Over the past 18 months, it’s been common to hear refrains of “it’s good to be back” and “I’m glad we’re getting back to normal” in churches around the country. With pandemic-era restrictions easing and more churches returning to in-person worship as the risk of COVID-19 infection decreases, most churches are resuming pre-2020 gathering patterns.
This “new normal,” as a recent report in the Hartford Institute’s Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations series states, does not necessarily mean churches are better off financially than they were in 2019. The report, which collected data from 58 denominational groups, indicates post-pandemic giving has increased 42% from three years ago to $170,000 per congregation in the spring of 2023. But as part of a longer trend, this short-term increase represents a bounce back from the pandemic, not an increase over a longer period.
In its landmark 2009 study, the Barna Group reported the average mainline protestant church’s budget was $165,000 with an average attendance of 75 people. In the 13 years that followed, mainline Protestantism has seen a steady decline of attendance and giving. That inflation-adjusted 2009 budget figure is now $230,600, representing a $60,600 shortfall in real dollars for congregations in 2023.
“The pandemic recovery has been very mixed,” says Greg Goodwiller, executive presbyter and stated clerk of the Presbytery of Saint Andrew in North Mississippi, and since 2019, the executive of the Synod of Living Waters, which includes presbyteries in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee.
“We have some churches that are doing fine, but most of our churches are not doing as well post-COVID as they were before, and they’re trying to keep up with their commitments,” he says. “But this year, they’re finally having their ‘come to Jesus’ moments and determining what their post-COVID church looks like and what they can afford and what they can’t.”
Though exceeding the above national trends, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations have followed a similar financial trajectory, reporting average expenses of $265,483 in 2009 – the last year the PC(USA) reported more than two million members in the denomination – and $256,249 in 2022.
According to PC(USA) comparative summaries of congregations, in 2022, the 8,649 reporting PC(USA) congregations detailed an average combined income of $310,256 with a median weekly worship attendance of 62 people, slightly higher than the national average of 55. In the same 13-year period, average giving per member rose from $1,108.25 to $1,374.04 while the denomination lost 2,000 congregations and membership declined by nearly one million people.
The PC(USA)’s inflation-adjusted numbers paint a picture similar to the rest of American Christianity. Costs have risen across the board and the inflation-adjusted 2009 average congregational expenses are now valued at $364,876, a shortfall of $54,620 per congregation in today’s dollars versus the $60,600 national average shortfall.
Adding to these financial pressures, costs for housing in the U.S. have increased nearly 40%, while wages have grown only 22% over the last decade. Property and liability insurance costs have risen at a nationwide average of 50%, placing an extra burden on congregations and pastors.
Pension and benefits costs
A budgetary concern for many PC(USA) congregations and presbyteries is the cost of maintaining an installed pastor with attending benefits. Since 2013, health care costs charged by The Board of Pensions have risen from 21% to 29% of effective salary, echoing the national average 38% increase for family premiums. The full benefits package, including pension and disability, is 39% of the effective salary for 2023 and 2024.
The current benefits plan went into effect in 1987, and the bundled benefits package that PC(USA) congregations must offer to all installed pastors, including pension and medical coverage, is now known as “Pastor’s Participation.” (Note: Different plans are available for employees, seminarians and non-installed ministers, and will be discussed in a future article.)
When it was established, the percentage-based model health plan was rooted in cost-sharing in which larger congregations subsidized smaller congregations, healthy participants subsidized the sick, and younger participants subsidized the older. It also made assumptions about family composition.
“In this traditional model from a generation or two ago, pastors were generally men,” says Goodwiller. “It was assumed they had wives and children, and the wives were stay-at-home moms. So when you supported a pastor, you were supporting the whole family … but it’s certainly not the norm anymore.”
Andrew Browne, executive vice president at The Board of Pensions, says the board understands that these assumptions and the landscape of benefits have changed drastically since 1987 and is working in its 2025 offerings to provide more flexibility and cost transparency.
“This type of subsidy masking made it difficult for anybody to identify where the value was in the system,” he says, noting that only 48% of Pastor’s Participation participants enrolled a full family – including themselves, a spouse, and one or more children – in 2023, meaning the majority did not.
From an equity perspective, The Board of Pensions also recognizes that the majority (63%) of newly ordained ministers who do not participate in the plan have been women, based on data going back to 2007. Additionally, only 30% of small congregations (under 150 members) have installed pastoral leadership and only 20% of African-American congregations have installed leadership.
To alleviate this disparity, the proposed 2025 Board of Pensions healthcare offerings are likely to include a tiered benefit structure for installed pastoral participants, as is required by the Book of Order, and more flexibility in providing coverage for families, especially when a partner or spouse has insurance through another employer.
“[Pastors] are becoming more financially literate,” Browne says. “We have started this process from a place of saying there are a whole bunch of people who’ve been excluded. We’ve got to design a system that lets employers include more of those people.”
“We have started this process from a place of saying there are a whole bunch of people who’ve been excluded. We’ve got to design a system that lets employers include more of those people.”
Doing more with less
In St. Andrews Presbytery, Goodwiller says the process of discernment with The Board of Pensions is working and helping to alleviate some of the financial worries of congregations even as other congregations he oversees have chosen to hire stated supply pastors or fill their pulpits with non-installed ministers to avoid Board of Pensions obligations.
“The Board of Pensions is doing very well through this,” he says, voicing his appreciation that “They’ve taken the input of presbytery leaders seriously.”
“They know they have to make the change, but they’re not making it last week, they’re making it in 2025.”
Still, a change in benefits structure won’t alleviate the financial stress for struggling congregations. In his 23 years as a presbytery executive, Goodwiller has experienced “a shrinking budget every year, less giving every year, sometimes in bigger amounts, sometimes in very incremental amounts, and figuring out how to try to do more with less.”
He says some churches have indicated they need to cut their giving to the presbytery in 2024. “And they’re sorry for it. It’s not because they have any ill will toward us, they’re just out of resources.”