Episode 44: “What’s Happening with Money and Congregations?” featuring David King

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 44: "What’s Happening with Money and Congregations?" featuring David King

What are the latest trends in how churches receive, manage, and use funds? And what do they mean for your congregation? In this episode we speak with David King, director of the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving, about new research on the economic practices of churches.

Listen on Apple PodcastsListen on StitcherListen on Google Play MusicListen to more Leading Ideas Talks episodes


Announcer: Leading Ideas Talks is brought to you by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Subscribe free to our weekly newsletter at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

Leading Ideas Talks is also brought to you by Protect, Sustain, Grow: Best Practices for Handling Your Church’s Money. Whether it’s your first time dealing with church finances or you’ve been handling them for years, this video tool kit will help you provide financial integrity and sustainability for your church, as well as expand your church’s income. Learn more and watch an introductory video at at churchleadership.com/shop.

What are the latest trends in how churches receive, manage, and use funds? And what do they mean for your congregation? In this episode we speak with David King, director of the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving, about new research on the economic practices of churches.

Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel. I’m the Associate Director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership. I’m the editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter and I’m pleased to be the host of this episode of Leading Ideas Talks podcast. I’m talking today with David King who directs the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving and he’s also an Assistant Professor of Philanthropic Studies at IUPUI in Indianapolis, Indiana. And David has served as the lead researcher on a just-released national study on the economic practices of congregations. The study looks broadly across different religious traditions in the U.S. at how congregations receive, manage, and use funds. This study really breaks a lot of new ground. It’s jam-packed full of helpful insights, I think, for issues related to stewardship and finances in congregations. So, I’m so grateful, David, that you’re taking some time to talk with us today.

David King: Thanks Ann, it’s great to be with you.

Ann Michel: Yeah, so your study is the largest, most comprehensive, most representative study of money in congregations that’s been undertaken in over a generation. So, I wanted to begin by asking you, “what surprised you?” But I realized that was such a big question that it might take all our time. So, I think I might ask instead, was there one particular thing that you found that was most surprising to you in this work?

David King: Yeah, that is a dangerous question, Ann. But I really appreciate it. I’d say one thing that struck me was the fact that congregations maybe are doing a bit better than we often times might think from just watching the news or talking about the rise of the “nones” and the growing disaffiliation. But one thing that struck me was that, often times, we are aligning participation and attendance along with giving practices. That’s how we’ve often been taught think about vitality and congregations. And the two are not always going along the same. So, we saw growth. More congregations were growing in regular participation than were declining. It was about equal. But actually, a larger number of congregations were growing as far as the amount that they received in the last year than in participation. So, finances don’t always track with how many people you have engaged in your congregation. So maybe we need to dig in further to see, in our congregations that may not be growing in participation at the same level, what does that mean about how we can begin to think about the variety of ways that resources come into our congregation and then are sent back out into the work that congregations are called to do?

Ann Michel: Yeah, I was very struck by your finding that, in almost half of the congregations studied, that their finances were actually increasing, or the amount of money that they were receiving had actually increased in the last three years. And I think that goes so counter to this narrative of decline that dominates our thinking about churches. So I found that very helpful. Especially if you maybe took the Catholic denomination out of the mix, it was even more marked that a lot of churches really were seeing improvement in the amount of money they were receiving.

David King: Right. But to your point, Catholics are experiencing the largest decline, both in participation and finances. And there are many reasons that you might imagine for why that’s true. But mainline protestants, they’re an interesting example where actually about half of mainline protestants are experiencing decline in participation, but they’re seeing a decline in revenue of much lower percentage. So some of those disconnects are worth exploring further.

Ann Michel: Yeah, I did find that striking, your finding that the growth or decline in the number of people who are participating in a congregation does not necessarily correspond with changes in income. You can’t really hazard a guess as to why that is based on what you’ve learned so far, right? Or can you?

David King: Oh, I’m always willing to guess. But to be able to say specifically, we probably can’t do that. But I think one thing to notice is that the people who are already engaged, who are a part of that community, we know from years of research that those are the people who are more likely to give. So, if perhaps the people on the edges of your congregation, that maybe are less inclined to participate, as participation numbers may fall, but that, initially, is not going to impact the revenue maybe quite the same. Because they’re probably not the people who are most engaged as givers. So, that solid base probably still remains. So, we often times talk about, just as much as we’re thinking about bringing in new people, it’s actually continuing to nurture and develop those who are entrusted to our care in front of us there. The other thing I might mention is, there are a variety of revenue streams that congregations experience. So, and we can maybe talk about this further, the vast majority comes in from regular, individual donations, often times through the plate or basket that’s passed on Sunday morning. But a variety of other revenue streams from rent, and sales, and endowment, there are all types of ways which money comes into a congregation.

Ann Michel: Mmhmm. And did you sense that that has changed a lot? Or is that shift in economic model accelerating, do you think? Or is that just sort of the way it’s been?

David King: I think that’s the way it’s been. One thing that we did tease out was, looking at different individual donations, first is the wide variety of special fundraisers. So, most congregations have — whether it’s bingo, or car washes, or all kinds of chili cook offs — a variety of ways that money comes into a congregation that we probably don’t think about regularly. So, we encouraged congregations to think about all the ways that you ask people to give that may not be the typical way that you record it. So how many times are you making asks, not just on Sunday morning, on an annual stewardship pledge campaign, or even a capital campaign. But think about all the ways you’re asking people to give to support the youth group, to go on mission, to give to then send that money to the denomination. Or that you have someone coming through that’s just helping to restock the food pantry, or to open up the congregation for housing for those who are without homes at that point. There are a variety of ways that money comes in and resources come in and out that we probably don’t track in the same way. We were able to kind of get at that number. But we found there are a lot of resources that probably come in in a variety of ways that are probably under-explored. And we don’t even think about how often we’re asking people.

Ann Michel: Right. I think that’s such a good point. You know, in work that I’ve done related to, really, the theology of stewardship, I think there are people who really poo-poo fundraising, thinking it’s somehow not as pure as just people giving. And, I mean, I guess you could make that point. But I think that good fundraising often is good stewardship because it helps people begin to experience the joy of giving and supporting the church’s work and maybe be involved and build an esprit de corps. And I’ve always been one to think that fundraising is a really important part of a church’s overall stewardship effort as long as you don’t rely on it too much to the exclusion of cultivating other kinds of giving.

David King: Oh, we totally agree. We’re on the same page here. And that’s why, actually at Lake Institute, we offer an executive certificate in religious fundraising which, really, is working with congregational leaders, most often, to think about their work not simply as a stewardship and generosity, but to think about the fundraising practices that inform their work as leaders of that congregation. So, in essence, maybe we want to redeem the word a bit. We definitely don’t want to poo-poo the word, sort of denigrate it. But in many ways, I think it is a both-and. And I think, particularly congregations can learn a lot from other non-profits about the integrity of asking and actually helping to develop donors, or those people, our congregants. Because, often times, the weak point of our congregational stewardship life is that we’re not as clear with those asks and we don’t demonstrate the impact and outcome –the change that’s happening with those resources we invest in a congregation. We have so many stories to tell but if we don’t tell them, that other people might want to give to organizations that are much more clear with their asks and their impacts.

Ann Michel: Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned that. Because I think one of the threads that I saw below the surface of a lot of the findings is that there’s kind of a “take-for-granted-ness” in the way that churches approach giving — whether it’s the fact that a lot of congregations aren’t doing a very deliberate job of teaching regularly about faith and giving, or it’s very routinized and done in kind of a rote way. Or the fact that congregations aren’t very good at acknowledging and thanking donors. I mean, if there was an area for improvement that I think your findings point to, that, I think, would be the one that struck me quite a bit.

David King: Yeah, I think you said it best. I think that taken-for-grantedness is the weak point, I think, for a lot of congregational stewardship. There’s so many assets that we have, as congregational leaders. Our tradition that continually instill the religious motivations for why someone would give. The engagement in our congregation where people want to take part in giving. But often times, there’s that take-it-for-grantedness. And part of that, I think, is a shyness to talk about these issues, there’s a sense of expectation or obligation that religious leaders have that people should feel obligated to do their fair share. People don’t actually share that same sense of obligation or expectation anymore. And then, finally, I think there’s a religious literacy question. So, many people in our pews today, not only do they have less understanding or background, and maybe the stories, the biblical canon, the over-arching stories of the faith, but they also don’t know what those expectations might have been about what a tithe might be. So we can’t go back and forth debating about whether or not we’re going to tithe off the net or the gross, if people think a tithe is just dropping a couple dollars in the offering plate.

Ann Michel: Yep, yeah, no people really don’t understand the vocabulary, I think and some of the basic biblical grounding and so, congregations really have a job to do. I used to work in my church years ago as the stewardship director, and I knew what people were giving. And one of the things that surprised me most is that I would see families that were identical in terms of their age, in terms of their demographics, in terms of their level of involvement in the church. And one family would be giving extremely generously and another family not well at all. And I was like “What? Why is it so different?” And I, over a long time, came to believe that the biggest factor was what they had been taught. You know, if they had been brought up in a tradition where they understood the importance of giving, as opposed to someone who had never really had that modeled or taught for them, that that variable is so, so critical.

David King: Well, we know through other studies of individuals and families, that that is what people go to most often. When you ask them why they’re a giver, you usually get a story, or a practice. I saw this modeled in my home, and, often times, even of donors who are no longer engaged in religious communities, they point back to what they learned in their synagogue or in their church that pointed them to, sort of, to create the habit of giving. So, I think, again, that’s something congregations really need to work on because it’s really where people learn how to give. And I think it’s a challenge. And then educate, inform young people, and particularly our kids, and creating those practices for families, like you mentioned.

Ann Michel: Yeah, and I have come to understand that the church has even a bigger responsibility in that area because it’s not just a matter of teaching people the practices of generosity so that the church can balance its budget. If the church doesn’t fulfill it’s calling of teaching people generosity, that’s to the detriment, not just to the churches, to the detriment of the world. Because there’s no other institution that I know that is teaching people to think about giving sacrificially. And, in our culture that’s so consumerist and so individualistic, that’s just important work that the church has to do for the sake of the gospel in the world. Not just to balance its own budget.

David King: No, that’s exactly right. And I think if congregational leaders think of that as the end game, it’s part of, this is formational discipleship work, instilling practices of generosity that are core to Christian faith and I would say to really most religious traditions. I think if we just think about this as trying to balance our own budget, then we’re short sighted and probably not nearly as nearly effective in trying to form disciples in this larger generosity work.

Ann Michel: So I want to go back to an issue that you really headline your report with. You begin with the statistic that says that the percentage of charitable dollars in the U.S. that’s received by congregations is still the largest amount that any other organization receives. So congregations are the largest recipient of charitable dollars in the U.S., receiving about 29% of donations last year. So that’s the good news. But it’s kind of a good news, bad news situation in that that’s down from 50%, as recently as 1980, and it appears to be declining. So, I wondered if you could address that trend and maybe unpack it a little bit and what does that mean for our work?

David King: Well, I think there’s just a lot more options around for the charitable dollar. So, we know there are less households giving now than there used to be. The amount of households that give something, each year, to charity, has decreased from around 60-something percent, to around 50% today. So there are less people giving, less households. That means that philanthropy and charitable giving is sort of skewing to the One Percent — to that higher level of philanthropic giving — the Bill Gates, the Zuckerberg, the Bezos. These people are, not often, for the most part, giving to their local congregation. They’re giving to major health initiatives, art museums, universities. So, the larger grassroots of donors…

Ann Michel: So, you think some of this is the rise of big donors, as compared to smaller donors?

David King: I think part of it is that there’s a skewing of charitable giving. This is why I think the share of religious giving is going down. Because we’re skewing to big donors. But the other thing, for more of that mid-range grassroots donors, that are the typical donors to a congregation, there are many more options for their giving. And, a lot of other nonprofits, many of them faith-based non-profits, are outperforming congregations in just asking more clearly and demonstrating what’s happening with that gift. And so there’s less, maybe a sense of obligation that their charitable giving goes primarily first to the church. Congregations, for the most part, for many years, served as that kind of collective agency that maybe in a small town, or even a larger urban area, would take in those resources and then resource the community, almost like a United Way model. They’d make sure that people in need would have what they would need. And there are too many other non-profits now that actually do that service at the same time. And so, congregations, I think are in greater competition for that charitable dollar.

Ann Michel: So, it kind of goes back to that take-for-granted-ness thing. That congregations might have to be a little bit more intentional in order to stay in the mix.

David King: Yes. I’d say more intention about asking and being clear about what’s happening with those funds. Congregations often times take that for granted where other nonprofits don’t. And so, then people might start to vote with their pocketbooks in different directions than they used to.

Ann Michel: Right, so I think those are all helpful suggestions, really helpful suggestions. But I want to put a question to you this way, because most of our listeners are congregational leaders, or pastors and they’re operating within the realm of their own congregational practice. So, if the finance committee, or the stewardship committee in the church that you attend, knowing that you’ve just completed this major research project, if they asked you to come and advise them on what they might need to be doing differently, beyond the things that you’ve just mentioned around telling the story and thanking, are there other things that you would mention based on this research?

David King: It’s funny because my local congregation somehow drafted me to be on that stewardship committee. It’s part of the occupational hazard of the work. But yeah, I think that a couple things that I have, or will want to mention to them is that, first, I think it does have to come from the leaders. So, whether that’s the pastor, the priest, or even a team of congregational leaders, we have to talk about these finances. We can’t shirk this duty to somebody else. So, I would advise the congregational leader to preach, or teach about giving on a regular basis. And not, when maybe it’s most expected. So, about this time of year, many of our congregations may have an annual stewardship or pledge campaign, everybody expects you to talk about giving then. What if it comes up in the lectionary in the spring? What if it comes up on sermon series as you’re working through a particular book, or a particular theme? I would encourage you to bring it up and not simply about giving to the congregation, but, as you mentioned earlier, Ann, this is a conversation about stewardship and generosity and discipleship more broadly. So, as it impacts money and economic practices, how can we combat a lot of issues of materialism or consumerism? What I see is that many of our families are struggling with these big questions. How much is enough? How do I help teach my kids and teenagers that they’re not they’re not fulfilled by stuff? Or these kinds of questions about what car they might drive, what vocation or profession they might want to pursue. I think a more holistic understanding of money, economics, and giving, fit in together. So, preach and teach about it. Offer money management classes. That’s something we saw in our study is that, those congregations that are having those types of conversations, maybe not just about preaching and about giving, but more holistically thinking about how money fits into our lives of faith, and just our broader holistic lives as families and communities, is one great tool to peel back the curtain that, oftentimes, shields honest and open conversation on these topics.

 Ann Michel: So, one issue that caught my attention, and you’re probably not surprised to hear this, but I teach here at Wesley Seminary in the area of stewardship and I have also led a lot of workshops on the topic over the years. And, every single time I’m before a group talking about stewardship and giving in the church, the question comes up whether a pastor should know how much people give. And your study does shed some light on that subject, so I was wondering if you could share that with our listeners?

David King: Yeah, so we asked this kind of question because, just like you, it becomes a question that almost gets the biggest, I think we get it asked every single time. We asked that specific question, does the leader, the head pastor, have access to that, to contribution records? Know who gives? And then, do they look? So about 55% of congregations said that the pastor had access. And of that, just over half of those people, 58%, actually looked. So, basically, in about a quarter of all congregations in our study, the head pastor not only had access but attended to or looked at who was giving. And what we found out is when we compare that to the baseline average of who was growing in finances and in revenue and attendance, that those who were attending to who was giving, a much greater percentage of them were growing than the baseline average. So, it does seem — again, there are all kinds of other factors as far as size and health of congregation — but I think it points to probably two things. One being less of a taboo subject around money. So, if there’s a healthy understanding of the money and stewardship in the congregation, it’s not so much a worry that the pastor may know who some of the givers are. So that, I think, points to the health of the congregation. And then attention to those topics. So that leader, probably, if he or she is looking at those records, occasionally, it may point to a leader who’s thinking that this is a part of their leadership responsibilities. We often times talk about it as a pastoral care issue. There’s so many things that clergy take in, whether it’s marital counseling, or addiction, or family issues — all of these issues that are of so much more importance than who gives what or how much. Because if we can’t be responsible stewards of information around who gives what and not treat people differently based on if they’re your biggest donor or your smaller donor, then I think that’s more of a leadership question overall, than the issue about financial records.

Ann Michel: Yeah, and I think what I’m seeing in what you’re saying is that it’s not just the culture of the congregation, I think it’s, in part, the culture of the clergy because, in half of the situations where a pastor has the authority to have access to giving records but chooses not to, I think there’s something in how the clergy understand their role, that that’s part of the cultural factors relating to this as well.

David King: Yeah. We actually asked them that. Of the group who have access but didn’t look, we asked “why?” And those that responded back to us, it was that kind of question around anxiety, or lack of comfort with those issues. Or, they’re worried that they would treat someone differently or the perception that they might treat someone differently based on if they were giving or not.

Ann Michel: Yeah, one of the things that some pastors have told me is that, if they weren’t allowed to know, or chose not to know who was giving what, they would still make assumptions. And so, you’re going to make assumptions and it’s better that those be informed rather than uninformed. Because if you guess, then you’re likely to be wrong. And it’s worse, sort of having a wrong assumption in your head than the actual truth of the matter. That made a big impression on me when somebody told me that.

David King: And that’s a great point. And knowledge is power and this is really one of the big takeaways from our study in general is that we’re, hopefully, equipping leaders with more knowledge about what’s happening with the broad sense of these congregations than we had before. And, on another level, I think it helps maybe give people a bit more comfort as leaders in these situations so they can be thinking about “you know, we’re not that different from a number of congregations.” What’s happening with us is not so uncommon from what’s happening with most American congregations. And I think that gets us some comfort that we’re not alone, that these topics are difficult. They’re hard, but they’re manageable if we attend to them in thinking about the overall health in leading our congregations.

Ann Michel: To wrap this up, David, I thought that I might ask you to do a bit of prognosticating. And I know that, as a researcher, you’re probably much more comfortable in the realm of documenting what is known rather than thinking about what isn’t happened yet in the future. But I can’t help wonder, as I read this, based on what you learned, where you think things might be in 10 years, or 25 years, or 50 years? Are you willing to hazard a guess knowing that it’s just a guess?

David King: Sure, why not. The researcher in me says no, but the pastor in me never shies away from thinking that sort of thing through. I’d say there will be some continual decline in participation and revenue. I think different traditions, different ages of congregations, a lot of the demographic breakdown, though, we’ll see some disparity between — I hate to say it in these words — but some winners and losers. But, what I think I can say is that’s not going to simply focus on a particular religious tradition. So, it’s not going to say, “All Catholics and Mainliners will decline while all Black Protestants or Evangelicals will grow.” So, I think there’ll be a lot of diversity in who’s growing and who’s shrinking. One thing I think we saw here that will continue to be true is that, while maybe new churches or large churches were growing at higher percentages than small churches, I think we’ll see space for all sizes and all kinds of churches. While it may be more and more difficult for smaller congregations to survive at the same level, we’ll see a good space for small, medium, large congregations. I think that institutional and economic models will change quite a lot. So, I think we can see different revenue streams — more and more congregations that are thinking about not simply individual donations, but their own social enterprises. They’re thinking through how to reemploy their endowments and their savings in different ways. And, I think, that will push congregations to be much more externally or missionally focused outside their walls. And whatever that looks like — evangelism, social justice, advocacy work — whatever it looks like for a particular congregation, I think, addressing their local community, and more broadly, externally focused, that will drive revenue, giving, and participation in congregations as well. So, I think there’s a place for all types of congregations. I think we’ll see some that will close their doors. I think we’ll see personnel and those types of categories, like facilities, that have taken up massive parts of our congregational budgets, shrink, as we look to different models of bi-vocational, or part-time ministry, more lay-lead, maybe more volunteer service, less focused on buildings and institutions. But, a vibrant place for faith communities over the next, as far ahead as I want to predict. Decades into the future.

Ann Michel: Well thank you for sharing that word of hope. Thank you for this incredible body of work that I think we all are going to be learning from and finding new insight in for years to come as well as the other good work that you are doing at the Lake Institute. Thanks for talking to us today, David.

David King: Well thanks. It was just an honor to be with you all and thanks for the partnership in this work on thinking about stewardship and leadership in congregations. It’s a great pleasure to work together. I’d like to encourage anyone who has any questions to reach out and download the report from our website, www.NSCEP.org, or visit us at Lake Institute. We’d just be glad to follow up and answer any questions you might have.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, we speak with Cheryl Sanders about Holiness and Pentecostal influences on American culture.

Announcer: Thank you for joining us and don’t forget to subscribe free to Leading Ideas at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

Download the National Study of Congregation’s Economic Practices.

Related Resources


About Author

David P. King, Ph.D., is Karen Lake Buttrey Director of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving and Assistant Professor, Philanthropic Studies at IUPUI in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is the author of God's Internationalists: World Vision and the Age of Evangelical Humanitarianism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), available on Amazon and University of Pennsylvania Press.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.