New study details ‘intersection of philanthropy and faith’ in US

October 1, 2019 by Gregg Brekke

A new study by the Lake Institute was recently released that delves into how American congregations “receive, manage and spend” financial resources.

Attendees at the annual Stewardship Kaleidoscope conference received a summary of these findings during the gatherings opening plenary session, guided by Melissa Spas, Managing Director of Education and Engagement for the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving.

“For many people philanthropy has been reduced to a privileged domain of those with capacity,” Spas said. “I’d like us to reframe it as a gift of humankind.”

Stewardship Kaleidoscope is the annual conference on stewardship, generosity and giving. This year’s conference is being held at the Catamaran Resort Hotel in San Diego Sept. 30 through Oct. 3. More than 300 people are in attendance from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Comprehensive view of giving

Melissa Spas of the Lake Institute presents at the opening plenary at Stewardship Kaleidoscope. Photo by Erin Dunigan.

Titled the National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices (NSCEP) it is the first comprehensive view of congregational giving in more than 30 years. Conducted in 2018, the study collected giving and demographic information from 1,231 congregations across mainline protestant, evangelical protestant, black protestant, Roman Catholic, and other religious groups.

Echoing other studies, the survey data includes a snapshot of congregational sizes in the country that show 85 percent of congregations have fewer than 250 regular adult participants, with 64 percent having fewer than 100 participants. Just 12 percent have between 250 and 1,000 regular participants, and only three percent have more than 1,000 participants.

While not directly related to congregational size, total giving showed some parallels in that most congregations (78 percent) received less than $500,000 in total income in 2017.

“There is a popular narrative about decline in American religion, and our study complicates that narrative because there are so many spaces in between [the data points],” said Spas.

As one example, she noted that 26 percent of congregations reported an increase in revenue and regular participating adults and 46 percent reported a decrease. At the same time, they also found that 22 percent of congregations reported increased revenue but fewer participants and 10 percent reported decreased revenue with an increase in participating adults.

Spas reported most congregations receive revenue from multiple streams. While 81 percent of total giving comes from individual donors, other sources include rental income, special fundraisers or events, endowments and denominational support. A full 29 percent of churches receive all their funding from individual donors.

In surveying how churches collect funds, the study shows 78 percent of giving is received during church services, including via digital means.

First look at online giving

The study is the first to establish a digital giving baseline across a wide variety of congregations. It found while 55 percent of congregations have systems in place for digital giving, just 22 percent of donor giving was received digitally and 24 percent of participants gave digitally at least once in 2017. This includes schedule bank transfers or credit card charges in addition to other digital means. On the leading edge of digital giving, 14 percent of congregations have text-to-give mechanisms and 21 percent have a dedicated online giving app.

When Spas asked for a show of hands on how many participants’ congregations conducted an annual stewardship campaign, nearly every hand went up. Conversely, when asked which congregations did not, less than five were raised.

In contrast, the NSCEP showed that 55 percent of congregations in the US did not hold annual giving or pledge campaigns. Of the 45 percent of congregations that did conduct an annual stewardship campaigns, 64 percent asked individuals to pledge resulting in 53 percent of attendees pledging.

“Pledging is not the norm,” Spas said. “It is a particular behavior that may be helpful in some contexts. But it is not the only way churches continue to raise money and thrive.”

Spas said the Lake Institute is continuing to analyze these and other results from the study in order to provide more causal and qualitative conclusion from the data.

“I used to feel like Chicken Little – the sky is falling,” she said of other recent data on congregational giving. “But what I’m seeing is the ground has shifted beneath us. And that’s why we’re setting a new baseline for how congregations receive, manage and spend their financial resources.”

Gregg Brekke is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, photographer and videographer. Send comments on this article to Robyn Davis Sekula at robyn.sekula@presbyterianfoundation.org.