NASHVILLE, Tenn. (ABP) — After two years of only moderate impact on offerings, the recession has caught up with America's churches, according to new figures by LifeWay Research.
One in three Protestant churches reported receiving less money this year than in 2009, the division of the Southern Baptist Convention's publishing firm 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. That is down from 43 percent who reported larger offerings last year 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 — 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 it also creates opportunities to minister.
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 global missions. "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 glory."
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.