Church Budgets: The Dirty Details


I’ve written before on church (mis)behavior as it pertains to money, but a friend of mine recently asked in a Facebook thread for some sources on that information. I decided to post some of what I’ve read, but to do so here on my blog where everyone could benefit. The primary goal of this post is to be informative for those that care to do some digging of their own. Unfortunately I’ve observed that many people aren’t interested in looking at this kind of information, but I hope it will help those that do. I hope, also, that some of you will consider sharing resources of your own in the comments so that others may benefit.

I strongly encourage you to do your own hunting on this, too. There’s a lot out there to be found. Depending on how honestly you look at it, you may come to understand why so many people outside the church hold the view that churches are all about their money…

Maybe they’re right.

Determining just how much money is brought into religious institutions seems to be pretty difficult. I have personally claimed on various occasions that the number is over $100 billion (with a “B”) annually, however I actually believe that number is conservative based on what I’ve found online. Beyond revenue, however, what if you were to factor in things like assets, investments, and housing allowance? What about the incalculable value of a massive work force which volunteers it’s time for free? The total value of assets at the church’s disposal could actually be in the trillions.

Consider the value of real estate alone. According to TIME, the Vatican may be worth $10-$15 billion all by itself! Sure, other facilities aren’t worth that much, but most larger churches do have facilities worth millions. Does this really reflect the attitude of Christ?

And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Mark 13:1-2)

The Money Coming In

Estimates vary wildly depending on where you look. I prefer to weigh in on the conservative side so as not to overstate things, and the exact number isn’t that important. The point is that the number is enormous. Even more importantly, though, is that the assets are spent in a manner that doesn’t even remotely resemble what Jesus would do with it.

Still, here are a few links you may find interesting in trying to determine (or understand) just how big the actual number is.

First on the list is a Newsweek article making the case that removing the tax-exempt 501c3 status from American churches could release a considerable amount of money to help those whom the church is supposed to be helping anyway. The estimate is $71 billion! Of course, many church buildings would simply fold up and that number would drop quite a bit were the tax exemptions to change, but just let that number sink in a bit…

Second is an article focused specifically at the Catholic church. It actually says:

Based on the kinds of numbers provided in this column, Harris estimates that total annual revenue for the Catholic church in America works out to around $153 billion, but he’s the first to admit that’s really just a guess.

Even if that guess has a wide margin of error, that’s impressive; even more so when you realize it doesn’t include protestants or non-Americans…

The final link for the “income” side of things includes a very interesting statement from a commenter:

This figure (percentage of gross income given to a religious center by Americans) has been around 2% for some time (Barna says 2.2% for 2003). So take the total income of all Americans (about 10 trillion dollars for 2005, the last year that data is available) and multiply by 2.2%, and you’ve got an approximate answer: 220 billion.

Also, another comment from the same page:

According to the report “Giving USA”, American donors gave more than $260 billion to charitable causes in 2005. Of that, about 36% of that, or $93.18 billion, went to religious organizations.

Keep in mind that this is almost $100 billion in donations alone, and in America alone. It doesn’t factor in other countries, and doesn’t factor in things like real estate, record sales, movie deals (don’t laugh), or other revenue-producing investments.

The Money Going Out

When I wrote my first blog post about tithing I had been doing a LOT of homework on such things. The post was made in two parts, with the first one written more as an appeal to common sense, and the second being more scripturally focused. In the first one I provided two links to some very helpful information about average church spending habits. Recently, however, I’ve discovered neither of those links worked anymore, so I’ve adjusted them to point to copies I had saved of those articles. I’m including them here, too, because they illustrate the “outflow” side of this problem.

That first blog post is here, by the way: Why I Stopped Tithing – Part 1

The first of the two links I provided in that post gives a pretty exhaustive report on the average budgetary breakdowns of churches. Having spent almost a decade as an elder on the board at the last church I attended, I can personally vouch that this breakdown is pretty close to the budget I observed during the years I was there. The short version of this article is that less than 5% of what comes into the church is left over for anything remotely resembling what the Bible calls “religion that is pure and undefiled before God” (James 1:27)


As bad as that one is, this second link is FAR more disturbing. Rather than a breakdown of budget, it points out several very unsettling facts about church spending habits which show just how far our priorities have gone off course.


That article focuses more on what’s done (and not done) with that leftover 5% that is supposedly given to reaching the lost. Here are a few of my favorites quotes:

  • Annual church embezzlements by top custodians exceed the entire cost of all foreign missions worldwide. Emboldened by lax procedures, trusted church treasurers are embezzling from the Church $5,500,000 PER DAY. That’s $16 Billion per YEAR! (For reference: TOTAL Christian spending on foreign missions is only $15 Billion. God forgive us!)
  • 40% of the church’s entire global foreign mission resources are being deployed to just 10 over saturated countries already possessing strong citizen-run home ministries.
  • More than 90% of all Christian materials are in English, but only 8% of the world speaks English.
  • All costs of ministry divided by number of baptisms per year. Cost per baptism in India: $9803 per person. Cost per baptism in the United States: $1,550,000 per person.
  • 91% of all Christian outreach/evangelism does not target non-Christians but targets other Christians in already-evangelized countries or people-groups.

But… Not All Churches Are Corrupt!

I invariably get angry people telling me I should stop pointing at the “corrupt” churches as a means of dragging down the “good ones”. The problem is that even the “good ones” invoke God’s name to collect money (which is wrong enough by itself), and then spend only the smallest fraction of that income on the things God actually cares about. The question I’m posing is a simple one: are the organizations which are collecting (or worse, scripturally demanding) money in Jesus’ name using that money in the same way Jesus would?

If you gave Jesus $100 billion every year, what would he do with it? I recently attempted to pose this question on Facebook through satire by writing a fictitious Bible passage. It went like this:

And when Jesus had collected the tithes from the people, he gave thanks and called his disciples unto himself. Having counted it he then broke it into five portions. The first three portions he took and gave them to Himself, Paul, Peter, and their personal assistants as compensation for their hard work. The fourth portion he then put toward bills and improvements on their building of meeting.

Taking the final portion, he then further split it into four smaller portions. He then gave the first three of those smaller portions to his disciples, instructing them to fill their place of meeting with wonderful music, childcare programs, youth events, and other creative ways of persuading the people to come away from their normal lives and join them in the building.

At last he took the final fourth portion of the final fifth portion and distributed it among the needy. Sadly, it didn’t help very many people.

He then rebuked the multitudes for not bringing more. He explained that he really wanted to do more, but just couldn’t because the true work of God required a very large overhead. He then admonished them to exercise their faith through increased giving and trust that the Father would supply their needs, or else their money would be under a curse.

2 Matthew 4:18-23

Although the story is obviously fictional, the approximate breakdown of portion sizes used in it are factual, though rounded a bit for the story; 60% for salaries, 20% to building and other expenses, 15% to various programs, with 5% (often less) left for real ministry.

My point here is not targeting supposedly “corrupt” churches; the aim is much broader. This is essentially how virtually every church operates. If you hold your own church to be different, then you should do some digging into the actual income and spending of your church. If you do, don’t get distracted by the amount it DOES give. Look at percentages. What portion of money coming in actually goes to anything but running the church?

In my own case, I was satisfied to know that several thousand dollars were given away each year by my previous church. Somehow this was enough for me that I never really scrutinized the quarter million spent each year on nothing but salaries, utilities, office expenses, building upkeep, flashing lights, and so on. We actually gave a good deal less than the 5% average. This doesn’t mean I believe it to be “corrupt”. The trouble is that it’s fairly normal.

Bottom Line

For the sake of argument, lets say a church can boast that its giving budget which is ridiculously above the 5% average. Let’s say 20% of it’s revenue. Even still, an organization which puts 80% of it’s focus on things God doesn’t care about shouldn’t claim that it’s primary focus is on serving him.

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt 6:21)

Remember that you cannot serve both God and money. Find out where a church’s treasure is, and you’ll find out where it’s heart and focus is, too. What things matter most to a church? What things does it truly believe are the last it could let go of? I’d personally start with the 60% that goes to the pastoral staff…

But what if Jesus were “senior pastor”? Would anything change? How much money would he claim as a salary? Would he even take a salary? What would he spend in marketing? Would he be concerned with a weekly stage production? Would he see any value in owning a huge building at all? Would he actually ask for my money? Wouldn’t he just model generosity by giving away what’s his, and leave me to do the same with what’s mine?

Wouldn’t he say that, rather than a building, I’m giving to him whenever I give to the least of those around me?

An institution which conducts itself in a manner inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus should be careful about claiming itself as “Christian”. I’m not convinced that institutions (as opposed to individuals) can even rightly be qualified as “Christian” at all, but if one is going to try then it should at the very least be willing to accept rebuke and then confess its sin.

It’s time to stop defending this sort of madness as being somehow necessary for ministry. It’s time for repentance.