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Giving Is Up at Churches and People Are Back, but Clergy Still Thinking About Quitting

Photo credit: Connor Hall / Unsplash

(RNS) — Three years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, churches have fewer people in the pews, more money in the collection plate and less conflict than they had in 2020.

Despite their struggles, many congregations are optimistic about the future. Clergy dissatisfaction, on the other hand, remains on the rise.

Those are among the findings of the latest report from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, part of a five-year study of the impact of the pandemic on America’s churches.

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This latest report drew from surveys for 4,809 congregations from 58 denominational groups, including an oversampling of 20 denominations, as part of the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations study. The surveys were fielded from January to May of 2023.

“It is apparent that congregational dynamics are still in a state of flux,” said Scott Thumma, director of the study. “Churches, and especially clergy, continue in a recovery phase. Even though aspects of church life are rebounding, the destiny of many faith communities is still uncertain.”

“Median Attendance” Graphic courtesy of HIRR

The median attendance at local congregations stood at 60 people as of spring 2023, down slightly from 65 in the spring of 2020, according to the report — a decline of 9%. About a third (30%) of churches said they’d experienced significant decline, while a quarter (24%) experienced some decline. Twelve percent stayed the same, while 11% said they’d experienced some growth.

One in 4 congregations (22%) had experienced significant growth.

That pattern — half of churches reporting decline while a third reported growth — is similar to the pattern at the beginning of the pandemic, according to the report.

Researchers also found that 16% of worship attendees were new people in 2023, up from 5% in 2020. A number of people also continue to attend services online — an average of about 25 people, according to the congregations that track their online attendance. About half of congregations do so, with a median attendance of 75 overall, including online and in-person.

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“Congregations remain optimistic about the future, but it is also apparent they are continuing to wrestle with the troubling conditions that were in existence long before COVID-19 arrived,” the report’s researchers wrote.

Giving at congregations went up by about 42% over the past three years, from a median of $120,000 in 2020 to $170,000 in 2023.

“Even adjusting for inflation, this still represents a remarkable increase of over 25% since 2020,” according to the report.

"Median Income (most recent fiscal year)" Graphic courtesy HIRR

“Median Income (most recent fiscal year)” Graphic courtesy of HIRR

Online giving appears to have played a role in boosting donations. Congregations that offer online giving reported higher per capita giving, ranging from $2,052 at congregations where online giving is used a little to $2,428 where online giving is used a lot.

Congregations that do not offer online giving options reported per capita giving of $1,809.

The report noted that only 31% of churches reported using online giving in 2015, whereas now 67% do so, and nearly half (48%) use this method “a lot.”

Researchers suspect that capital campaigns and other fundraising projects that were postponed in 2020 may have been started in 2023, boosting the giving.