The Rise of Church Philanthropy, Part I

[Guest Post by Lisa Castello]

For many of us, our earliest memory of giving as a spiritual practice was watching mom or dad write a check, fold it in half, and drop it in the collection plate as it passed by us in the church pew.

Though I can’t recall my parents ever talking to me about money management, I understood the practice of giving as a young adult, even as I was scrambling to define terms related to taxes, retirement accounts, and insurance plans.

Since then, I’ve been part of countless discussions about giving, either at church, in seminars, or with advisors,friends, and family. Articles, books, and resources on the topic abound. But my conversations usually focus on the importance of giving for individuals.

Lately, however, I’m finding the topic associated with some churches who make a practice of spending a portion of corporate income on philanthropic purposes.

Spending Reveals Priorities

I recently sat down with David, a lead minister at my large evangelical church,[1] to discuss its corporate budget and philanthropy. I’ve been an active member, donor, and volunteer in David’s church for 15 years, but I was surprised by the ways this conversation shed light on my church’s priorities, as well as my own.

I shouldn’t have been.

Christian financial guru Dave Ramsey put it this way: “What does your church think about missions? Look at the budget. What does your church think about outreach? Look at the budget. … Larry Burkett used to say, ‘Show me your checkbook, and I’ll show you your priorities.’ The same can be said for churches.”[2] Jesus said it like this: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[3]

My Church’s Priorities

Those who oversee my church allocate 90 percent of our budget to staff, operations, programs, and ministry, all of which support the designated priorities:

  • corporate worship
  • small groups ministry
  • student and children’s ministry

The other 10 percent of our church budget is split between missions and benevolence, such as gifts to widows, single parents, and individuals and families with periodic needs. On rare occasion, my church has designated an entire weekend of tithes and offerings to a predetermined need. In 2011, we collected $260K to dig a well in Kenya during a severe water shortage in the region. In 2014, we collected $100K for organizations that serve local homeless people and those impoverished abroad.

Wrestling with the Tension

I love my church. It’s become my home and my extended family. I’ve been loved, taught, mentored, encouraged, and comforted there. I’ve enjoyed the shelter of godly leadership there. I met many of my dearest friends there. My children have been baptized there.

But I found myself uncomfortable with the relatively small percentage my church gives to missions and to people in need.

I’ve since learned that my church is not unusual; in fact, the percentage we spend on philanthropy is on the higher end of the spectrum than that of many churches. One Christian leader writing for Relevant magazine said, “Look at any church budget, and you’ll probably find 1 or 2 percent of church funds allocated to benevolence—helping poor people in need. Maybe another 5 percent, or 10 percent at best, is given to needs outside the church that on some level help the poor.”[4]

My minister David didn’t apologize for the 10 percent our church splits between missions and benevolence. “To change our budget would mean changing our overall mission—our core priorities,” he said.

My Personal Priorities

As I wrestled with this, I found myself examining my own spending. It aligns well with the priorities of my church, as it turns out. Ninety percent of our family income is spent on our family, while 10 percent is allocated to needs outside of our own, primarily church donations, with additional offerings made here and there.

My husband and I have identified spiritual formation as the No. 1 value in our family, which is reflected in the amount we spend every month on an elite Christian school with the mission of “developing the whole person for the glory of God.” Our school tuition costs more every month than our mortgage payment.

We could have chosen a different school and devoted this money to helping the poor. Many people probably would think we should. But our priorities reflect the values of our church—to make our greatest investment in the hearts, minds, and spiritual development of our own children.

And like David, I don’t apologize for this.

Our family prayed and examined options ranging from public and charter schools to magnet schools and even homeschool. But God made the way for our first kindergartener to attend Christian school, and has provided for our family to remain there five years, and counting.

Growing Giving and Personal Philanthropy through Shepherding

In 2013 Christianity Today magazine reported on the high percentage of giving in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in North America compared to other Protestant denominations. One leader of this denomination stated in the article, “Money follows mission.” The best way to encourage giving, he says, is to focus on congregants’ spiritual development.”

“After all,” the article continued, “the CRC report found that those who were ‘daily nourished’ by prayer, Bible reading, and similar practices gave 7.7 percent of their income, compared to 5.9 percent for those who were ‘undernourished.’ ”[5]

Investing in the church’s “daily nourishment” has obviously yielded results in giving for the CRC, and it’s an approach that lines up with my own church. And my own family. In both, I thank God for showing me real evidence of deep, spiritual growth among those we’re charged to shepherd.


My heart grieves for the poor among us, locally and globally, as their images and needs pass daily before my eyes through modern technology and communication. I long to do more, and I’m not alone. When my church collected weekend tithes and offerings for a Kenyan well in 2011, gifts were four and a half times more than the average weekend offering. In our 2014 collection for the disenfranchised, tithes and offerings nearly doubled.

That speaks volumes.

I hope we never stop praying, and asking God to show us when it’s time to change our “core priorities.” As a church and as a family.

[Read Part 2: How Does Church Philanthropy Impact the Church?]


[1] I attend an evangelical church with two campuses in the Dallas area that serves about 1,500 members and regular guests.


[3] Matthew 6:21 (ESV)