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When worshippers at Petaluma Christian Church pass the collection plate on Sundays, they are engaging in a Judeo-Christian tradition that dates back to the time of Abraham. And they are hoping to ultimately come up with the $280,000 a year needed to run their small evangelical congregation.

Pastor Bill Linton's flock of 120 adults and children is tithing on a scale far below presidential candidate Mitt Romney's highly publicized $4 million contribution to the Mormon Church in 2009 and 2010.

But they are, like Romney and millions of other Americans, giving a tithe — 10 percent of their income — to the religious faith of their choice.

In a time of economic difficulty and declining membership, churches remain the nation's leading recipient of charitable giving, at more than $100 billion a year. But most also depend on their congregants to pay the bills and support missions.

Some congregations in Sonoma County join the Mormons in asking their members for 10 percent of their income, the standard prescribed in the Old Testament, while others set a lower expectation or leave it up to individual discretion.

Organized religion walks a line between connecting with divinity and collecting cold cash, and local religious leaders say the decision on what to give is ultimately a matter between a member and God.

"We teach that the tithe is a standard, not an obligation," Linton said. "It's an expectation."

Congregation Shomrei Torah of Santa Rosa, the county's largest Jewish group, maintains a "fair share policy" that asks members to give 2 percent of their income.

Bruce Falstein, congregation president, said he jokes that "we're an 80 percent discount — a bargain."

At the spiritually eclectic Center for Spiritual Living in Santa Rosa, members decide what to give, and 70 percent of donated revenue comes from 30 percent of the givers, Senior Pastor Edward Viljoen said.

Catholics are expected to put whatever they can afford in the collection plate, and no one checks how much it is, said Deirdre Frontczak, spokeswoman for the 160,000-member Santa Rosa Diocese.

"We recognize that not everyone has the means," she said.

For Mormons, who number about 6,000 in Sonoma County, tithing is an obligation, with no exceptions for hard times or personal circumstances.

"We look at it as an opportunity to be obedient to one of God's commandments," said Ray Henderson, president of the Santa Rosa Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Mormon Church, based in Salt Lake City, is a financial empire worth an estimated $30 billion, with about 14 million members worldwide. The church does not release financial reports, but revenue from tithes was estimated by Time magazine at $5.2 billion in 1996.

Linton's modest Petaluma congregation, which dates back to the 1880s, runs on what he calls a "shoestring budget" controlled by a five-member board of elders.

Both engage in tithing, a practice mentioned three dozen times in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, and a source of controversy today in some religious circles.

Leviticus 27:32 articulates the standard: "The tithes of the herd and the flock, every tenth animal that passes under the herdsman's rod, shall be sacred to the Lord."

Mormons are asked by their bishop, the lay leader of a ward, or congregation, to affirm that they are donating 10 percent. Those who are not tithing are prohibited from worship at Mormon temples, where the most sacred ceremonies are performed.

But no documentation, such as a tax return, is required, Henderson said.

Mormons believe that everything they have comes from God, and the tithe is a chance to "give back 10 percent," Henderson said. "It might be hard to understand if you take the faith out of it."

First Presbyterian Church of Santa Rosa, founded in 1855 and one of the city's three oldest churches, encourages its 600 members to give 10 percent of their income.

"We consider giving to be a response to God," Pastor Dale Flowers said. What members actually give, however, is not mandated or recorded, nor is the annual budget of $1.1 million based on members' pledges, he said.

But the system works, Flowers said, noting that First Presbyterian rarely runs into a financial deficit. A decade ago the membership raised an extra $1 million to start a new congregation, Covenant Presbyterian Fellowship.

"I think we are following Jesus' teaching," Flowers said, citing 2 Corinthians 9:7: "Each must do as already determined, without sadness or compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver."

First Presbyterian, Petaluma Christian and the Catholic diocese post financial statements on their websites.

From a purely financial standpoint, religion is a major enterprise, garnering more than $100 billion in donations in 2010, according the Giving USA 2011 report published by the Giving USA Foundation, an organization that studies philanthropy.

For more than 50 years, religion has reaped the largest share of charitable dollars, with an estimated 35 percent of the $291 billion total in 2010, the report said. Education, human services, public benefit and health organizations are among the next largest recipients, with 8 percent to 14 percent of donations.

The religion category includes churches and temples, as well as faith-based groups, missionary societies, religious media and related organizations.

"Charitable giving remains a central part of the American fabric," the report said. But it also noted that the recession took a toll, with overall giving down 11 percent in 2010 from a historic high point three years earlier.

Religion sustained the largest decline among recipient sectors, at 2.1 percent, from 2008-10, the report said.

Local religious leaders acknowledged the recession's impact, including loss of employment by some congregants.

Linton, the evangelical pastor, said he struggles with the dilemma of members who say they are choosing between paying bills and their tithes.

His advice: "Get with God and pray about it. Seek him and see what he would have you do."

One of the Catholic Church's seven precepts, along with confessing sins and attending mass, is "to contribute to the support of the church."

But the 2,000-year-old Vatican-ruled church sets no standard for its nearly 1.2 billion adherents worldwide.

Catholics are expected to contribute according to their ability, and donations may come in the form of "time, talent or treasure," said Frontczak, the diocese spokeswoman, such as volunteering at a church school, as well as putting money in the Sunday collection plate.

The flexibility reflects the church's inclusion of the poor in the pews, as well as the wealthy, she said.

"We recognize that not everyone has the means,"Frontczak said, adding that it would be inappropriate to expect a 10 percent tithe from a household living on one minimum-wage paycheck.

Well-heeled congregants are expected to give generously, and they do, Frontczak said, citing Jesus' parable to his disciples in Luke 12:48: "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be much required."

Still, each Catholic parish must cover its own costs — priest salaries, utilities, insurance and maintenance — through members' donations, with no financial help from the local bishop or the Pope in Rome.

Each of the 42 parishes in the Santa Rosa diocese gives a <NO1><NO>portion of its collections to the diocese. The amount is about 15 percent of the money raised from <NO1><NO>the <NO1><NO>160,000 members from Petaluma to the Oregon border.

Once a year in June there is an additional Sunday collection in the pews, called "Peter's Pence," to support the Pope's philanthropy. Some Catholics give nothing, Frontczak said.

St. Elizabeth Seton Church members in Rohnert Park raised $2 million and added volunteer labor to build a spacious new church that was completed in 2003.

In contrast, Mormon Church headquarters buys the land and pays for construction of all new churches. "There are no mortgages," stake president Henderson said.

Congregation Shomrei Torah, founded in 1974, asks for 2 percent of the income from each of its 430 households, but doesn't enforce it and turns no one away for lack of funds, Falstein said.

"The truth is we don't get 2 percent," he said. "If everybody gave 2 percent we'd be in much better shape." Falstein declined to give the congregation's annual budget amount.

Reform Jewish congregations typically use a fair share system like Shomrei Torah's or establish fixed dues, dividing the congregation's operating budget by the number of families, he said. For Shomrei Torah, that would come to $2,000 per family.

Congregation leaders talk every year about changing to a dues system, "and every year we decide not to," Falstein said.

The 1,000-member Center for Spiritual Living opens its doors to all and lets members set their own contribution, either a fixed amount or a percentage of income. "We ask them to find their own comfort level," Pastor Viljoen said, and no one is hounded to fulfill a pledge.

Donations cover about 70 percent of the center's $1.5 million annual budget, which is based largely on pledged giving.

Unlike some pastors, Viljoen said he keeps track of individual donations. "I don't ever want to take for granted where the money's coming from," he said.

Viljoen rejects the concept of church support as giving money back to God. "What can you possibly give back to God that God doesn't already own?" he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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