Improving Parish Finances

by Tom Wilson

We have all heard fellow Catholics say that the reason they don’t contribute more to the Church is because the Church is rich. “Just look at all the beautiful churches.”

While it is true that we’ve been blessed with many beautiful churches through the generosity of previous generations of Catholics, the fact is that nearly all of the Church’s ministries at the parish and diocesan level are funded by what we as Catholics today choose to share. Operationally, the cost to continue the Church’s mission and ministries has become significantly more expensive over the past few decades. The most significant factor has been the increased costs of those that work for the Church, both as full-time staff and as service providers. Gone are the days when our parishes, schools and other institutions were staffed almost entirely by priests and religious. Gone also are the days where there were a legion of dedicated skilled professionals (architects, carpenters, masons, plumbers, etc.) who would provide services for free. Today, vibrant Catholic parishes, schools and archdiocesan ministries have many lay staff members, who work for less than what they could earn in other lines of work, but need to earn enough to support their families. Add to these increases in staff costs and professional contractor costs, a significant rise in utility and maintenance costs (as our beautiful buildings age).

So the challenge for our Catholic community is clear. To continue our Church’s mission our parishes, schools, and shared archdiocesan ministries need to raise much more money. To be visionary and make a deeper impact on the world around us, we need to raise even more. How should we do that?

All of our clergy, religious and lay leaders need to become proficient fund-raisers. This requires two things. First, that our leaders become comfortable engaging people in supporting our vital work by asking them to support it financially and volunteer their time and talent. Second, it requires that we respond to those requests.

Catholic parishes have all evolved beyond the concept of bake sales, raffles, bingo and $1 contributions to the weekly offertory as a way to fund their operations. Parish bills must be paid, repairs completed and the parish budget balanced each and every year. The repair list at most parishes, just like at your home, is endless; and with the cost of living escalating by the day, this can become an overwhelming responsibility for the pastor. In many instances, our parishes are forced to use crucial “rainy day” funds and savings to balance their budget.

Three main approaches have been tried with varying levels of success: Stewardship, Grand Annuals, and Increased Weekly Giving programs.

Many parishes have embraced the concept of Stewardship as a Way of Life. Christian Stewardship calls for a conversion of heart and mind, placing your life in God’s hands by supporting His Earthly Kingdom through the sharing of your time, talent and treasure. This provides substantive spiritual and biblical roots for giving. As part of this, some parishes adopting Stewardship have also incorporated the biblical notion of tithing their “first fruits” back to God through the Church.

Another strategy has been adding a “Grand Annual” collection, which is a once a year request for a larger gift to help offset an ailing offertory collection. It helps a lot – but it avoids the real problem: a low and volatile offertory collection that has peaks and valleys during the summer season and during bad weather.

The offertory collection is the lifeblood of our parishes. They are suffering in most parishes for two reasons. First, the $1 or $5 weekly contribution that was generous 50 years ago is not enough today. The rule of thumb fifty years ago was to give one’s first hour of pay per week to God. In those days, hourly wages were between $1- $10 for many Catholics. Today, if you interview ushers across the Archdiocese of Boston, even in wealthy areas, they’ll tell you that “George Washington” (i.e. the $1 bill) is still the most popular president in our collection basket – by far! We as a Catholic community can and must do better if we want to leave the Church strong for those that will come after us. A good rule of thumb today, like fifty years ago, can be to offer your “first hour” back to God. If we are paid an annual salary, a simple calculation is to divide our annual salary by 2,000 and give that amount weekly to the Church. For example, if one earns $40,000 per year that would equate to about a $20 hourly wage. Or parishes could simply ask every working Catholic household to consider increasing their weekly support by $5 or $7 per week.

A second reason that parish offertories are suffering is that many Catholics only contribute to the parish offertory when they physically attend Mass there. Because of vacation, weddings, first-communions and events that take us away from our home parish, many of us miss Mass at our home parish eight to ten weekends per year. That is a significant loss of critical funds to the parish. It also turns our responsibility to the parish from something major to something of a “pay for service” similar to a movie theater – when we go, we pay. Christ calls us to carry on the mission of the Church in a substantive way.

How can your parish work to address these issues and improve parish finances? The best starting point is to conduct an Increased Weekly Giving Program and then renew it every two to three years.

These programs last about six weeks and help parishes begin the work of fundraising in a general way, where parish leaders ask all parishioners to reflect on their blessings, pray about how important the parish is in their lives and then make a commitment to a new level of support that will allow the parish to fulfill its mission and balance its annual budget. Then parishes typically choose to provide parishioners with a thorough and transparent annual report of the sources and uses of parish funds.

Other benefits of an Increased Weekly Giving Program are that parishes strengthen their parish census by updating parishioner records and adding new parishioners. They also discuss alternative ways of supporting the parish, such as planned giving through bequests and funded insurance/annuity options. They can also provide the parish with the opportunity to discuss ways of receiving support through the use of credit cards, electronic fund transfers and on-line giving to provide both young and old Catholics with the “giving option” that best fits their circumstances.

If you are a member of your parish finance committee or parish council, I encourage you discuss this article at your next meeting and how your parish could benefit. Working together to improve parish fundraising and finances, we can strengthen the Church’s ability to carry on the mission that Christ has entrusted to us.

Tom Wilson is Senior Vice President of Letter Concepts, a leader in Increased Weekly Giving Programs. For more information, email Tom at tomw@letterconcepts.com, or visit www.letterconcepts.com

This article appeared in a special “Stewardship” section of The Pilot on September 19, 2008

Comments are closed.