Financial Pain and the Church

Sam Rainer

December 3, 2008

The Barna Group recently released research that reveals potential billion-dollar losses in donations for churches driven by the slow economy:

Americans are now passing on their financial pain to churches and other non-profit organizations by cutting back substantially on their giving during the fourth quarter of 2008. Those reductions – occurring during the most important quarter of the year for donor-driven organizations – will cripple thousands of smaller and less stable donor-supported organizations.

Two out of every three families – 68% – have been noticeably affected by the financial setbacks in America. Nearly one out of every four (22%) said they have been impacted in a “major way,” almost four out of ten have been affected “only somewhat” and about one out of every twelve (8%) say they have not been affected too much.

During the past three months, one of the ways that adults have adjusted to their financial hardships has been by reducing their charitable giving. In total, one out of every five households (20%) has decreased its giving to churches or other religious centers.

The report is quite pessimistic, but Barna offers this sound advice to church leaders:

Barna encouraged church leaders to embrace a new mindset for their financial projections. “With a large share of congregants expecting the nation’s economic woes to drag on for several years, it would be wise for churches and non-profits to reconfigure their financial models and plan to spend more cautiously over the coming two or three quarters,” he explained. “Even if a congregation continues to grow numerically, this is not a good time to use dated financial projections and models. People’s attitudes about generosity have been altered, as shown by their immediate donation behavior. We anticipate that a greater percentage of church-goers will decrease both their giving levels and frequency over the next year or so. This is a time for church leaders to demonstrate restraint and wisdom in their financial decisions.”

Restraint and wisdom are needed during this time. Many people have been hit hard with this financial mess, and there is evidence of slower giving patterns. The National Bureau of Economic Research reports that this recession officially began in December 2007. Myriad prognosticators maintain the recession will continue well past the year mark, making it one of the worst since World War II.

Church leaders should exercise caution, but I remain optimistic. And I am confident that the people of the church will stay on mission through their giving despite the financial pain and gloom. Some continue to give despite facing foreclosure – an inspiring act of obedience and sacrifice.

I’ve seen firsthand through my church how people stay on mission despite crushing personal financial losses. We recently collected gift cards, food, and other items to help some families within our congregation during the Thanksgiving holidays. It was wonderful to see people bless each other in this way. What was even more uplifting was the fact that one of the families that was blessed with material gifts came to me the next day wanting to start a new ministry in the church. As the pastor, it was a reminder of how the church should operate – those who were in need financially were helped, and in turn, they were able to begin an outwardly focused ministry.

Indeed, the macro numbers are bad, and the personal financial pain is high. Many families are struggling. And I do not want to diminish the heartache people feel when they lose their homes or jobs. But I remain confident that churches staying healthy by keeping an outward focus will see inward financial needs met. Even through this time of financial pain, I believe the church can see great spiritual gains.

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