On the heels of a global pandemic and amid its own multi-faceted schism, the Southern Baptist Convention is experiencing something few could have predicted: Financial gifts to the SBC for the 2021-2022 fiscal year are up — way up.
The SBC Executive Committee reported April 4 that halfway through the current fiscal year, undesignated giving to the SBC Cooperative Program is running nearly $11 million (11.57%) ahead of budget.
In Southern Baptist life, congregants give to churches, which in turn send a portion of those offerings to 41 state or regional Baptist conventions, which then retain a portion for their own state work while sending a percentage — sometimes as much as 50% — on to the SBC.
At the six-month mark, that has produced $105.9 million in gifts to the national Cooperative Program, exceeding a mid-year budget of $95 million.
The mid-year giving report also represents a huge increase over budget giving in the same period last fiscal year, up 10.27%.
Not only that, designated giving to special causes in the SBC also is up 9.28% at mid-year. That includes record giving to the mother of all Baptist offerings, the Lottie Moon Offering for international missions.
This surprising pattern in some ways mirrors another financial surprise of the pandemic era: The majority of U.S. churches has fared better than anticipated through the pandemic. When in-person worship closed down across the nation in March 2020, the predictions were dire for what would happen to church finances.
Some churches did take significant hits in income, but most did not. Some congregations were sustained in the first year by Paycheck Protection Program loans from the federal government, but those same congregations managed to stay solvent the next year as well — without a second round of the fully forgivable loans.
Still, the SBC — like every other Protestant denomination in America — has been hemorrhaging members and closing churches. Nevertheless, the SBC remains the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination and is therefore a bellwether of sorts.
BNG asked Willie McLaurin, interim president of the SBC Executive Committee, to explain what’s behind the increases in giving.
Being a good pastor at heart, McLaurin first commended SBC congregants and churches for their generosity at the local level. “Southern Baptist are known for their generosity,” he said.
He then cited two main factors behind the growth in giving: “Southern Baptist churches are serious about reaching their neighborhoods and the nations with the gospel and have prioritized this through their giving. Second, recent research shows that charitable giving (nationwide) is up by 5%. This over-and-above generosity is directly because our mission and vision for reaching the whole world with the gospel is front and center.”
There is another factor, though, that may be at work but could be harder to calculate: Some of those 41 state and regional conventions have upped the percentage of undesignated receipts they forward on to national causes. That includes Nevada, which has moved to a 50/50 split that already has increased giving to the SBC by 8.84%. Same for Ohio, which has increased its pass-through to the SBC by 24.58% in actual dollars this year.
Other states, like Tennessee, have implemented a staged approach to giving that increases the flow through the national pipeline as certain benchmarks are met on the state level. As a result, Tennessee giving to the national Cooperative Program is up 44.59%.
Only 12 of the 41 state and regional conventions have given less to the SBC this year than they did the prior year. The others have increased giving by anywhere from 2% to 52%.
“State conventions have increased the portion of gifts they send beyond the borders of their state for Great Commission ministry support,” McLaurin explained. “The vast majority of our state conventions are experiencing an uptick in giving. Churches are rebounding from the pandemic, and we are experiencing a season of abundance.”
In some ways, the increased giving is a silver lining to the dark cloud of the pandemic.
And in some ways, the increased giving is a silver lining to the dark cloud of the pandemic, he added. “The pandemic created an opportunity for churches to utilize existing technology to engage their congregations. This virtual engagement also provided opportunities for increased financial support, which is seen reflected in the recent giving trends.”
Among the Methodists, a different story
At the other end of the spectrum, The United Methodist Church continues a downward pattern in giving to its global causes. The UMC reported a significant decline for 2021 giving, which is done through “apportionments” from congregations.
The UMC is in the middle of a protracted schism that is likely to create two if not three distinct bodies once the dust settles. That breakup has been delayed by COVID restrictions that have prevented travel for three years now.
UMNews reported that in 2021 the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration collected about 76.2% of 2021 apportionments. That collection rate is down from about 79% in 2020 and 85% in 2019. Unlike SBC churches that set their own giving, UMC churches are assigned apportionments based on membership numbers.
The UMC is the second-largest non-Catholic denomination in America, following the SBC.
While comparative data from other U.S denominations is not readily available, it is unlikely — based on previous patterns — that any other denomination is recording the growth in giving found in the SBC this year.
Thom Rainer, former head of the SBC’s Lifeway Christian Resources and now a researcher and author on larger church trends, began this year with a prediction that nationwide church giving will decline 5%.
“Many churches experienced increased giving or at least level giving in 2020 and 2021. We are grateful for the generosity and stewardship of many faithful believers. But we also know that a large amount of liquidity was injected into the market by the government,” he wrote. “Billions of dollars made it into the accounts of church members. We don’t anticipate future governmental support at that level. I just talked with one pastor whose church’s giving grew by 10% each of the past two years. He has decided not to budget an increase in 2022 for the very reason noted here.”
Rainer’s explanation points to two important factors on a micro-level.
First, not only were congregations sustained in 2020 by the PPP loans, so were the businesses owned by church members or that employ church members. Thus, the government’s PPP effort had a doubly positive effect on churches.
Second, despite the current bout of inflation, the U.S. economy has been robust. Inflation itself has produced salary increases for many workers, and those who are tithers to their churches would, in turn, increase their dollar giving. Not only that, many congregants had money saved from expenses not incurred during the pandemic and have benefitted from a strong stock market.
Rickey Letson, who leads a congregational giving effort for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, wrote about this in January for the CBF Blog.
“Perhaps the most unexpected element of church giving over the past two years has been just how well many congregations have fared despite the effects of COVID,” he wrote. “Without question, not every church has weathered these two years in solid financial shape. But many congregations have done exceedingly well and, in some cases, have had their best giving years in recent memory.
“Now, many people are trying to figure out what to make of all of this. A big takeaway is that both churches and churchgoers quickly learned to embrace new ways of giving and receiving gifts beyond the traditional method of placing a check in the offering plate.
“However, this massive pivot to alternate ways of giving appears to be just one unique element of the ever-changing landscape of church and generosity,” he continued. “Two other critical observations being made are equally compelling.”
Those two factors are an uptick in per capita giving and a decline in total number of contributors.
“Like other segments, churches are also seeing slightly higher rates of per capita giving albeit at a lower level of increase than the gains being reported in other charitable sectors,” he explained. “This is very good news, and there are several possible reasons that this may be happening. Overall, the economy is strong, the stock market is up, and, for many, there is greater capacity to give despite the current level of inflation. Further, there seems to be a deep resolve among the most committed to see their congregation or organization through this challenging season.”
But on the other hand, churches may be receiving gifts from a shrinking number of contributors, he added. “Most churches are struggling to get back to average attendance figures that are anywhere near what they were prior to the pandemic. Many churches have also lost members during this season. Some of these folks have gone to other places of worship and some have simply stopped going all together. Well before COVID, many churches had already been watching their average attendance shrink over time. In this regard, COVID may have only expedited what was already under way.”