By Rickey Letson
Perhaps the most unexpected element of church giving over the past two years has been just how well many congregations have fared despite the effects of COVID. Without question, not every church has weathered these two years in solid financial shape. But many congregations have done exceedingly well and, in some cases, have had their best giving years in recent memory.
Now, many people are trying to figure out what to make of all of this. A big takeaway is that both churches and church goers quickly learned to embrace new ways of giving and receiving gifts beyond the traditional method of placing a check in the offering plate.
However, this massive pivot to alternate ways of giving appears to be just one unique element of the ever changing landscape of church and generosity.
Two other critical observations being made are equally compelling. Church financial leaders need to be aware of and attentive to both ideas as we move into this new year of 2022.
The first observation being made is that we seem to be seeing an uptick in per capita giving. This reality appears to be true across many segments of charitable giving. Like other segments, churches are also seeing slightly higher rates of per capita giving albeit at a lower level of increase than the gains being reported in other charitable sectors.
This is very good news, and there are several possible reasons that this may be happening. Overall, the economy is strong, the stock market is up, and, for many, there is greater capacity to give despite the current level of inflation. Further, there seems to be a deep resolve among the most committed to see their congregation or organization through this challenging season.
The second observation is that while giving is up per capita, churches may also be receiving gifts from a shrinking number of contributors. Most churches are struggling to get back to average attendance figures that are anywhere near what they were prior to the pandemic. Many churches have also lost members during this season. Some of these folks have gone to other places of worship and some have simply stopped going all together. Well before COVID, many churches had already been watching their average attendance shrink over time. In this regard, COVID may have only expedited what was already underway.
What affect, if any, should these two observations have on churches as we enter a new year? Here are three things that are worth considering.
First, churches should take time to chart changes in their number of giving units over the last three to five years to better understand where the pendulum is swinging in their own context. Total number of giving units is a critical piece of data for understanding at least one segment of any church’s giving capacity. The number of giving units is a simple calculation to make and can be done without divulging any information about specific giving amounts.
Second, churches should strategize how to keep per capita giving strong and growing. Ultimately the stock market and the economy will slow. Likewise, eventually COVID will end and a sense of heightened commitment to the financial well-being of one’s church may fade. So, thinking now about how to motivate continued strong giving going forward is important. The good news is that the discipline of challenging people to continue to grow their level of generosity is always a valuable thing. The capacity for giving for most people is higher than their current level of generosity. Further, most people can increase their level of giving without dramatically impacting their standard of living. Encouraging this type of growth, though, takes work and intentionality.
Third, churches need to consistently think about growing new givers. If the number of giving units is declining, how can congregations cultivate new givers? The hopeful reality here is that while most churches have seen people leave, they have also seen new folks come their way during the pandemic. The goal should be to not only foster a deeper level of involvement in the church from these newcomers but to also invite their financial support. This will require different strategies in different congregations. An overarching element of all contexts will be understanding how best to ask people to give. So often, churches fail to live up to their financial potential because they don’t directly ask their people to support them monetarily.
This is a new day for the church in many ways. It is a new day for church finances too. There remain, however, tried and true aspects of cultivating generosity that are as relevant now as ever.
(This article offers ideas adapted from trends and research first published, reported or shared by organizations focused on churches and giving including The Lake Institute, Generis, Giving USA, The Philanthropy Panel Study, Pew Research and Gallup)