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Church Growth Series

Average Per Person Giving in the Church

Research on budget, attendance, and giving can help churches evaluate their health and plan for growth.
Average Per Person Giving in the Church
Image: Image: Illustration by Vasil Nazar and Aaron Hill / Source Images: Boris Zhitkov / Getty

Is giving at your church healthy? How can giving benchmarks help your church plan and staff for growth? To answer to these questions, ChurchSalary analyzed the ratio of annual budget to average overall attendance for tens of thousands of churches.

What we found can help churches manage their existing budget or plan for numerical and staffing growth.

(updated: May 16, 2024)

What is per person giving?

ChurchSalary tracks church budget (income) and attendance for two key reasons. First and foremost, churches pay employees based on their budget. Second, every church budget reflects the size and socioeconomic status of the congregation, which predicts how much churches can afford to pay employees.

As we discussed in a previous article, the relationship between resources and people follows a clear path as churches increase in size.

An excellent way to quantify this relationship is by tracking per person or per capita giving—total annual operating budget divided by active average attendance (including children).

For example, a church of 330 people with an annual operating budget of $860,000 will have average giving of around $2,600 per person. As we will discuss, another way to think about per person giving (hereafter PPG) is through the lens of a per person budget for the church. ChurchSalary deliberately chooses to use the phrase “per person” instead of “per capita” and “giving” instead of “budget” to help us focus on the purpose of money in the church—reaching and discipling people.

Rough estimate

In June 2021, ChurchSalary performed a weighted analysis of per person giving (PPG) using budget and attendance ranges from 14,000 churches in our database captured between 2018 and 2020. This analysis yielded a high, low, or middle value within each budget and attendance range. Using this methodology, ChurchSalary was able to generate five rough estimates for per person giving in 2018-2020:

Our best estimate at the time was that average giving fell somewhere in this “middle” range.” Thankfully, data from other researchers Lake Institute on Faith & Giving (2017), United Method Congregations (2018), Philanthropy Roundtable (2014), Leadership Network (2018), Tony Morgan (2013).indicated that this granular estimate was in the right ballpark. In fact, these other sources indicated that average PPG for all American churches between 2013 and 2018 was somewhere between $2,000 to $2,700 per person, with an overall average of $2,297.

Precise figures

To refine these estimates, ChurchSalary has continued to gather precise data from over 4,000 churches. Based on this more precise data we can say that average PPG in 2023 has now reached $2,816, the median is $2,553, and 50 percent of churches fall between $1,838 and $3,529 per person.

The most surprising revelation from this analysis may be that the distribution graphs of per person giving and household income in the United States are eerily similar. To compare these two graphs, we estimated per person giving based on 2023 household income deciles published by the Census Bureau and estimates of the average percent of income donated to charity within each income bracket as published by the National Center for Charitable Statistics.

It is hard to ignore the similarity between these two distributions, especially the 2023 medians which are almost identical! Any disparity between the two graphs is likely function of differences between churchgoers and the nation as a whole in terms of demographics (e.g., household size, socioeconomic status, location).

The similarity between these two graphs was so striking that we investigated this relationship using historical data. The results of that analysis indicate that around 82% of the changes we can observe in average per person giving in the church, as a whole, can be explained by changes in median household income, unemployment, and family or household size.

Budget versus attendance

Churches span a wide range of size and budgets—anywhere from 20 to 20,000 people and $50,000 to $50 million. To visualize this massive scale, ChurchSalary plotted data from 4,237 churches on a logarithmic scale for both the x- and y-axis. Using this log scale reveals that the relationship between budget and size for churches is not linear.

A linear trendline on a logarithmic graph would curve left at the lower end of the scale. The power curve we observe instead indicates that, on average, PPG decreases as churches grow. The smallest congregations (or church plants) are often powered by outside funding and/or extremely committed families. The average size of contributions from each new family decreases significantly until churches reach the second complexity hurdle.

Predicting budget based on attendance

The formula that predicts a church’s budget based on their attendance in Chart C (above) may look intimidating, but any church can use it to estimate the financial impact of attendance growth.

To estimate average budget based on size, raise your active average attendance to the power of 0.9677 and multiply the result by $2,962.80. For example, this formula predicts the following average attendance and budget combinations:

  • 50 people = $130,556 ($2,611 PPG)
  • 150 people = $378,012 ($2,520 PPG)
  • 500 people = $1,211,980 ($2,424 PPG)
  • 1,000 people = $2,370,295 ($2,370 PPG)
  • 2,000 people = $4,635,633 ($2,318 PPG)
  • 5,000 people = $11,251,116 ($2,250 PPG)

The trend line which best models how per person giving changes as churches grow predicts that it will decrease most dramatically as the church grows from 250 to 550 people (see chart). After 1,000 people giving levels will still decrease but at a much slower rate.

Learning from the data

Our main takeaway from this research is that as churches increase in size PPG starts to look more average—i.e., the probability of an exceptionally high or low per person giving average decreases. There are at least four ways this “averaging trend” may apply to your church.

  1. Giving at your church will look more like average household income in your community as your congregation grows. While churches in affluent areas will have higher PPG than churches in poor or blue-collar communities, every city contains a unique mix of lower-, middle-, and upper-class households. The larger a church grows, the more its membership will look like the community in terms of income distribution. By contrast, smaller churches are more likely to look like a subset of the population and the income distribution of their community.
  2. PPG decreases sharply as very small churches grow past the first complexity hurdle. Church planters should factor this sharp decline in mind as they plan and strategize for growth.
  3. Larger churches tend to attract more non-givers than smaller churches for at least two reasons (if not more): First, larger youth and children’s ministries attract more families (or youth whose parents do not attend and therefore do not give). Second, dynamic worship services and events tend to attract large crowds. Neither of these are negative phenomena, they simply tend to dilute the number of givers in a given congregation. For example, while families supercharge numerical growth and generate momentum, they tend to pull-down average PPG because they add kids and youth to the non-giving side of the equation. Again, this is not necessarily a bad trend as nobody expects youth and children to tithe.
  4. While churches with high PPG can be generous with programming and staffing, churches with low PPG cannot afford to waste resources. Low PPG churches simply have less margin in their budget to hire new staff, offer raises, increase ministry budgets, and expand (or building new) facilities. While we currently don’t have the data to prove this theory, we are convinced that churches with lower PPG rely more on volunteers by necessity. In statistical terms, the number of volunteers relative to paid staff is likely inversely proportional to per person giving. This puts churches with low giving in a tough position, not only do they struggle to pay their staff but those underpaid staff are constantly scrambling to recruit and retain volunteers.

Applying a PPG framework

Your church can use a PPG framework to evaluate staffing and the flow of resources in your organization. Below are three examples.

Example #1. Rather than using big annual numbers, evaluate spending using a per person budget mindset. This approach can offer you a different lens as you evaluate the cost of each ministry.

Example #2. Track PPG using more precise demographic or ministry-specific criteria. For example, how does PPG differ based on age, ministry, or level of involvement? Your accountant or bookkeeper should be able to generate these figures since they likely already have access to private giving records.

Example #3. Multiply the attendance-to-staff (FTE) ratio, payroll percentage, and PPG stats at your church to estimate your average employment cost—i.e., the amount of money that the church spends annually, on average, for 40 hours of work. For example, an average church with PPG of $2,600, a payroll percentage of 50 percent, and an attendance-to-staff (FTE) ratio of 52:1 would have an average employment cost of $67,600 (i.e., ($2,600 x 50%) x 52 = $67,600).

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Lilly Endowment

ChurchSalary is made possible through funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. As part of Lilly's "National Initiative to Address Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders," ChurchSalary—and our parent, Church Law & Tax—is committed to helping church leaders and pastors develop an atmosphere of healthy financial stewardship, especially in the area of church staff compensation.

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