Questions for Reflection
- What surprises you most from this latest report?
- How might you use the information in this report to enhance the good work you're already doing in your congregation?
by David P. King, Ph.D., Karen Lake Buttrey Director
The National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices (NSCEP) complicates the popular narrative that religion is in decline by showing that there is more to the story. There is both decline and growth, and congregations are not uniform – they vary widely in factors such as participation, giving, size of budget, and demographics, as well as practices and beliefs. This study provides new insight into what is happening in U.S. congregations today and how congregations receive, manage, and spend resources.
In 2018, total religious giving decreased (-1.5%, -3.9% adjusted for inflation) for the first time since the Great Recession. Since the 1980s, religious giving (primarily giving to congregations) has decreased from over half of total U.S. charitable giving to just under 30% today. Despite the trajectory of decline in market share, giving to congregations still makes up by far the largest percentage of overall charitable giving (twice as much as the next biggest subsector, education). In such a time of change, what is the economic future of congregations?
The NSCEP is the largest and most comprehensive nationally representative study on money and congregations in over a generation. Even while fewer Americans claim a religious affiliation or membership in a congregation, the NSCEP found that more congregations are growing than are declining in their number of participating adults and the amount of money they received. Thirty-nine percent of congregations reported a greater number of regularly participating adults in 2018 than three years earlier, and 48% reported receiving more money.
The economic practices of congregations are diverse and dynamic. Most religious traditions saw a greater percentage of their congregations increase in revenue than in participation.
The NSCEP takes a comprehensive look at the ways congregations receive, manage, and spend financial resources.
The vast majority (81%) of funding for congregations comes from individuals’ direct contributions. And the largest percentage of that funding comes specifically through giving during religious services. However, most congregations have multiple revenue streams.
The NSCEP also sheds light on how congregations manage their resources. Unlike most nonprofit leaders, a substantial proportion of congregational leaders or clergy take a limited role in financial decisions and are hesitant to discuss finances or teach on giving.
Most congregations spend almost all of what they receive annually. On average, they spend nearly half of their annual budget on staff and another quarter on facilities. Yet, not all funding remains in the congregation, with the majority of congregations raising money for outside organizations bringing tangible benefits to local communities.
by Christopher W. Munn, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Researcher
The NSCEP provides an overview of congregations’ finances and finds that the experience of congregations and their economic practices is diverse and dynamic. To build upon our national survey, the NSCEP team is currently fielding in-depth qualitative interviews with senior leaders of congregations. The interviews will focus on congregations’ theological orientations towards finances and will provide nuance regarding leaders’ decisions to address finances with their congregants.
While the survey provides data about what congregations do, the interviews are set up to explain the various perspectives on religious giving and how to manage resources in a time where regular giving is hindered by irregular attendance. The team is roughly halfway through their goal of 100 interviews from every region in the United States.
During the process of data collection, we have heard fascinating stories about how leaders are innovating in economic practices. A pastor in the South, for instance, revealed that he grew three congregations while working full time. In addition, he collaborates with the local synagogue and megachurch to serve their local community. We will continue to collect stories like this about the complexities of religious finances and systematically analyze the data in the coming months.
Our goal is to provide a comprehensive and detailed picture of what is really happening with congregations and their finances.
We have released the 2020 dates for our Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising course. Registration is now open for March 23-26 in Indianapolis and August 10-13 in Saint Meinrad, IN. Other course registrations will open by November. We have added a new partner this year - Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas.
We are pleased to announce the 2020-2021 Lake Dissertation Fellowship for doctoral students whose research engages and intersects issues within religion & philanthropy or faith & giving. This one-year grant is intended to support the final year of dissertation writing for a doctoral candidate at a U.S. graduate school.