by Les Robinson

Recently, Chris Gambill, Director of the Center, wrote a blog (A new year, a new look at congregations) about the Faith Communities Today 2015 national survey of American congregations. He was referring to their most recent survey. Since 2000, this group has worked with the Cooperative Congregations Studies Partnership and Hartford Seminary Institute for Religion Research, to study congregational life in the U.S. Every five years, they conduct a major study and then report on and update their findings in the in-between years.

In addition to the stats Chris reported, there also was interesting, if not enlightening, information about the financial health of congregations. As most of us painfully remember, our country suffered a financial recession that began in 2008. The truth is, the percentage of American congregations who were experiencing some or serious financial difficulty had grown well before the recession. However, the full impact of the recession peaked shortly after 2008 as its negative effect trickled down and out throughout the economy.

At first, congregations were able to stay at the forefront of helping individuals who had suffered great losses, especially those who were laid off from work or whose jobs were eliminated. But, as more members of these faith communities began to experience cutbacks and downsizing in their personal lives, congregations also had to pull back. In 2008, two-thirds of congregations reported some decline in income because of the recession, and almost 1 in 5 reported a serious drop in revenue. Congregations began dipping into savings or investments, postponing capital projects, and reducing mission and benevolence giving as ways of dealing with their financial shortfalls.

This latest report indicates that with the broader economic recovery, the sense of financial distress among American congregations has eased somewhat. This seems especially significant because with declining worship attendance and the increase in smaller congregations, there were a lot of pressures for further financial strain.

Of course, financial stress is bad enough in and of itself. However, it can become the catalyst for other negative things. For instance, those congregations that were negatively impacted by the recession experienced an increased level of conflict within the faith community itself.

Another telling fact is the drop in congregations with full-time paid senior or sole clergy leaders. Staff layoffs and delays in filling positions were among the least chosen options at the beginning of the recession. Nevertheless, in 2010, 71.4% of congregations had full-time paid senior or sole clergy leaders; today, only 62.2% of congregations have full-time paid senior or sole clergy leaders.

The looming question in the midst of this latest data is, “Is the increased sense of financial stability found in the 2015 survey due more to staff downsizing than to a return to pre-recession fiscal heights?” With the median budget dropping from $150,000 in 2010 to $125,000 in 2015, it appears that the reduced financial distress level in congregations is because they have become more comfortable doing with less, including professional staff.