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Survey asks pastors, laypeople where money should be spent

PHOENIX (BP)–What would you do with an unexpected financial windfall?

This question was posed to nearly 1,700 ministers and churchgoers in Protestant-related denominations — with a twist: They were asked for their first priority for how to spend a sudden windfall their church might receive.

New research shows that spending priorities of clergy and the people in the pews don’t always match.

The research, released in the May/June edition of Facts & Trends magazine, shows that if churches across the country enjoyed a sudden financial windfall, the top spending priority among ministers would be building, expanding or updating their church’s facilities, while people in the congregation focused equally on facilities, paying off church debt, and increasing social outreach.

Two studies were conducted by the Phoenix-based Ellison Research company for Facts & Trends, a bimonthly publication of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. One study is a representative sample of 504 Protestant church ministers nationwide, while the other is a companion survey of 1,184 people who attend Protestant churches at least once a month. Both studies were conducted in all 50 states, using a representative sample of pastors and laity from all Protestant-related denominations.


Nearly a third of ministers -– 31 percent -– said they would opt to spend a sudden financial windfall received by their church to build, expand or update the buildings and facilities, followed by increasing community evangelism activities, 16 percent; paying off debt, 12 percent; and adding staff, 10 percent.

Much less likely to be a top priority for spending a sudden influx of funds: giving more to foreign missions and evangelism (7 percent), spending more on social programs such as homelessness or education (6 percent) and giving more to domestic outreach or evangelism (3 percent). The following received 2 percent or less: saving or investing it for the future, increasing denominational giving, increasing church programs such as Vacation Bible School or different classes, adding or updating technology, adding or updating Bibles or hymnals, increasing advertising or marketing efforts, raising staff pay or benefits, or increasing staff training and education.


Among laity, three priorities were tied for the top position: paying off debt, 18 percent; increasing social programs such as helping with homelessness or education, 18 percent; and building, expanding or updating church facilities, 17 percent.

Of the four top clergy priorities, facilities and debt are among the top priorities for laity. But only 8 percent of laity put community evangelism as their top spending priority, and just 2 percent said adding staff is their top priority. On the other hand, laity were far more likely than clergy to say the first priority for increased spending should be social outreach.

Other priorities among laity: giving more to domestic missions and evangelism (9 percent), giving more to foreign missions and evangelism (8 percent), increasing church programs (8 percent), saving or investing it for the future (6 percent), and adding or updating technology (2 percent).


The study reveals dramatic differences in funding priorities between Southern Baptist pastors and pastors of other denominations, and between Southern Baptist pastors and laypeople.

More than any other group of clergy, SBC pastors stated that their highest priority would be to build, expand or update church facilities (43 percent versus 31 percent for all pastors). Other priorities for Southern Baptist pastors included using any windfall to pay off debt (9 percent) and increase giving for ministry and evangelism efforts (29 percent combined: social programs, 1 percent; domestic missions, 6 percent, international missions, 6 percent; community activities, 16 percent).

Only 15 percent of Southern Baptist church members who were polled made facilities a priority (the average for all laity groups was 17 percent), preferring instead to pay off debt (22 percent) and increase giving to ministry and evangelism efforts (40 percent combined: social programs, 13 percent; domestic missions, 11 percent; foreign missions, 9 percent; community activities, 7 percent).


On average, pastors and congregations alike put a fairly high priority on evangelism -– but with different priorities for where evangelism should take place.

Pastors focus primarily on their local community (16 percent), versus overall domestic (3 percent) or foreign missions (7 percent). But 26 percent of pastors say their first priority would be spending money on evangelism and outreach of some type.

Among laity, 25 percent put evangelism and outreach as their first priority, but laity are equally divided among local, domestic and foreign evangelism as their top priority.

Pastors from larger churches were considerably more likely than others to say their top priority is paying off debt. Evangelical pastors are much more likely to put a high priority on new or better facilities than mainline pastors (38 percent to 22 percent), while mainline pastors put a higher priority on social programs than do evangelicals (13 percent to 2 percent).

But overall, there is a degree of consistency in what different types of ministers (age, denomination, church size, etc.) would do with a financial windfall.

Likewise, among different types of laity, differences of opinion were not dramatic. Like the ministers, laity in larger churches particularly are concerned about paying off debt, but people attending evangelical churches do not differ much from those attending mainline Protestant churches in terms of how they would want the money spent.

Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research, noted that while few churches are likely actually to experience a sudden financial windfall, the research helps clarify the overall budget and spending priorities of clergy and laity -– and where those priorities sometimes fail to meet.

“It is particularly interesting that laity are three times as likely as clergy to say their first priority would be spending on social programs, and considerably less likely to put buildings and facilities as their top priority,” Sellers said. “This doesn’t mean one side or the other is wrong –- just that each group probably needs to understand the priorities of the other group more clearly. For instance, ministers may need to do a better job explaining why improved facilities should be a budgetary priority and will further the ministry effectiveness of the church.

“In the same way, members of the congregation may need to do more to facilitate church spending on social programs -– including volunteering their own time and leadership to make this kind of outreach happen more often,” Sellers suggested.

Sellers also noted that pastors rarely would spend the money on themselves. “Only 1 percent would raise staff pay or benefits, or increase staff training and education, as their top priority,” he said. “Virtually all ministers are thinking first about their church, their community or the world at large before their own needs or desires.”

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