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Church giving healthy during difficult times

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

Are religious organizations experiencing a sharp decrease in contributions due to the economic climate? Anecdotal evidence might support such a conclusion. Some congregations are reducing staff; the Crystal Cathedral (California) reported a 27 percent drop in revenue in 2009 and some surveys indicate lower levels of support on the part of many Americans.

A headline from last week's Wall Street Journal would seem to support such a perspective: Donations Slip Amid Anxiety. Citing a study by The Giving USA Foundation, the Journal reported that contributions slipped $3.6 percent in 2009.

But as one read further into the article it was revealed that contributions to churches only "dropped by about one percent," in comparison with drops to education, arts, and foundations ranging from 3.6 percent to 8 percent.

Curious about the report, I found it online at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. That report contains two important figures that the Wall Street Journal left unreported:

(1) In 2009, individual giving to charity only fell 0.4 percent below 2008 levels, and that O.4 percent equaled a 0 percent reduction when inflation was taken into account! In spite of times still gloomy in many areas of the nation, Americans remain incredibly generous.

(2) In 2009, receipts for religious organizations were, in fact, only 0.7 percent lower than 2008 or only 0.3 percent lower when adjusted for inflation. I hate to quibble with the Journal, but there's a huge difference between an "almost one percent" decrease and an inflation adjusted figure of 0.3 percent.

These are facts worth celebrating. In spite of the gloomy economic news, the average religious institution, when the figures are adjusted for inflation, received 99.7 percent as much income in 2009 as it received in 2008. That would have been the headline I'd have liked to see in the Wall Street Journal. Certainly individual congregations have suffered to a far greater degree, just as other congregations are thriving even in the midst of the downturn. On the whole, the Center for Philanthropy reflects a robust snapshot of church giving.

Americans are simply incredibly generous. Much was made of the fact, that a few years ago we opened our pocketbooks in the face of Hurricane Katrina and gave $6 billion to alleviate that suffering. Yes, $6 billion is a huge amount, spontaneously given.

But try to wrap your arms around this: Americans give $6 billion every single week to charity! The religious institutions, museums, schools, cultural organizations and foundations in the United States receive $6 billion dollars week after week after week. That amounts to $300 billion annually, and by far the largest single slice of that pie is going to individual congregations. Even though contributions were down by 3.6 percent overall in 2009, that still amounted to $303.75 billion.

Religious organizations will need to continue to plan carefully in these times. But lest people grow overly concerned about the financial health and potential of their synagogue, mosque or church, the best available figures indicate a pattern of generosity remains strong and vital.

Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at creede@wesleymonumental.org.