Money, Money, Money: How Faith Communities Stay in Business

by Vicki Garlock on January 7, 2015


Wikimedia Commons: Takkk

One of the commonalities across faith traditions is the idea of giving. In Christianity, we have caritas. In Islam, we have zakat. In Judaism, we have tzedakah. And in several Eastern traditions, we have dana. These words are not identical. Each has developed connotations based on historical context, linguistic translations, and the way in which concepts of God/Enlightenment are articulated. Caritas comes from Latin and is best translated as “charity.” Zakat is translated from Arabic as “that which purifies.” Tzedakah is Hebrew for “justice, fairness, or righteousness.” And dana is Sanskrit for “giving.”

In some sense, however, focusing on the etymology of these words amounts to little more than nit-picking. The spirit of these words is similar across traditions. First, giving is an inherent part of one’s faith practice. In the monotheistic traditions, we are encouraged to make offerings to God as the Source of All. In the Eastern traditions, giving without expectation is good karma and allows one to practice letting go. Second, we all live in community, and that community is well-served when people share. Even people in ancient times recognized that — for whatever reasons — some individuals have more than others and the entire system suffers when individual members suffer. Many have argued that helping people understand this is one of the reason why various religious traditions appeared in the first place.

All traditions also acknowledge that “giving” is not just about money. It might be about resources in general, whether that’s livestock, food, oil, or cars. It can be about giving your time, your energy, or your expertise. It is most certainly about sharing from the heart and not just the pocketbook. But, let’s be honest: at some point, it is about money. All faith communities want to serve society in some way or another, but that requires resources, and those resources include money. Talking about money makes most every faith leader uncomfortable to some degree, but talk about it they must. In fact, the conversation begins at the beginning when churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, and gurdwaras set themselves up in the U.S. as non-profit entities. Dangling the tax-deductible carrot, every faith community gratefully accepts monetary donations – by cash, check, credit card, Paypal or stocks. Beyond donations, however, my interfaith work has offered some interesting insights into the both the customs and the semantics of the faith-based money game.

The Christian tradition is the most familiar to me since I grew up in those communities and currently work in a church. There are two primary ways for churches to bring in money: pledges and plate. Filling out a pledge card is an annual rite-of-passage for church members. In fact, it’s one of the hallmarks of church membership. Usually, the cards are filled out near the end of the fiscal year. The organization then uses those pledges, in conjunction with other information, to create an operating budget for the following year. Our fiscal year follows the calendar year, so we promote pledging in November/December. Our campaign kicks off the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Each Sunday, someone stands up and speaks briefly (for about 2 minutes) on why they pledge to our faith community. The minister also sends out reminder letters to everyone in our directory, and pledge cards can be found in the Sunday bulletins (since we don’t have pews). Churches vary in how much they harp on annual pledges. Some churches tend to view them as a measure of one’s commitment to God while others have done away with pledge cards entirely. Most churches seem to fall somewhere in between, viewing pledge card season with both dread and hopefulness.

Christians offer their own rather unique twist on the giving game with their “throw a bit of cash in the offering plate” approach. I’m sure it depends on your particular church, but you won’t see a lot of “benjamins” thrown about as most people contribute somewhere between $1 and $20. On a couple of occasions, I’ve even seen people make change for themselves by throwing a $20 bill into the offering plate while taking out a $10. But, as most operating budgets show, this level of financial commitment adds up, and churches almost never miss an opportunity for this rather public use of positive peer pressure. As I jokingly say, “If we could get away with passing the offering plate twice on Christmas Eve and Easter, we would!”

After attending my first Shabbat many years ago, one of the follow-up questions I asked the rabbi was, “So when do you pass the offering plate?” He laughed while assuring me that there was no such practice in the Jewish tradition. Make no mistake: Jewish communities need money, too. But their money talk tends to revolve around membership and tickets. Membership in a synagogue generally (although not always) requires an annual payment. The specific amount varies across congregations, but it can often be found quite readily on web sites. For example, our local Conservative synagogue charges $1,000/year with financial considerations made on a case-by-case basis for members who really can’t afford it. The amount is set by the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism which is also where the money is sent. Other Jewish communities use a sliding scale membership fee. For example, annual membership fees at the Interfaith Families Project in Washington D.C. range from $725-$1850 depending on family income. There is almost always a tuition charge for Hebrew School, as well. This frequently varies depending on the age of the kids and/or how many years they’ve been in the program.

Then, there’s the issue of tickets. I briefly mentioned some of my experiences with tickets for the High Holy Days in Lessons from My First Rosh Hashanah. Having been raised in a Christian tradition, I was rather critical of the ticket approach. No Christian church would ever think of selling tickets to a Christmas Eve or Easter service. They aren’t carnival rides after all. But a mistake I made this year provided new perspective. I had purchased a One Jewish Asheville ticket that provided access to all the synagogues in our fair city for the High Holy Days, but I also wanted to make a financial contribution to each synagogue I visited. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I showed up at the temple and dutifully displayed my ticket. Then I said, “I also want to make a contribution.” The woman behind the table full of name tags handed me a pre-addressed envelope and said, “Thank you so much. You can just drop this in the mail.” I said, “Oh, that’s OK. I’ll just step over here and write you a check!” She quickly stopped me. “Please don’t do that. We don’t deal with money at all on our holy days, so it would be better if you could send it later.” Somewhat embarrassed, I scurried to my seat. So that’s one advantage of tickets, I thought to myself, as I reflected on the brief interchange. If everyone purchases a ticket in advance, then there’s no need for money-handling during services. All of a sudden, I began to see the passing of the offering plate in a new light. How crass, really, for everyone to be handling dirty, crumpled cash in the middle of worship!

Sponsorship is another way in which Jewish members can contribute to the community. In particular, one might sponsor a kiddush. The Kiddush is a Sabbath blessing recited over wine/grape juice. Frequently, a bit of food is shared as well. Over time, the term has come to refer both to the blessing and to the light meal. Sponsoring a kiddush can mean providing the necessary funds for the meal or bringing the food itself. I’ve noticed similar sponsorships in other faith traditions. For example, many mosques offer the opportunity to sponsor a community iftar (or part of an iftar) which is the break-fast meal served at the end of each day during Ramadan. Likewise, in the Jain tradition, members of the community can sponsor a lecturer, a puja (ritual), or a meal during one of their celebrations.

And that brings me to the Buddhist tradition. I am now on the Board of Urban Dharma, one of our local Buddhist centers. One of our jobs, as a non-profit Board, is to ensure the financial integrity of the institution, which is an interesting proposition for a Buddhist center in America. Traditionally, Buddhism (like Hinduism and Jainism) has focused almost exclusively on the donation model. Lay-people have always supported the monasteries, and many people are familiar with the food-begging bowls used by monks in other countries. Super-imposing those customs on American culture – with our individualistic values and capitalist economy – is turning out to be an interesting venture. Most Buddhist centers try to maintain some version of the dana model by not stipulating a set price for rituals and teachings. From the Buddhist perspective, price-setting makes it seem as though one is paying for Dharma which goes against the idea that the wisdom of the Dharma is priceless. Unfortunately, the dana model, in and of itself, rarely provides enough money for Buddhist centers to stay in business. I suspect this is partly because of the “throw a few bucks in the offering plate” mentality that is inherent in our Christian-based ethos.

Most Buddhist centers are trying to find a happy medium by offering variations on the dana theme. Some centers have a “Sustaining Member” program, which is similar to the pledge system found in Christian churches. Some charge a set fee for weekend or week-long retreats. Some offer teachings on a dana basis, but they also include a “suggested donation” prompt to give people some idea of what resources the center needs. As one Buddhist leader put it, “Figuring out the monetary aspects is kind of a work in progress,” which struck me as a very Buddha-like thing to say.

As the song in the 1960’s musical, Cabaret, proclaims, “Money makes the world go ‘round.” Although somewhat overstated – and scientifically incorrect – it is true that money is one of life’s necessary evils. Even for faith communities. The topic of money  has offered some interesting — and somewhat surprising — interfaith lessons as I attempt to navigate both the similarities and the differences between traditions. What I am discovering is that there are variations on the theme, but that’s a pattern that keeps repeating itself in all my interfaith adventures.

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