Lovett H. Weems, director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership sounds the alarm:
Most congregations know the financial squeeze of recent years from the economic recession. What is more striking is that the financial downturn for denominations is even more pronounced and perhaps more long lasting. Recent developments in the United Methodist Church may serve as a bellwether for others. As Loren Mead recently noted, it was the Methodists in 1966 that for the first time ever had a decrease in membership that signaled a downturn soon matched by all the mainline denominations.
Fewer people giving more money. As membership decreased over the decades, giving continued to increase even after factoring in inflation. Every year, fewer people gave more money. That model worked for a long time. For United Methodists it lasted until 2009. In fact, for a 30-year period through 2007, total giving for all purposes by United Methodists increased from 100 to 300 million dollars a year (before inflation) every year. In 2008, the increase was a modest $4.8 million. Then, for the first time in the memory of most, total giving declined in 2009 by about $60 million. Does this begin to sound like another bellwether moment?
The coming death tsunami. But won’t denominations return to the previous performance when the economy improves? Not likely. The practice of depending on fewer people to provide more money is unsustainable in the face of the coming “death tsunami.” The U.S. death rate is currently in a stable period that began in 2003 and continues until 2018. But what follows this plateau is a death wave in which there will be more deaths and a higher death rate than at any time since the widespread introduction of antibiotics and other medical advances. The total number of deaths each year will go up until 2050, and the majority of these deaths will be older non-Hispanic whites and African Americans, the two largest constituencies of mainline churches.
Resetting the financial baseline. Therefore, a major financial reset is needed by most denominations to position them for these seismic changes ahead. As with any organization facing the future after 45 years of unabated decline in its constituency, there must be a stepping back to a new and lower baseline in order to move forward. Otherwise, all energy must go to maintaining the old unrealistic financial baseline.
How should churches prepare for significant and long-lasting declines in financial support?