Churches in America may be one of the few institutions sheltered from recession, with financial contributions that appear to have stayed well ahead of inflation. The average U.S. church member donated $239.71 to his congregation in 1981—less than half a tithe for most wage-earners, yet enough to boost giving 12.3 percent.

As in past years, smaller and more conservative groups received substantially more money from their members than larger, mainline bodies. One notable exception is the Episcopal church, where giving leaped 37.5 percent—with each average member giving $100 more than in 1980. (The average yearly giving per member in the Episcopal Church was $361.43 in 1981.)

Other mainline groups in which giving surpassed the 1981 inflation rate of 8.9 percent include the American Lutheran Church, United Presbyterian Church, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and United Methodist Church.

Financial statistics from 45 Protestant church bodies were compiled by the National Council of Churches (NCC) in an annual survey that covers about 40 percent of all contributions to U.S. churches. Many religious groups, including Roman Catholics and Mormons, do not collect or make public comprehensive statistics on their members.

The most generous givers in the study belong to the Missionary Church, a conservative group with 279 congregations reporting per capita giving at $783.59. Next are Seventh-day Adventists at $732.20 and the Wesleyan Church at $687. Other groups whose members gave more than $400 each include Primitive Methodist, Orthodox Presbyterian, Church of the Nazarene, North American Baptist Conference, Evangelical Covenant, and Reformed Church in America. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest Protestant group, averaged $201.70 from each donor.

Constant H. Jacquet, Jr., editor of the NCC’s Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, speculated that a poorer socio-economic base keeps SBC giving relatively low, but he cautioned, “It certainly isn’t true that poor people give less. Often they are the ones who give sacrificially.”

Jacquet said a higher level of personal commitment in the more conservative bodies encourages higher giving. Generally they are “supporting a great many more institutions from a smaller base.” Also, more discipline is exerted on members, and the practice of tithing is a tradition conservative bodies have always emphasized.

Tithing may become a higher priority for other church groups, too. Jacquet said Episcopalians “have made it a norm in the practice of giving,” and this partially accounts for their recent increase.

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