By Loren Seibold  |  7 September 2018  |  

Here’s a notion I keep hearing from friends who are unhappy with the decisions of the top leaders in our denomination. “The only way to get influence is with your money. If everyone quit paying their tithe, and instead gave their money to [the local church, the local conferences, independent ministries, specific projects] pretty soon the General Conference would have to start listening to people.”

It’s a beguiling idea. I just don’t think it’s true.

Boycotting the Denomination

If half the church members in the NAD would suddenly withhold or divert their tithe, would Elder Ted Wilson have to change his tune areas in which the NAD doesn’t agree with him?

First, let’s be clear that enough of our church members diverting tithe to make any difference is just never going to happen.

There have been plenty of studies of consumer boycotts, of which tithe withholding is a subspecies, and the conclusion is that “If the aim is to hurt company sales, boycotts rarely succeed,” according to Americus Reed writing in the New York Times. Not enough people will boycott, and for those who do, the behavior change lasts a short time. Researchers say that the activists may get some initial attention by announcing a boycott, which a company may react to for fear it will tarnish its brand. But as a way to reduce profits, it doesn’t work.

Some of our faithful folks who pay tithe would find tithe diversion too complicated. Many believe that paying their tithe to the conference is the right thing to do, and would be uncomfortable with strong-arming the denomination in this way. My suspicion is that the loudest grumblers don’t pay tithe anyway. If that last describes you, you’re certainly free to make that choice, but it does raise the question of whether you’ve got locus standi (as the courts say) to raise the issue.

Another problem is the nature of the organization. A company manufactures tortilla chips or yoga mats to make money; they’re not following God’s revealed will to do a ministry of tortilla chips or yoga mats. If consumers complain, the company can quit using GMO cornmeal, or move its factories to Mississippi, or redesign its mats, with minimal difficulty. It reacts quickly to avoid being the subject of a negative news story.

A church thinks of itself differently. It is in business because it is invested in a set of beliefs. It has an extreme devotion to its sense of itself as a group that follows God’s will even in the face of opposition—sometimes especially in the face of opposition—and that may mean its leaders would choose to strangle the organization rather than change the way it does business, because the way it does business is, by definition, God’s will.

For example, reliable sources have told me that when Elder Ted Wilson was asked after San Antonio about a strategy for comforting and keeping the support of those who were voted down on women’s ordination, he replied, “We know that a shaking is coming upon the church.” An important business concern—how you reclaim disaffected customers—didn’t interest him because of his sincerely held prophetic belief about those who opposed him.

A Tithe Misunderstanding

I once got an email from someone who told me, with some anger, “Our church takes in twice as much each year in tithe as what our pastor gets as a salary. We should get two pastors, not have to share him with another congregation. The denominational leaders are ripping us off!”

There’s a basic misunderstanding here: that the cost of a pastor is his salary. That’s not true in any business. (And the church, I remind you, is in many ways a business.) As a pastor I get medical insurance and some retirement benefits, which any businessman will tell you are legitimate employee costs. If I had children I would get some pretty nice subsidies as a denominational employee to send my children to Adventist schools and colleges.

Tithe also provides an amount roughly equal to the pastoral payroll in subsidies to Adventist schools, and some goes to summer camps, departments and denominational administration. Now, you may feel, as I do, that we could trim down our administration without losing much. But an organization like ours will always have some administration, and your tithe pays for that, too. The guy who sends me my check every month has to be paid, and I’m glad that he is.

You may not like the way the money is spent, and you have a right to your opinion. But don’t equate your church’s tithe with your pastor’s salary and conclude that someone “up there” is grabbing all the money.

Ascending Pinch

Here’s the heart of the problem: contrary to what some believe, most of the tithe church members give is spent in the local conference. Only about 15% of your tithe funds budgets for other organizations! Only about 4% of NAD tithe makes it to the GC budget itself, of which a portion of that is spent on missions. And a plan is already in place to reduce that percentage further over the next several years.

So if tithe dropped by half, it would indeed pinch the budgets of the union, division and GC offices. But it would also mean that half your conference’s pastors will be out of a job, as well as half your church school teachers and half your conference office staff.

So money taken from this general kitty hurts local work far more than it hurts the high muckamucks. You want to motivate Elder Ted Wilson to open his heart to ordaining your female pastor? If a boycott were to succeed and half the tithe payers in the NAD quit giving, she’ll have been dismissed due to conference budget shortfall long before he even noticed there was a problem.

One more thing. Many of us are strongly appreciative of the courage of the Columbia Union Conference and the Pacific Union Conference in ordaining women pastors. Do we want to pinch them out of business, thus removing a major firewall between us and the GC?

The bottom line: the General Conference leadership is insulated from the will of the givers because of the extremely small proportion of the tithe that it receives.

Alternative Giving

You may be saying, “I just don’t want so much money to go to the General Conference.” In this you would be in good company: the proposals put forth by the North American Division Church Governance Committee involved reducing the amount of money passed on to that institution. Still, though our bureaucracy may be overweight, let us not suppose we can get along without some church administration.

But perhaps you desire to see more of your money spent locally, managed transparently, and in projects where there’s a short loop between need and response. Let us suppose it is a matter of conscience on your part, for which you’re happy to give up supporting your local pastor in exchange for feeling that you have more oversight and control of your money.

Before we go down that path any further, let me introduce some cautions.

Having oversight and control: You may choose to give your money where you think it’s better used. But let’s be clear that when you give your money to a charitable cause, you lose oversight and control the moment you drop your check into their hands. In both the United States and Canada, certain kinds of gifts to charitable organizations are tax deductible; but if it gets found out that the organization is letting you control the spending of your gifts, there will be trouble. Take this example, which I have personally encountered: someone wants to give a tax-deductible gift to the church school, with the proviso that the giver’s grandchildren get a free ride. That’s illegal, and risks the charitable organization’s non-profit status.

By the way, my experiences with givers who try to control everything because they gave some money isn’t pleasant. Don’t be that person!

Giving your money to your local church: This seems appealing, until you understand what it can’t accomplish. If you appreciate having a pastor, you need to know that the local church doesn’t pay pastors or school teachers directly. So if everyone gave their tithe to the local budget there would be a big surplus for the utilities and Sabbath School papers, but that’s all.   

In fact, the vast majority of our NAD congregations are so small that they don’t raise enough tithe to cover the cost of even their own pastor. It is only by the pooling of tithe from much larger churches (who should have many more pastors than they are assigned) that small churches can have even a portion of a pastor.  

Giving to special projects or independent ministries: Again, this has a certain attraction. “If the church won’t take my money without giving some of it to those guys at the GC, I’ll direct it where I want it to go.”

There are wonderful charitable organizations out there that use money wisely and efficiently. While we would never solicit your tithe, I do wish more people would realize that Adventist Today operates on a shoestring, and there’s much more that we could do with enough money to pay our writers, administrators and editors what they deserve. As for humanitarian projects, Carmen and I have a favorite, Amistad International, on whose board I serve and whose director, Karen Kotoske we know well and trust. I have no doubt that donor gifts are used as thoughtfully there (orphanages, schools, and clinics in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, with minimal overhead) as they would be anywhere.

But that’s not true for every charitable organization. For example, what if you learned that your gifts to a particular ministry were paying for the director’s private jet, as well as the legal expenses of the director’s divorces and divorce settlements, and expenses incurred because of pedophile accusations against the director’s brother? Would you be happy you gave? Those are behind-the-scenes stories about the popular Three Angels’ Broadcasting Network.

Adventist Today recently reported on the Williams Lake church in British Columbia, which invested around a million dollars in building an evangelistic center in India only to find that leaders there were unwilling to account for the money spent; Williams Lake found evidence that some of it went into people’s pockets rather than into the project.

That is to say, just because you can choose where to give doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily make better choices. In defense of giving to the denomination’s tithe fund, at least here in the NAD there is committee control of spending and a robust auditing system.

Giving to your local conference: By policy, tithe (remember that—it’s the magic word that designates money that pays pastors) is divided up, some of it to pay local pastors and teachers, and a portion passed on to the union conference, the division and the General Conference. If you mark “tithe” on your offering envelope—or even if you hand the conference treasurer a check and mention that you consider this money your tithe—it must by policy go into the institutional tithe sorting machine. Denominational policy requires that denominational organizations and even independent ministries that belong to ASI place anything they know to be tithe into the tithe fund. To my knowledge, you cannot send money to the conference and say, “I want my tithe to go to paying pastors in my conference, but none of it to the union or division or GC.”

Conferences do have a non-tithe operating fund, and that is sometimes used to balance the personnel budget, too. Ohio has a fund for ministry projects called Vision Ohio and other conferences may have something similar. If you don’t want your money to go beyond the local conference, you can give it there, though in some conferences that fund’s first priority may be education, the summer camp and other non-personnel items.

Just remember that you can’t call it tithe. It’s like Fight Club: “The first rule of tithe diversion is never tell anyone it’s your tithe that you’re diverting.”

I will warn you, however, that if funds like that are overused, our ecclesiastical overlords won’t be happy, because church policy designed tithe to keep the whole institution afloat, not just your local conference. But I think it quite unlikely that very many people are going to go to the trouble of sending their not-called-tithe tithe directly to the conference.

If you love your conference and your pastor, stopping or redirecting your tithe will hurt them the most, while affecting Silver Spring very little. Giving to alternative projects might make you feel better, but there’s no guarantee your contribution will be well-used. I tell you this not because I’m a church employee (be assured that many of us are also concerned about how church money is spent) but simply to remind you that this isn’t a simple problem to solve.

Loren Seibold is a pastor and the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.

To comment, click here.