Friday, June 20, 2014

Interfaith dues

Most American synagogues operate on a dues model of ensuring financial support for the congregation, where the dues are a set amount and some flexibility is available for lower incomes. Most American churches operate on a voluntary donation model of ensuring financial support for the congregation, where different people pledge and/or donate different amounts. It should be noted that both models fail to keep many congregations in decent financial shape.

I’ve long thought about and avoided the dues model for religious organizations. Most of our annual donations over the past decade have been voluntary donations to organizations which have no set expectations of us, and where we can often feel like we’re exceeding those non-existent expectations.

But now we’re joining a synagogue, and the dues are significantly higher than we’re comfortable with, so I’ve been wondering about the dues policy. I’ve also been wondering about the synagogue’s various policies towards interfaith families, and the confluence of those two mental meanderings is the difficult fact that we want to support both the synagogue and Lisa’s church. What is the right total for us, and what is the right balance for us?

When we were just two people, we made sure that our donations to my religious organization and Lisa’s religious organization were (approximately) equal. That felt right. As three people, the balance is actually much more difficult. Lisa is Christian, David and I are Jewish, so should we give 2/3 to the synagogue and 1/3 to the church? All three of us go to synagogue events, and only Lisa goes to church events, so should we give 3/4 to the synagogue and 1/4 to the church? Should we keep track of how often we actually interact with each community, and base our split on that? Or should we respect the fact that the two adults in the household are two different religions, that we respect and support each other’s religious practices, and continue to give 1/2 to the synagogue and 1/2 to the church?

The right way to think about the total is even harder for me to wrap my head around. If we are members at the synagogue, then we should financially support the synagogue in the same way as all the other members of the synagogue. But that means the total religious expenses for interfaith families are much higher than the total religious expenses for same-faith families. When people owe taxes to more than one state, there’s generally some sort of credit given by the states for taxes paid in other states so that the total tax burden is not dramatically higher than it would be if you only owed taxes to the more expensive state. Could a system like that work for a synagogue in a way that respected the obligations of interfaith families to support multiple religious organizations without the synagogue explicitly encouraging donations to a different religion?

Suppose synagogue dues are $2000, and suppose the expectation of an interfaith family is to pay a roughly equal amount to both faiths. It seems punitive to expect the interfaith family to pay $4000 in total while the same-faith family pays $2000. But asking the interfaith family to only pay $1000 towards the synagogue while the same-faith family pays $2000 risks considering the interfaith families as second-tier members within the synagogue. Perhaps a 1:3 reduction in dues for contributions to the other faith, up to a maximum reduction of 1/4 of the dues? If an interfaith family contributes $600 to the other faith, then the synagogue dues are reduced to $1800; a $1500 or greater contribution to the other faith means that synagogue dues are reduced to $1500. The interfaith family is still contributing a higher total to religious organizations and close to the same amount to the synagogue as same-faith families, while there is some recognition of the higher total being a potential burden.

Or does it just end up the same as the intimidating process that anyone with limited income faces when asking for a dues reduction, where some random people within your small religious community stick their noses into your family’s finances and you never quite feel like you’re on par with everyone else within the religious community?

Here’s how I would like to approach the synagogue dues: First, how much would we conribute to the synagogue if there were no set dues? If that voluntary amount is higher than the dues, contribute the higher amount. That was easy. If that voluntary amount is lower than the dues, can we stretch a bit and pay the dues without real hardship? That was ok. If the dues really are a hardship, then there should be a clearly-stated dues reduction policy based on some sensible factors like family size and adjusted gross income. (That’s how many governmental assistance programs work.) And then a step beyond that for families with more difficult circumstances. I just think that part of keruv/outreach to interfaith families should perhaps put a dues reduction in the clearly-stated dues reduction policy rather than in the difficult circumstances step.


irilyth said...

I wonder how common it is for families who wouldn't describe themselves as "interfaith" necessarily to belong to more than one religious organization, e.g. an Episcopalian and a Baptist, or a Reconstructionist and a Conservative, or just two people of exactly the same faith who happen to prefer different specific churches (and who greatly enjoy going to separate churches on Sunday morning, and then coming home to talk about their different experiences, and are religiously stronger for the variety).

One approach would simply be to do it per person, although this might require more hardship subsidies. But a family of one really is adding to the synagogue's expenses less than a family of six, so it seems a little weird to me to charge them the same. And it neatly solves the interfaith problem, of course.

Michael said...

I wonder that too. Personally, I prefer one shul for tot services and adult education, a different shul for regular services, and a local Hillel for High Holiday services. I apparently contain liturgical multitudes.

The synagogue we're joining does a fairly typical plan of either individual dues or family dues. The counting system is apparently 1, >1. But many families with little kids will end up paying more for each child for Hebrew School.