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.
What is per person giving?
ChurchSalary tracks church budget (income) and attendance for two key reasons. First, 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—annual budget divided by average attendance (including children). For example, a church of 330 people with an annual budget of $860,000 will have giving that averages 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 will use the phrase “per person” instead of “per capita” to help us focus on the purpose of money in the church—reaching people for Christ.
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 from 2018-2020.To estimate per person giving using budget and size ranges, we first calculated an average (midpoint) for each of the 100 possible budget/size categories based on our two sets of ten ranges (10 x 10). For, example a church in the middle of the $250,000-$500,000 budget and 100-200 size range would have an estimated PPG average of $2,167 (i.e., $325,000 ÷ 150). This first step produced a set of 100 hypothetical averages, which were then weighted based on the frequency of churches in terms of budget and size. This weighting produced two sets of ten averages (20 total) that were further weighted and averaged based on the frequency of churches in terms of budget and church overall. These two averages yielded a “low average” ($2,132) and “high average” ($2,496) based on budget and attendance respectively. We labeled the average of these two the “middle average” ($2,262). “High-” and “low-end” estimates were then produced using the same methodology. However, the high-end estimate assumed that every church fell on the high end of the budget and size range and vice versa for the low-end estimate. Thus, a church on the high side of the aforementioned $250,000-$500,000 budget and 100-200 size range would yield a high estimate of $5,000 ($500,000 ÷ 100) and a low estimate of $1,250 ($250,000 ÷ 200).This analysis modeled giving based on a high, low, or middle value within each range. Using this methodology, ChurchSalary was able to generate five rough estimates:
Using this methodology, our best estimate 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.
To refine these estimates, over the last year ChurchSalary has gathered precise data from almost 3,000 churches. Across all these churches, average PPG in 2022 is now $2,848, median is $2,600, and 50 percent of churches fall between $1,852 and $3,571 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 extrapolated per person giving figures based on income and average household size data within each income bracket in the United States.To estimate a theoretical per person giving figure based on household income (and vice versa), we use average household size and a 10 percent tithe. At the national level, data on average household size is available for each income bracket at $5,000 increments. For example, median household income in the United States in 2021 is $67,521. In 2020, households within the $65,000 to $69,999 bracket averaged 2.53 people in size. Thus, $67,521 divided by 2.53 and 10 equals $2,668.81. The data used to perform these calculations can be found in the 2020 Income Distribution to $250,000 or More for Households table from the Current Population Survey (CPS) Annual Social and Economic Supplement.
The most noticeable similarity between these two distribution graphs are their medians. They are virtually identical! In fact, the nationwide median household income of $67,521 converts to an estimate per person figure $2,669, which is only $69 higher than the current median inside of the church of $2,600. 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 upwards of 90.8% of observable changes in average giving for the church, as a whole, can be explained by these three variables related to the US economy.
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 the 2,949 churches surveyed 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 predicting budget based on attendance in Chart C (above) may look intimidating, but any church can use it to estimate the impact of attendance growth.
To estimate average budget based on size, raise total attendance to the power of 0.9781 and multiply the result by $2,820.20. For example, this formula predicts the following average attendance and budget combinations:
- 50 people = $129,432 ($2,589 PPG)
- 150 people = $379,066 ($2,527 PPG)
- 500 people = $1,230,672 ($2,461 PPG)
- 1,000 people = $2,424,264 ($2,424 PPG)
- 2,000 people = $4,775,483 ($2,388 PPG)
- 5,000 people = $11,701,525 ($2,340 PPG)
The trend lines which best model changes in giving as churches grow predict that PPG will decrease dramatically as the church grows to between 392 and 416 people. After that point, giving will slowly decrease as churches grow to several thousand people. Beyond 8,000 people the data predicts a sharp decrease in giving as the ratio of tithers to consumers begins to shift.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Larger churches tend to attract more non-givers than smaller churches for at least two reasons (if not more): First, youth and children’s ministries draw in families. Second, dynamic worship services and events tend to attract large crowds. Neither of these are negative phenomena, they simply tend to decrease the ratio of givers to non-givers. 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; nobody expects youth and children to tithe.
- While churches with a 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.
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. This mindset can offer you a different lens as you evaluate how much each ministry “costs.”
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. Done right, one individual can perform this analysis and keep the results anonymous.
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, a truly 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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