East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 9, No. 1, Winter 2001, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

The Income of the Russian Orthodox Church

Sergei Chapnin

Money Not Monitored
What do we know about the financial activity of the [Orthodox] Church? In the 1990s, the answer to this question was clear. Around the country, thousands of churches and hundreds of monasteries were rebuilt, seminaries and religious schools were opened, charitable organizations were founded. In a word, it was clear what the Church was spending her money on. Mass media regularly reported about who was sponsoring the rebuilding of which church. Tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars were spent restoring churches and monasteries. How effectively were these resources used? Today it is extremely difficult to assess. No one expected a detailed financial accounting from priests and bishops. Sponsors (who were generally relatively far from the Church) were satisfied with a thank-you note, and sometimes just seeing the gold onion domes and new walls of a church was enough to justify the money that was spent.

The clergy and hierarchy, who were in the "Babylon captivity" of having to deal with huge amounts of management issues, gave practically no thought to evaluating the effectiveness of this use of the Church's resources. There was no one to plan the financial-management activity on such a large scale.  As a result, the Patriarch's financial account-giving at bishops' councils was limited to "percentage presentation." No real numbers were given. Today it is practically impossible to construct a general picture of Church economics. It is not coincidental that in the 1990s not one document on this topic was published.

How Does the Church Earn Money?

1. The Cup. This is direct donation from parishioners and all who pray in a particular church. After the economic shake-ups of the 1990s, these donations comprise only a small part of the Church (predominantly parish) budget, but like the widow's mite, they are the most valuable, because these donations are truly from the heart.

2. Candles and Zapiski (prayer lists [invoked] during Divine Liturgy and molebens [public prayers]) are the most commercial and almost the most significant part of income. In many parishes and dioceses it gives up to 50 percent of income.  In essence, buying candles for a price significantly higher than their basic cost is also a donation to the church. However, candles sold to visitors--to those who simply stop by the church to light a few more candles in front of icons and then leave--make up the lion's share of sales. Donations made in order to "buy out" of a true spiritual life may be very significant, especially in large cities. This is its own form of new paganism, subconscious magic, based on the principle of "ty-mne, ya-tebe" (if you do something for me, then I'll do something for you). Despite the ambiguity of this situation, the Church relates to what is happening rather calmly, keeping in mind first of all its economic benefits. "The Zapiski Cult" is one of the characteristic traits of modern Russian Orthodoxy.

3. Treby (services performed by request). Here we are speaking about serving molebens; baptisms; funerals; blessings of apartments, cars, and offices; anointing; communing parishioners at home...in a word, "private services." Providing such services is becoming a significant source of income, especially in cities. The Patriarch spoke about this at the General Council: "We must admit that there are clergy for whom profit is more important than either their pastoral responsibility or concern for their moral reputation. Some clergy, spending most of their time outside of their parishes and even outside the diocese, live in large cities, serving treby on their own, and sometimes even advertising this service."1Treby are more and more becoming the main source of a priest's income, more than 3-4 times his modest income.

4. Rental Properties. This source of income plays an important role in big cities, most of all in Moscow, where a series of buildings in the center of town have been given to the Moscow Patriarchate.

5. Russian Sponsors. We can divide this group into three subgroups: political, economic, and "spiritual children." The first subgroup donates because of political considerations (Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov); the second subgroup donates out of gratitude for discounts or profitable contracts through the church; and the third subgroup gives sincerely in accordance with the blessing of its spiritual fathers. Overall, today this group is the Moscow Patriachate's main source of income.

6. Economic Grants from [Ecclesiastical] Organizations. The problem of relations with non-Orthodox churches only in part belongs to theological dialogue. Grants from various charitable organizations and funds (mostly Roman Catholic and Lutheran) were significant factors in Church economics in the first half of the 1990s. The Episcopal Church of America supported thousands of Orthodox initiatives. These sums for the most part were given in cash and were not subject to any formal accounting procedures.2 In the second half of the 1990s this "source of income" yielded its leading role to "donations from business and private individuals."

7. Commercial Projects of Priests and Bishops (church-related and private). Here the largest undertakings are the art and production enterprise of Sofrino, the Danilovsky Hotel, and the Sretensky Monastery Publishing House with its many related firms.

8. Traveling Expositions of Relics and Other Sacred Items. Despite its "exoticness," this traditional source of income for the Church has brought in serious profits. This year the relics of the great Martyr Panteleimon visited Kyiv, St. Petersburg, and Moscow from the Russian Monastery on Mt. Athos. How much money was collected in connection with this event? We don't know, just as we don't know what this money was spent on. For comparative purposes, we can cite figures from a report to the Patriarch by the Ekaterinburg clergy in 1998. During the visit of the miraculous Chimeev Icon of the Mother of God to Ekaterinburg, over the course of a month $100,000 dollars was collected.

9. The National Government. In addition to the above, there remain unknown direct and indirect contributions from the federal budget, which finance programs of the Moscow Patriarchate. The president and heads of state were led by simple logic: the Church is a large structure and the state should help her leadership to politically and economically protect her status. Based on such reasoning, the Patriarchate was offered a huge quota from oil exports in 1994. (Editor's Note: See "Orthodoxy, Oil, Tobacco, and Wine: Do They Mix?" in the East-West Church & Ministry Report 5 [Winter 1997], 7.) It is possible that it was these free funds that allowed the Patriarch to cover the budget deficit for five to six years. 

Sergei Chapnin is editor-in-chief of the Internet magazine Sobornost.

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from "The Money of the Church," a paper presented in "The Christian Basis for Economic Ethics, International Scientific-Theological Conference by E-mail," 2-8 October 2000, Omsk State University Theological Faculty. For a conference program and texts of some papers, consult wysiwyg://6http://www.sobor.ru.

  1. "The introduction of prices for treby, which has created certain problems for parishioners of modest means, has led to not a few reprimands. It is necessary to work towards allowing parishioners' sacrifices to be deeply voluntary and not perceived as a 'tax' for 'ritual service' (from the Report of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia at the Jubilee Episcopal Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, 13-16 August 2000)."
  2. Among the largest ecumenical projects, it is worth mentioning the fund of the Patriarchal publishing center at Holy Trinity Lavra in Sergiev-Posad, to which Western sponsors gave about one million dollars.

Sergei Chapnin, "The Income of the Russian Orthodox Church," East-West Church & Ministry Report 9 (Winter 2001), 16,15.

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© 2001 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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