By Aaron Earls
After a few years of economic optimism, pastors say the 2020 economy is hurting their congregation.
According to a new survey from Nashville-based Lifeway Research, almost half of U.S. Protestant pastors (48%) say the current economy is negatively impacting their church, including 5% who say the impact is very negative.
Around 1 in 6 (15%) believe the economy has had a positive effect, including 4% saying it is having a very positive impact. More than a third of pastors (35%) say there’s been no impact.
Even with a 12-point jump from 2018 to 2019 (14% to 26%), perceptions of negative impact had been trending downward since 2010 when 80% of Protestant pastors said the economy was harming their church.
The 2020 negative numbers are the highest since January 2016, when 51% of pastors said the economy was hurting their church.
“The recovery from the last recession was slow for many churches,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “Even in a good economy, it can be easy to focus on external factors that are hurting your church’s finances. Clearly, many pastors are seeing the recession in 2020 impacting their church.”
Most Protestant pastors say giving has been at or below 2019 levels, as well as at or below their budget for this year. Around a third report giving levels lower than last year and lower than their current budget.
For close to half of churches (45%), giving in 2020 has been about what was budgeted. A third (33%) say it is lower than budgeted, while 21% say giving has been higher.
When compared to 2019, 35% say giving has dropped this year, 32% say it is the same, and 29% say it is above last year’s levels.
Those numbers accelerate a downward giving trend that began last year.
In 2018, Lifeway Research found 42% of pastors said their offerings were up, 37% said giving was the same, and 15% said it was below 2017.
Those number worsened slightly in 2019 when Lifeway Research found 37% said giving was up, 37% said it was the same, and 21% said it was below 2018 levels.
“2018 looks like as good as it gets for positive economic impacts for churches,” said McConnell. “People quickly got used to improved take-home pay from tax changes and were seeing flat wages meaning 2019 was more difficult for churchgoers to maintain 2018 giving. Now in 2020, a recession brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has set a third of churches behind their 2019 giving.”
When asked about the specific percentage change from 2019 to 2020, 8% of Protestant pastors say their giving is down by 25% or more, 18% say it dropped between 10% and 24%, and 7% say it was a small drop of 1% to 9%.
Of those who say their giving increased in 2020, most say it went up a small amount. Around 1 in 8 pastors (12%) say giving was up by less than 10%, while 13% say giving was up between 10% and 24%. Few (3%) say giving at their church increased by 25% or more this year.
Negative impact felt more strongly by some
Some churches are faring worse in giving than others in 2020. Minority led, mainline and smaller congregations are more likely to say they’ve felt the brunt of the declining economy.
African American pastors are the most likely to say the economy is having a very negative impact on their church (20%).
African American pastors are also more likely to say their giving is lower than budgeted (48%) and below 2019 levels (50%) than white pastors, among whom 31% report giving below budget and 34% who say offerings are down from last year.
Evangelical pastors are more likely than their mainline counterparts to say giving in 2020 is higher than budgeted (23% to 14%). Similarly, evangelical pastors are more likely than mainline pastors to say giving is above 2019’s offerings (32% to 19%).
Pastors of churches with worship service attendance of 250 or more are more likely than pastors of churches with fewer than 50 people to say their giving is up from 2019 (32% to 23%)
“The economic impact of COVID-19 has been very uneven, and that includes churches,” said McConnell. “The types of churches that are most likely to be struggling financially are also the most likely to have not gathered in person in September. The exception is larger churches, but they were most likely to have less than 30% of their pre-COVID attendance in person.”
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.
The mixed mode survey of 1,007 Protestant pastors was conducted Sept. 2 – Oct. 1, 2020 using both phone and online interviews. Phone: The calling list was a stratified random sample, drawn from a list of all Protestant churches. Quotas were used for church size. Online: Invitations were emailed to the Lifeway Research Pastor Panel followed by three reminders. This probability sample of Protestant churches was created by phone recruiting by Lifeway Research using random samples selected from all Protestant churches. Pastors who agree to be contacted by email for future surveys make up this Lifeway Research Pastor Panel.
Each survey was completed by the senior or sole pastor or a minister at the church. Responses were weighted by region and church size to more accurately reflect the population. The completed sample is 1,007 surveys (502 by phone, 505 online). The sample provides 95% confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.4%. This margin of error accounts for the effect of weighting. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.
Comparisons are also made to the following telephone surveys using random sampling:
1,002 pastors conducted Nov. 5-12, 2009
1,000 pastors conducted March 1-9, 2010
1,000 pastors conducted Oct. 7-14, 2010
1,002 pastors conducted Jan. 17-27, 2011
1,000 pastors conducted May 18-25, 2011
1,000 pastors conducted May 23-31, 2012
1,000 pastors conducted Sept. 11-18, 2014
1,000 pastors conducted Jan. 8-22, 2016
1,000 pastors conducted Aug. 29 – Sept. 11, 2018
1,000 pastors conducted Aug. 30 – Sept. 24, 2019