Nearly half of Protestant pastors say churches negatively impacted during COVID economy

Photo: Getty Images/ColorBlind
Photo: Getty Images/ColorBlind

Nearly half of Protestant pastors (48%) say that the economic lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic have negatively impacted their churches, but only a small fraction of them say the impact has been “very” negative, according to a new survey. 

LifeWay Research, a polling organization under the auspices of the Southern Baptist Convention’s LifeWay Christian Resources, released a new poll Tuesday in which over 1,000 Protestant pastors were surveyed between Sept. 2 and Oct. 1 about the economic condition of their congregations. 

Each respondent is either a senior pastor or the sole pastor of their church and comparisons were drawn from surveys conducted in several previous years. The sampling error for the most recent data does not exceed plus or minus 3.4%.

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While 35% of respondents said the economy is having no impact on their churches, 43% of Protestant pastors said their churches are “somewhat negatively” impacted by the current state of the economy. Meanwhile, only 5% of respondents said their church has been “very negatively” impacted.

About 15% of pastors said their churches have either been “somewhat positively” impacted (11%) or “very positively” impacted (4%) by the economy. 

The survey comes as the pandemic has caused millions to lose jobs as some businesses have had to close down or alter working hours to make the working environments safer during the pandemic. In turn, some churches have struggled financially as giving has declined

Compared to data from 2019, the number of churches that are being negatively impacted by economic lockdowns increased significantly in the last year. 

In 2019, only 23% of pastors surveyed said the economy was somewhat negatively impacting their churches. Meanwhile, 3% of pastors said the economy in 2019 was very negatively impacting their churches. 

“The recovery from the last recession was slow for many churches,” LifeWay Research Executive Director Scott McConnell said in a statement. “Even in a good economy, it can be easy to focus on external factors that are hurting your church’s finances. Clearly, many pastors are seeing the recession in 2020 impacting their church.”

The rise in the percentage of pastors who said the economy is hurting their churches from 2019 to 2020 comes as there was a steady improvement over the last decade since the Great Recession. 

In October 2010, nearly eight out of 10 pastors (79%) said the economy was negatively impacting their churches, with 13% saying it was “very negatively” impacting their churches.  There was a noticeable drop in 2018.

In 2017, 35% of pastors said the economy was negatively impacting their churches. In 2018, that figure dropped to just 14% only to rise to 23% in 2019 and 43% in 2020. The 2020 result is the highest percentage of pastors to say that the economy is negatively impacting their churches since 2016 when 51% of pastors said the economy was negatively impacting their churches. 

In 2020, just under half (45%) of pastors surveyed said that giving to their church is about in line with what their churches had budgeted. A third of pastors (33%) said that giving to their churches was “lower” than what had been budgeted. For some pastors (21%), donations to their churches were higher than what was budgeted for. 

However, about a quarter of pastors surveyed said that their churches are below 2019’s offerings by 10% or more. Meanwhile, 8% of pastors surveyed said their churches’ offerings are below 2019’s levels by 25% or more. 

About 35% of pastors said that total offerings to the churches so far for 2020 have been “below 2019’s offerings. While 32% said that offerings for 2020 and 2019 are about the same, 29% said offerings have been above 2019 levels. By comparison, 42% of pastors surveyed in 2018 said that their offerings were up that year. 

“2018 looks like as good as it gets for positive economic impacts for churches,” McConnell explained. “People quickly got used to improved take-home pay from tax changes and were seeing flat wages, meaning 2019 was more difficult for churchgoers to maintain 2018 giving. Now in 2020, a recession brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has set a third of churches behind their 2019 giving.”

According to the 2020 data, African American pastors were the most likely to select that the current economy is “very negatively” impacting their churches (20%). Additionally, white pastors (22%) were more likely to say that giving to their church has been “higher than budgeted.” Only 10% of African American pastors said the same. 

About 48% of African American pastors said that giving was “lower than budgeted” while 31% of white pastors said the same. African American pastors (50%) were also more likely to say that offerings so far in 2020 are “below 2019’s offerings. About 34% of white pastors said the same. 

“The economic impact of COVID-19 has been very uneven, and that includes churches,” McConnell explained. “The types of churches that are most likely to be struggling financially are also the most likely to have not gathered in person in September. The exception is larger churches, but they were most likely to have less than 30% of their pre-COVID attendance in person.”

Earlier this year, the Churches Helping Churches Challenge was established to raise money from more affluent churches to provide grants for at-risk churches struggling to stay alive during the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised in the program. 

Among the churches aided by the program was the Ark of Safety Christian Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which received a $3,000 grant. 

“Small at-risk churches are in a very desperate situation because of the pandemic,” AND Campaign President Justin Giboney said in a statement earlier this year. “I’ve been encouraged by how larger churches and faith organizations from across racial and denominational lines have stepped up to help. We have a lot of work to do, but this has proven to be promising.”

Another survey of 1,400 church leaders published this year by Ministry Brands found that six in 10 respondents surveyed between July and September indicated that a reduction in giving is one of the top challenges their churches are facing. 

“This was particularly noticeable among Catholic churches, a full 67% of which expressed concern about reduced giving,” the report stated. 

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