In many ways, the last few years of the pandemic have pulled back the curtain on our myths of what supposedly worked in congregations, but really hadn’t worked for decades. This awareness is essential as we begin to adapt to the post-COVID context, but it also requires a clear perception of the reality that churches are facing as we move out of the pandemic season. Unfortunately, much of the present financial reality in congregations has been with us since long before the pandemic arrived; recent years have only amplified these long-standing trends. However, this situation should not lead to despair but to determination and hopefulness about what can be accomplished now that we have survived the worst of the pandemic.
The research project I lead, Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations (EPIC), is designed to focus on patterns in churches across the country over five years as they react and adapt to the still-changing realities. Over the past three years, faith communities have suffered mightily in so many ways, including financially. However, our data (collected in summer 2021, winter 2021 and spring 2022, with a new survey in the field) shows a mixed picture of the pandemic’s effects on churches’ bottom line.
Before the pandemic
Prior to lockdown in spring 2020, another of our projects (Faith Communities Today) surveyed over 15,000 congregations and found that the average church with 65 weekly attendees had a yearly income of $120,000 with an average per capita giving of about $2,000. Nearly half of these congregations claimed their financial health was good (32%) or excellent (17%). At that time, 58% of congregations surveyed had online giving options but only 30% used it a lot. And the picture wasn’t consistent across the religious landscape, there were those who fared better and those who struggled considerably.
During the pandemic
Once the pandemic started, things weren’t all bad financially. Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, individual governmental relief, and diminished recreational spending all helped boost the average church median income from $120,000 in March 2020 to $140,000 in summer 2021, $150,000 in winter 2021, but then back to $120,000 in March of 2022. Our summer 2021 survey showed:
- 41% of churches had increased giving
- 30% had decreased giving
- 30% of churches agreed that their financial viability was at risk due to the pandemic
- 19% agreed that their continued existence was threatened
Six months later, roughly a third of churches experienced giving increases while another third decreased. Further examination of these severely challenged congregations showed that many were already stressed prior to COVID-19 because of their small size, existing conflict, an aging membership, and other contextual difficulties. These variables and other factors helped explain why some churches suffered less than others during this period.
Size, tradition, optimism: Important variables
The size of the faith community made a significant difference in the financial challenges faced. The larger the church, the more likely it was to have member giving increase, face no serious financial threat, not worry about going out of existence, and report being in excellent financial health.
Another variable that explained financial differences within congregations was its family tradition (whether a church was denominationally affiliated with Catholic/Orthodox, Mainline, or Evangelical traditions). Churches in a Mainline protestant denomination were least likely to see giving increase and somewhat more likely to face financial and existential challenges as a result of the pandemic. Mainline churches were also less likely to report their financial health as excellent. Evangelical congregations were the most likely to have member giving increase, with half of these churches experiencing a growth in donations. While churches in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions had about a third of congregations with increased giving, they and Evangelical communities were roughly parallel in percentage of churches with no financial or existential threat and a quarter of congregations with excellent financial health.
Optimism and hopefulness are less tangible factors that seemed to have a significant impact on a congregation’s financial picture and overall sense of well-being. Ranking high on a scale that combined scores on questions about a willingness to change, asserting that the church will emerge stronger, identifying new ministry opportunities, and thinking in new ways about mission and direction predicted a healthier and more financially viable congregation.
Reframe and reshape
As congregations consider how best to respond financially to a post-pandemic reality, there is little they can do about their size or denominational tradition, but they can reframe their perceptions and reshape their congregational attitude. Rather than focusing on what has been lost since 2020—the members who haven’t come back, the red on the financial spreadsheet, or all the ways you are no longer the church of the 1960s—the congregation should reorient its outlook toward ways it can progress from this starting point. Hopefulness doesn’t mean denying the present reality, but it focuses on resurrection, on what we can become, on how we can turn the challenges of the pandemic into the opportunities of the future. Nearly every congregation, no matter the size, denominational tradition, or financial state, accomplished great things during the past three years: they continued to exist, switched to new modes of worship, began online giving, and changed into a community it hadn’t envisioned prior to 2020. This innovation can continue only if we have an optimistic attitude and the willingness to adapt for a new day.