Counting on Uncertainty

For many congregations, the counting season has begun.  Boards and committees are trying to determine the dollar amount of incoming pledges, gifts, and commitments for 2022.  This has never been an exact or scientific process, and the past two pandemic years have stirred in huge heaps of uncertainty.  We cannot easily look to the year now ending—or the year before this one—for wisdom about what will happen this counting season or coming year.

Amid such uncertainty, board members will grab hold of whatever relevant-adjacent data or news they have recently heard and try to use it as a lens through which to interpret their particular congregation’s results.  This can be helpful. It can also be supremely unhelpful, if the information introduced is not sufficiently wide-angled or deep enough to illuminate your own situation.

How do you as a board decide what data or larger cultural lens you will use to look at what is happening and estimate your budget for the coming year?

In hopes of being helpful, we want to point to a few data sources that might have some bearing on your count this season.  The last thing we want to do is to display here what we are hoping you avoid!  However, it might ground and support your board discussions on finances to see what is happening in the larger context of overall giving trends.  In your discussions, you can work together to see how – or if – your situation is informed by these trends.

You might start with the 2021 report of Giving USA, an annual survey of charitable giving in America.  Here are some of the findings that struck us:

 In 2020…

Charitable giving of all kinds  + 5.1%

(Including giving by corporations and foundations)


Charitable giving by foundations +17.0%


Charitable giving by individuals  +2.2%


Giving to religious institutions   +1.0%

(-0.2% adjusted for inflation)

To translate: charitable giving as a whole increased in 2020. But a significant portion of that increase was in giving by foundations, not by individuals—a key distinction to remember, since individual giving makes up most of our church budgets. In addition, giving to religious institutions increased by a negligible amount—and was essentially flat, when adjusting for inflation.

To put this point in a way that makes vivid sense as Thanksgiving approaches, the charitable giving “pie” keeps getting bigger … but a smaller slice is going to the religion offering plate.

Obviously, 2020 was a pandemic year, and so the data we derive from that may seem unusual. To look at pre-pandemic giving patterns, we recommend The Giving Environment: Understanding Trends in Charitable Giving (2021) from the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.  On page 7 the authors summarize their key findings:

  1. The share of American households that donate to charity has been steadily declining since the Great Recession. This trend can be seen across multiple datasets.
  2. The percentage of American households that donate to charity fell to 49.6 percent in
    2018 for the first time since the Philanthropy Panel Study begin tracking charitable giving.
  3. The decline in the percentage of households that donate to religious causes (46 percent in 2000 to 29 percent in 2018) has outpaced the decline in the percentage of households that donate to secular causes (55 percent in 2000 to 42 percent in 2018).
  4. The decline in the average amount donated to religious causes by American households ($1,107 in 2000 to $771 in 2018) has outpaced the decline in average amount donated to secular causes ($684 in 2000 to $509 in 2018). This is likely driven by the increase in households who do not donate.
  5. The decline in the share of households that donate to religious causes started before the Great Recession (2004). In contrast, the decline in the share of households that donate overall and the share of households that donate to secular causes began declining after the Great Recession (2010).
  6. Giving rates declined for all racial groups (Black, white, Hispanic, other), but giving amounts only declined for Blacks, whites, and Hispanics.
  7. Just over one third of the decline in giving participation can be attributed to changes in income and wealth.
  8. Trust and giving rates both decreased among both younger and older Americans; in addition, both trust and giving participation rates decreased more among younger Americans than older Americans.

These data points may not entirely fit your ministry setting.  But they may be helpful, as a board, when you all are confronted with one thread of information that seems to cast an outsized shadow – pro or con – on your congregation’s agenda and needs.  It is crucial that we all pay attention to the shifting ground of faith and giving.  How those general trends fit into your reality is part of your board’s discernment.

With all this data, one other important thought.

Data – even good data – will only take a congregation or church board so far.  In a culture of constant change, where a church board finds its grounding, its perspective, its wellspring of imagination, will come much more from intentional time spent together wondering what God is up to and where God is active—even during Stewardship season.

In Matthew 6, a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount moves from instruction on how to give (and how not to be showy in giving), to how to pray, how to fast, and where to store your true treasure. Jesus finally turns to how all the instructions are landing on the gathered crowd, which may well be how your board may be feeling right now in the season of counting.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 

31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed God knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 

34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

These verses offer comfort in many seasons of life—but are often sidelined as “out of step” in counting season.  They should be front and center.  It is essential both to know the data about our larger context and adapt to new challenges AND to entrust it all to God and let God lead next steps for all of us.

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