The recession was a double-barrel blow to American
congregations: directly hurting their budgets while also stretching them thin
due to increased needs for counseling, emergency housing and other social
But the worst seems to be over, according to a report
released April 21 that found that one in 10 have begun to recover from the
loss, and more than 40 percent are now stable or increasing financially.
The “Holy Toll” report, based on the 2010 Faith Communities
Today national survey of more than 20 religious groups, found that more than
half (57 percent) of U.S. congregations reported their income had declined due
to the recession.
Researcher David A. Roozen, director of the Hartford
Institute for Religion Research, said larger congregations seem to be
recovering more easily as endowments and investment income rebound, and more
members who can help them grow their way out of deficits.
His theory echoes last month’s State of the Plate report by
the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability and Christianity Today
International’s church management team, which found smaller churches had
suffered a disproportionate drop in giving last year.
Roozen’s survey, based on data from more than 11,000
congregations, found the recession had hurt congregations across the spectrum,
surprising researchers who “almost always find differences” between evangelical
and mainline Protestant churches.
Nine percent of congregations said the recession had
prompted layoffs or furloughs, and just over a quarter of congregations
reported salary freezes or reductions.
With about 350,000 congregations in the U.S. employing about
1.5 million clergy and other staff, that translates to more than 500,000 people
who lost jobs or had their salaries reduced, and about 50,000 prospective
employees who weren’t hired, according to the report.
At the same time, congregations had to ramp up outreach
services due to the recession’s toll on local communities. Nearly half of all
congregations experienced an increase in requests for cash assistance, and
nearly one in four received moderate to major increases in requests for
“Those congregations whose finances were hit the hardest, a
lot of their members were unemployed, so you had members who were financially
stressed, you had communities who were financial stressed, on top of the fact
that the congregations’ own financial resources as measured by income was down,”
But even congregations that have recovered from the
recession are still struggling with a general economic downturn for America’s
religious organizations. From 2000 to 2008 — before the recession’s toll —
congregations reporting “excellent financial health” had dropped from 31
percent to 19 percent; the number is now about 14 percent.
Meanwhile, congregations reporting financial difficulty more
than doubled, to nearly 20 percent, in the past decade.
“That the worst is over doesn’t necessarily mean that things
are getting better,” Roozen explained, estimating that at least 5 percent of
congregations won’t be able to rebound. “These are challenging times. Most
congregations aren’t feeling devastated by the recession (anymore), but it’s
exacerbating those downward trends… it’s not something that congregations
move easily out of.”
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