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.