New study: How are congregations being affected by COVID-19?

41% of congregations reported declines in donations in early months of pandemic while 28% saw increases, according to survey by Lake Institute on Faith & Giving

INDIANAPOLIS — Many U.S. religious congregations currently are entering their annual fall fundraising and budget-planning season with uncertainty about their finances and reopening plans as the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn continue, according to a new survey of congregational leaders conducted by Lake Institute on Faith & Giving.

The report examines trends in giving and participating in congregations, as well as how congregations are managing their finances and responding to the impact of the pandemic. The institute surveyed 555 U.S. congregations in July 2020 about how they fared in the early months of the pandemic and their plans for the coming year. The survey includes a wide diversity of congregations across a variety of religious traditions. Although not a randomized or representative sample, it provides a snapshot of what congregations across the U.S. have experienced and what they expect in 2021. Lake Institute is a program of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI.

Overall, congregational giving declined by 4.4% on average from February through June 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, the survey found. A plurality of congregations (41%) reported experiencing a decrease in giving, while more than a quarter (28%) said giving increased.

“Most congregations stopped in-person religious services in mid-March, quickly shifting online, and they’ve had to navigate uncertainty in multiple aspects of congregational life and operations ever since,” said David P. King, Ph.D., the Karen Lake Buttrey Director of the institute. “As congregations consider when and how to reopen while planning for their financial futures, they are asking themselves important questions about what comes next.”

Key findings include:

  • While a majority (52%) of congregations reported an increase in attendance, a plurality (41%) experienced a decrease in giving.
  • Catholic parishes and small congregations (fewer than 50 weekly participants) reported declines in participation and giving more often than any other group.
  • Sixty-five percent of congregations surveyed received federal Payroll Protection Program loans. Just 14% of all congregations reported having to make reductions, layoffs or furloughs of staff.
  • Thirty percent of congregations raised funds to support other congregations and nonprofits in need.
  • Just over half (53%) of congregations reported that they had already resumed in-person services or anticipated doing so by September 1. One-third of congregations indicated that they did not know when they would reopen.
  • Congregations’ political orientations appear to have a greater effect on reopening than do public health or financial considerations. Nearly three-quarters (71%) of conservative congregations had reopened or planned to reopen by August for in-person religious services, compared to 20% of liberal congregations and 49% of moderates.
  • None of the congregations surveyed expected to increase its budget during the next year. The majority (52%) plan to maintain their current budgets, while 48% anticipate reductions, with most of those anticipating cuts in the 5% to 10% range.
  • Congregations that continue to face a financial shortfall going forward plan to continue to reduce administrative expenses while developing new fundraising appeals and drawing down from their financial reserves or endowment.

“Congregations have responded to the multiple pandemics across this year in myriad ways,” said King. “But as all congregations must now respond to a new normal, how they adjust their economic and organizational models to these new contexts may shape the American religious landscape for many years to come.”

Read the full report here.

About Lake Institute on Faith & Giving

Lake Institute on Faith & Giving exists to serve the public good by exploring the multiple connections between philanthropy and faith within the major religious traditions. Its mission is to foster greater understanding of the ways in which faith inspires and informs giving. Lake Institute is a program of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Follow us on Twitter or “Like” us on Facebook.

About the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy

The Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI is dedicated to improving philanthropy to improve the world by training and empowering students and professionals to be innovators and leaders who create positive and lasting change. The school offers a comprehensive approach to philanthropy through its academic, research and international programs and through The Fund Raising School, Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, the Mays Family Institute on Diverse Philanthropy and the Women’s Philanthropy Institute. Follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram and “Like” us on Facebook.



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