Survey: Church giving shows strains of national economyLocal leaders say giving has remained stable
A new national survey of churches shows that giving increased in 43 percent of congregations last year, but decreased in 39 percent.
By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald
A new national survey of churches shows that giving increased in 43 percent of congregations last year, but decreased in nearly as many.
The third annual “State of the Plate” report, sponsored by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability and Christianity Today International’s church management team, is drawn from a survey of 1,507 “churches of varying types,” the authors said Wednesday.
Giving decreased in 39 percent, and numbers stayed flat in 18 percent of churches.
The survey also found most churches are concerned about possible legislation that would lessen tax deductions for charitable giving.
“Charities and churches have been hit hard by the economy the past three years," said Brian Kluth, founder of MAXIMUM Generosity and the State of the Plate research, in a news release. "If the government’s plan to change the rules on charitable tax deductions goes through, giving to charities and churches will likely be negatively affected.”
The great majority of survey participants — 80 percent — are evangelical or Pentecostal churches, while mainline Protestant and Catholic churches aren't represented much.
The survey found more churches saw less the past two years.
In 2008, the survey found giving increased in 46 percent of churches, decreased in 29 percent and was flat in 25 percent. In 2009, giving increased in only 35 percent of congregations, decreased in 38 percent and was flat in 27 percent of churches.
There are not comparable local numbers, although some churches in North Dakota and Minnesota participated in the survey.
“We encouraged our congregations to take part in the survey,” said the Rev. Daryl Thompson, superintendent of the Northern Plains District of the Evangelical Free Church of America, based in Bismarck. “I know that several did.”
Church giving in this region mostly has been stable and steady in recent years, negating the downward pressure of the national economy’s slump, Thompson and other church leaders say.
“Giving, I would say, has been steady and not had a lot of change in one direction or another,” said Thompson, a 1971 UND graduate who oversees 35 congregations in northwest Minnesota, North Dakota, northern South Dakota and eastern Montana.
But that’s a change from 15 to 20 years ago, when giving tended to increase every year, he said. His district grew from 28 congregations to 36 from about 1988 to 2008; but it’s lost one since then.
“Our giving through the past year has been good,” said Jerry Rude, chairman of the Evangelical Covenant Church in Crookston, which is between pastors. “There has not been a noticeable change.”
Nationally, the Minneapolis-based Evangelical Free Church has suffered from the down economy of recent years, Thompson said.
“Our Northern Plains regional economy has fared much better than the national economy and our district has been steady in terms of financial support for what we do,” Thompson said. “We are not growing necessarily ... but we are not negatively effected by what’s going on.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the boom in agriculture and oil in the region hasn’t weighted down offering plates, church leaders say.
“I would say, generally speaking, it’s not passed on to churches,” Thompson said of increased incomes due to oil and agriculture. “We often find the bigger gifts funneled through at special events or activities, or a person or ministry, like a missionary or some special event, like Hurricane Katrina or (the recent disasters) in Japan.”
Many churches, denominations and other religious groups quickly mobilized aid for Japan after the recent earthquake and tsunami.
Only a couple of his Crookston congregation’s 85 regular attenders are directly involved in farming, and many of the elderly members are on fixed incomes, Rude said.
“There are some people saying it is more difficult to give, but they always seem to find ways to give,” Rude said. “They understand the importance of it and if our mission is to help people, they still come forward.”
The largest denomination in this region, with a membership equal to 27 percent of the general population, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has had a singular struggle financially in recent years stemming from its controversial decision in August 2009 to allow gay and lesbians in relationships to serve as pastors.
That, plus the down economy, hit finances hard in the ELCA’s national office, forcing layoffs and cutbacks the past two years. Locally, it’s not so bad.
Bishop Bill Rindy of the Eastern North Dakota Synod, thanked his 100,000 members recently in a newsletter for ending 2010 with giving to the synod down only about $10,000 below budget, instead of the earlier feared $160,000 shortfall.
Local Catholic church leaders also report relatively steady giving.
Jean LaJesse is retiring this summer after 29 years working for the Crookston diocese, the last 23 years heading up the diocese’s “annual appeal,” as diocesan stewardship director.
The appeal is outside of regular Sunday offerings and goes to fund the bishop’s office and other diocese-wide ministries and activities.
The appeal includes a letter at the start of the year from Bishop Michael Hoeppner sent to each of the 15,000 households in the diocese, then a second letter a few months later to those who haven’t responded, she said.
Last year, the annual appeal went over the goal of $770,000, to hit $800,000, LaJesse said. This year’s goal is a record $800,000 and already nearly $600,000 has come in, she said.
Year to year, the annual appeal has grown by $10,000 to $20,000 a year, she said.
Like Rindy, Thompson and Rude, LaJesse sees God’s hand in it all.
“It’s kind of interesting, because it seems like the worse the economy is, the better the appeal will do,” she said this week.. “People are just very generous in the diocese. We have always made our goal, that I can remember.”
But there is a dwindling that is common in rural America.
“The number of households is just under 15,000,” she said. “We noticed it’s down 200 to 300 from last year at this time, from people moving away or dying.”
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