The Coffers are Getting Fuller, the Churches, Emptier

During 1990 in Eastern Germany and during 1991 in all of Germany, the end of the German church appeared at hand.  Newspapers plastered photos of long lines waiting in front of courthouses across their front pages; those waiting were intending to remove their names from church membership rolls.  Harried clerks worked overtime to process the applications.

The upsurge of 1991 was caused by a 7.5% income tax surcharge which had been levied for one year, beginning on July 1, 1991.  The surcharge of 7.5% roughly equaled the church tax, which is an 8-10% surcharge added to regular income tax.  Many applicants therefore gave the reason: "If I leave the church, I'll get my old take-home pay back."  When faced with two surcharges, Germans chose to eliminate the voluntary one. A monthly income tax of $300 requires a church tax of at east $24 per month church tax; the church tax is approximately a tenth of a tithe (1%) of all personal income.


Though Protestant withdrawals in Western Germany during 1991 approached 250,000, which is 100,000 above the usual average, the church will not soon disappear.  For a church of 29 million members, this still amounts to a loss of less than one percent.  Nevertheless, survey analysts forecast that only half of West Germans will still be on church rolls in 30 years.


Church income still suffices.  The conservative magazine "Focus" recently even claimed: "The churches are swimming in money.  Though the treasuries of the local and federal government are empty, the Catholic and Protestant churches have been blessed with a cloudburst of money."  Thanks to the income tax surcharge, church income was up 12.7% in 1992.  Because the church tax is coupled to income tax, any increase in income tax promises an impressive jump in church income.  Therefore, church income can still increase while membership is decreasing.   This leads to the claim that "Church coffers are filling as the churches empty."  The Evangelical Church in Germany's (EKD) income for 1992 totaled $5.7 billion, nearly 95% of that revenue was generated by the church tax.


No further increase is envisioned for 1993: The loss of the income tax surcharge is offset by the fact that the elimination of the East German state has increased the number of D-Mark-paying church members markedly.  The income from East German churches, though still less than income from West Berlin, is running far ahead of the original, very modest expectations.  Yet, despite increased income, the number of church jobs is being slashed in Eastern Germany.  Pastors once earning less than $700 a month now require as much as $3,000.


Though poverty is not a problem for the German church - credibility is.  Folk wisdom assumes the church "cares only about money."  The late Bavarian Bishop Hermann Dietzfelbinger once attributed German reluctance to resign from church rolls to "a mixture of faith and superstition."  The magazine "Der Spiegel" added, "Many see church membership as a kind of insurance just in case there might be an afterlife after all.  The churches capitalize on this uncertainty and foster thereby the suspicion that money is more important to them than faith."

Suspicions are heightened by the fact that money, not faith, has become the sole concrete test of church membership.  "Der Spiegel" has pointed out that one can reject the resurrection and remain a church member, but not one's church tax. The present system came into being through the Weimar constitution of 1919, but only since 1948 has the state revenue system been collecting the church tax for churches.  Removal from church rolls has thereby become a legal step.  In the baptism act, the infant enters a legal commitment out of which that person can extricate himself only by later appearing at the courthouse and resigning from church membership.  Only by living in a foreign country can a German Lutheran or Catholic not pay church taxes and still remain a member in good standing.

Payments are rarely made eagerly.  Since the East German church did not have access to state records for several decades, it does not possess exact membership rolls.  Only now is it able, in cooperation with government offices, to establish exact tallies.  In two villages near Koenigs Wusterhausen on the southern fringe of Berlin, the evangelical church had 478 members on its own, unofficial rolls.  But only seven local employees admitted to church membership when completing government forms.  Now, the local church office is appealing to the government for help in tracking down the remainder. A recent survey shows that only 2% of German evangelicals attend church regularly, 15% never attend.  Twenty-four years ago "Der Spiegel" had concluded that "nowhere else is a church supported to the same extent by the money of heathens."


Cries for change can be heard within the church.  Surveys show that at least 72% of Germans favor a reform of the church collections system.  Johannes Weiss, a church journalist, wrote: "A large percentage of those who pay church taxes do so unwillingly.  They long ago lost contact to institutionalized Christianity.  But their reluctance to have their names dropped has made the church blind to reality.  Church taxes are a financial foundation built on quicksand."


Horst Hermann, a sociologist of religion, wrote: "Are there no Christians around who find this behavior Unchristian?  Shouldn't Christians themselves confront the problem of income in the billions?  Why do of all churches the German churches need to be so wealthy in order to aid the poor?"


Many believe a new form of collection could revitalize the witness of the church.  Rev. Horst Gorski of Hamburg stated: "The church tax stands in our way.  In public, we're always on the defensive now.  Things would be so much easier if there were no church tax, and we would be poorer!  Then our very existence would be a witness to our faith.  As things are now, my way of life speaks against my faith in the eyes of so many." A local initiative wrote: "Voluntary donations would be a corrective, destroying the suspicion that the church is an all-powerful and uncontrollable bureaucratic apparatus."


Supporters of the present method point to the church's social involvement, claiming that its removal would insure a "social catastrophe" for society.  Church programs supposedly save the state millions of dollars.  Nevertheless, virtually all funding for the construction of church-run hospitals and retirement homes stems from government coffers, and the mere fact that the church tax is tax-deductible costs the government several billion additional Marks.  Social programs do not exceed 20% of the churches' annual budgets.  Three-fourths of church income is spent on employee salaries and administration.

EKD-press speaker Peter Kollmar describes the present system as "just and socially-balanced": retirees, students, and low-income workers are exempt from the church tax.


Germans do not agree on whether the present form demonstrates closeness or distance from the state.  Supporters and opponents of the church tax can be found in all major political camps.  Leftist supporters of the present model accuse conservative critics of wanting to eliminate the church's guaranteed, regular income in order to make it submissive to the whims of the state.  According to journalist Uli Roehm, the government could then "purchase good behavior by bankrolling the church."


Few German critics regard the U.S. model as an alternative.  A claim by the magazine “Lutherische Monatshefte", "Dependence upon donators negatively effects church life in the USA," reflects a widely-held opinion.  "Rheinischer Merkur" believes a church financially dependent upon a few can no longer be a church for all and added: "A continual church program is nearly impossible without regular [guaranteed] income."


Modern-day Europe offers many different models.  In Great Britain, the church is forced to pay its salaries with income from its vast landholdings.  The present Italian system requires that 8% of every taxpayer's income tax be designated for a social or religious cause of that taxpayer's choice.  This alternative, called the "culture tax", is receiving considerable support in Germany.  Its German supporters believe the number of church members would dwindle much less rapidly; opponents fear far too few church members would voluntarily designate their 8% for the use of the church.  Even Germany's humanist union (IKBA) is opposed to the culture tax proposal, claiming they already pay for church upkeep through other taxes.  It would in any case no longer be cheaper to be an atheist: All citizens would be required to pay the same amount of social or religious taxes.

Reverend Gorski concludes: "I harbor no illusions: The elimination of the church tax now would be a financial disaster. We must therefore begin taking small steps to change the salary structures and drop non-vital expenditures.  The generation after ours will need to eliminate the church tax."

The Catholic theologian Eugen Drewermann labels the churches "unreformable" and sees "financial collapse" as the only means for bringing about change.  Johannes Weiss admitted:  "Because the church tax is like a cow in terrific health promising premium milk for some time to come, the church would be stupid to suddenly send her off to the packers."  Apparently, significant changes are not on the horizon.


Bill Yoder

Evanston/IL, May 8, 1993


Written for “The Lutheran” in Chicago, 1,560 words


Note from January 2021: At the end of 2019, Germany's EKD reported a membership of 20,713,000. That's a drop of nearly a third (29%) since 1993. Catholic membership was 22,600,000 at the end of 2019; total population was 83,167,000.