When the US economy shut down in March due to COVID-19, financial predictions for churches and other ministries were dire. But a new survey suggests those predictions may have been overblown.
Most evangelical churches and ministries saw giving remain steady or grow during the height of stay-at-home restrictions, according to a survey of more than 1,300 Christian ministries released last week by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA).
Among those surveyed, total cash giving in April 2020 equaled or surpassed April 2019 giving levels at 66 percent of churches and 59 percent of nonprofits. An even greater percentage of churches (72%) and other Christian nonprofits (61%) said their April 2020 cash gifts met or exceeded January 2020 levels, when the economy was booming and the stock market’s Dow Jones Industrial Average was approaching its all-time high.
Those healthy giving levels have translated into economic optimism. More than half of the leaders were optimistic about anticipated cash gifts in May through July, while 27 percent were uncertain, and just 15 percent were pessimistic.
ECFA analyst Warren Bird told Christianity Today that churches and other nonprofits with cash on hand may want to consider putting their “money to work in doing ministry” rather than continuing “to hold [their] breath in fear that [their] circumstance is unusual and the bottom is just about to fall out.”
That’s a different outlook than ministries had two months ago. The State of the Plate poll, released April 23, found 65 percent of churches had seen giving decreases since mid-March. “For pastors and church staff, there will be difficult days ahead,” predicted State of the Plate founder Brian Kluth. Similarly, the Barna Group reported in a March podcast that 62 percent of US pastors said giving was down at their churches.
But the initial economic nosedive reversed in the span of a month as giving picked back up and Congress made small business loans available through the Paycheck Protection Program. (Sixty percent of churches and 81 percent of other Christian nonprofits either applied or planned to apply for one of those loans, according to the ECFA survey.)
For analysts, the key questions now are whether the positive outlook will hold and if any segments of the Christian world are being left behind.
The situation at Southridge Church in San Jose, California, has paralleled national trends. Giving dipped 25 percent in March, pastor Micaiah Irmler said, before picking back up in April and expanding in May. The congregation, which has conducted drive-in services during the pandemic, has a $580,000 annual budget and is in the midst of a capital campaign to purchase its first building.
Southridge’s giving has moved almost entirely online because of the coronavirus, up from about two-thirds online before the pandemic. Nationally, ECFA found 64 percent of churches saw an increased percentage of online giving between January and April.
“From what I’m hearing here in the Silicon Valley, we’re not going to be hit that hard,” Irmler said of the church’s finances. His greatest uncertainty involves Bay Area tech companies like Google and Twitter that decided during the pandemic to let many employees work from home permanently. “The only thing that has me somewhat nervous,” he said, is how many church members “might move out of our area” to decrease their cost of living.
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Source: Christianity Today