Sightings: Congregational Economics

Religion scholar Martin Marty’s latest Sightings column looks at a study out from the Alban Institute that measured how congregations are faring in terms of giving so far into the recession. Read the column at the jump.

Sightings 11/2/09
Congregational Economics
– Martin E. Marty
Covering “public religion” is our assignment. To many, reporting on congregations and, worse, on “giving,” looks private, personal, beside the public point. They should look again: By far the largest sector of charitable giving is to and through religious institutions. The hundreds of thousands of congregations, parishes, synagogues, mosques and more, are the most widely and diversely represented of American voluntary agencies. They usually fly under the reportorial radar, but what their members think and do has enormous public influence, locally, nationally, and globally. We pay attention.
One time to notice barometers is during this month of November, in many places called “Stewardship Month,” when the generosity, priorities, strategies, and moods of American people in congregations gets measured. How are they doing, so far into the recession? Not needing to rely only on spotty or anecdotal impressions, we can read a study which appeared last Tuesday, as it provides at least a beginning and partial answer. The Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at the Center on Philanthropy and the Alban Institute – an Indianapolis and Washington combo – provide the report.
The two surveyed 1,500 congregations that are busy weathering the financial storms. Are they representative? No: No matter how small or weak some may be, the fact that they reach out to the Alban Institute signals some kind of vitality that sets them somewhat (if not vastly) apart. Over one-third of them reported an increase in giving for the first half of 2009 over the first half of 2008, and over one-third stayed the same. How do they adjust and make do in hard(er) times? Only 6.8 percent reduced permanent staff and only 10.7 more cut back on part-time staff. One-sixth of them could not raise salaries, while almost that many cut utility and program costs. William Enright of the Center calls the parishes “resilient” and “imaginative,” as they reach out to meet increasing needs in their communities and around the world. James Wind of Alban puts in a plug for local congregations, which are too often taken for granted. The majority, large or small, are dynamic and creative.
It’s a them-that-has-gits situation, in that those that were increasing giving, receipts, and mission pre-crisis keep increasing or at least holding their own, while those that were suffering decline now decline further and look for ways to turn things around. Many of them, lacking funds, supplemented mission with donations of food and clothing to the community. Most clergy brought up the subject of giving no more and no less frequently than they did B.C., Before the Crisis, but 40 percent did turn the volume and frequency up to attract more and better givers.
Churches made up mainly of older members (50-plus years) suffered more than did those with younger congregations, something easily understood by any who overhear retirees report on declines in their nest eggs. A minority of congregations have endowments; few of these reported increase. The little churches that reported less than $150,000 in donations in 2008′s first half reported continuing decline in 2009. What is not measured here is the degree of zest and passion and enjoyment brought by both clerical and lay leadership: Do those who enjoy giving and asking others to give do better than those whose apologetic tones, body language, lamenting, signs of marking time, and running for cover are telegraphed to their membership? You don’t need a survey to certify the part of it all that we already know.
Martin E. Marty’s biography, current projects, publications, and contact information.
In this month’s edition of the Religion and Culture Web Forum, Andre C. Willis of Yale Divinity School explores recent work by three major thinkers who both find inspiration in the pragmatic tradition and take religion seriously in their investigations of democracy — Jeffrey Stout, Roberto Unger, and Cornel West. He seeks to develop a conceptual grounding for his own move toward a pragmatism, rooted in social practice, which also bears a theological sensibility suitable for addressing those contingencies that are, in fact, the existential consequences of political realities. With invited responses from Eddie Glaude (Princeton University), Corey D. B. Walker (Brown University), and others.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Submissions policy
Sightings welcomes submissions of 500 to 750 words in length that seek to illuminate and interpret the forces of faith in a pluralist society. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. The editor also encourages new approaches to issues related to religion and public life.
Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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