Some churches thrive despite economic uncertainties, including a high unemployment rate, while others struggle to stay open on Sundays.
Their secret to success, Bruce Barkhauer argues, is their ability to connect money and mission. Barkhauer is the first minister for faith and giving for the Disciples of Christ in the United States and Canada.
Barkhauer, who has traveled around the country visiting churches of all sizes, said churches that survive are able to explain clearly why they need donations and where those donations are used in the church.
“Churches essentially have to compete for mission dollars,” he said. “They need to show how money becomes ministry.”
Church giving has not recovered from the economic downturn, according to a study released by the Atlas of Giving, a non-profit that tracks charitable giving.
“All other non-profit sectors have recovered except the church, who is 3 percent behind,” he said.
Over the past few years, giving to churches and religious organizations has become a shrinking proportion of total giving in America, according to a 2013 report released in January by the Atlas of Giving.
“What we’re seeing is that per-capita giving is up a little bit,” he said. “While overall numbers are down, the folks who are left in those churches are digging deeper and trying their best to keep things going.”
In Fort Worth, church success in receiving donations is varied, said Evan Lenow, assistant professor of ethics and associate director of the Richard Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.
Carroll Marr, senior pastor at Southcliff Baptist Church, 4100 SW Loop 820, said his church’s overall donations increased last year, but the church was still recovering from a drop in donations in 2010.
“Last year’s giving is up,” he said. “This year we are already back on track for getting back to that 2010 number.”
Marr said he has seen many members of his congregation without jobs, or struggling financially.
“There are some economic challenges that are real that our people are facing,” he said.
Lenow agreed that the economy affects churches everywhere, particularly, how much and when people decide to donate.
“There is an element of things being tied to the economy,” Lenow said. “Economy would include unemployment as well.”
What makes the difference, Lenow and Barkhauer agree, is the church’s ability to be honest with the congregation.
“Be transparent,” Lenow said. “If giving is down, tell them giving is down.”
Marr said he has given a sermon on stewardship every year for 15 years.
“I think there are some pastors that don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “But I do.”
He said he not only discusses charitable donations and their role in faith, but also how members of his congregation can work to manage their finances.
Southcliff Baptist hosts an event called “Financial Peace University Tuesday,” to help members of the congregation learn how to manage their money and get rid of debt.
“It probably has positioned some of our people so they can give,” Marr said.
Marr said stewardship is not only about asking for donations, but also teaching people how to manage their money.
“We kind of get the reputation from television evangelists that we’re always asking for money,” he said. “It’s not about trying to get money. Giving is an act of worship.”
Justin Atkins, executive pastor of McKinney Memorial Bible Church at 4805 Arborlawn Drive, wrote in an email that pastors at McKinney also try to emphasize the relationship between giving and worship.
“At McKinney, we’re less concerned with what a person gives than why,” Atkins wrote. “As a result, when we talk about giving we always do so in light of God’s vision for this church and their particular life.”
Charitable giving has been up in general at McKinney over the past few years, Atkins said.
“We did notice some downward trending related to economic events (especially around the time of the government shutdown)," Atkins wrote.
“However, this has been offset at McKinney as we also entered a capital/vision campaign which generated additional giving."
Arborlawn United Methodist, at 5001 Briarhaven Road, also conducts a capital campaign.
“Our giving actually went up this year,” the Rev. Bryan Bellamy, an associate minister at Arborlawn, said. “We just have an amazing congregation, and they just give in amazing ways.”
At Arborlawn, members are asked to donate in a “stewardship campaign” once a year. Churchgoers would pledge an amount to donate toward the general budget.
But not all donations that Arborlawn receives are from the annual pledge, Bellamy said. He estimates that 75 percent of the donations received are from the pledge, and 25 percent are not.
“People are certainly being more generous this year than in the past,” he said.