Holy Toll: The Impact of the 2008 Recession on American Congregations

New FACT survey finds 68 percent of U.S. congregations hit with financial difficulties due to recession


The economic slump extends and deepens a decade-long congregational decline.

The decade-long financial decline of U.S. congregations accelerated during the 2008 recession and may pose long-term challenges to some churches, synagogues and mosques already weakened by flagging membership, according to a new report (in pdf).

The Faith Communities Today 2010, a national survey of 11,077 randomly sampled U.S. congregations, found that 68 percent of congregations took a financial hit due to the recession, with nearly 20 percent taking a “big hit.”

Those figures exacerbate an ongoing decline in U.S congregations that saw the percentage of congregations in some or serious financial difficulty double to 20 percent in the last 10 years.

“The downward trend was in place before the recession hit,” said David Roozen, principal investigator and director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary. “But the recession has contributed to extending the decline.”

The survey, a project of the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership, included responses from 26 faith groups representing 32 of the country’s largest denominations. This is the fourth survey the partnership has undertaken since 2000.

On the positive side, 10 percent of congregations reported they were recovering from the economic downturn as early as the spring of 2010, when the latest survey was taken.

Among the strategies used by congregations to cope with the downturn, digging into savings and investments was among the most popular, followed by salary freezes or reductions in paid staff members.

Nine percent of congregations resorted to layoffs or unpaid furloughs, and about 25 percent of faith communities froze staff salaries. Roozen estimates those reductions equal about 500,000 lost jobs or lower salaries among clergy, lay professionals and support staff members. Congregational programming was not as hard hit.

But the recession took its heaviest toll among rank-and-file members. Half of all U.S. congregations were beset with requests for emergency cash assistance, with evangelical Christian churches topping the list of congregations asked to provide monetary help. In addition, one in four congregations were called on to provide emergency housing.

“The longer-term question is how many congregations got pushed into a really strong deficit situation that tends to create a cycle of decline,” said Roozen. “Congregations can lose their capacity to deal with negative forces and that’s the bigger worry.”

Financial stress, for instance, tends to increase conflict within congregations, and the survey shows that religious communities that suffered economic declines were twice as likely to experience serious conflict over budgeting, program priorities and leadership styles.

Financial stress also affects congregations’ ability to attract new members and recruit volunteers.

“Each cumulative dimension of organizational weakness makes a return to health more challenging,” Roozen said.

But while the latest survey points to a worrying decade-long trend of decline, Roozen pointed out that half of the nation’s congregations report good financial health.

“Religion is not in dire retreat,” he said. “But it’s not evident that the strength that once was is still there. The movement may be toward a continual erosion.”

Holy Toll: The Impact of the 2008 Recession on America’s Congregations Research Report is available in PDF format.

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