By Cynthia Woolever
Old money and older congregations. New money and newer congregations. What’s the difference? That’s what we wanted to learn. To do that we surveyed Presbyterian churches organized in 1990 or later and compared them to a random sample of 521 older Presbyterian churches and their 40,555 worshipers. Around 90 new congregations agreed to participate in the U.S. Congregational Life Survey in the fall of 2011 and they gave our survey to all 8,071 of their worshipers.
One thing we learned is that there are some huge differences. One was in the age of the congregation. That may not sound surprising – but the older congregations were more than 100 years older than their newer counterparts. The average older Presbyterian congregation was organized in 1890 (median year across all churches). The typical new PC(USA) congregation was founded in 1993. About 15% of the new Presbyterian churches surveyed began as a result of “church planting” and were established in the past five years. Almost 20% of the new congregations in the national sample moved to a new location sometime in the past five years.
More money in the plate. We were surprised to learn that the new PC(USA) churches have fuller offering plates than the older Presbyterian churches. As Table 1 shows, the new churches receive more contributions, have larger budgets and more staff than the typical older Presbyterian congregation. However, contributions per person are about the same.
A larger percentage of the overall income in the new Presbyterian churches (94%) comes from what individuals donate to the congregation than in the older churches (88%). New churches also use a larger slice of their budget for operating expenses (89%) than do the older congregations (86% goes to operating expenses).
Fewer dollars from an endowment. Perhaps not surprisingly, we learned that income from investments or bequests is relatively common among the older Presbyterian churches. About half of all of the older PC(USA) congregations receive endowment income. This is not the case for new congregations. Only one in ten of the newer PC(USA) churches (11%) has any endowment income.
Building a financial base. More new PC(USA) churches (22%) than older PC(USA) churches (15%) describe their congregation as having an increasing financial base. Three in ten new churches (28%) and four in ten older churches (38%) have a declining financial base (see Table 2).
Building a church’s ministry. So is it financially better to be older or newer? It depends. The typical older Presbyterian church has more than a one-hundred-year head start in securing a financial base to support the congregation’s ministry. The upside translates into having endowment funds to tap. The downside is often a declining financial base.
Building a solid and growing financial base in the midst of building new ministries is one of the big challenges for new churches. The upside for them is higher contributions and budgets. The downside is lack of endowments for future funding.
Regardless of whether your congregation is older or newer, our study shows that congregants in both new and old congregations support their churches financially. That may not be surprising news – but it certainly is reassuring.