It feels like the question of the economy’s impact on local church finances is being asked more and more often. First, it was the “great recession” in 2009 that impacted the church until employment slowly rebounded. Then there were tax law changes. Then it was COVID. Then it was stimulus checks and PPP loans. Now it’s inflation.
To understand what churches can anticipate in 2023, let’s take a closer look at recent financial trends and current forces impacting churches.
Post-COVID Financial Trends
During 2020 and 2021 few churches had any positive numbers in terms of in-person attendance. But many churches still had stable or positive numbers when it came to finances. In Fall 2021, almost three-fourths of churches had offerings for the year that were at or above the prior year. With so many other uncertainties in ministry, this became a rare piece of stability for pastors.
This financial stability continued through 2022. Almost a third of churches (32%) had seen giving grow and another 42% said giving for the year was the same as the prior year. This means fewer churches are seeing giving growth compared to previous years such as 2016-2018 when the economy had shown continued strength. But the number of churches experiencing giving declines in 2022 (23%) is also much lower than the peaks in 2010 and 2020 that were caused by recessions.
The smallest churches are the most likely to be struggling financially. This was true prior to the pandemic as well. These congregations only have so many people to share the impact of any negative financial factor.
Overall, the post-COVID trends for church income going into 2023 are stable. But pastors have returned to the economic pessimism they had in 2020 with more than half of pastors (52%) feeling the economy is having a negative impact on their church.
Post-COVID Church Trends
In terms of in-person attendance, most churches continue to make slow progress. Churches are not all experiencing the same pace of attendance recovery, but the typical church is still below their pre-pandemic levels. Currently, the average attendance is 85% of pre-COVID attendance. Churches that were closed the longest, including many megachurches and African American congregations, have also had a slower return of attendees.
Attendance matters to finances because churchgoers represent a church’s base of givers. Churches don’t exist to make money, but money is needed for many ministry activities. It is never financially healthy to see a reduction in the number of givers.
Many churches have seen growth in generosity among those who do give. But this generosity coincided with many churchgoers receiving one-time stimulus checks and seasons of reduced consumption with fewer experiences, less travel, and less eating out. It would be short-sighted to expect this generosity to continue if there was not also transformation in people’s spiritual perspective and biblical prioritization towards money.
At the end of 2022, we finally see a noticeable minority of churches actually showing growth above their January 2020 attendance (17%). But the typical church has shifted their expectations, assuming not all of those people will return. As churches work with who they have today, they can encourage faithfulness in giving and inviting new people to follow Christ.
We cannot talk about post-pandemic financial trends without looking at inflation. The costs of goods and services have jumped at an incredibly rapid rate as the economy reopened from the initial COVID closures. At the least, this has impacted utility bills and resources purchased by churches. It also should have an impact on the amount churches are paying their pastor and staff. The real cost of living has gone up for everyone, and churches that could not afford to give their ministers a raise have essentially given them a substantial pay cut since early 2020. That is not sustainable, not ethical, and not biblical (1 Timothy 5:17 indicates ministers are worthy of double honor not a fraction of a portion).