National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices
by David King, Brad Fulton and Amy Hemphill
Religious leaders frequently express concerns about their congregations’ financial solvency, their discomfort in discussing faith and money, and the uncertain, changing funding patterns faith communities are facing. At the same time, we know less and less about what is actually happening with congregations’ financial situations as reliable data is becoming harder to come by. Congregations remain the most common recipients of American’s giving, and even as the religious landscape is changing, economic issues remain central for the future of America’s religious life.
To addres these key issues, Lake Institute on Faith & Giving is excited to announce its first major national study, the National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices (NSCEP). The study will be funded by a $1.67 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., and will be led by Dr. David King, Karen Lake Buttrey Director and Dr. Brad Fulton, Assistant Professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IU Bloomington.
This new research will examine congregations’ theological, cultural and practical orientations toward money to provide a deeper understanding of how they receive, manage and spend their financial resources.
Over the past few years, Lake Institute has built a case for the need for rigorous, nationally representative research on the ways that congregations receive, manage, and spend resources. The data on which they rely to guide financial decision-making are largely either no longer collected or outdated. The few major studies of U.S. congregations conducted recently do not focus in-depth on financial issues. Additionally, in-depth financial studies often rely upon sometimes inconsistent self-reporting or are less generalizable for use by congregations across the country.
Better data on giving to congregations will be one valuable contribution of NSCEP. The study will also explore additional ways that congregations engage with money matters. At Lake Institute, we are focused on the cultures of generosity within congregations. For instance, beyond counting the resources that come in, how do congregations encourage contributions through their teaching, preaching, and worship? What systems of financial accounting and accountability exist in congregations? How are spending decisions made within leadership? And what effect do such expenditures have in local communities, within denominations, and beyond?
Congregations have a unique perspective on money matters in a society where profit and loss statements, consumerism, and material accumulation strongly influence our culture’s take on finances. The NSCEP also hopes to explore how these cultural touchpoints shape the economic practices of congregations and their members.
The NSCEP will gather data on congregations’ economic practices in several ways: first, a web survey of a representative sample of 5,000 congregations; second, in-depth phone interviews with a selected group of clergy from those congregations; and third, site visits to a small, representative group of congregations. Combining quantitative and qualitative data is the gold standard for research methods, and will provide both data and descriptive reports, increasing understanding and contextualization of the research findings.
Lake Institute is committed to translating our research findings into practice. We are seeking to enhance stewardship programming and deepen cultures of generosity within American faith communities as well as increase the confidence of religious leaders in addressing financial topics. A clear goal of the NSCEP research team is to get these findings into the hands of congregational leaders – both lay and clergy.
The study will launch in early 2018, and when we have our first findings report, Lake Institute will certainly share it through all our communication channels. A website is currently under development to share NSCEP’s methods and goals with survey respondents. In its second phase, the site will become a resource for religious practitioners. A study overview, themed reports, interactive data tools, and podcasts highlighting congregations and findings from the NSCEP will all be available to scholars of religion and philanthropy, clergy, and lay leaders as they write, learn, ponder, and make decisions about congregations’ economic practices.
Lake Institute is excited to focus our research and teaching on increasing understanding of religious giving and how congregations address economc issues. We welcome your engagement with us in this project.
What are the questions you are seeking to answer in your faith community? Contact Amy Hemphill or connect with us on social media.