Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Church, Money, and Paying the Bills

Money is so - well, crass, worldly. Wouldn't it be more spiritual to simply not think about money?

Maybe. But don't expect to pay your bills that way.

Some cultures get by without currency. But every time you've got more than one human being around, there's going to be some process for determining who gets how much of what. Western civilization has been using money for that purpose for the last several centuries - and parts of the Orient have been using money for millennia. (See Genesis 17:12, for starters)

Oh, the Wickedly Wealthy Church

I read a comic today, with an all-too-familiar sort of gag. The scene was a bar, with a bartender listening to a customer. The customer was hunched over, with his elbows on the bar - wearing a getup that's just enough not like papal vestments and one of the Pope's fancy hats to provide deniability. Here's the dialog:
Customer: " - and suddenly I realized that all we did was bilk money out of the stupid and credulous. I - - - I couldn't do it anymore. I felt so unclean."
Bartender: "Jeez, dat's too bad, yer holiness."
In context, it's moderately funny. I can understand the humor, even though that gag depends on a drearily familiar view of 'those religious people over there.' That particular strip was published in 2003, well after the televangelist meltdown here in America confirmed the worst opinion held by 'sophisticated,' 'intelligent' Americans, regarding those deceitful religious leaders and their "stupid and credulous" followers.

There's an assumption, running through several American subcultures, that money is somehow dirty. Or at least that nice, decent, upright people disdain it. I've written about wealth and Catholic teaching before. Bottom line? It's okay to be poor, it's okay to be wealthy: what matters is how you play your cards. (February 4, 2010)

But, just as I don't expect to convince folks who feel that poverty is virtue that it's okay to be rich: I don't expect to change the views of those who sincerely believe that religious people are fools, that the Holy See hasn't been running a sort of con game for almost 2,000 years.

Money Matters: When You Don't Have Enough

The parish priest at Our Lady of the Angles Church doesn't like to talk about financial matters - but that's part of his job.

This morning, we learned - again - that the parish is seriously behind on meeting its financial obligations for this fiscal year. We need to raise at least $40,000 over the next five weeks to pay the bills for June and July. Nobody's going to repossess the church if we don't come up with the money - but if that much doesn't come it, the parish will have to borrow from the general account.

We go through something like this every summer, when attendance at Mass goes down (another topic): but the situation is getting worse.

How Much Money does a Parish Use?

It takes around $365,000 a year to run Our Lady of the Angels parish in Sauk Centre. Before someone has a stroke: that doesn't go to solid gold swizzle sticks for the priest. Here's where the money goes:
  • 50% to education (there's a Catholic school down the street)
  • 10% goes to St. Cloud Diocese for
    • Assessments
    • Priests' retirement fund
    • Fathers' Health Insurance
  • 40% stays in the parish for
    • Heat
    • Electricity
    • Candles
    • Clergy salaries
    • Office expenses
    • Missals
    • Insurance
      • Property
      • Liability
      • Workman's comp
    • There's more - but that's the list I picked up this afternoon
Put another way, it takes about as much money to run Our Lady of the Angels parish, as it does to maintain about 10 modest households in town.

Parish Finances, Parishioners, and Giving

So, who helps pay parish expenses? Theoretically, every Catholic household in the parish.

Our Lady of the Angels Church, in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, has 452 "envelope holders." Think of that as 452 households. Like I said, in theory all 452 support the parish. In practice, here's what happened:

96 Gave nothing to the Church this past year22%
61 Gave $100.00 or less for the year13%
110 Gave $100.01 to $500.00 for the year24%
82 Gave $500.01 to $1000.00 for the year18%
103 Gave $1,000.01 or more for the year23%
Who Can Give $1,000 a year?
First, a little background about Sauk Centre, Minnesota, and the United States. Last December, I found out that a couple of economists think "lower middle class" in America is folks who earn $35,000 to $75,000. (Apathetic Lemming of the North (December 14, 2009)) They may be right: but that's almost certainly an average. Minnesota is far from the most urbanized, upscale state in the union, and Sauk Centre is out in the 'you mean people live there?!' part of the state - from some points of view, anyway.

I love it here, by the way. says that in 2008, Sauk Centre's estimated median household income was $46,087. (Compare $57,288 for Minnesota as a whole.) We're nowhere near being in the Martha's Vinyard class - but most years we do okay.

This hasn't been "most years." The good news is that Sauk Centre didn't have most households depending on a Big 3 automaker. The bad news is that we're in pretty much the same mess that the rest of America is in, economically. We'll manage, but this isn't the best year for most of us.

$84 a Month: What's That, in Chickens?

That said, I have a hard time believing that only 23% of my neighbors are able to kick in more than $1,000 a year. That's about $84 dollars a month. In some parts of the world, that's big money. Here, it's what you'd pay for 12 movie tickets - or 27 whole chickens. (Assuming $0.88/pound and around 3.5 pounds each.) It's not 'small change,' but it's not a terribly huge sum of money, either, by our standards.

What bothers me is the 22% who didn't give anything, and the 13% who have $100 or less for the year. I understand that some folks simply don't have the money to give - my household's been through some rough patches. It happens.

But over 1/3 of the households in this parish?! Bad economy or no: I don't think we're that hard-up as a group. But, I've been wrong before.

What About Tithing? Aren't Catholics Forced to Pay?

Uh, no.

Tithing is a sort of ideal. ("Tithe," Catholic Q&A, EWTN (December 7, 2000)) The custom my household has followed has been to give 5% of our income to the parish, another 5% to non-parish charitable causes. What helps is that, since it's a percentage - as our income goes down, so does what we give. It's worked pretty well for us, so far.

What's tricky is to remember to give more, as the income rises. But that's yet another topic.

Sort-of-related posts:Posts about tolerance, real and imagined, and Catholicism in America:

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.