it was their business. From huge collections brought in by parishioners, churches bought buildings, land, countries—but that was the Middle Ages. And of course their help was the specter of eternal torment if its congregation didn’t give every meager penny they could afford.

It’s fair to say things have changed plenty since. For most churchgoers, donating isn’t an obligation any more. Stuffing collection baskets or mite boxes isn’t a fast-track to heaven any more, so much as it’s an opportunity to be charitable to a organization they feel has given so much to them already.

“I know they have to have money to function, but they also give so much back,” says Richard Ito, who attends Eastern Hills Community Church in Aurora on a weekly basis.

For instance, Richard says, his granddaughter attended preschool at the church for a minimal cost. That’s something he said helped his son’s young family, and knowing that his donations go to services like preschool or community services is helpful. But that’s not the reason he goes every week, and offers what he can for the collection basket when it comes around.

“It’s not obligation, it’s just something that I’ve been doing forever,” Richard says.

He’s not alone. According to Empty Tomb, a Christian research group, donations in 2011 to American 20130213-4826K- St Therese-0117-2-FPOand Canadian churches topped $22 billion. The group says more than 100,000 denominations reported to the group for their report, which was released last month. Although the amount is substantial, it also reflects a trend for many churches: donations and congregations may have suffered from the recession.

Specifically, the report points to several years of declining donations. The group says churches across North America had $87.2 million less to spend in 2011 beyond their congregations from the prior year. Richard says he felt the pinch of the recession just like everyone else did.

“It’s a little tougher to give, with the way I’ve felt in the last few years. But I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t give to the church,” he says.

Debbie Stafford, who is a pastor in Aurora, says she too has seen the effects of a financial slowdown too. She says that while the amount of money seems to have decreased, the intention behind the donations are just as strong as ever.

“I think that most people want to give something to their communities,” she said. She’s heard that a local congregation’s pastor encourages people to donate any way they can, whether it’s to the church or just a person on the street who looks like they could use the help.

“I think that works too,” she adds.

Like most parishioners, there’s very little forcing Richard to give money. He chose Eastern Hills in Aurora, he says, because “pastors don’t drive Cadillacs” there and he never feels like he’s being hassled for money. Yet, according to Rick Dunham, who advises churches in fundraising, that could be part of the problem. Rick tells some churches to tell parishioners that money doesn’t matter in the long run, and by asking congregations to give what they can, they’ll be making an “investment in eternity.”

Debbie says she understands that sentiment, but also knows that it’s the charity in most people’s hearts that helps out where it can. There’s a strictly scriptural reason to give, she knows, but she doesn’t ask people to give for that reason alone.

“I think the fire-and-brimstone thing has gone away … I don’t hear a lot of that anymore,” she says.

According to Empty Tomb, the percentage of income offered by churchgoers has steadily declined over the past few years. In 2011, the average amount given by a churchgoer to a congregation was 2.3 percent of their overall income. That’s down from 2.4 percent in 2010, and down sharply from 1968, when the average was 3.1 percent.

“I’d give (money) to another charity if I wasn’t going to church,” Richard says. “We’ve had a good life. Not rich, but pretty good.”

Strictly speaking, there’s a 10 percent suggestion in most congregations, something Richard is so unfamiliar with that he says, “I think it’s about cattle or something? I can’t remember specifically what it is.”

Debbie says that’s a good place to start but it’s worth noting that people are still feeling the effects of the recession.

“It’s hard, and money’s definitely tight for a lot of people … it’s whatever they can give,” she says.

On average, higher income earners gave more money to churches than any other income bracket. And older parishioners over 75 years old gave the largest portion of their income to churches than any other age group. The report also showed that middle-income churchgoers gave a higher percentage of their income—fewer dollars than wealthier followers—than any other group. Giving was also higher in the West and Midwest than it was in the Northeast for 2011.

Churches are even turning to modern conveniences to help parishioners pay in whatever method they feel comfortable with. Hartford, Conn.-based LPi offers smartphone apps and web-based payment systems for churches to offer and accept credit card and web-based donations for when cash might not be accessible, but PayPal is.

ParishPay, another online donation service for churches boasts that its service has directed more than $300 million in donations since it started 10 years ago. That group, based in California, caters primarily to Catholic churches but says their goal was originally to help‚ people easily make large donations to their churches. Their services now expand to everyday donations that people can make online.

An online survey by the website Philanthroper found that people were more likely to give more by making smaller donations in higher frequencies, than perhaps a once-a-week lump sum. That site offers charitable organizations that people can donate $1 every day of the week except Sunday.

In its report, experts at Empty Tomb also suggested that it wasn’t as important for churches and church leaders to stress how much parishioners should give to the church, rather how much good their money could do if it was available to help the less fortunate.

Debbie agrees and says that it’s up to each person to decide what they’re looking for spiritually, and financially.

For faithful like Richard, giving to the church still feels good, even if it’s been every week for decades now. And although it doesn’t feel specifically like charity, it does feel like he’s making a difference in helping keep a community church going.

“I don’t know if it’s gratification, it’s just something that I do. Nobody puts the pressure on and I know it’s going to a good place,” he says. “I know I could sit there and not give anything, but I would feel like I’m not doing my part.”

Metro Area Faith-Based Charities



4405 Pecos Street, Denver

Connected with the archdiocese of Denver, Catholic Charities serves over 50,000 people in the metro area each year by providing food, shelter and services. The group also helps seniors and children and advocates for immigrants in the area.



2844 Lawrence Street, Denver

Sacred Heart House in Denver provides temporary food, shelter, clothing and transportation primarily for needy single mothers who need help with their children.



3501 E. 46th Avenue


The Denver Rescue Mission helps homeless around the metro area with emergency help or family services.

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