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.


17 thoughts on “Church Budgets: The Dirty Details

  1. It seems like the message being put out by the Holy Spirit is, “get out of the Church system, stop defending it, it is no longer doing the Lord’s work and hasn’t for some time.’ There is such treasure in the Word being revealed by the Holy Spirit but many need to have their eyes opened to the futility and fraud of the church system.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Very good article.There really is a lot of messed up teaching concerning tithing/giving/generosity/stewardship in our churches. I would like to purchase a much larger home with a basement,a few more bedrooms so my kids don’t have to share one,a weight room or game room so they felt like having friends over,some nicer things for my wife….we could “minister” so much better.If i were to try and make such a purchase however,I would be acting foolishly.I can’t afford it and would have to work another full time job and never see my family. Churches however make such purchases all the time.They call it “acting in faith” and members are persuaded with all kinds of distortion of Scripture as “proof texts I am not opposed to those who love their church and want to give all they can to it, but I am opposed to to all the false duty ,obligation,and financial expectations that many churches put on people,leading to many feeling spiritually defective or self righteous.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Agreed. It doesn’t bother me at all how an organization spend its money, until it starts saying that its existence is devoted the mission of Jesus, or that the money it collects in donations is money given to God himself. If Microsoft is found to only give 5% of its money to charity, or a social club is found to give 0%, nobody cares. That’s not what they are about. They exist for profit.

      If the Red Cross, on the other hand, were found to be operating on a 95% overhead, then nobody would donate. The difference is a false claim being made as to why they exist, and false claims being made when they ask for donations. Now… would it be wrong to give to the Red Cross if you knew this to be true? Of course not. It’s your money, do what you want. Would it be wrong for the Red Cross to lie about it’s purpose? Absolutely.

      If an organization exists under the claim that it is centered around the mission of Jesus, it should be devoted to operating as much like Jesus as possible… although this would be difficult, of course, since Jesus didn’t seem to be much of a fan of institutions at all. He never utilized one himself (though he publicly critiqued them quite frequently).

      I honestly don’t care of a church gives nothing at all to the community, so long as it’s honest about itself, it’s methods, and it’s spending habits.

      I’ve been asked “what’s the difference between an individual spending 95% (or more) of his money on himself vs. an organization? Why come down so hard on churches and not on individuals?” What I do individually with my money is between God and I, and is nobody else’s to judge. If, however, I were to start behaving like a church it would be very different. If I started telling people I need a pool, a sun deck, and a golf course in my backyard so I could more effectively minister the gospel, and then began taking collections from people in God’s name, I open myself to public scrutiny. I’m taking public money by making ridiculous claims to that public, and making promises to the public on how that money will be used for God. I absolutely should be scrutinized publicly.

      No judgement should be passed on whether giving money to such a person/organization is “right” or “wrong”, and that’s not my point of course. I’m not saying it’s wrong to give to a church. It’s your money, so do what you want with it. If you fully understand where that money is going and you still give, then I might question your sense of judgement, but I respect your right to do so.

      My issue isn’t with those who give, but with those who receive under a false premise.


  3. There is a good deal of truth to your article — truth the organized church needs to hear. Certainly, cardinals should not be allowed to live like princes, and funds meant for the poor should not be diverted toward the legal expenses of child molesters.

    But you overlook, I think, the work done in the settings whose cost you criticize so vigorously.

    The congregation requires teaching, edification, fellowship, and a place to worship. Young people might be willing to accept the first three online. But social media are no substitute for face to face interaction. Many older congregants — very possibly the ones more mature in their faith — would not be equipped for a virtual church, and would not benefit from it.

    Worship could be done in a home setting, but the number of qualified pastors would have to increase exponentially. Not only are vocations down, the Holy Spirit has not gifted everyone equally in this area.

    Ministers will confirm for you that dividing their time between active ministry and a lay occupation is an enormous strain (not only on them physically, but on their families financially). Most of them make little enough, as is. By the way, the Bible tells us the laborer is worthy of his hire. (See, Lev. 19: 13, Deut. 25: 4, Matt. 10: 10, Luke 10: 7, 1 Cor. 9: 9, 1 Cor. 9: 14, and 1 Tim. 5: 17-18).

    Those children in the safe and clean daycare are experiencing Christ’s love firsthand, while being introduced to the Gospel. So are the children in parochial schools (often a beacon of hope in the inner cities, and operated at a loss). All of which is no small matter when statistics suggest that the majority of those who come to Christ, do so early in life or not at all.

    This does not touch on the missionary work the church funds financially and undertakes through its members, the convents and monasteries it supports, the religiously affiliated hospitals and elder care facilities it operates, or the soup kitchens and homeless shelters it runs.

    Sorry for the harangue. Thanks for listening.


    • Don’t be sorry; I appreciate your disagreements and the respectful way you present them. Thank you! I don’t think I’m overlooking the things you’ve mentioned, although I have certainly come to a different conclusion about their value. A few years ago I would have written the very same rebuttal that you did. I’m aware of the enormous strain of vocational ministry, having held most of the religious titles (teacher, preacher, elder, worship leader, etc.) myself and been very close to others that have, as well. I’m aware that “churches” require a good deal of overhead to operate, and this is justified because of the very genuine belief that the things being done in those places is, in fact, “ministry”.

      I just no longer agree with any of that.

      I’ve ceased to believe in the legitimacy, need, or even benefit of hierarchy within the body of christ. I’ve begun to experience, firsthand, something very different: a direct relationship with Christ, free of institutional bonds. The programs, buildings, and man-ruling-man authority structures which I once believed to be of benefit now seem not only ineffective, but damaging to pure, simple faith in Christ.

      Yes, to keep things going the way they are will require the budgets that are presently defended, but the question is whether we SHOULD keep things going the way they are. Would Jesus? DID Jesus? That is the deeper point on which you and I likely differ: you believe those things qualify as the work of Jesus, and I no longer do.

      Each one has to follow their own ideals, but I’ve personally determined those things things to be much more similar to man-made business strategies than the simple kind of love modeled by Jesus. I cannot convince myself that Jesus, if placed in charge of a “church” today, would do things anything like the way we do. That’s just not the way I see him. All the arguments I once made to defend church practices fall away based on this simple fact:

      That such practices were not (and would not be) employed by him.

      These practices and objectives are (usually) well-intentioned efforts made in God’s name, but they are man-made. Jesus didn’t ask us to make grand buildings for him. He didn’t ask us to appropriate enormous sums of money on those buildings, programs, and salaries. He didn’t ask us to have professional bands, stage lighting, etc. He asked us to love our neighbors.

      Instead, what I see reminds me of Peter at Jesus’ transfiguration. He realized something incredible was happening and reacted to the human urge to somehow make something with his own hands in response to what he witnessed, but this isn’t what was asked. JESUS will do the building of the church (the bride/body/people), and nothing shall prevail against it. We cannot help him in this – it’s not ours to do.

      Ours is to represent him well; To love as he loved, giving of ourselves to PEOPLE, not institutions.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Dan, thank you so much for writing about this topic. I will share, briefly, my story with you.
    I wrote an email to our church leadership a year ago, requesting transparency around the issue of church finances. It was a diplomatic but assertive piece of correspondence. Church money is something that is never discussed with the congregation. “We don’t want it to be a focus” is the line given. Our church is small (60 people), many of whom struggle for work or just to make ends meet. Our church leadership is self appointed (they’d say not), and all of them work full time jobs (5 pastors). So to me, it just made sense that church money be a topic worth discussing. There have also been occasions in the past where money designated for individuals in the congregation has never found its way to the intended recipient. Apparently one does not ask for transparency, as the week following my email, I was targeted in the sermon. I did follow up insistently for answers to my questions, to find out that salaries are taken by each of the pastors and that transparency with the congregation is not something that will be happening. I recognize that this is an incident in isolation, but I think that this dynamic is actually very common particularly in charistmatic types of churches. What gets me the most is that people in the church (some of whom are well educated and entrepreneurial) do not seem to take issue with this. Why are people so afraid of their leaders? Money is a hot button issue and I think accountability and transparency are non negotiable. Leaders should be volunteering this information in an effort to be above reproach and enjoy the trust of authentic community, not skulking around hoping people don’t ask and then running them off with bullying tactics when they do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Because the answers to those questions potentially open a Pandora’s box of even more difficult questions. If you mess with the money, you mess with the supply line to something many people hold to be a non-negotiable. I personally have concluded that most people inwardly feel the NEED for the church system to continue in the way it does; they draw a great deal of comfort and purpose from it. They don’t mean to, but they will sometimes become quite hostile when you begin inspecting it too closely because it threatens something they are unwilling to part with, and they perceive that as potentially being the conclusion of such questions.

      When somebody questions our beliefs about the Loch Ness Monster we don’t generally get angry because that belief is not super important. When someone questions our belief in gravity we don’t get angry because, although it’s important, we also know they’ll have a tough time making their case. We aren’t threatened. Questioning the money, in my opinion, threatens people because it IS important to them, and I believe they inwardly begin to sense they may not have very good responses to the question. That makes the threat a real one. These turns to fear, which often becomes anger. The best defense is a good offense, right?

      The money is the thread in the sweater you shouldn’t pull unless you’re willing to deal with the potential of destroying the sweater. Most people don’t even want to take that chance. It doesn’t matter what’s true or untrue, it only matters that traditions be upheld.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ugh!

    Good post. Timely.
    A couple of months ago I asked a friend to email me her ‘church’ budget statement. This is a contemporary wannabe Hillsong ‘church’ with a mix of Charismatic and Reformed winds of doctrine. Ha!

    Sad as… 1.5 million income. 97% going on inner city rent and ‘staff’ salaries (that would be those who ‘serve’ with Titles like Pastor. The rest on advertising and a few bucks for the poor.

    I almost died when I saw it.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I have a weird scenario for you. At my last church, they had thousands of dollars sitting in the bank. Thousands. Well the pastors got their pay, which I couldn’t tell you what that was. They didn’t make that known. Just had a budget line for all three pastors (of a very small church–why do they need 3 pastors?). They had the typical stuff–building, programs, ect. I really can’t remember the percentages or amounts. But I found it odd that this guy that wanted to go to Austria with his family and couldn’t come up with the money, they were short about 8 grand, so our church leadership decided to give it to them so they could get him over there. Nevermind the fact that Austria is OUTRAGEOUSLY expensive which we supported them monthly for. And nevermind that basically they were just looking for a way to get over there because it was gorgeous there. So our church gets them over there. You could say this was outreach since he was a missionary, but he wanted to build a church. So basically he was gonna go over there, meet with other Christians, and build a church (except there are hardly an Christ followers over there, so no church). So months later, I got an email discussing updates from this family. They enrolled the kids in school. They bought furniture. They set up an apartment. They found a local church. To me this wasn’t missions. It was simply funding this guy to go back to Austria because he loved it there. I want to like missionaries, I really do. But the more I talk to them, the less I like them. I’ve met so many that are just plain narcissists or using the church to fund their dream of moving to a foreign country and being able to travel. I could go on about my annoyance with it all.

    Basically, I felt like they were saying this was outreach but really it was just the pastors wanting to gloat about having a church in Austria and having a missionary in Austria. I feel like the churches these days truly lack discernment. And you are right, you can’t pull on that string. When we started attending that church, I didn’t want to tithe. I couldn’t figure out why because I had in the past. And sometimes I did feel guilt like I should be giving to the church. But the more I was there, the more I saw their misuse of funds.

    I helped with a Christmas Tea one year, and to tell you how cheap the church was on outreach, they wouldn’t pay $15 extra dollars for me to print out invites. Instead, they told me to use plain paper. I told them, “This is an outreach opportunity for the community. Maybe we should spend a little more and bless them”. Nope. Then the other woman who was decorating was spending her own money on decor and said she didn’t want the church to pay for it. I asked “why not?” and she said they couldn’t afford it. Hooey. They had hundreds of dollars just sitting in the bank. They rented a church and never bought their own. Thousands….that was one of the reasons we of many anyway.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your post. Our churches today are just sad in how they use funds. Even if I went back to church, I wouldn’t give them my money. Instead, I’d find people who truly were hurting and I’d support them instead.

    Liked by 2 people

    • WAY too common, unfortunately. And yes, things get really fuzzy when people are allowed to redefine “ministry” to mean whatever they want. Careful, though. I got pretty obsessed with this topic for awhile. It’ll make you nauseous the more you dare to really look at it.

      Liked by 2 people

      • ha ha!! Yeah, it is fairly addicting. I’m trying to figure out my ability to see the bad in things (always because I want to fix it or make it better, never for the sake of just being negative) is a bad thing or a good thing. I tend to want to learn about things like this because I would very much like to know what God thinks about it all, but I tend to rub people the wrong way with such talk. People’s moods and harshness aren’t easy to take either. So yes, I need to chill on the social media stuff. I sent your link to a friend and she read like 5 posts and then texted me saying how she got really fired up and didn’t feel like a weirdo anymore. Maybe it’s fact that we do feel so alone. It’s nice to know we aren’t.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Balance is tough, for sure. In my early days away from organized religion I was far more outspoken. I’m every bit as passionate these days, but also am learning to rest, knowing that God is always at work… even in the awful things. And no, you and you’re crazy friend are FAR from alone!! We just don’t occupy center stage

        But remember that Jesus usually didn’t either. He was a renegade. When he healed people he usually told them not to spread the word. When they tried making him king he’d slip away. When they accused him, he’d stand quietly without defense. His weapons are not like ours. He changes from the bottom up, and from the inside out. It’s nearly invisible at first, but it’s also unquenchable.

        Man… he gets me fired up, though. He’s pretty amazing. ;)

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Dan and Elle,
    I beat the anti-church drum and licked my wounds for years, but finally I heard Jesus say, “They are blind guides leading the blind. Leave them alone. YOU follow ME!” It was then that I put my heart to seeking His will for my life and let Him deal with them whether He calls them out one at a time or lets them fall into their collective ditches. Either way, He comes out on top for even ditches can be great object lessons. I know, it was from being in ditches that my different church leaders led me into that got me looking outside the box.
    Love to you both IN Him,

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Dan Dailey :-) Nice to see another truth-teller. For a REALLY BIG EYE-OPENER, read Frank Viola & George Barna’s red book entitled Pagan Christianity. The chapter on tithing explains how our modern Protestant practice of tithing did NOT come from Malachi 3… but it was the secular tax system in Rome, and the Catholic church adopted this. Later on, Malachi 3, & other scriptures were overlaid to justify this unBiblical practise.
    Ray >


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