Churches slowly rebound from recession

The recession was a double-barrel blow to American congregations:
directly hurting their budgets while increasing the demands for
counseling, emergency housing and other social services.

But the
worst seems to be over, according to a report that says one in ten
congregations has begun to recover from the loss and more than 40
percent are now stable or improving financially.

The "holy toll"
report, based on the 2010 Faith Communities Today national survey of
more than 20 religious groups, found that more than half (57 percent) of
U.S. congregations reported that their income had declined due to the

Sociologist David A. Roozen, director of the Hartford
Institute for Religion Research, said larger congregations seem to be
recovering more easily. They have endowments and investment income that
have rebounded, and they have more members to help erase deficits.

theory echoes the State of the Plate report in March by the Evangelical
Council for Financial Accountability and Christianity Today
International's church management team, which found that smaller
churches suffered a disproportionate drop in giving last year.

survey, based on data from more than 11,000 congregations and re­leased
April 21, found that the recession had hurt congregations across the
theological spec­trum, surprising researchers who "al­most always find
differences" between evangelical and mainline Prot­estant churches.

percent of congregations said the recession had prompted layoffs or
furloughs, and just over a quarter of congregations reported salary
freezes or reductions.

With about 350,000 congregations in the
U.S. employing about 1.5 million clergy and other staff, that translates
to more than 500,000 people who lost jobs or had their salaries reduced
and about 50,000 prospective employees who weren't hired, according to
the report.

At the same time, congregations had to ramp up
outreach services due to the recession's toll on local communities.
Nearly half of all congregations experienced an increase in requests for
cash assistance, and nearly one in four received moderate to major
increases in requests for emergency housing.

In the congregations
whose finances were hit the hardest, "a lot of their members were
unemployed, so you had members who were financially stressed [and] you
had communities who were financially stressed, on top of the fact that
the congregations' own financial resources as measured by income [were]
down," Roozen said.

Even congregations that have recovered from
the recession are still struggling with a general economic downturn for
America's religious organizations. From 2000 to 2008—before the
recession's toll—congregations reporting "excellent financial health"
had dropped from 31 percent to 19 percent; the number is now about 14

Meanwhile, the number of congregations reporting
financial difficulty more than doubled, to nearly 20 percent, in the
past decade.

"That the worst is over doesn't necessarily mean that
things are getting better," Roozen explained, estimating that at least 5
percent of congregations won't be able to rebound. "These are
challenging times. Most congregations aren't feeling devastated by the
recession [anymore], but it's exacerbating those downward trends. . . .
It's not something that congregations move easily out of." —RNS

Nicole Neroulias

Nicole Neroulias writes for Religion News Service.

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