How parishes can tackle the U.S. church’s money crisis

(iStock/Punkbarby)(iStock/Punkbarby)

Of its myriad problems in recent decades—including the serial sexual abuse of children by clergy and the institutional cover-up of these horrific acts—a growing cash crunch is the single biggest threat to the church’s future.

Historically, U.S. Catholics have dutifully contributed to the church, but with newer generations not as likely to attend Mass, there is no guarantee this giving will continue. Meanwhile, many dioceses and parishes employ the same threadbare fundraising playbook.

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The full measure of the U.S. church’s financial crisis is difficult to quantify. Parish revenue, the predominant source of income, is not aggregated on a national level and is only sometimes aggregated on a diocesan level. Moreover, many dioceses offer little, if any, public insight into their finances.

U.S. Catholics have dutifully contributed to the church, but with newer generations not as likely to attend Mass, there is no guarantee this giving will continue.

Nevertheless, a 2015 analysis published in the Journal of Public Economics estimated that parishioner contributions in specific ZIP codes—where more than 3,000 reports of sexual abuse were reported—declined at an average of $2.4 billion per year from 1980 to 2010. That is more than $70 billion before the gut-wrenching revelations detailed in the 2018 release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report. And the total cost of settlements from 1950 through 2015 totaled nearly $4 billion.

The church’s steady decline in revenue is exacerbated by a steady uptick in overhead. Its longstanding reliance on the low-cost staffing provided by sisters and priests is drying up. As more religious retire, and far fewer women and men commit their lives to vocations, the church is increasingly turning to laypeople. Many, ourselves included, welcome this development, but the staff salaries and benefits nevertheless constitute a large and growing expense.

In addition, nearly every U.S. diocese struggles to maintain outdated facilities for which there is decreasing demand or, in other parts of the country, needs to build new facilities to meet increasing demand. Unfunded pension liabilities, which are rising at an alarming rate, constitute another drag on the church’s balance sheet.

The simple truth is that the church is cash poor. In our interactions with parish and diocesan leaders across the country—including those in economically healthy communities—the single most common challenge we hear about is raising money, unmistakable evidence of an accelerating financial crisis.

Like any institution confronted with increasing operating costs, the church needs to re-examine its revenue model.

Like any institution confronted with increasing operating costs, the church needs to re-examine its revenue model. In his book Start with Why, Simon Sinek argues that successful organizations have a clear understanding of why they exist. Their business strategies flow from that clarity and determine what they do and do not do. Their why leads to how, which generates what. Financial success is more achievable as a result of this essential alignment.

For the Catholic Church, this means starting with our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ. But the road to the financial health of a parish also means seeing financial resources as a spiritual issue, and encouraging parishioners to contribute, as Christian disciples, relative to their means. We recommend three steps to get started.

Preach and teach about money more. The Bible has some great wisdom on how to handle money, and Jesus had more to say about it than any other issue. The pulpit needs to be leveraged to give parishioners insight on money and how giving can be an act of faith. Beyond the pulpit, parishes can host courses to help people get out of debt and more skillfully manage their money.

Talk about money more but ask for it less. Incessant, guilt-tinged “asks” for causes ranging from busted boilers to leaky roofs create the impression that all the church talks about is money. These asks take the form of second collections, special appeals, sales in the lobby and, of course, raffles, bake sales and bingo. These fundraisers create confusion, and parishes should wean themselves off of them. At Mass, pass the offering basket once, and, barring an extraordinary event, ask for additional financial support no more than once a year.

Lead by example. The Gospels say that people followed Jesus because he spoke as one having authority. Church leaders can speak with authority about money when we ourselves are giving at a sacrificial level through our gifts of time, talent or, when possible, financial resources. Our credibility is further enhanced when we are good stewards of the money we receive in offerings, honoring parish budgets, avoiding unnecessary debt and eliminating unneeded expenses.

Church leaders can speak with authority about money when we, ourselves, are giving at a sacrificial level.

We know these practices work because we have successfully implemented them here, while helping other parishes do so throughout the country.

We believe Christ is King, but cash is crucial. As the Bible tells us in Matthew 6:24, the love of money stands as the single biggest obstacle to God in the human heart. But like gifts of time and talent, money, if given as an act of faith, can help to bring us closer to God. For the church to succeed financially, it must acknowledge this reality and understand its relationship to its mission.

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