Protestant churches show economic improvement

NASHVILLE (BP) -- The nation's slow economic recovery from a deep recession is showing up in the offering plates of Protestant churches in the U.S., according to a recent survey by LifeWay Research.

Although 56 percent of churches still report negative impact from the economy, 13 percent report a positive impact -- a jump of 4 percentage points from May 2012. When compared to the previous three years, churches are reporting less negative and more positive economic impact.

"The most recent recession revealed poor habits among Americans in terms of spending and lending," Scott McConnell, LifeWay Research director, said. "Surely churches have had to learn some of these same lessons."

Two-thirds of the churches surveyed report meeting or exceeding their 2014 budget. Nearly half (46 percent) are matching their budget, while 22 percent say receipts exceed their budget. Meanwhile, 29 percent of churches report receipts below budget.

When compared to 2013 giving, 74 percent of Protestant churches report offerings are at or above 2013 while 21 percent say receipts are lower than 2013.

The LifeWay survey also asked pastors about church size, region, pastor's age, educational level, ethnicity and evangelical/mainline affiliation. This information reveals where challenges still exist.

Pastors of churches with up to 99 regular attendees are more likely to report the economy continues to have a very negative impact on their churches (9 percent). For churches with at least 100 attendees, that response drops to about 3 percent.

Pastors in the Northeast report very negatively about the economy (10 percent), as do pastors nationwide who are 55 years or older (16 percent), and African-American pastors (12 percent).

The pastor's education level also gave some indication of financial health. Pastors with a master's degree (5 percent) are less likely to select "very negatively" compared to pastors with no college degree (10 percent).

"The current slow-growth economy does not allow individuals, businesses, or churches to slip into poor financial habits that may have been present seven or eight years ago," McConnell said. "Everyone must be innovative in how efficient and productive each of their activities is."

The slow-growth economy continues to influence church hiring decisions.

"For a couple decades, new and increased church activity could rely on additional staff and resource purchases financed by strong growth in giving," McConnell said. "Those decades are over."

McConnell cites the following factors that ease economic pressure:

-- Unemployment has improved five straight years;

-- Social Security recipients have received cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) for three straight years; and

-- Real disposable personal income has grown in 2014.

"However, the employment cost index indicates that total compensation has been growing at about 2 percent a year for six years, but when adjusted for inflation total compensation is very similar to national levels five years ago," McConnell said.

LifeWay Research has conducted this survey seven times since 2009. The most recent survey in 2012 indicated stabilized giving in many churches.

Methodology: The telephone survey of Protestant pastors was conducted in September 11-18. The calling list was randomly drawn from a list of all Protestant churches in three size categories. Each interview was conducted with the senior pastor, minister or priest of the church called. Responses were weighted to reflect the size and geographic distribution of Protestant churches. The completed sample is 1,000 phone interviews. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus 3.1 percent. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.

Jim Burton is a writer based in Atlanta. LifeWay Research is a Nashville-based, evangelical research firm that specializes in surveys about faith in culture and matters that affect the church.
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