When I first began considering the tithe conundrum (why does it take 150 active members to support one pastor?), it was obvious that a large portion of tithe money must go to purposes other than paying the salaries of local church pastors.
I already knew that some of it supports workers at various levels of church administration, but I hoped that wasn’t the whole answer. In this article I’ll explore the various uses of tithe as expressed in factors 5-7 of the tithe conundrum:
- Who, other than pastors, actually gets paid from tithe?
- Is tithe used for purposes other than supporting ministry workers?
- To what extent does our tithe fund the church’s mission in other parts of the world?
First, let’s look at the biblical purpose of tithe and how the Adventist Church uses it.
How Should Tithe Be Used?
In Bible times, tithe provided a living for the Levites “in return for the work they do while serving at the tent of meeting” (Numbers 18:21, NIV). While the New Testament does not repeat the command to tithe, Paul reiterated the principle that “those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14, NIV).
In its official policy on the use of tithe, the Adventist Church has done its best to apply these biblical principles to today’s context. According to this policy, “tithe should only be used for the support of personnel who are engaged in evangelistic and nurturing ministries.” This includes current and retired
- Bible workers,
- administrative and support staff (e.g., at the conference level),
- educators, and
- literature evangelists (benefits only).
Not every church worker can be paid with tithe. For instance, elementary school principals and teachers can receive up to 30% of their salary from tithe “in recognition of their role as spiritual leaders.” At the academy and college levels, only Bible teachers, deans, and school principals/presidents can be paid from tithe. Many church-owned institutions, such as hospitals and publishing houses, support their employees not through tithe but through income from their products and services.
Tithe can also be used for non-personnel costs, such as operating expenses and equipment for conference offices. Tithe can help fund outreach and nurture programs, including
- evangelistic programs,
- camp meetings,
- summer camps, and
- media production.
As you can see, Adventist church policy allows for a fairly broad use of tithe. There are just two main areas where tithe can’t be used:
- operating and maintenance expenses for churches and schools, and
- building projects.
When members turn in tithe to their local church, it all ends up at their local conference. Most of it is allocated for needs within the conference, while a portion makes its way to the union, the division, and the General Conference to fund broader ministries.
Since each conference spends its funds differently, the amount spent on each type of expense varies. For this article, I pooled online data from 11 conferences in 6 unions to get an idea of how tithe dollars are spent in North America.
Pastors’ Salaries: Just One Piece of the Pie
Now we can finally answer our key question: What percent of tithe actually goes to pay pastors?
The answer: As little as 25% in some conferences.
Of the four conferences I studied that listed separately the amount that supported pastors and Bible workers, the highest was the Southeastern California Conference, which allocated 37% of tithe for pastoral salaries and benefits. Close behind was the Allegheny East Conference at 34%. The other two fell in the 24-25% range.
Conferences spent an average of 13% of tithe on education, covering Adventist educators’ salaries as described above.
About 20-25% of tithe funds went to support conference-level staff and the ministries they lead: everything from literature evangelism to communications to accounting. Evangelistic meetings, women’s ministry retreats, youth rallies, camp meetings, and Vacation Bible Schools are just a few examples of the types of ministry supported through these funds.
In addition, all conferences spent about 10% of tithe on supporting retired church workers covered by the church’s old pension plan, which ended in 2000. Contributions to current employees’ retirement accounts are included in the salary categories above.
The rest—almost 25% of total tithe—was sent on to higher levels of church administration. In 2017, 9% of tithe went to the union, 8.9% to the North American Division, and 6.6% to the General Conference.
Not all of that is swallowed up by administrative costs. For instance, universities receive additional support from the union’s portion. Part of the union/NAD tithe (about 3-4% of total tithe) ultimately comes back to the local conferences for various programs, primarily education and evangelism. Unions, the NAD, and the GC also sponsor services that impact individual members, ranging from Pathfinder camporees to religious liberty advocacy to church publications.
Although church policy allows tithe to be used for certain non-personnel costs, most tithe dollars fulfill the biblical mandate to provide a living for ministry workers. “In the two conferences I’ve been in, a good 70% of our budget is personnel,” explained Aaron McNulty, vice president for finance at the Kentucky-Tennessee Conference.
Of concern is the fact that a significant percentage of these church employees are not frontline workers, but conference, union, division, and GC staff. Some estimates suggest that “for every 1.3 ministers and evangelists working in the field, there is one person in a support role.” We’ll consider this aspect further in the next section.
The following graph illustrates approximately where tithe goes in North America. While paying local church pastors does form the largest piece of the pie, it still accounts for a minority of tithe usage.
Tithe for the World
When I began this series of articles, I hoped that factor #7 (tithe that goes to fund Adventist mission in other parts of the world) would prove to be a significant part of the equation. After all, we hardly need one pastor for every 10-15 members! It would make more sense to spend a good portion of our tithe on sending missionaries to unentered parts of the world, such as the 10/40 Window, home to billions of people with virtually no exposure to Christianity. North America is one of the richest segments of the Adventist Church, so we have the resources to launch the church’s mission in new areas.
To some extent, we are doing just that. Although the NAD makes up only a small fraction of global Adventist membership, and although only one out of 15 NAD tithe dollars makes its way to world church headquarters, we still provide two-thirds of the GC’s funding.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean North American tithe is making a significant contribution toward reaching the unreached. Most of the GC budget is spent sustaining current church institutions and entities. The percentage devoted to missionaries has ranged between 11% and 16% in recent years. So it’s possible that less than 1% of our tithe is funding pioneering outreach in other parts of the world.
Instead, we in North America are spending the vast majority of our tithe money right here. Most of it is spent on nurturing current members, educating our own children, and maintaining various levels of church administration rather than on planting new churches or otherwise breaking into new territory.
In light of this, Professor Robert McIver, who spent more than a decade studying Adventist tithing habits, warns that “there is need for a serious re-evaluation of how the Church uses its resources.” He comments: “The funds are used for worthwhile purposes. Yet are these purposes the most effective way for the Church to use its financial resources to accomplish its mission?”
I would echo McIver’s urging that the Adventist Church use tithe more strategically in the 21st century. It is encouraging that, for instance, the GC successfully kept expenses below budget last year and then voted to invest much of the surplus in 10/40 Window evangelism. But much more than an occasional appropriation is needed to make a significant shift in how tithe funds are used.
We currently have 8 unions and 50 conferences covering the United States alone. Could a massive restructuring free up funds that are supporting redundant levels of administration? It’s possible, but such a solution would require significant sacrifice on the part of church leaders and possibly members. And unless it’s done with a deliberate purpose to shift tithe to frontline ministry (whether here or overseas), the church’s mission will see little overall benefit.
Solving the Tithe Conundrum
As we close, let’s return to the mystery that opened this series: Why is there only one Adventist pastor for every 150 active members when 10-15 tithe-payers should be able to fund a pastor’s salary and benefits? As the graphic below illustrates, only 20-25 members of this hypothetical church are actually supporting a pastor, which isn’t too far off from my original estimate.
Could a church this size support many more pastors and other ministry workers? Absolutely. It can start as each of us commits to being faithful in returning our tithe. It can grow as church leadership makes difficult decisions to prioritize evangelism and growth over maintaining the status quo.
We might spur each other on in this endeavor with the promise of having more pastors, better youth camps, slicker evangelistic media, and other benefits here in North America. None of those would be bad things. But returning tithe is all about putting God’s mission—God’s priorities—first in our hearts and our wallets, rather than keeping everything for our own needs.
Perhaps we, as individuals and as a church, need to adopt more of that perspective for our tithe (no, make that God’s tithe). How can the gospel go to all the world as rapidly as possible? That should be the goal not just for our giving, but for our entire lives.
 The conferences were: Allegheny East, Georgia-Cumberland, Kentucky-Tennessee, Southeastern California, Washington, and Mid-America Union (aggregate data for all conferences in the union). The information online is not necessarily for the most recent year; in several cases, there was no indication of what year the data represented. In addition, each conference broke down their report somewhat differently, making it difficult to accurately compare categories of funding. Thus, many of the statistics in this article are approximations or averages.
 The rest grouped pastoral pay with funds used for evangelism and/or local church ministries. This category ranged from 36% in the Georgia-Cumberland Conference to 47% in the conferences of the Mid-America Union. The 47% presumably includes about 10% for retirees, since that category was not listed separately as it was for other conferences.
 Details on tithe usage can be found in the unions’ quinquennial reports, such as those for the Pacific Union (p. 15-16), Southern Union (p. 18), and Lake Union (Lake Union Herald, April 2016, p. 8-9).
 Historically, North America shared much more of its funding with the rest of the world church. “In 1930, 40% of the church’s money went throughout the General Conference. Today it is just 5.6%, with the remainder staying in the areas where it is given.” Undoubtedly there are pros and cons to each approach.
 I have long argued that the unions could vanish into thin air, with their roles taken on by the NAD, and the average member would never notice.