Let’s start with a story. When I was first practicing law, a senior associate came to my office to solicit my contribution for some good cause. For reasons unknown to me, he felt entitled to lecture me on the topic of generosity, and he suggested that anyone who was making the kind of money that we were making should be embarrassed if he didn’t give two or three percent of it to charity. Being an inveterate smart aleck, I wanted to respond, “You’re preaching to the choir, David. I take ten percent right off the top and give it to my Church. Of course, that doesn’t include fast offerings and other contributions. And don’t even get me started on Boy Scouts, Young Women’s fundraisers, school fundraisers, etc.” But I didn’t.
Nevertheless, this story has always provided a baseline against which to measure my own generosity. As long as I am a full tithe-payer, I have reasoned, I am a generous person by the world’s standards. But the Church expects more from us than tithing. We are also expected to contribute to fast offerings. According to the Church’s publication “True to the Faith, Fasting and Fast Offerings“: “Proper observance of fast Sunday includes going without food and drink for two consecutive meals, attending fast and testimony meeting, and giving a fast offering to help care for those in need.” (Thanks to Kaimi for the link.)
Most wards that I have attended have, from time to time, experienced a shortage of fast offering funds. That is, the funds supplied by the ward have not been sufficient to meet the welfare needs of the ward. Even wards that I considered relatively wealthy have experienced this. In my conversations with bishops over this issue, I have been surprised by two facts: (1) the small number of families in any given ward that contribute to fast offerings; and (2) how little most families that do contribute actually give. As for the amount of fast offerings, the Church’s position is stated thus (again, from the aforelinked publication): “Your fast offering should be at least the value of the two meals you do not eat. When possible, be generous and give much more than this amount.” Having never been a bishop myself, I don’t have anything other than vague impressions here, but my impression is that most members who contribute fast offerings must be skipping meals comprised of Ramen noodles, not steak. Why are we so reluctant to fund the welfare program of the Church?
Here are some possible explanations:
1. Mormons are stingy. My story above was intended to refute this as a general explanation. In my experience, Mormons as a whole are very giving compared to non-Mormons as a whole. The narrower issue is the more interesting one: why does our generosity seem to stop short of a generous fast offering?
2. Bishops are profligate spenders of fast offerings. Perhaps my last question is misplaced and bishops are spending too freely the generous fast offerings of their ward members. Obviously, the disbursement of Church funds is a judgment call, and I have in some instances disagreed with my bishop’s judgment, but I have never felt that one of my bishops was profligate. At a minimum, I do not think that the entire problem of fund shortages can be laid at the feet of proflicate bishops.
3. We don’t really believe in Church welfare. In virtually every instance where Church welfare assistance is discussed, we also examine alternative means of support, including extended family support and support from government programs. Perhaps we feel that we have done our duty by paying taxes, and if someone is truly in need, surely they qualify for some form of government assistance.
4. Even if we believe in Church welfare, we cannot sustain it. The Church welfare system is funded (primarily?) from fast offerings, which are made from a residual amount (disposable income) that is increasingly consumed by the taxes required to support the government welfare system and higher costs of living for ourselves. Perhaps Church welfare is just too expensive. (Just wondering: Do members in Sweden or other higher-tax countries contribute to fast offerings in the same manner as members in the United States?)
Whatever the root cause of fast offering shortages, there are some fairly conventional ways to address them. One is to ask for more fast offerings from the pulpit. This is usually good for a short-term fix, but it does not result in sustained increases. In my experience, the most effective way to increase fast offerings is to have deacons (or other Aaronic Priesthood holders) visit families each month for fast offering collections. While this activity almost always suffers from inconsistency, I have witnessed its effectiveness at increasing fast offerings in several wards. But this raises another question: Do we really need to be shamed by the Aaronic Priesthood before we will contribute a generous fast offering?
So many questions. So few answers.