NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After two years of only moderate impact
on offerings, the recession has caught up with America’s churches, according to
new figures compiled by LifeWay Research.
One in three Protestant churches reported receiving less
money this year than in 2009, the research division of the Southern Baptist
Convention’s publishing house found. That makes 2010 the third consecutive year
that the number of churches reporting reduced income has grown.
Just one in five, meanwhile, reported 2010 giving above 2009
figure. That is down from 43 percent who reported larger offerings last year
than in 2008 and 47 percent who did better in 2008 than in 2007.
“The reality has been that the economic downturn has not hit
churches as hard as it hit other sectors of society,” LifeWay Research
President Ed Stetzer said in a Dec. 14 webcast discussing the poll. “Churches
have actually fared relatively well compared to other sectors of the economy.”
The National Bureau of Economic Research declared in
September that the recession that began in December 2007 ended in June 2009,
but Stetzer said, “Now we’re kind of having church recession.”
“The pattern in churches tends to be tied more to
unemployment than the stock market,” Stetzer said. “Many churches are supported
by people who give proportionately. When a high percentage of our congregations
are unemployed, that impacts the giving.”
In a survey of 1,000 pastors polled in October, 66 percent
said the economy is having a somewhat negative impact on their church. That’s
up from 54 percent in March. Thirteen percent described the economy’s impact as
very negative, up from 8 percent in March. Forty-six percent said their
churches are running behind budget, 10 percent more than in November 2009.
Stetzer said he doesn’t expect the recession to be over for
churches for quite a while, especially if the jobless rate remains high. More
than half of the pastors surveyed (58 percent) said more people in their
churches have lost jobs than in the past, and 30 percent said more parishioners
have moved away to find work.
Seven percent more churches reported freezing staff salaries
this year — 54 percent in October 2010 compared to 47 percent in 2009.
One in five (19 percent) delayed a building project or other
large capital expenditure.
That compares to 14 percent in November 2009.
Sixteen percent delayed hiring that was planned, 14 percent
reduced salaries from last year’s levels and 10 percent laid off one or more
employees. More churches also reduced insurance benefits for staff.
Stetzer said the news about the economy is not all bad.
Historically church attendance increases during an economic
downturn, and a bad economy also creates new opportunities for ministry.
Half of the pastors said there is a greater sense of
excitement in their church about opportunities to minister to the needy and 49
percent said more people are volunteering their time in community service.
In light of the new data, Stetzer urged church leaders to
“quantify” the economy’s impact in planning their budget. “Scarcity brings
clarity,” Stetzer said. “This is actually an opportunity to stop doing some
things you probably needed to stop doing anyway.”
He encouraged church members to approach budget planning
with an eye toward what is “mission critical” for the church.
He discouraged short-term solutions like cutting back on
“I’m not seeing this as a time to retreat,” he said.
“We may have less as a church but do more for the kingdom.”
Another positive thing that comes out of economic hard times
is that churches become less clergy-driven and more dependent on volunteers.
Instead of viewing the pastor as CEO and lay people as
customers, Stetzer said, clergy and laity must work as “co-laborers” in order
to get the job done.
He also reminded church leaders that the recession is an
opportunity for Christians to focus on higher things than the economy.
“Our faith is not built upon the monetary system,” he said.
“Our faith rests upon the Rock that is Jesus. These are opportunities God is giving us to give Him
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Allen is senior writer for Associated
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