Churches depend on tithing for financial survival

  • Parishioners mill about after worship service at Petaluma Christian Church in Petaluma, California on Sunday, February 12, 2012. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

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.

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