IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy

Recently, the National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices (NSCEP) was released by Lake Institute on Faith & Giving. This landscape study surveyed just over 1,200 congregations across the country to determine their economic practices, asking about congregation* donors, how congregations teach about money and finances, and how congregations spend their financial resources.

Postdoctoral researcher Dr. Christopher Munn worked extensively on the study and shares some of the report’s key findings and implications.

What were some of the key findings that congregations and religious leaders should know?

CM: In a national sample over half of surveyed congregations (approximately 58 percent) reported growth in congregation size and/or revenue. Congregations of all sizes reported growth. This story about religiosity declining in the U.S. is not necessarily true for congregations.

However, it’s a complex and not completely positive story. Not every type of congregation reported increase in size and/or revenue, but many did.

For example, we found that black Protestant churches, which typically are smaller and leaner in that they spend less money, experienced the most growth in revenue and size compared to other groups.

Large megachurches with a great deal of resources also did well. They’re able to spend or save those resources for times they suspect won’t go well.

Dr. Christopher Munn
Dr. Christopher Munn

Are religious leaders discussing money with their congregations?

CM: Only about nine percent reported explicitly talking about or discussing money or finances weekly. However, 90 percent of those congregations who did reported growth in income.

It’s not a measured correlation yet, but the descriptive statistics seem to imply that when religious leaders ask, congregants give.

Congregations are also becoming more creative in asking for money. They use examples of people who have benefited from gifts, or illustrate outreach or mission work in order to encourage people to give.

How are these congregations teaching about money and finances?

CM: Roughly half of the congregations teach that money is a gift from God. In other words, their money is God’s money, and it belongs to God.

We also see about 10 percent of congregations teaching the Prosperity Gospel. Meaning, if you give to God, God will give back to you in health and wealth, and make your life more prosperous. What is surprising here is that these congregations spend fewer resources on compensation than those who do not.

Are they using technology to teach about finances and to solicit gifts?

CM: About one quarter of them use some form of technology. However, the vast majority are still passing a physical plate every Sunday to give. Some use tokens to put in that plate as a symbol, but they’re using that plate to demonstrate giving.

How are congregations spending the money that they have?

CM: On average, about half of all money spent is on salaries and personnel expenses. Around 23 percent is spent on buildings and utilities, 11 percent goes towards mission activity outside the congregation, and an additional 10 percent is spent on specific program expenses, which includes worship activities during services.

These percentages, though, vary depending on the type of congregation. For example, black Protestants spent less than half of their resources on personnel and facilities, while mainline Protestants spent 54 percent on personnel and 24 percent on facilities on average.

What other findings surprised you?

CM: A congregation could increase in size or revenue without increasing in both. About 22 percent of congregations experienced an increase in the number of people that attended and participated, but income didn’t increase.

Another 10 percent of congregations had an increase in revenue, but their size stayed static or declined.

We’ll continue to study these numbers and their implications moving forward as we conduct interviews and organize case studies of congregations.

Moving forward, what’s important for congregations to know or recognize?

CM: It’s important for leaders and staff members to know specifically who gives. We found that about 58 percent of congregations had access to giving records, and half of that 58 percent looked at and analyzed that data.

Almost 60 percent of congregations who studied these numbers and knew who gave reported increases in revenue. There seems to be a tie between the best practice of knowing your finances and identifying your givers, and a reported growth in revenue.

Overall too, it’s vital to note that individuals and congregations are not the same. While there have been concerns about declining religiosity, congregations and individuals act differently. Congregations are complex: there’s often more to the story than one might think otherwise.

In upcoming stages, the NSCEP will conduct interviews with 100 congregations and compile case studies of 12 of those organizations, with reports scheduled for release in fall 2019 and spring 2020.