Economy, stewardship, attendance trends all impact church finances

Economy, stewardship, attendance trends all impact church finances

By Neisha Roberts
The Alabama Baptist

If the statistic that 1 in 5 churches saw their finances decline in 2015 is accurate, there must be a reason for the decline and, hopefully, a solution.

According to a recent LifeWay Research survey, one third of Protestant pastors say their church’s giving was under budget in 2015 and about half of pastors say the economy has negatively affected their church.

Although wages increased in 2015, the “financial picture for many churches did not improve,” according to Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research.

In the survey larger churches fared better than smaller churches. About one third of churches with 100 or more people (32 percent) saw their offerings exceed budget expectations. Among churches of less than 100, 1 in 5 (21 percent) had higher than budgeted offerings.

Church offerings

LifeWay Research also asked pastors if offerings at their church increased, remained the same or declined over the past year.

For the most part pastors say giving remained steady. Offerings went up in 4 of 10 churches (41 percent). Three in 10 (29 percent) saw no change. One in 5 (21 percent) saw a decline.

LifeWay’s findings echo other reports.

The Giving USA Annual Report on Philanthropy found giving to churches and other religious causes has lagged in recent years. While charitable giving overall increased by 5.4 percent in 2014, according to The Giving Institute, giving to religious causes like churches grew by less than 1 percent.

Falling budgets

When it comes to budgets, a Faith Communities Today report found the median church budget fell from $150,000 in 2009 to $125,000 in 2014.

However, the economy is not the sole responsibility for financial woes, McConnell said, noting that many factors affect a church’s finances such as attendance trends, spiritual growth and good stewardship.

At First Baptist Church, Tallapoosa, Georgia, just five minutes from the Alabama state line, the renovation of its education building in 2004 and purchase of new property next to the building was approved and the church received a loan for $350,000.

Jim Carter, a deacon who served on the renovation committee, explained that church members had pledged to pay for the renovation and land and the monthly payment of $3,500 was well-covered by those pledges. That was until the church was well into renovations and went through a leadership transition. At that time, Carter said, many of those pledging members left.

“We were put in a place where we could not pay that monthly payment,” Carter said.

But thanks to the work of a local Christian banker, whom the church originally signed the loan contract through, the loan was refinanced and repayment was extended, cutting the monthly payment in half and more manageable for the church.

But for years the church members had the debt “hanging over their heads,” according to Jim Jackson, chair of deacons.

There came a point when leadership and members were in agreement with a common goal — the debt had to be paid off.

No waste 

So how did they do it?

Church leaders emphasized the importance of paying the debt off, set a deadline and put together a strong, committed finance committee, Carter said, and Jackson noted that the “finance committee kept the members well-informed.”

According to Ann Smith, who’s served as financial secretary for more than three years, the church was careful with each dollar and “not wasteful at all.”

“Every committee at church was very in tune with what the most cost-effective way was to do this or that. We’d all ask ourselves, ‘Is this something that we have to have or is this something we want?’

“We had a lot of faithful members that believed in that vision of being debt free and really rallied behind it.”

The church held a note burning in 2015 after the last $30,000 was paid off in a few months time span.

Carter said with a chuckle, “We have never been so glad to see something go up in smoke.”

Tight financial situations

For churches in tight financial situations, Jackson said it is wise to “keep a very close account on all moneys and always keep members informed.”

Carter also said to pray through financial decisions. He also suggested getting commitment from the congregation to have a common goal; seek out a Christian banker; form a committee that will be wise with day-to-day expenses and one that church members trust.

Beulah Baptist Church, Muscadine, also was pinned under a large church building debt from 1995. The congregation also saw a leadership transition and a decline in church membership, according to Steve Bentley, who has served as church clerk and treasurer for more than 20 years.

When Pastor Bill Brown came on board in 2009 things began to change, Bentley said.

The church grew in size and annual tithes and offerings more than tripled by 2010.

“God blessed us and our offerings helped us pay off our debt,” Bentley said. “Our pastor leads us well and is very missions-minded. He encourages giving from the heart.”

And now, because the church is debt free, Bentley said, “We’re able to give away what we get in through offerings, the Cooperative Program and other local ministries that we support.”

For church financial resources, contact the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions’ office of LeaderCare and church health at 1-800-264-1225.

(Baptist Press contributed)