Last Sunday I picked up a pledge card for my congregation's Year 2000 Stewardship Campaign, and over the next few weeks my wife, Nancy, and I will decide what kind of financial commitment we'll make to support Calvary Presbyterian Church throughout the new year. We've been giving $140 a week, or 7 percent of our income, and we will probably increase that--although just how much is always a point of debate in our household. As Calvary's minister, I obviously have a personal interest in a successful pledge drive, and I always push to give as much to the church as we can. Nancy, being more broadly altruistic, wants to increase the amount we give to causes that do not benefit us personally.

I tell this story not to expose our family finances to public scrutiny, but to illustrate just how tricky the issue of money and the church can be, especially during this season of pledge campaigns. For starters, charitable giving is difficult to talk about, personal finances being one of our society's last truly private areas. Donating to the church is an odd mixture of generosity and personal investment. That's certainly true for me, a member of the clergy, but also for parishioners who find that the church pays benefits to them and their families in the form of youth groups, counseling sessions, parenting classes and activities for seniors. It is hard to discern what really inspires people to support the mission and ministry of the church: a good "return" on their investment, gratitude to God, a sense of responsibility, satisfying music and preaching or the pure joy of giving?

This wide range of motivating factors makes the job of fund-raising even tougher for church leaders, who quickly discover that what stimulates one donor can alienate another. At Calvary, a nuts-and-bolts focus on personal responsibility to the church has turned off those who want a more spiritual approach. A few summers ago, a woman started attending the church and really loved it, expressing thanks for the spiritual messages she was hearing from the pulpit. Then we entered our fall pledge campaign and she became so disgusted by appeals for money that she left and has not returned. I tried to explain that this was a temporary, but necessary, campaign, but nothing I said made any difference to her.

Many people don't realize that the heart of any appeal for church funds is "stewardship"--the belief that all of our resources really belong to God, and that our primary responsibility is to be wise and generous stewards of what we have been given. Good stewards are generous in their support of the church, following a biblical guideline of 10 percent of their income, an offering called a "tithe" that pops up throughout the Old Testament. "It's not remarkable that we are to give God 10 percent," a particularly committed member of Calvary told me several years ago. "What's amazing is that God lets us keep 90 percent."

Most people fall short of this goal. A study by a Christian research organization, empty tomb inc., shows that churchgoing Protestants give an annual average of less than 2.5 percent of their household income to their churches, down from 3.3 percent at the height of the Depression.

Of course I understand why most people give less: For one thing, the biblical tithe reflects a time when the church wasn't competing with so many other organizations for charitable donations. Some of my parishioners think, as my wife does, that many nonprofit groups are also deserving of their donations.

Moreover it's unrealistic to expect that all parishioners would be able to give 10 percent to their parish. Dan Franklin, the current chairman of Calvary's stewardship campaign, has reached that conclusion. As he said to me recently, "There's a lot of competition for resources today: College tuition continues to rise, and most middle-class people are not eligible for scholarships. Besides federal taxes of 20 to 28 percent, Social Security and Medicare consume more than 7 percent of our income, with state taxes taking another 4 to 6 percent."

Still, I can't help doing the math. If the average family in my parish makes $50,000 a year (probably a low estimate for two-career families, but high for retirees and recent immigrants), and if each family tithed 10 percent, our annual budget would be $1 million. As it is, we struggle to raise $200,000 a year. Although I keep my eyes off the pledge records--not wanting the numbers to bias me for or against individual church members--I would guess that we are not much different from the national average, in which 20 percent of the people do most of the giving.

One problem is that the relationship between money and the church is eternally tense. Church services must be free and available to anyone with a spiritual need; but someone has to pay for the upkeep of church buildings, mission efforts and salaries. "The minister, church secretary and the electric bill all have to be paid with money," notes elder John Mercer, not with "good wishes, livestock or vegetables." At our church, like most others, the annual budget depends almost entirely on contributions from the membership.

Unfortunately, several trends threaten to undermine this pledge base. First, more and more people are coming to church seeking an introduction to God or Jesus, not to learn about the obligations of being part of a congregation. I find such a religious quest laudable, and the church should encourage it, but in these cases the issue of stewardship is forced to take its place in line behind spiritual growth.

In addition, research shows that today's younger adults are often believers but not belongers--they have a commitment to their faith, but not necessarily to a congregation. I see this in my own parish, and a person who rarely shows up for services is not going to make weekly offerings to the church.

Now I'm not the kind of pastor who uses high-pressure tactics or only talks about money--honest, you can check my sermon file--but I do confess that these trends worry me. One solution might be to send bills to active members with a specific recommendation of what each person should give. "Almost every synagogue sets dues and bills its members," Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria tells me. "Since we do not handle money on Shabbat, when most people gather, we cannot 'pass the plate.' Dues also distribute equitably the burdens of the upkeep of the congregation, rather than depending on those to whom the pastor or fund-raiser has immediate access. At the same time, every synagogue delivers the message with every bill or solicitation that no one will be turned away for lack of resources." While I admire this clear-eyed view of the needs of a Jewish congregation and the responsibility of each member, I doubt it would work in a Protestant church with a long tradition of an offering being a truly free gift.

Still, how free and generous do Nancy and I feel each week when we sit down to write our pledge check? Not very. It's an obligation--one that deepens our commitment to God and the church--but an obligation just the same. We see it as a way of putting our faith into action in a consistent, disciplined manner, week in and week out. And we're not alone. People today put their money into what matters to them, whether it is a congregation or a car, and it probably makes no difference whether you call the payment an offering or an obligation.

The challenge is to get people so excited about the life of the church that those who are able want to invest more each year in its ministry and mission. This requires a focus not on money, but on what the money can do for the church or the community or the world. While few of my parishioners are going to feel a rush of satisfaction from funding a parish electric bill, many are happy to support mission projects that feed the hungry, tutor neighborhood schoolchildren or purchase medical equipment for a hospital in Ghana. Mission giving is the engine that drives a church's budget, but unfortunately it is the part that often gets stripped down when a congregation encounters difficult times.

Churches can so easily find themselves in a downward spiral: Cutting the budget back to necessary expenses, they create a poor environment for inspiration, including the inspiration to give. Then, with fewer financial resources, the church can do less and less, and before long members lose interest and the congregation begins to die. In those circumstances, budget-cutting leaders are certainly being fiscally responsible, but what they end up doing is strangling the life of the church.

The only alternative is to try to create an upward spiral--one in which new parish-based programs, for instance, or more overseas missions inspire generous giving and membership growth. Congregations that encourage tithing tend to grow, because they are in a financial position to fund congregational programs and innovative mission projects. Nothing succeeds like success.

With many presidential candidates calling for religious organizations to work more closely with the poor, the demand for mission dollars is likely to increase. I think many church members do want to be supportive of such programs. But all that work requires money--some of which may come from the government, but most of which is probably still going to have to come from charitable contributions.

That won't be easy. "From the perspective of four decades of experience," says my retired colleague, Bill Phillippe, "I have learned that most people who think the church talks too much about money are guilty of not giving what they know they should." I'm committed to the idea that churches can--and should--help solve society's problems. But I'm not fooling myself. I know that many people don't belong to a church, and not all churchgoers are prepared to tithe. Still, I can't help imagining how much churches and the segment of society helped by churches would benefit if everyone would just dig a little deeper when the plate is passed.

Pastor Henry Brinton has been a Presbyterian minister since 1986.