East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 9, No. 4, Fall 2001, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Orthodox Finances: Managed or Mismanaged?

Timofeev, L.M. et al. Ekonomicheskaia deiatel'nost' Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi i ee tenevaia sostavliaiushchaia [The Economic Activity of the Russian Orthodox Church and Its Shadow Component]. Moscow: Russian State Humanities University, 2000.

Editor's Note: See also Andrei Zolotov, "Orthodoxy, Oil, Tobacco, and Wine: Do They Mix?" East-West Church & Ministry Report 5 (Winter 1997), 7; and Sergei Chapnin, "The Income of the Russian Orthdox Church," East-West Church & Ministry Report 9 (Winter 2001), 15-16.

Researchers Mikhail Edelstein and Nikolai Mitrokhin have produced an important study of Russian Orthodox Church finances. Mikhail Edelstein, an editor with Analitika-Press (Moscow) who holds a Candidate (doctorate) degree in Russian literature, describes various levels of church finances in Central Russia: the parish, the monastery, and the diocese. In Russia today each diocese has two main sources of income: internal, involving donations received from parishes, cathedrals, and monasteries; and external, derived from business ventures and funds received from the government and community leaders. For his part Nikolai Mitrokhin, a doctoral student at the Russian State University of Humanities (Moscow) and a researcher for "Memorial" Human Rights Center, examines Russian Orthodox Church income from such sources as its publishing business and priests who profit from cathedral "ownership." Edelstein and Mitrokhin are to be commended for their thorough and extensive research that presents in a systematic way Russian Orthodox Church finances that are complex, confusing, and disorderly.

One chapter of the book consists of interviews with anonymous priests on financial matters and business ventures of the Russian Orthodox Church. The following excerpts from their interviews provide valuable firsthand perspectives on Russian Orthodox Church finances.

From an Interview with an Orthodox Priest in a Rural Area
"Corruption is everywhere in our society, even in the church. I feel ashamed, but even I, a priest, cannot find anywhere the whole picture of our church economics. So I can speak only for our diocese and my parish. We can barely find the money for one salary and we cannot pay anyone else. When I receive money for some service, I just don't show it on paper. I cannot show the exact amount of money that our church gets because the taxes are too high. In Russia there is a tax on church income [offerings and all other sources of church funding]. This is my version of shadow economics. But I am trying to give an honest report to our diocese.

"The situation in monasteries is much better. They get help from both the government and the diocese. How can my church obtain funds? We do not import tobacco and we do not sell diamonds, so we cannot develop any long-term programs. When we need something fixed, for example, we just ask the village to help and people come and help.

"Many people who offer something to our church ask me not to record it in the bookkeeping because they want the funds used directly for their church and not for something else. I cannot understand why I should have to fill out official forms. People who give me something for the church (money or building materials) see if I use what they gave for the church. They are my tax revenue service. I will be accountable before them with great pleasure. Why should I report to anyone else?

"I think that we do not need government supervision very much, though the government should pay the salary to the priest as it was before the [1917] revolution. I think that priests should be equal to other government workers because priests work for the good of the country. Besides visible things like watching over cathedrals and church properties, they lead people in their transformation towards their salvation, which is much more valuable than money. This is even more true when you think about the fact that all Communist workers, all those who persecuted the church, are today's authorities and this could be a good gesture for them to apologize.

"All the rest we can do ourselves. The church is not just an economic structure. Many things are accomplished by the providence of God. We needed to change the heating system in our church a couple of years ago. I had to pay 8,000 rubles on the next day but I had only 700 in my pocket. Suddenly I was brought the money late at night. I thought that it was going to be about 30 percent of the sum, but they brought me all I needed. See how it happens? So with God's help we will make it without government support."

From an Interview with a Diocesan Lay Worker
 " 'Shadow' economic relations are very widespread in the Church, especially at the diocese management level. First, there is no oversight of distribution of government subsidies and private offerings. No one knows how they are distributed or who sees them. For example, a diocese secretary asks a government institution to pay for a diocese car repair. Who knows whose car it is? Even if it belongs to the diocese, no one ever drives it besides the father secretary. By the way, it is a serious problem where diocese property ends and where the private property of the bishop and the secretary starts. Maybe we need a special government commission to audit the financial activity of the church like the Synod before the [1917] revolution.

"The money inside the diocese is spread unevenly and inequitably by people who are concerned for their own benefit. This 'church mafia' purposefully tries to get to the top to have the opportunity to manage financial resources. At the same time there are very good and very poor priests who spend all their money and all their efforts to rejuvenate their parishes. No one ever helps them and representatives of the 'church mafia' blame them for not being able to send money into the diocese. But local priests simply do not have the money.

"In general the church is economically very strong. The government does not have to subsidize the church directly. On the other hand, the government should help to solve some issues such as arguments between museums and the church. But the church itself should be more modest in its financial programs. For example, we start rebuilding 30 churches at once but we do not have the money for all of them. Can't we better start rebuilding one church, then the second, then the third?"

From the Authors' Conclusion
"It seems impossible to characterize the economic situation of the Russian Orthodox Church in just one word as 'good' or 'poor.' Salaries in the church are spread very unevenly: there is a colossal difference in the income of the cathedral church dean or diocese secretary on the one hand and lower rank church ministers on the other hand. Besides that, we can state that the wellbeing of a particular diocese does not depend directly on the economic situation in that region. The administrative and business abilities of diocese leaders are much more important keys. The best example to demonstrate this is the considerably wealthy Kostroma Diocese in Kostroma Oblast, which is considered to be a poor region.

"In the realm of economics, the relative weakness of the church's vertical administration is revealed first of all in the inability of the Patriarchate to provide the diocese with timely payments and the inability of the diocese to provide the parish with timely payments. The church today is not one economic structure but rather the sum of relatively independent economic units, with monasteries as primary examples. Needless to say, any attempt to strengthen control inside a diocese meets with active resistance from cathedral and monastery deans. However, all this does not contradict the main summary that we can make from the present material. Evidently, the economic activity of the Russian Orthodox Church is constantly growing. Today the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is a multi-layered, complex economic structure that requires more research. We assume that in the near future the volume of money coming to the church is going to grow, connected with the expected general growth of the Russian economy, the rejuvenation and expansion of parishes, the completion of the period of church reconstruction, and possibly an increase in government subsidies.

"Sources of income for the churches can be divided into two large groups: permanent and temporal. The permanent ones are funds that come from selling candles and other goods and clergy charges for special rituals: treby. Temporary sources involve income from economic sideline activities of the clergy or people who work for them. In the near future there possibly will be a struggle for control of these growing sources of income. It is impossible to predict the results of this struggle.

Reviewed by, and excerpts translated by, Vitaliy Bak, a student at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, AL.

Vitaliy Bak, "Orthodox Finances: Managed or Mismanaged?" East-West Church & Ministry Report 9 (Fall 2001), 8-10.

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© 2001 East-West Church and Ministry Report
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