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With Synagogues in Jeopardy, It’s Time To Talk About Tithing

After winning a record 74 consecutive games on the television game-show Jeopardy, Ken Jennings of Murray, Utah, tithed $2.5 million in prize money to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons like Jennings, as well as Baptists and many people of other faiths, proudly tithe to their churches.

But we Jews, we don’t even talk about tithing, except when a weekly Torah reading provokes a nostalgic discussion on the topic — and we’re the poorer for it. Given the historic role of tithing and its continuing popularity among many faiths, it’s time for the Jewish community to stop disavowing our very own biblical method of gathering resources.

The tithe is a percentage payment, an assessment of a tenth of income or property, and back in ancient days tithing was common in Israel and neighboring nations. The Bible describes a variety of tithing practices.

In some cases, the tithe was an optional donation. In other places, it resembled a mandatory tax. At times, the funds went to the Temple and the priests, with the tithe supporting faith. On other occasions, the money accrued to the king and the monarchy, and underwrote the workings of state as a royal tax. Some tithes went to the needy.

Ancients Jews tithed livestock, produce and hand-manufactured goods. If they traveled someplace to pay it, they may have converted perishables or animals into cash for a donation at their destination. Sometimes they ate an additional tithe themselves. But the tithe was fixed at 10% — a tenth of everything, paid by everyone, with no deductions, no exemptions and no stimulus rebates.

Today Mormons generally tithe; so do members of the Southern Baptist Convention. In a recent report, more than seven of 10 Baptist congregations self-described themselves as being in good-to-excellent financial shape. Less than 5% report money problems.

Why are so many so stable? Perhaps the tithe is the reason: More than 80% of Southern Baptist Convention congregations promote tithing. Only one-tenth of 1% sustains themselves through annual dues, as so many Jewish congregations do.

Most churches hold the size of an individual’s tithe in confidence. Other policies and practices vary across denominations and among members. When it comes to calculating the tithe, some rely on income before taxes, while others start with after tax earnings. Some include non-church donations in the tithe as 10%, while others don’t.

With all the talk about tithing, though, only a small minority of born-again Christians give the full tithe. Perhaps less than 10% of members donate an entire 10%, even though church and denominational leaders speak of tithing as a religious obligation.

And therein lies a lesson: Churches that talk the tithe do not necessarily enforce it, but when tithe is part of a conversation about stewardship, donation patterns appear higher and church leaders are likely to self-report financial stability.

So what would happen if more synagogue leaders started talking about tithing? Giving to synagogues would likely double, with increased congregational financial stability and increased worship, study and program outcomes.

Look at the numbers. According to Giving USA, a reference compilation of annual giving, Massachusetts residents donate 1.8% of income to charity. In Arkansas, the amount is 3.9%. Why is the typical Arkansan more generous than the typical Bay Stater? The answer is simple: Arkansans belong to denominations that are more likely to talk about tithing.

As for strategy, consider the example of one mega-church in the Northeast. The church sets membership dues low, at $20, enabling just about anyone to affiliate, even solidifying the process online. How can the church afford to build a large, fully-programmed building stocked with cutting-edge media equipment? Best guess says the church asks for more money once a member starts attending programs and services.

The church’s development strategy seeks to include each new member in aspects of congregational life that are exciting. The church may not immediately invite people to serve on committees, but their outreach is impressive and welcoming. They involve a new member in an activity that makes a meaningful difference in that person’s life: a private school for children, visiting ministries and the like — supplemented, of course, by worship that includes spirited music, rousing preaching and high-tech presentations. Once a new member is hooked, then they bring up the tithe.

What we need today in the synagogue world is a new approach to finances and newer ways to enable our congregations to encourage membership, develop outstanding programs, and attract and retain outstanding clergy and professional staffs. Too many synagogues are finding out — or will soon find out — that the current annual dues system is insufficient for meeting budgetary needs.

As Duane Rice of Evangelical Friends International recently told The Wall Street Journal, “If everyone gives 2% of their incomes because that’s what they feel like giving, you aren’t going to have enough money to pay the light bill and keep the doors open.” In troubling times such as we now face — when cash flow may be in question and investment returns are lower than we have seen in many years — tithing would have a clear impact on congregations’ financial resources.

Synagogues need to start talking tithe — not as a threat or as a demand, but as a goal. Talking tithe increases the chances of a person giving accordingly; discussion of tithing alone can greatly increase membership support. It’s time we moved talk about tithing from the Torah portion to the board meeting.

Rabbi Dennis Ross is the author of “God in Our Relationships: Spirituality between People from the Teachings of Martin Buber” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003). Robert Evans is founder and managing director of The EHL Consulting Group, a Philadelphia-based national fundraising and management consultancy.

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