Tithing when it's tight
by Sara Milledge
Jul 12, 2013 | 3298 views |  0 comments | 37 37 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Every Sunday, offering plates wind up and down rows of pews across Calhoun County. Some church members place neat envelopes into the brass plates. Others dig in their pockets and purses for spare coins to give. But when a church’s budget is entirely dependent on a tithe, a bit of change might not be enough.

According to a study conducted by the Barna Research Group, in 2007 only 5 percent of adults contributed the traditional 10 percent of their income to churches. That percentage has stayed low since 2001, peaking at 7 percent in 2005 and 2006.

While only a small number of adults tithed the full 10 percent in 2007, two-thirds of adults donated some money to a church, synagogue or other place of worship, with the average amount hovering around $880.

In 2011, CBS News released a report that found Americans give just under $97 billion every year to religious organizations.

For Christians in particular, the tithe has dwindled to 2.5 percent. The term “tithe” literally means 10 percent. It originated as a tax the Israelites paid to support the priestly tribe, the Levites, to fund religious festivals and to help the poor. In the year 585, the Synod of Mâcon made tithing an official part of Canon Law for Christians. A millennium later, the Council of Trent threatened excommunication for any Catholic who refused to tithe. Today, the faithful of any religious community are held to less stringent standards.

The Barna Group cites a number of reasons for the decrease in giving, including a soft economy and changing church demographics. But local religious organizations say they have not noticed much of a change in their income.

At Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church, Father Bryan Lowe said his church has not seen much of a change in the amount members tithe.

“The people who give regularly are still committed,” he explained. “It’s the people that empty their pockets and put what they have in the offering plate that has decreased.”

At Sacred Heart, the tithe serves as the church’s entire budget.

“We really don’t have any other resource at all,” Lowe said. The church will sometimes hold fundraisers for specific projects, he added, but never for the overall budget.

Although Lowe said the church has not experienced a noticeable change in income from member donations recently, sometimes the church has to work a little harder to make ends meet.

“It gets a little tighter from time to time,” he said. “The cost of living goes up. But that happens regardless of the economy.”

Donnie Ford, a public affairs official for the Birmingham stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which includes Anniston, agreed with Lowe. Ford said a tough economy does not directly affect the payment of tithes since it is a percentage of income. The downside, he added, is that a person’s income may decrease, which in turn decreases the amount they tithe.

“Members still pay 10 percent even during hard times,” Ford said. “We teach that paying tithing is a blessing and Heavenly Father will bless a faithful tithe payer with more than they pay in tithes. It may not be in the form of money, but it will be a financial blessing to them.”

Ford added tithing is completely voluntary, and not all members of the LDS church pay full tithe or even any tithes.

“We continue to work with all members to teach the correct doctrine and have them live an obedient life,” he said.

Churches are not Anniston’s only religious organizations that rely on member donations. Temple Beth El and the Anniston Islamic Center both say tithing is an important source of income, but like churches, they haven’t seen a decrease in recent years.

“Tithing is by definition 10 percent, but what is important is that each individual contribute and recognize that what we have is a gift,” explained Rabbi Irving Bloom, who serves as Beth El’s part-time rabbi. “It is the concept of giving of one’s means to help and assist those less fortunate.”

In the Jewish faith, the tithe is known as the ma’aser, which, like the English word, literally means “one-tenth.” The ma’aser is given for the maintenance and expenses of the temple.

Even in tough economic times, Bloom said Jewish families are expected to contribute.

“You are obligated according to our tradition not to opt out of being involved, no matter your personal financial situation,” he said.

Beth El congregant Rena Schoenberg said the temple has not seen a noticeable change in giving, even though the congregation consists only of about a dozen families. She added members are not restricted to financial giving. They can donate their time, instead.

Bloom also touted the tithe’s flexibility.

“It is not a question of tithing or giving only to the synagogue or church … it’s a matter of giving overall,” he said, adding members can give toward different charitable organizations, which is known as tzedakah, or charity.

Like Judaism, Islam distinguishes between funds for the mosque or masjhd, and money for the poor, known as the zakah or zakat.

The zakah is somewhat analogous to the tithe in that it is a yearly percentage. Rather than giving 10 percent of their income, Muslims are asked to give 2.5 percent of their annual savings to help the poor in the community.

“The linguistic meaning of the word is purification,” explained Imam Muhammad N. Haq, adding a Muslim’s money will not be purified until is it shared with the poor and the needy. “If you’re not taking this money out, that means you’re mixing the right money with the wrong money.”

The Quran stipulates how the zakah should be spent. Haq said the money can be used to help the poor, people who have lost their jobs, those who have lost all of their belongings and people who are heavily in debt. He describes the money as “the right of the needy people.”

Like the biblical tradition behind the Judeo-Christian tithe, the Quran teaches giving zakah will help to increase a believer’s wealth, either spiritually or financially.

“It grows,” explained Dr. Khalid Mehamood, a visiting professor of Islamic studies from Pakistan. “The more you spend, the more Allah will give you.”

Generally, Haq said, the Anniston Islamic Center has not had any trouble providing for either the masjhd fund or the zakah. He credits the financial stability to the professions of the center’s members, many of whom have higher-paying jobs, like physicians and professors.

“Of course there is a little bit of up and down,” Haq said. “It’s not only the economy — people go and new people come.”

He added that some larger centers with bigger budgets and a bigger community have to do an annual fundraiser for the year. In other Islamic centers, people chose to pay a set small amount each month, rather than a large chunk once a year.

“We really are not in a situation like that so far,” he said.

Although local religious centers have not seen much of a financial change since the downturn of the economy, nationally, tithing is at its lowest point in decades.

All things considered, Anniston’s religious leaders don’t seem to be too concerned with the trend.

Father Lowe says it all comes down to one thing: faith.

“I just trust people are going to give.”
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