Can a church's worth be measured in economic terms?

info@islandpacket.comDecember 4, 2013 

20080602 Tight tithing

Each dollar that flows into a church can affect the community in numerous ways.

LAURIE MCADAM — Laurie McAdam, The Modesto Bee

When we think of how much a church is worth, answers are varied. One person might think of provisions for a wedding; others might think of the benefit of pastoral counseling services; another would think of the cost to build the church building and the property; and still another might think of how invaluable the people of the church have been to them in their growth as a person, appreciation of the sacred, and perhaps leadership development. There are a lot of valuations and ways to value what the church does in a community. Some, who do not attend or are disenfranchised for whatever reason, may say the church is worth nothing at all, or very little.

But according to a 2011 University of Pennsylvania study, the effect of churches on their communities is huge -- and quantifiable. The study looked at 12 Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish congregations. This is how they did it: First, they added up the money brought in by weddings, funerals, counseling programs, preschools, festivals and elder care. They counted wages of staff and others the church paid, such as maintenance workers. They assigned dollar amounts to other harder-to-quantify stuff, such as helping the unemployed find work.

So what was the worth of the 12 average churches? More than $50 million in economic and community benefits. Considering that most churches have less than a $1 million -- or much, much less -- operating budget, and the property often isn't worth more than a million or two, that is a huge impact. It is no wonder that the Puritans made the Gathering Place (aka church building) at the center of every town in New England. Perhaps they were onto something.

A blogger, Todd Rhoades, shared this study. He pointed out that this doesn't even speak to the spiritual dimension of what a church brings. Again, many will find that negligible because they do not desire a relationship with God, but for those who do (or are on the verge of coming into faith), this is life-giving, and brings more cohesion to portions of any community.

On a side note, a recent Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (where I received my Master of Divinity) economic impact study developed in response to community critics of the seminary's nonprofit status had a similar result. The benefits in volunteer hours in the community alone are invaluable, but the economic impact to the area was staggering.

Looking at your church, does this bring a new appreciation for what God is doing through it (because you are a part of that, or should be)? Leaders: Do your congregants know how valuable their work as the saints is? Can we be thankful that God's work not only brings good news, but small economies that benefit the community as a whole? And church: How can we be good stewards ensuring that the benefits of our communities are open to all?

Columnist Daniel Griswold is the director of youth at St. Andrew By-the-Sea United Methodist Church. Follow him at twitter.com/dannonhill. Read his blog at www.danielgriswold.wordpress.com.

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