State of the Plate

2010 State of the Plate Survey Overview

That is the name of a nationwide survey of giving to religious institutions now in its third year.  State of the Plate is a collaborative effort by Brian Kluth of Maximum Generosity ministry, Christianity Today International, publisher of Church Finance Today and Leadership journal, and the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) and there are plenty of corporate sponsors on board as well.

State of the Plate got responses from 1,507 churches of all sizes, theological leanings, and every region of the country.

Headlines from the State of the Plate Survey

  • 43% of churches saw increases in giving this past year, up from 36 percent in 2009.
  • 39% of churches reporting a decline in giving this past year compared with 38 percent last year.
  • Smaller churches (< 250 people ASA) saw more declines in giving than larger churches.
  • The West Coast and Southeast lead the nation in declining giving with 46% of churches reporting decrease in donations in 2010.

Remember this State of the Plate survey is focused mostly on evangelical churches while there was some mainline participation.  But if the faster growing evangelical churches have been hit as hard or harder by the recession as the larger mainline denominations—we have even more evidence of how brutal this recession has been on churches.

It was interesting that the commentary on this survey in the media often went beyond the facts of changing giving patterns to discuss the potential long term impact on churches from changes in US tax policy concerning tax deductions for charitable giving as recommended by the US Deficit Commission.  It is obvious that the evangelicals fear a permanent drop in charitable giving if here is such as change and, I supposed, the Episcopal Church might also add that to our worry list.

The Episcopal Church Stewardship Experience

Until the recession hit hard, giving increased in the Episcopal Church faster than the rate of inflation. While membership in the Episcopal Church and Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) decreased each year since 2002, stewardship giving trends were positive.

Kirk Hadaway, director of research for the Episcopal Church, said last Fall that plate and pledge giving increased steadily from 1991 to 2008, when it dropped for the first time since good records were available because of the depths of the recession. The average pledge among US parishes increased from $1,791 in 2003 to $2,302 in 2008, and plate and pledge giving per attendee increased from $1,496 to $1,883 during the same period.

What Does This Mean to Our Parish?

The Episcopal Church website offers a free online database research tool which charts 11-year trends called Studying Your Congregation and Community to assist Episcopal congregations and dioceses with stewardship, short- and long-term planning, and strategic development.

Any congregation can access this research data at http://www.episcopalchurch.org/research.htm and by clicking Studying Your Congregation and Community, the data are easily accessed with pull-down menus for selecting dioceses and congregations.  All of this information is from the parochial reports–the official annual ‘census data’ collected from every congregation each year.

Self Study Resources for the Rector Search Process

This national church research service is also a VERY USEFUL tool for any search committee and you can bet the candidates will check out any parish they feel called to in order to get the facts on membership, average Sunday attendance, and plate & pledge giving by diocese and congregation from 1999 to 2009 including community profile, which updates the former zip code report.

So if you are preparing a parish profile you better check this out and make sure what you are saying about your congregation is consistent with what the national church is reporting.  But you still need to answer the basic question of what happened to giving in 2010 and what trends or expectations does the congregation have for the future.

I’m tempted to say that if the Evangelicals are worried about future giving then we should be too—and we are.  But growing average Sunday attendance and broadening the pledge base is part of a much broader strategy every congregation needs.

The lessons:

Changing demographics will profoundly impact every denomination. Our strategies for parish life and stewardship need to reflect these demographic realities. It also means we cannot build a parish strategic vision, capital plan or search process by just focusing on our history—we must learn to live into our vision of the future and test that vision against these demographic trends.

The recession was as bad as we felt, but the economy is recovering slowly. Expecting a miraculous turnaround in pledge levels is unrealistic given the slow pace of recovery.  But the State of the Plate survey told us that more congregations are seeing giving grow again that before.  that is good news but not sufficient to turn the corner.  The lesson in this for the Diocese of California, St. Timothy’s Danville and other congregations is that we cannot coast or wimp out in addressing our structural problems in congregational vitality, the assessment formula, and the budget levels at both the Diocese and parish level.

Both the ‘best of times’ and ‘worst of times’ are still ahead of us. Change is always difficult even when the change is good–or good for us.  God is revealing to us a glimpse of our faith future by opening our eyes to the need to welcome, incorporate and serve our richly diverse communities.  He is not promising us that the changes needed to reach out to the unchurched, underserved and multicultural diversity we see ahead will be easy—-only that He is with us every step of the way.  The question is ‘what is our response?’

There is something Darwinian to all of this change process underway in the church, in our nation and the world.  It is forcing all of us to open our eyes, to pray more, to see more of the world beyond our small corner, and to both give thanks for the blessings in our lives and reach out to serve those less fortunate to live into the mission work of the church.

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