The decade-long financial decline of U.S. congregations accelerated during the 2008 recession and may pose long-term challenges to some churches, synagogues and mosques already weakened by flagging membership, according to the new Faith Communities Today (FACT) report.
FACT 2010 is a national survey of 11,077 randomly sampled congregations. It found that 68 percent of congregations took a financial hit due to the recession, with nearly 20 percent taking a "big hit."
These figures exacerbate an ongoing decline in U.S. congregations that saw the percentage of congregations in some serious financial difficulty double to 20 percent in the last ten years.
"The downward trend was in place before the recession hit," said David Roozen, author of the report and chairman of the multi-faith coalition that sponsors the FACT surveys. "But the recession has contributed to extending the decline."
The latest FACT report includes the responses from 26 studies conducted in 32 faith groups and Christian denominations. This is the fourth survey the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership has undertaken since 2000.
On the positive side, 10 percent of congregations reported they were recovering from the economic downturn as early as the spring of 2010. Among the strategies used by congregations to cope with the downturn, digging into savings and investments was the most common, followed by salary freezes or reductions in paid staff. Roozen estimates that these reductions equal about 500,000 lost jobs and salaries among clergy, lay professionals and support staff.
But the recession took its heaviest toll among members. Half of U.S. congregations were beset with requests for emergency assistance. One in four congregations were called upon to provide emergency housing.
"The longer term question is how many congregations got pushed into a really strong deficit situation that tends to create a cycle of decline," said Roozen. "Congregations can lose their capacity to deal with negative forces and that's the bigger worry."
A copy of the report and related materials are available at the FACT web site.
Yonat Shimron is a journalist who covers American religion.