April 1, 2011; Source: State Journal | A recently released survey of 1,500 churches found that nearly half have seen an increase in donations between 2009 and 2010 despite the continuing ravages of the recession, while only 36 percent of churches have experienced an increase in donations the year before.

The State of the Plate survey, co-sponsored by Christianity Today magazine http://www.christianitytoday.com/, MAXIMUM Generosity, and the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability http://www.ecfa.org/HomePage.aspx, also found that only 36 percent of churches have experienced an increase in donations between 2008 and 2009. Declines in giving were reported by 39 percent of the surveyed churches, with the largest decreases focused on churches in the Southeast and on smaller churches (with attendance of less than 250).

How reliable is this survey? Of the more than 300,000 churches in the U.S 1,500 responded to the survey. But rather than a random or stratified survey, the State of the Plate survey (PDF) reflected the constituents of the three partnering co-sponsors.

The religious demographics of the respondents were Mainline Protestant (13 percent), Evangelical (24 percent), Baptist (23 percent), Charismatic/Pentecostal (12 percent), Independent/Nondenominational (21 percent), Catholic/Orthodox (2 percent), and other (5 percent).

Most research suggests that giving to religion (accounting for roughly half of all charitable donations) is not significantly impacted by recessions (PDF). Has the Great Recession of 2008-2010 changed historical patterns of giving? It is difficult to reach hard and fast conclusions based on one constituency-based survey.

The State of the Plate executive summary is interesting reading, particularly for one additional finding: The survey told respondents that “in the new federal budget the government is looking at changing the rules regarding charitable deductions” and asked how donations would change “if the charitable deduction were significantly reduced or eliminated.”

It was an odd question, because the only change in the charitable deduction in the proposed FY2012 budget is a limitation on deductions by very wealthy individuals, not a reduction or elimination of all deductions or deductions aimed at religion. Ninety-one percent said that their churches would be “negatively affected.” One-fifth cited “slight” impacts, two-fifths “some”, and 30 percent said that a change in the charitable deduction would have a “significant” impact.—Rick Cohen