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U.S. faith communities have experienced both growth and decline during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report published on Sept. 15 by the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving.

While a majority (52%) of the 555 faith communities surveyed reported increased engagement during the pandemic, a plurality (41%) of communities experienced a decrease in giving.

Compared to March through June 2019, there was an overall decline of 4.4% for this period in 2020, though month-to-month giving during the pandemic looks a bit like a rollercoaster.

In February, giving was 2.1% above 2019 levels, dropping sharply to 9.5% below in March. In April, levels were 0.2% below 2019, before rising in May to 4.5% above last year, but then dropping again in June to 6% below 2019 levels.

Only 14% of the congregations said they had reduced or furloughed staff, with 65% saying they had received Payroll Protection Program loans.

To address financial concerns, 38% reduced non-personnel administrative expenses, 22% created a fund to support members’ financial needs, 16% delayed building campaigns or repairs, 12% reduced giving to a religious association, 10% used funds from a reserve account or endowment fund and 8% reduced mission giving, benevolence funds or both.

The vast majority (86%) said they were conducting virtual gatherings, a novel practice for the 54% of faith communities who had never used online platforms for streaming or posting recorded worship gatherings.

Previous institute research found that 78% of individual contributions took place at in-person gatherings, which would account for some of the decline in giving – along with more obvious factors such as job loss or income reduction faced by members.

“Among factors that congregations do control, such as the mechanisms through which individuals could give, we found that congregations with already established online giving options and higher percentages of online givers fared better,” the report said.

Despite the current trends, congregations were somewhat optimistic about the future.

A majority (52%) said they expected the budget to remain about the same in the coming year. By comparison, around 32% projected a 5% to 10% budget reduction, around 9% a 10% to 25% drop, and around 4% a reduction of 25% or more.

While only 19% of houses of faith plan to reduce or furlough staff to offset budget shortfalls or reductions, more than a third (37%) hope to use new fundraising appeals or campaigns to shore up finances.

By comparison, 36% will reduce non-personnel administrative expenses and 35% will draw from reserve or endowment funds if current giving trends continue.

The Lake Institute is part of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.

For this report, 555 houses of faith were surveyed, but the institute notes that while this group “represents significant diversity across the variety of religious traditions in the U.S., it is not a randomized or representative sample.”

Instead, it is intended as “a snapshot of what congregations have experienced and what they are expecting as a result of the multiple pandemics in our country since March 2020.”

The full report is available here.

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