Tom Evans is a former treasurer for the North American Division. Lilya Wagner is the Director of Philanthropic Service for Institutions for the North American Division.

An article published in the New York Times in 2016 had this rather alarming title: “Donations to Religious Institutions Fall as Values Change.”1 For much of its history, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has enjoyed an abundance of generosity from church members who give their tithes and offerings—perhaps out of habit, or because of parental example and persuasion, or simply due to their belief in God and the church. However, in recent years, that has changed somewhat, almost paralleling what is happening in the rest of the religious world in North America.

Back in the “good old days,” which we remember fondly, a pastor could say to his congregation, “God said to give, so you must give,” or something in a similar vein, and church members generally gave without questioning. That is no longer true, and whenever it is mentioned that generous giving has taken on a different dimension, pastors nod in solemn agreement.

Today, members want to know what happens with their money. They expect to have a voice, they want reports, and they want to know just what their money is used for. If they do not receive answers to their questions, they may well do one of three things: stop giving, lessen their giving and channel their funds elsewhere, or demand more attention as donors. And yes, the word “donors” is not just relegated to secular causes. The giving habits of most church members and their expectation for information and recognition have become nearly parallel with those traditionally labeled “donors.”

Although religion is still the largest recipient of overall donations in the United States, at about a third of the total giving ($373.25 billion, according to the report from Giving USA), that is down from around fifty percent in the mid 1980s to early 1990s. And it should be clarified that this category of research refers to churches—not organizations like Adventist colleges or even community service organizations.

In the past, members gave generously because there was a certain level of trust in the church as an institution: people had more “blind” faith and didn’t question as much, and, in spite of conflicts or decisions that weren’t always compatible with everyone’s beliefs, people still remained loyal. Giving was engrained in the church member and was seen as an obligation or duty.

These qualities of generosity have changed. So what is a pastor to do? Here are some suggestions, from a practical viewpoint, based in biblical perspectives:

  • Be transparent in the management and reporting of funds.
  • Ensure that promises are kept. If someone gives to a specific aspect of the church, that money must be used for that purpose.
  • Do not take giving for granted, even though it is a biblical injunction and principle.
  • Involve key individuals in the reporting and management of funds, not just the treasurer or pastor.

The good news is that the “more important religion is to a person, the more likely that person is to give to a charity of any kind. . . . Among Americans who claim a religious affiliation, the study said, 65 percent give to charity. Among those who do not identify a religious creed, 56 percent make charitable gifts.”2

Religion does motivate generosity, both to the church and to good causes. We just need to recognize that the “good old days” of giving are gone, and move on with the proclivities and attitudes of our members today.

1 Alina Tugend, “Donations to Religious Institutions Fall as Values Change,” New York Times, November 6, 2016.
2 Alex Daniels, “Religious Americans Give More, New Study Says,” Chronicle of Philanthropy, November 25, 2013.

This article was first published in Best Practices, July 23, 2017. It has been lightly edited for Elder’s Digest.

Tom Evans is a former treasurer for the North American Division. Lilya Wagner is the Director of Philanthropic Service for Institutions for the North American Division.