Why your parish needs money

June 22, 2012

An edited version of this article appeared in the August 3, 2012 issue of the Catholic Star Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Camden.

In the 1989 film Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the crew of the Starship Enterprise encounters a being at the center of the galaxy who claims to be God. He has one request of the crew: the use of the Enterprise. A skeptical Captain Kirk asks, “What does God need with a starship?” For Kirk, this being’s need for a starship casts doubt on his claim to be the Supreme Being. As it turns out, Kirk’s suspicion is warranted. The being is not God at all, but a violent alien. There is a similar skepticism in the Church. Many Catholics ask, “Why does the Church need money?” For them, the Church’s need for money casts doubt on its good intentions. I believe their suspicion can be proved unwarranted by a clear answer to the question and the concerns behind it.

In one regard, answering the question is easy. At my parish, Christ Our Light in Cherry Hill, we allow parishioners to review the entire budget at an annual meeting. They can see the parish’s expenses for themselves: obvious ones like clergy, liturgical supplies, music, youth ministry, social services, and religious education; and less obvious ones, like the school subsidy, the Star Herald, interest on loans, office supplies, insurance, and utilities. Together, these expenses are great for parishes large and small. It is true that some of these expenses are mitigated by tuition, fees, and special collections. But for the most part, the expenses named above and many others left unnamed must be paid by the parish’s Sunday collections.

In another regard, however, the answer to the question is extremely difficult. Surely most people realize on some level that parishes have all of these expenses. Yet they ask the question anyway. I think many people hold a number of misconceptions which cause lingering doubt. Let me address four specific misconceptions.

“Churches don’t pay taxes.” Taxes are a big expense for households and businesses, but fortunately churches are not taxed. Nevertheless, the absence of one large expense doesn’t mean churches operate freely.

“Churches only operate on weekends.” Of course, this isn’t true. Most parish offices are open during business hours Monday through Friday. During these office hours, priests and other staff have regular appointments, parishioners come for Mass cards, and the needy seek assistance. Religious education classes are held on a couple of weekday afternoons and evenings. Ministries and prayer groups use meeting space. Daily Mass, funerals, wedding rehearsals, and choir practice also keep the church doors open throughout the week.

“Parishes receive financial help from the diocese.” In fact, the truth of the situation is exactly the opposite. Most dioceses are funded by two sources: an assessment on parishes (usually a percentage of their annual income) and a direct appeal to the parishioners of the diocese, usually called the bishop’s annual appeal. Directly or indirectly, all of the money that the diocese has is from the parishioners. In the past, the Diocese of Camden did loan money to parishes running deficits. That practice has become unsustainable. Since it is unlikely to be fully repaid, the diocese has taken steps to reduce its operating costs, including the elimination of many positions.

“The Vatican has lots of money.” In order to dispel the myth of a wealthy Vatican, in 1981 Pope John Paul II ordered annual financial reports reviewed by independent auditors. These reports identify the Vatican’s expenses, including the pope’s pastoral visits around the world. They also explain that much of the Vatican’s income comes from dioceses and Peter’s Pence, a special collection taken in June. Again, the truth is that the higher level relies for money from lower levels – parishes from parishioners, dioceses from parishes, and the Vatican from dioceses. Despite increased financial transparency, the myth lives on. Whether they are supported by the facts or not, many Catholics would like to believe their Church is rich. Wealth is considered a sign of success and naturally they want their Church to be considered successful. Of course, the real test of the Church’s success is the saints it has formed – and here there is no cause for shame.

Whenever I hear people complain about their parish asking for money, I wonder why they are so upset. Of course, weekly pleas for money are tiresome and interfere with worship. But I know many priests who are afraid to ask for money – and rarely do, except when required by the bishop’s annual appeal. Sadly, asking for money even once or twice a year is too much for some people. I also wonder what these people think the parish will use the money for. The Church has no shareholders to reward with high dividends and doesn’t pay its “executives” high salaries. These complaints about corporate America don’t apply to the Church. Simply put, your parish needs money to pay its operating expenses and assist the needy.

This last point – that the parish needs money to assist the needy – is sometimes overlooked. People see the parish as a charity, but they don’t always recognize that the parish itself gives to charity on their behalf. Parishioners at Christ Our Light volunteer their time to staff Joseph’s House, an overnight shelter in Camden. Christ Our Light also provides financial assistance to members of the parish and local community in legitimate need. Rental assistance, a room for one night at a local motel, and a gas or food gift card are part of the Christ Our Light’s charitable outreach. Some think these services should be provided by the government. Yet helping the needy is also part of the Church’s mission. Most people know this, even if the financial implications are sometimes lost.

I am afraid that some would like to restrict the Church’s mission to serving spiritual needs alone. They do not think the Church should be involved in education, health care, and social services. In their view, the local parish should be open on Sunday for Mass and as needed for weddings and funerals. This kind of Church would indeed require much less money but it would not be a Church in service to the entire human person, body and soul, mind and heart. It would be justified to say that such a Church was irrelevant.

I think the greatest reason people complain about their parish’s appeal for money is because they view money as a subject which is not polite conversation. They think money is a necessary evil. For many people, finances are a constant challenge. They go to church to escape worldly problems and find spiritual encouragement and inspiration. It is no wonder that they can be scandalized when they hear the priest talk about money. I humbly offer two responses. First, it must be conceded that the parish, too, exists in the world and also faces financial challenges. The parish doesn’t produce things for sale, so it depends on asking for donations. Second, money is not evil but neutral. It can be used for evil, but it can also be used to accomplish great good. When people do give to the Church or another charity, it is often because they believe the organization can use their money to do good things. This final point offers a lesson to parish leaders. They should teach parishioners to be good stewards of their money. Like our time and talent, God also gives us treasure for the transformation of the world. Parish leaders must help theirs parishioners see that their donations contribute to fulfilling the mission Christ gave to all of us.