New study examines post-Great Recession financial status on U.S. churches — including coping strategies and effective electronic and media tools

INDIANAPOLIS — A recent report: — 2013 Congregational Economic Impact Study — examines how different forms of religious expression in the U.S. are doing financially following the greatest economic upheaval since the Great Depression.

The study also zeroes in on the most significant factors influencing how religious congregations are coping financially today and in the recent past; what strategies congregations are employing to cope with and confront their changing financial environment; and current trends in the use of electronic tools and media in terms of financial management and fundraising.

This study — the second in a series [link “second in a series” to: — examines the impact of the economic environment on a sample of U.S. congregations. It was conducted by the Indiana University School of Philanthropy and Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at Indiana University School of Philanthropy, in partnership with the Alban Institute, National Association of Church Business Administration (NACBA), Indianapolis Center for Congregations and MAXIMUM Generosity.

“The objective of this study is to provide information to those interested in the well-being of American congregations about how congregations are coping with and confronting not only recent economic events, but also the gradual, long-term changes taking place in the landscape of U.S. religious life,” according to the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) School of Philanthropy website. “The first two studies in this series will set the foundation for a longitudinal framework in studying U.S. congregational life in future years.”

The study includes responses from more than 3,000 U.S. congregations, of which nearly two-thirds are Mainline Protestant, one-quarter are Evangelical Protestant, and the rest are other Christian denominations (Historically Black or Catholic, for example), Jewish or “other” (unaffiliated congregations).

Congregations were asked a series of questions about their finances following the Great Recession (which officially ended in the summer of 2009), as well as questions about their most current finances, including 2011 and 2012. It also incorporated questions about congregations’ use of electronic giving tools to shed better light on how these forms of payment might be influencing congregational finances.

“This study informs not only overall financial trends of surveyed congregations, but also how specific types of congregations talked about money and fared financially during the recession and its aftermath,” the IUPUI website explains.
Key findings include:

U.S. congregations are generally improving financially. However, those with older attendees and those whose clergy are uninformed about congregational giving are experiencing the greatest challenges.

“As testament of the tenacity of congregations and the integrity of their leadership during challenging economic times, this study found that greater percentages of responding congregations saw increases in fundraising receipts and in pledges and dues received in 2011 from 2010 than those that realized decreases,” it states. “Congregations with a younger average age of attendees saw greater increases in fundraising receipts between 2010 and 2011 than congregations with older attendees, as did Mainline Protestants and ‘other’ denominations.”

Despite overall positive trends in fundraising receipts, pledges and budgeting in 2011, the majority of congregations’ revenues have not kept pace with inflation in recent years.

According to the study, in addition to the majority of responding congregations reporting increases in fundraising receipts in 2011 from 2010, the majority of responding congregations also reported an increase in overall pledges or collections in 2011. “However, despite these positive trends, only about four in 10 congregations had revenues that kept pace or were ahead of inflation between 2007 and 2011,” it states.

“Congregations with the oldest average age of attendees were more likely to report that revenue growth lagged behind inflation when compared to congregations with the youngest attendees.”

Changes in average congregational gift size and the number of donors are the main drivers of fundraising success.

The majority of the responding congregations that reported increases in fundraising receipts in 2011 from 2010 attributed the increase to a greater number of donors or higher average gifts, the study states. “Conversely, if a congregation reported a decrease in fundraising receipts in 2011 from 2010, such a decrease was most likely attributed to a declining number of donors or lower average gifts.”

Congregations are increasing their budgets in the areas of missions and revenue-generating activity.

As the study points out, congregational budgets are largely contingent upon how the congregation fared financially in the previous year. “Coinciding with the increases in fundraising receipts in 2011 from 2010, nearly half of responding congregations reported budget increases in 2012 compared with 2011,” it states. “Those increases were more likely to be allocated toward salaries, outreach programs, mission activities and revenue-generating activities. If a congregation made cuts to the budget, most likely it reduced funds for staffing, brick-and-mortar projects, building maintenance, and internal programs.”

Congregations have more work to do in the area of educating congregations on financial planning and charitable giving.

The majority of leaders from responding congregations are discussing or preaching about the same amount or less on the importance of giving, both inside the congregation and to outside groups, than prior to the recession. According to the study, when asked about the offering of specific courses, workshops, classes or seminars on personal finance or charitable giving, slightly greater than one-third of responding congregations reported offering at least one type of these educational resources to congregants.

“Evangelical Protestant congregations are more likely to offer financial or charitable giving courses than are Mainline Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and denominations classified in the ‘other’ category,” it states. “In addition, congregations with an average age of attendees 65 years and above were less likely to offer financial or charitable giving courses than congregations with the youngest average age of attendees.”
The majority of congregations employ some type of electronic giving.

The study found that two-thirds of responding congregations employ some type of electronic giving option for their congregants’ offerings, tithes, dues and other types of payments. “More than four in 10 responding congregations receive direct deposit transfers from congregants, and three in 10 receive checks or transfers from congregants’ online bank accounts,” it states. “About 10 percent of congregations reported the receipt of contributions direct through the congregational website.”

The entire 65-page report is available for download


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