Pastors Seek 'New Normal' in Church Budgets, Survey Finds

Despite an increase in offerings at most churches in the United States, pastors are redefining budgets to counter tough economic times, says the director of a research group.

According to a LifeWay Research poll of 1,000 Protestant pastors conducted in May and released Monday, nearly 71 percent of the pastors reported that offerings in 2011 met (41 percent) or exceeded (25 percent) their budget requirements. However, increase in demands from outside the churches, including the rise in the cost of services and products, have caused churches to restructure the way they do things.

“In the same way we are starting to use the term the ‘new normal’ in talking about consumer spending I think we can begin to look at that same kind of new normal in terms of church spending,” Scott McConnell, director of LifeWay Research, told The Christian Post. “Churches are still trying to figure that out.”

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The poll showed that 22 percent of pastors report lower offerings in 2011 than 2010. Thirty-nine percent report an increase and 36 percent said offerings are at about the same level as in 2010. Churches in the survey average a 2 percent increase in offerings over last year.

McConnell said that in the same way that both good and bad economic indicators can be found about the country’s economic status, the same can be said about church financial health as revealed in the survey of pastors.

“Churches deal with change every day anyway. Church leaders are used to change but it’s typically related to church health,” he said. “When the economic recession hit a couple years ago that was a kind of change they weren’t really ready for.”

Even with some churches showing higher offering numbers when compared to previous LifeWay polls done over the past two years, pastors are holding firm on church budgets.

“We continue to see the same number of churches hold staff salaries at the same pay rate as last year. They’ve delayed construction or other large capital expenses. They’ve delayed hiring that was planned, and they’ve even reduced staff salaries in some cases,” McConnell said.

For some churches, more volunteerism seems to be the answer.

Pastors in the survey report an increase in the number of people volunteering their time at church functions (49 percent compared to 41 percent in November 2009) and in the community (50 percent compared to 44 percent in November 2009).

Rather than buy products or services outside the church, many pastors are leading their congregations to fulfill those needs within the church.

“They are trying to create resources and substitute their own sweat equity rather than paying for some services,” McConnell said. “Up to 49 percent of pastors say they are doing more of that. They’re really navigating what is the new normal as far as their spending priorities and how they make their budgets and operations work in the current financial landscape.”

The survey also showed a disparity in the growth of offerings among the sizes of the churches.

Churches having a larger attendance are more likely to have increased offerings, according to the report. Nearly half (49 percent) of congregations with 100-249 attendees report increased offerings from 2010. The same goes for 47 percent of the congregations with 250 or more people in attendance. Only 34 percent of churches with 50-99 attendees and just 23 percent of those with 0-49 report increased offerings this year.

The survey also revealed that pastors identifying themselves as mainline churches (45 percent) are more likely to have increased offerings than those considering themselves as evangelical (38 percent).

Although McConnell interpreted the survey to show some positive economic signs, he said he wouldn’t use the word “optimistic” in describing the results. Churches will have some tough decisions to make in the near future, he said.

“I think some of the current uncertainty and even the volatility of some positive news for a period of time followed by some more negative impacts are probably what churches are going to experience over the next year or so,” he said.

Methodology: LifeWay Research conducted a phone survey on randomly selected Protestant churches. Each interview was conducted with the senior pastor, minister or priest of the church and responses were weighed to reflect the geographic distribution of Protestant churches. The completed sample of 1,000 phone interviews provides a 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed +/-3.2 percent. Margins of error are higher in subgroups. Comparisons are made to previous telephone surveys using the same methodology.

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