Today we welcome a guest post from James Hudnut-Beumler, author of In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism, as well as Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table: Contemporary Christianities in the American South.
In this post, Hudnut-Beumler considers the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on church finances in the 2020 stewardship season and in years to come.
Will the Pandemic Lead to Catastrophe for Churches?
What will the pandemic do to the churches? I am reading a fair amount of speculation on this question lately. There is a good reason for that — October and November are traditionally the time when churches try to secure financial pledges to support their operations for the coming year. Like many matters ecclesiastical, the season even has its own name — stewardship season. With the pandemic continuing and getting worse, pastors and lay leaders are wondering, “Will church finances get worse as well?” I get asked that question a fair amount these days. In my book, In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar, I explored 250 years of American Protestants raising and spending money for their churches. Looking to that history, I think we will see at least three things unfold in the coming months.
Religious leaders have often marveled that giving was holding up in 2020 even while houses of worship were closed and trying to stream stripped-down services and group gatherings. This did not surprise me, for the pattern in the 19th and 20th centuries, with their many economic panics, recessions, and depressions, was that people tended overwhelmingly to honor their pledges during the first year of an economic reversal. Yet they were also less likely to increase their giving in the five years after the start of a crisis. Even with the same memberships, the churches fell behind their former budgets in real dollar value, even years after the crisis was over. In my view, people who still felt insecure were less likely to make a voluntary commitment to the same or an increased pledge of support. The clear result was that clergy income always took a lasting hit. I predict the same depression of support happens after the current pandemic.
The next thing we can foresee may make the post-pandemic religious scene worse. The tendency in religious life in recent decades has been toward a greater percentage of people attending large or mega-churches. These operations represent costly physical plants and programs relative to the way “church was done” a half-century ago. Decreased giving may reduce the numbers of staff or lead to actual bankruptcy on the part of big churches living on the edge of having just built a new campus addition premised on continuous growth. That is exactly what happened following the 1929 stock market crash. Among the nation’s many smaller churches already on the verge of financial viability, like after every recession, some will close.
The third thing I hear worries about among pastors is whether people will have un-learned the church habit and never return in an increasingly secular America. America’s voluntary approach to religion cuts both ways. You can have as much religion as someone is willing to pay for, but when the people and their giving decline, so does organized religion. While we have seen something like that with former mainline churches having problems passing on the faith to subsequent generations, I predict that church attendance will not suffer the catastrophe that some are predicting — at least not in the short term. Going to one’s house of worship and seeing one’s close friends and faith has an appeal that, at points, has even made the pandemic worse. Churches are more resilient entities than some religious leaders fear. But the economic shock that will last well beyond the pandemic will not make faith groups less relevant in the years ahead. Instead, these charitable and spiritual bodies can likely expect to be asked to do more with less.
James Hudnut-Beumler, a professor at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, is the author of In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism (UNC Press, 2007) and Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table: Contemporary Christianities in the American South (UNC Press, 2018).