Amid economy's woes, churchgoers give

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--While economists debate how serious America's economic slowdown really is, Southern Baptist pastors report their members are still giving in spite of the financial pressures many are facing.

A new study by LifeWay Research shows that 72 percent of Southern Baptist pastors indicate difficulties in the U.S. economy are affecting their churches negatively, yet 76 percent say offerings are at or above levels they had expected when drafting budgets several months ago.

At the same time, 24 percent of the pastors say offerings are below what they had expected and 27 percent indicate their congregations will not meet budgets if current giving trends continue.

"When two-thirds of Southern Baptist churches are plateaued or declining in membership and attendance, it is no surprise that 20 to 30 percent of churches find their giving under budget at any given point in time," said Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research, a division of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Americans are feeling the pressure of rising prices on food and gasoline and millions are falling behind on mortgage payments, but members in many congregations are exercising faith by continuing to give, McConnell said.

"God has asked us to give from the first fruits we receive, and it appears that many Southern Baptists are continuing to do this despite the financial pressures they face," he said. "Giving God your first fruits requires much more faith when inflation is stealing what remains in your fruit basket."

The online survey was conducted April 16-May 5 among a representative sample of 778 Southern Baptist pastors. The sample size provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed 3.5 percent.

A similar survey conducted in February 2003 provides an interesting counterpoint to April's findings, McConnell added.

Although 2002 had not officially been a time of recession in the United States, a greater percentage of pastors (31 percent) indicated their church's total income ended the year lower than expected. A higher percentage of pastors (28 percent) also said income was higher than expected, while fewer (36 percent) said income was right at expectations.

That 2003 telephone survey of 497 Southern Baptist pastors or associate pastors had a 95 percent confidence that the sampling error did not exceed 4.4 percent.

Changes in congregational giving can be hard to predict, and that makes budgeting a real challenge, McConnell said.

"Difficulty in predicting giving not only affects responses to these questions, it also affects budgets. Many of these budgets were set more than six months ago," he said. "In the 2003 survey, we found a slim majority had budgeted for growth, but the size of the growth these churches budgeted was a very substantial 12.4 percent.

"If budget projections for 2008 were anywhere near that aggressive, optimism about meeting budget may fade as the year goes on."


Mark Kelly is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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