Faith and giving in the time of COVID-19
Lake Institute on Faith and Giving surveys religious leaders on impact of the pandemic and emerging economic crisis
One adage stemming from the pandemic crisis notes, “We are not all in the same boat, but we are all in the same storm.” In the spring of 2020, Lake Institute on Faith and Giving surveyed its constituents to learn more about the challenges and hopes of a wide swath of religious congregations and organizations. 595 respondents – about half speaking from a congregational perspective, 10% from a denominational/network role, and the remaining respondents evenly divided between nonprofit organizational leaders and development professionals – generously completed the survey, offering a rich picture of their own experiences and hopes in very different parts of the storm.
Congregations and religious nonprofit organizations are weathering the storm in very different ways – and there are a number of immediate and mid-range challenges facing these institutions and their leaders. From the difficulty of engaging members and donors in physically distanced ways – to sensitivity to grief, health and family concerns, and job losses – to cancelled plans for critically important events, the respondents offered differing pictures of immediate challenges. Some organizations feared they were on the brink of immediate closure (with a few noting serious pre-existing problems), others were pondering whether and how to shift plans and offer new opportunities online.
In looking ahead six months, many of those immediate concerns resolved to a few key areas of challenge, with respondents recognizing the difficulty of making sustained changes in how they had been living out their organizations’ mission and vision. Nearly half of the respondents anticipated that issues of stewardship – fundraising and financial management – would be their most significant challenge, with concerns touching on budget-setting, decreases in giving, and how to ask for gifts in such a time. About 20% of responses focused on questions of organizational vision, mission, and purpose, while another 20% questioned whether or how they would be able to return to in-person worship, gatherings, and events or continue to engage their constituents (including new people who had joined online worship or organizational events) after such a sustained time of online/distanced gatherings. Just over 10% observed that layoffs or even closure of the organization would be important questions for them to address in this mid-range time horizon.
Some observers have suggested that the pandemic crisis may be an “accelerating” force among religious institutions – hastening both welcomed and unwelcome changes of all types. Survey respondents share some of that sense: some express enthusiasm about the crisis ultimately yielding clarity, innovation, and renewal, while others soberly hope for relevance, pruning, and survival. Many organizations had made changes even in the first few weeks of operating under new conditions – for instance, taking the leap into digital giving where they had not done so previously – and many see the need to do more adaptive work in areas like re-imagining the use of current resources and innovating in money and ministry in the coming months.
In the midst of so much change, however, the survey reveals over and over again that the bedrock principles of development work in religious institutions remain the same. The leaders who responded to the survey regularly describe their focus on relationships and their organizations’ clarity of purpose as key to navigating the crisis. As one respondent puts it, “…When supporters know we have a need and when we articulate [it] well, the support comes. In some ways, this is the easiest time to articulate the need and the meaning in giving.” While very little about this time is easy for any organization or leader to navigate, it remains critical for leaders to engage the deep challenges with deep questions and deep commitment to their particular contexts.
As Lake Institute continues to delve into the survey responses and follows up with additional research and conversations, we express our gratitude to all those who responded so thoughtfully, demonstrating their remarkable insight into their institutions and their strong hopes for how they hope to respond to present challenges.
About the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving
Based in Indianapolis, the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving is a small but weighty institute nestled within the Indiana University regional campus that offers authoritative education and counsel to churches. Everence® partners with the Lake Institute to teach churches about the latest research on congregational giving. This article is adapted from its original, published in June 9, 2020, issue of Lake Institute's Insights e-newsletter.