Survey Reveals Decade-Long 'Erosion' of Traditional U.S. Congregations

No faith community was left undamaged by the 2008 recession, a new survey reveals.

More than half (57 percent) of congregations across the spectrum – including evangelical, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, and Baha'i – were negatively impacted, according to The Hartford Institute for Religion Research. But perhaps what is more notable is that the financial health of congregations has been in decline long before the downturn even hit.

Hartford's survey, released Wednesday, found that the percentage of congregations reporting some or serious financial difficulty more than doubled to nearly 20 percent in the past 10 years. And those saying that their financial health was excellent dropped from 31 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2010.

The recession only exacerbated their economic situations, said David Roozen, director of The Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

Roozen believes the poorer financial health of many churches is tied to declining membership, particularly among more traditional congregations.

"It seems like over the last decade we've moved into an era of ... kind of an erosion (not a drop-off), certainly of traditional American religious beliefs and practice," he observed.

And evangelicals aren't exempt. Roozen noted that many evangelical groups have also been seeing slowed growth.

Congregations being hit the hardest, he said, are ones that are less willing to change.

"If we're in a time of change overall ... and you need congregations to continue to thrive, you probably need to be thinking about how we can adapt to the changing world," he commented to The Christian Post.

The report, entitled "Holy Toll," found that Reform and Conservative Judaism congregations are in the worst financial health compared to other religious groups in the U.S. Around 40 to 48 percent of those congregations reported "some/serious" difficulty while only 17 percent said they were in good or excellent financial health.

Other groups struggling include mainline Protestant groups. Around a quarter of those from the United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Christian Reformed Church, Unitarian Universalist congregations, and Orthodox Christian churches said they are in some or serious difficulty.

Meanwhile, faith groups faring well with more than half reporting good or excellent financial health include those from the Baha'i tradition – where members meet in houses and have volunteer leadership, Roozen noted – as well as the Churches of Christ, Mennonite Church USA, Muslims, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Half of nondenominational churches also said their economic situation was good or excellent. Nondenominational churches were also among the least likely to report some or serious financial difficulty, with only 10 percent saying they're having a hard time.

The report is part of the larger FACT (Faith Communities Today) 2010 national survey. Results are based on responses from over 11,000 congregations across faith traditions, and the multifaith national sample is proportionate to the actual U.S. religious demographic, Roozen noted.

Commenting on the overall report, Roozen observed that the recession is just "the latest stressor in a decade-long trend toward ministry being more challenging."

"There's no question that religion overall in the United States is being stressed on many accounts. So it just makes ministry more challenging and that will likely continue," he said.

For all but five to 10 percent of the congregations, challenging financial times are likely to pass, he noted.

Already, one in 10 congregations said they have begun to recover from a dip in income due to the recession. And over 40 percent are now stable or increasing financially, the survey found.

The keys to financial recovery, the survey suggests, include high spiritual vitality, higher attendance, avoiding "serious" conflicts, and more openness to change – particularly, changing a congregation's worship style.

Another key, Roozen pointed out, is a clearer sense of vision or purpose.

"You need to be focused and you need to have the congregation focused. If you have a vague or very outdated vision and purpose, then there's no place to rally the congregation," he said.

The FACT series of national surveys of American Congregations is a project of the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership, which is a multifaith coalition of denominations and religious groups hosted by Hartford Seminary’s Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Previous FACT surveys were conducted in 2000, 2005 and 2008.

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