Church Commission Examining Use of Contributions

North America: 54.04 %, East-Central Africa: 0.84 %, Euro-Africa: 1.17 %, Inter-America: 10.35 %, Northern Asia Pacific: 10.35 %, South African Indian-Ocean: 2.12 %, South American: 11.62 %, South Pacific: 3.75 %, Southern Asia: 0.16 %, Southern Asia-Pacific: 1.73 %, Trans-European: 3.28 %, West-Central Africa: 0.58 %. [Graph courtesy of the Adventist Church Treasury Department]Source: Adventist News Network

[June 18, 2007] Ask Evelyn Fischer who vacuums the floors and polishes the pews at the Blooming Grove Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ohio, and she'll tell you without hesitation: "I have a lot of cleaning to do, believe me." But ask Fischer where her tithe goes and she's less sure.

"I've never really thought about it," Fischer says of the 10 percent of her income she donates to the Adventist world church. "I think most of the tithe goes to pay pastors but I don't really know how it works." She pauses before adding, "I sure hope they're doing the right thing."

Fischer's sketchy understanding of tithe distribution doesn't surprise Gerry Karst, a world church vice president. "If you asked your average pastor, church member or even [administrator] where tithe goes and what it does, I don't doubt you would find very few who would be able to answer confidently," says Karst, who also chairs the church's Use of Tithe Study Commission.

But Karst and other commission members want church members to know -- not just hope -- tithe is being used in the most effective, Bible-based way. That's why the Use of Tithe Study Commission, made up of some 60 church leaders and laypeople from across the globe, continues to trawl church policy for tithe usage problems.

The commission, which met three times over the past two years ago, spent considerable time studying the Bible and the writings of Ellen G. White, an early Adventist Church founder, "to fully understand the fundamental principles under-girding tithe use," Karst says. Commission members then reviewed church policy on tithe distribution, looking for inconsistencies and seemingly arbitrary practices.

Karst offers one example: tithe is used to pay pastors and church employees, but not church secretaries' or janitors' wages. "We're asking, 'Is there a reason or a rationale behind this?'" Karst says. "In some situations, there just isn't a clear-cut answer."

"Policy does sort of pick and choose," says Dean Rogers, assistant treasurer for the world church. "Many would argue that all teachers [at Adventist schools] should be paid out of tithe, not just Bible teachers. They are probably as key to students' spiritual development as are pastors. Maybe more so."

Reexamining the percentage of tithe currently allocated to pay teachers' salaries might be one of the commission's final recommendations, church officials say.

Commission members say the current examination of funds does not stem from a crisis situation. "It's not that all of a sudden, we're at a critical point where we don't know what we should use tithe for anymore," says Robert E. Lemon, treasurer for the world church. "We just want to make sure we're using tithe totally in accordance with the Lord's will."

Though it has met for two years, the commission has yet to release an update of its progress. Many members say they don't expect any "radical" changes in tithe structure. Church officials say they plan to release a report -- including any recommendations to change church policy -- next fall.

"You don't do this sort of thing overnight," Lemon says.

The Adventist Church received $1.6 billion in tithe contributions in the 2006 fiscal year, up from $1.45 billion the previous year. Of a hypothetical $100 in tithe, $70 goes to the local conference level, or statewide administration, while the remaining $30 is split between unions, one of 13 world divisions, and the world church headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Leonard Newton III, a pastor in Florida, says he favors leaving a percentage of tithe -- perhaps 20 percent -- in local hands. "I'm confident in how [the church] is distributing tithe, but I think there does need to be a radical change. I do realize that this is a world church, but we could really use a good chunk of that money we send to the conference."

According to Edward G. Reid, Stewardship director for the church in North America, most tithe dollars do stay local. He says of the 70 cents of every tithe dollar that goes to the conference, most is redistributed to the local church level.

Other protestant denominations keep a much higher percentage of tithe at the local church, bypassing a conference level altogether. For example, the United Methodist Church uses more than 80 percent at the congregational level.

But Karst and others say such a practice might lead to local congregationalism, eclipsing the church's worldwide focus. However, keeping the church "on the same financial page," he says, doesn't erase administration's responsibility to be transparent with its use of tithe.

Some church leaders say offerings -- contributions by church members above and beyond tithe -- should fund local churches. "The reason pastors are griping is because they're only getting offerings of about two percent of gross income," says Reid. "If they were getting up wards of 10 percent, they'd be swimming in money to use in their local congregations and communities."

Reid says the Adventist church originally chose conferences to act as 'storehouses' in an attempt to accurately follow the Biblical model. The Old Testament 'storehouse,' Reid says, referred to the sanctuary, where the children of Israel returned their tithes and offerings three times per year. From there, the money and goods were distributed.

Church leaders say the storehouse system also ensures the growth of the church globally.

Marian Quisenberry, an Adventist in Florida, believes in the case of corruption, church members "have a right to stop paying directly to the church and donate their tithes to other projects." She also worries those divvying up tithe at the conference level may be arbitrarily appointed.

"The only thing I, as a church member, can do is return my tithe," says Angel Rodriguez, director of the church's Biblical Research Institute. "The Lord has chosen individuals to decide how to use tithe based on His guidelines. If they make a mistake, that shouldn't stop me from fulfilling my responsibility to return tithe."

"We are a worldwide movement looking after each other and we don't want to develop a self-centered attitude," says Sheryl Hersom, a church member in Maine. "Part of the blessing of tithing is feeling that you are sharing. So I think keeping even a portion of the tithe in the local churches would really be a backward step."