NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Although the offerings in most American churches have met or exceeded budget requirements in 2011, the economy is still having a negative impact on local congregations.
That’s the finding of a Lifeway Research survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors conducted in May and compared with similar surveys from November 2009 through January 2011.
According to the new survey, nearly three-quarters (71 percent) of pastors report 2011 offerings at or in excess of their budget requirements. That includes 25 percent with offerings exceeding budget requirements and 46 percent with offerings approximately at budget level.
Twenty-two percent of pastors report lower offerings in 2011 than 2010. Thirty-nine percent report an increase from 2010 and 36 percent say offerings are at about the same level as last year. On average, churches report a 2 percent increase in 2011.
Churches with larger worship attendance are more likely to have increased offerings. Nearly half (49 percent) of congregations with 100-249 attendees report increased offerings from 2010, as do 47 percent of congregations with 250 or more. In comparison, 34 percent of churches with 50-99 attendees and 23 percent of those with 0-49 report increased offerings this year.
Pastors identifying themselves as “mainline” (45 percent) are more likely to have increased offerings than those who identify themselves as “evangelical” (38 percent).
When asked how the current economy is impacting their churches, a majority of pastors (67 percent) report negative impact. That includes 58 percent who say the economy is affecting their church “somewhat negatively” and 9 percent who say it is affecting their church “very negatively.”
The findings are similar to what pastors said in January 2011 but more negative than their opinions in March 2010, when only 62 percent said the economy was affecting their congregations negatively.
“Just as there are some positive signs in the U.S. economy, we are seeing more churches with some growth in offerings for 2011,” said Scott McConnell, director of Lifeway Research. “However, average gains are small and not all churches will benefit depending on their local economy and the overall health of their church.”
The news presents a mix of good and bad for local congregations. Ninety-six percent of pastors say their churches have experienced at least one of 11 economy-related changes in the past year, and more than three out of four report at least three of the changes. Among the indicators they report:
- 70 percent are receiving more requests for financial assistance from outside the congregation.
- 50 percent say more church members are volunteering time to serve the community.
- 45 percent have increased spending from the church budget to help the needy.
- 54 percent report a greater sense of excitement about opportunities to minister to the needy.
- 44 percent say there is a greater sense of caution within the congregation about the church trying new things that cost money.
- 48 percent report that more people in the congregation have lost their jobs.
- 49 percent cite more people volunteering their time in church functions.
- 15 percent say more people in the congregation have lost their homes to foreclosure.
When compared to the same indicators in November 2009, improvements are seen in the job loss trends in congregations and levels of volunteering. A full 48 percent of pastors report that more people in their congregations have lost jobs in the past year, eight percent less than the Nov 2009 survey.
The recent survey also shows increased numbers of pastors reporting that more people are volunteering their time at church functions (49 percent compared to 41 percent in November 2009) and in the community (50 percent compared to 44 percent in November 2009).
Making do with less
When it comes to ministry, churches are making do with less.
Forty-seven percent of pastors say the economy is forcing their congregations to hold staff salaries at last year’s levels. In comparison, 49 percent said the same in November 2009.
Over the past year and a half, there has been a marked increase in making ministry supplies rather than buying them. While 40 percent of churches made or did more things themselves instead of buying goods or services in 2009, 49 percent say they are making and doing more today rather than buying.
In light of the economy churches are also:
- Launching new ministries to help the disadvantaged (26 percent).
- Delaying construction or other large capital expenses that were planned (15 percent).
- Delaying hiring that was planned (10 percent).
- Reducing staff salaries from last year’s levels (9 percent).
- Laying off one or more employees (7 percent).
- Reducing insurance benefits for staff (6 percent).
“Churches may be past the worst of the effects of the recession, but most continue to take actions to reduce expenses or maintain last year’s spending levels,” McConnell said. “Pastors’ economic assessment has improved since the Fall of 2010 but is still worse than their outlook last Spring.”
Methodology: The phone survey randomly selected Protestant churches. Each interview was conducted with the senior pastor, minister or priest of the church called and responses were weighted to reflect the geographic distribution of Protestant churches. The completed sample of 1,000 phone interviews provides a 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed +/-3.2 percent. Margins of error are higher in subgroups. Comparisons are made to previous telephone surveys using the same methodology.