By Emily Fredrix
Saturday, June 28, 2008
MILWAUKEE -- Budget cuts to Rod McLean's church youth group jeopardized a summer mission trip to Washington state.
As he wondered how he could help the group meet its $13,000 budget, he remembered the federal tax rebate. He decided to donate his stimulus check and persuade others at Lake Edge United Church of Christ in Madison, Wis., to do the same.
"I thought, 'What a natural,' " said McLean, a 67-year-old retiree. "If a lot of people can give 10, 15, 20 percent of that, it's not like digging into their normal budgets."
He told church leaders of his idea, and the Share the Windfall Fund was born.
The church of about 900 members in Wisconsin's capital city isn't alone. United Church of Christ members, Lutherans, Quakers and members of other religious groups are asking people to donate at least part of their checks to their groups or other charities.
The federal government hopes to stimulate the economy with the $110 billion it's returning to taxpayers this spring and summer. But many see the extra money as an opportunity for charity.
"It's an unbelievable amount of cash that people of faith or people of conscience could choose to say, 'You know, we could get along without this. We could put this money to use,' " said Ken Sehested, co-pastor at the Circle of Mercy church in Asheville, N.C.
His congregation of about 50 adults, which is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and Alliance of Baptists, voted to give at least 10 percent of their checks to charities. He and his wife plan to give their entire $1,200 check to the church's partner congregation in Cuba.
Religious groups traditionally receive the most donations in the United States.
In 2006, the most recent year for which data are available, $295 billion was donated in the United States, according to Giving USA Foundation, with research from the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy. Of that, nearly one-third, $97 million, went to religious groups.
Sandra Enos, a sociologist at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., who specializes in nonprofit groups and philanthropy, said donations to food pantries and other local charities can benefit the economy as much as spending on a new TV or vacation.
"Boy, if you're feeding local people who are hungry, it's like locally spurring the economy, so it's a wise economic choice, it seems," she said.
At McLean's church, if all members give 10 percent of their rebates, the congregation could raise $40,000, said the Rev. Paul Shupe, the senior pastor. The congregation's charities include mission work for the homeless and hungry and the youth group's trip to the Pacific Northwest later this month.
"We're using it as a teaching moment for us, an opportunity to think about our wealth and our resources and our responsibility," Shupe said.
Although charity is important, church leaders must also make sure that members who need the money know it's all right to keep it, said Bishop Paul W. Stumme-Diers of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He recently urged ELCA leaders at a national conference to ask congregants to donate, but only if they can afford to do so.
"This is not to lay a guilt trip on people, but rather it's an invitation for those who are really able to give beyond the usual amounts because of this unexpected windfall," he said.
His family of four -- with one child younger than 17 -- expects to get $1,500 back, and all of it will go to charity. The family will decide together how it will be divided.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group for the nation's 125 Jewish community relations councils and national agencies, is grappling with similar concerns.
The council doesn't want to issue a mandate on donating, especially if people are in need, but hopes that those who are financially able will consider giving, said Rabbi Steve Gutow, the council's executive director.
McLean and his wife plan to donate at least 10 percent of their rebate, and he hopes his fellow congregants will follow suit.
"I'm just feeling there'll be a lot of people in our church that say, 'Geez, the tithing of 10 percent? Since it's kind of a windfall, we can make it more,' " he said.