The offering-plate rules

The pastor preferred to spend the moments just before the main Sunday service in prayer.

But the two men who knocked on his door were leaders in his conservative church, and they insisted that their mission was urgent. What they said ended up in one of the stacks of congregational case studies that put flesh on the sobering statistics inside John and Sylvia Ronsvalle's "Behind the Stained Glass Windows: Money Dynamics in the Church."

"We want you to stop talking about inviting other people into this church," said one of the men. "There are too many new people now. We don't know half the people who come here and there are new people in leadership positions." If the pastor kept preaching evangelistic sermons, then they vowed to leave -- creating a financial crisis that would threaten the church mortgage.

They wanted their church to stay the same. That's what they were paying for.

"It's hard to understand, but we know that some people don't want their churches to grow," said Sylvia Ronsvalle, who, with her husband John, leads empty tomb, inc., in Champaign, Ill. For two decades they have worked in hands-on ministry to the poor, while also operating a small think-tank ( that analyzes 30-plus years worth of data on giving in religious institutions, both liberal and conservative.

"Some people may not even want other members of their church to give more money and support new ministries," she added. "It's sad, but it's true. There are lots of people out there who can't see past the doors of their own church."

Right now, church workers all across America are mailing annual statements covering donations. Here is one of the unwritten laws: 20 percent of the members give up to 80 percent of the annual budget. In most cases, 50 percent or more give little or nothing. Studying these rather utilitarian issues, said the Ronsvalles, quickly leads to other questions. Why are so many content to see their congregations limp along when it comes to evangelism, missions and benevolence work? Why do people give what they give?

The answers are rarely comforting.

* Some people make major donations in order to control the institution that frames life's major transitions. As the old saying goes, people want a church when it comes time to "hatch, match and dispatch" family members. Some act as if they are purchasing shares in a beautiful building for these events and, as every clergy person knows, they care deeply about what that building looks like.

* Many people view their offerings as payment for services rendered by the staff and clergy. Perhaps they want witty and practical sermons that please their intellects or emotions. They expect clergy to visit them in the hospital and offer pastoral counseling -- for free -- in times of crisis. Youth pastors must heal and entertain their sons and daughters, answering awkward questions feared by parents.

* Others are buying a culture. For some members, this may be classical-quality, or even cable-television quality, music or drama. Some use the church as a social club, or the focus of ethnic identity. The church and its clergy may even be expected to carry water for a powerful family's favorite social causes, either liberal or conservative.

* Finally, the Ronsvalles' research shows that many church members sincerely see giving as a matter of faith, the natural result of gratitude and a biblical vision. The question that haunts empty tomb, inc., is how to help clergy conquer their fears of challenging members to share with others, especially in an age of plenty. Right now, charitable giving in some denominations has fallen to levels lower than in the Great Depression.

"There are people out there who are sinners and they aren't going to obey God and his Word. They're just not going to give the way they should, even though they sit in church week after week," said John Ronsvalle. "They may think the church doesn't need them to give or maybe they just don't see the need to, quote, spend their money on what the church has to offer, unquote. ...

"The question is whether they want to love other people, in the name of Jesus. In the end, that is what they have to want to invest in -- the hearts and lives of others."