By Aaron Earls
LifeWay News Office
NASHVILLE — After a few years of economic optimism, pastors say the 2020 economy is hurting their congregation.
According to a new survey from Nashville-based LifeWay Research, almost half of U.S. Protestant pastors (48 percent) say the current economy is negatively impacting their church, including 5 percent who say the impact is very negative.
Around 1 in 6 (15 percent) believe the economy has had a positive effect, including 4 percent saying it is having a very positive impact. More than a third of pastors (35 percent) say there’s been no impact.
Even with a 12-point jump from 2018 to 2019 (14 percent to 26 percent), perceptions of negative impact had been trending downward since 2010 when 80 percent of Protestant pastors said the economy was harming their church.
The 2020 negative numbers are the highest since January 2016, when 51 percent of pastors said the economy was hurting their church.
“The recovery from the last recession was slow for many churches,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “Even in a good economy, it can be easy to focus on external factors that are hurting your church’s finances. Clearly, many pastors are seeing the recession in 2020 impacting their church.”
Most Protestant pastors say giving has been at or below 2019 levels, as well as at or below their budget for this year. Around a third report giving levels lower than last year and lower than their current budget.
For close to half of churches (45 percent), giving in 2020 has been about what was budgeted. A third (33 percent) say it is lower than budgeted, while 21 percent say giving has been higher.
When compared to 2019, 35 percent say giving has dropped this year, 32 percent say it is the same, and 29 percent say it is above last year’s levels.
Those numbers accelerate a downward giving trend that began last year.
In 2018, LifeWay Research found 42 percent of pastors said their offerings were up, 37 percent said giving was the same, and 15 percent said it was below 2017.
Those numbers worsened slightly in 2019 when LifeWay Research found 37 percent said giving was up, 37 percent said it was the same, and 21 percent said it was below 2018 levels.
“2018 looks like as good as it gets for positive economic impacts for churches,” said McConnell. “People quickly got used to improved take-home pay from tax changes and were seeing flat wages meaning 2019 was more difficult for churchgoers to maintain 2018 giving. Now in 2020, a recession brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has set a third of churches behind their 2019 giving,” he observed.
“The economic impact of COVID-19 has been very uneven, and that includes churches,” said McConnell. “The types of churches that are most likely to be struggling financially are also the most likely to have not gathered in person in September. The exception is larger churches, but they were most likely to have less than 30 percent of their pre-COVID attendance in person.”