Most U.S. congregations saw increases in either participation or giving

More U.S. congregations saw increases in participation and giving than experienced declines, a new study from Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI found.

Although fewer Americans are claiming a religious affiliation and the percentage of individuals who are members of a congregation is declining, these findings only tell part of the story. The National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices focuses on congregations rather than individuals and reveals that while some congregations are declining in size and revenue, many continue to grow.

The (NSCEP) is the largest and most comprehensive, nationally representative study of U.S. congregations’ finances in more than a generation. It reveals a detailed picture of the nation’s more than 300,000 congregations and provides new insight into how congregations receive, manage and spend money. The study was made possible by a $1.67 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc.

“There is a widespread perception that when individuals move away from religious affiliation that congregations across the board experience a drop in participation and revenue. While many congregations are experiencing declines, the overall picture is far more complex than conventional wisdom suggests,” said David P. King, the Karen Lake Buttrey Director of Lake Institute. “Our study sheds new light on the rest of the story with a detailed look at congregations, their funding and how they manage their resources.”

Congregations in the U.S. are widely diverse, not only in their beliefs and practices, but also in other characteristics. The NSCEP examines differences in congregations’ size, age, racial composition, and generational makeup, among other factors, and demonstrates how those differences help shape congregations’ varying approaches to economic practices.

Much less is known about congregations’ finances than about those of other types of nonprofits. “Many people who are active in congregations may be surprised by how little they know about their own congregation as well as the broader landscape of religious communities,” King said. “This report can serve as a guide to the kinds of questions that people should be asking about their local congregation.”

The NSCEP asked congregations to compare their giving and participation in fiscal year 2017 to three years earlier.

Key findings include:

  • More than half of all congregations report growth in either the number of regularly participating adults or money received.
  • Congregations experiencing the highest percentages of growth include:
    • those located on the West Coast;
    • younger congregations formed in the past two decades; and
    • larger congregations.
  • Among religious traditions, Catholic congregations face the greatest challenges, with over half of all parishes declining in size and revenue over the past three years. Half of mainline Protestant congregations declined in size, while only 38% indicated a decline in revenue. Just over half (51%) of black Protestant congregations reported growth in both size and revenue. Evangelical congregations reported the highest percentage of congregations remaining the same in size.
  • Although Christian churches make up the vast majority of U.S. congregations, the NSCEP finds that the houses of worship of other major religious traditions such as Judaism, Islam and Hinduism, when taken together, show significant growth in participation and revenue, indicating growth of America’s religious pluralism.
  • On average, U.S. congregations spend almost half of their annual budget on staff and another quarter on facilities. Individual congregations’ budgets range from a few thousand dollars to several million dollars. Twenty percent of congregations are led by part-time or bi-vocational clergy.

Not all spending goes toward congregations’ internal operations.

“Most congregations support causes and organizations that help people in their community and around the world. Eighty-four percent of congregations have participated in some type of social service or community development program in the last year, from offering food and clothing to addressing physical or mental health needs or providing disaster relief,” said Brad R. Fulton, assistant professor at the Indiana University O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs and co-principal investigator for the study.

These congregations are helping people through programs funded by congregation budgets and through direct appeals on behalf of other organizations.

“On average, congregations allocate 11% of their total budget to funding missions, service and benevolence efforts,” Fulton said. “Fifty-seven percent of congregations explicitly collect funds for other social service or missions agencies beyond their own annual budget, such as Catholic Charities, Buddhist Global Relief or Jewish Family Services.”

The full report is available at


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