One in four Protestant pastors believe America’s economic picture is negatively impacting their congregation, a significant uptick from last year’s survey by Lifeway Research.
The survey of randomly selected pastors has been conducted annually since 2009 and involves 1,000 pastors. This year’s poll, released Tuesday, found dramatic changes in how the pastors view the economy’s impact on their congregations. The number of pastors who replied the impact is negative was 26 percent, up dramatically from the 14 percent who responded that way last year.
By contrast, more pastors (30 percent) said the economy is having a positive impact, but still a 15-point drop from 2018. Two in five pastors (41 percent) said the economy was not having an impact on their church, an increase from the 35 percent recorded in the last survey.
“Fundamentally, the U.S. economy is in a similar place that it was a year ago,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “Yet pastors are less optimistic about this outside influence on their church than they were in 2018.”
In looking at the trends, Lifeway noted that while the number of respondents who said the economy is having a positive impact dropped from 45 percent last year to 30 percent now, the response is still more than triple what pastors said in the first part of this decade. In the October 2010 survey, as America was emerging from the Great Recession, just 3 percent of pastors responded positively.
On the flip side, after falling in every survey since October 2010—when 80 percent of pastors said the economy was having a negative impact on their church—this year’s survey bucked the trend, recording its first jump.
Responses varied according to race and congregational size.
African American pastors, for instance, were the most likely to say the economy is having a negative effect on their congregation (49 percent), while white pastors were the most likely to see a positive impact for their church (33 percent).
Pastors of the smallest congregations, those with fewer than 50 in attendance, were most likely to say the economy is having a negative impact (37 percent) and the least likely to say it’s having a positive one (17 percent).
In addition to polling pastors on the economy's impact on their congregations, the survey also asked pastors about offering trends, especially in light of last year’s tax reform measure that lowered taxes for many Americans but also eliminated deductions for charitable giving.
“Last year was the first year in which many Americans had lower withholding levels because of tax reform,” McConnell said. “It’s not surprising that fewer churches are seeing year-over-year growth in 2019 without a similar stimulus to their congregants’ take-home pay.”
Still, the survey found that more than a third (37%) said this year’s offerings have been at the same level as 2018. The same percentage (37%) also said this year’s offerings are up from 2018. Nearly 1 in 5 (21 percent) said their offering totals dropped below last year’s levels.
When compared with 2018, only those responding that the offerings were the same as the previous year, 2017, remained static at 37 percent. Those saying offerings were up logged in at 42 percent, while only 15 percent said giving was below. The decreases were 5 percent and 6 percent, respectively.
The survey was conducted Aug. 30 to Sept. 24 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percent.
Photo courtesy: Daniel Tseng/Unsplash
Lori Arnold is a national award-winning journalist whose experience includes 16 years at a daily community newspaper in San Diego and 16 years as writer-editor for the Christian Examiner. She owns StoryLori Media and is a member of the Evangelical Press Association.