by David P. King, Ph.D., Karen Lake Buttrey Director of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving
Almost every day, our Lake Institute team finds itself asked to answer questions about trends in giving to congregations: How many congregations conduct annual stewardship campaigns? How many members are likely to pledge? What percentage of giving comes through weekly offerings versus online? How does debt, endowments, or capital campaigns affect annual giving?
These questions are essential to the over 350,000 congregations across the country. We know that giving to religion (defined narrowly to include congregations, denominations, and missionary societies) makes up the largest percentage of charitable giving in the United States (31% in 2017). But we also know that these giving trends are evolving dramatically as individual religious affiliation and attendance patterns are changing while religious institutions are also redefining their own purposes and approaches to engaging their communities.
The need to address these pressing issues is clear, but it is often hard to know where to start because we lack the information we need. While other nonprofits file annual 990 forms with the IRS that give us quite a lot of insight into their fundraising practices, budgets, and expenditures, congregations are not required to report and therefore few do. We may know less about how congregations receive, manage, and spend money than any other nonprofit sector. And without the knowledge establishing a baseline, providing context, and highlighting best practices, it becomes difficult for religious leaders to know where to start.
To meet this need for information, Dr. King at Lake Institute, along with Dr. Brad Fulton of Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs and Dr. Chris Munn recently joining us as postdoctoral fellow, have spent the last year conducting the largest nationally representative survey focused on congregational finances in a generation. The National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices (NSCEP) has completed surveys from over 1140 congregations across the United States. These congregations represent all 50 states and a full diversity of denominations and faith traditions. They have reported memberships from 10 to 12,000. Many are staffed by one bi-vocational pastor while others employ dozens of full-time ministry staff. Some were established well before the U.S. became a country. Others were started last year. They reported budgets from $6,000 to $27,000,000.