Did the Grinch Steal December from Churches?
Why a once-strong budget month may be on the decline.

In the latest "State of the Plate," survey, in which we worked with Maximum Generosity's Brian Kluth to poll 1,000 church leaders on the health of their churches' finances in 2009, an interesting pattern emerged—December didn't save the day for many congregations the way it typically does.

Is it a new reality? Or yet another anomaly in a year wrought with economic firsts? That remains to be seen.

One down year alone doesn't indicate a trend. But when I interviewed attorney Frank Sommerville, a veteran of nonprofits and churches, last November for the Spring 2010 Your Churchcover story, he projected an "ugly" December, and said it very well may be a sign of the times: "Don't bank on December. (Churches) need to know the reality is that it's not going to be as easy for them to raise money in December as it has been in the past."

We'll have to watch closely in 2010, and for good reason. December brings increased attendance to many churches because of the holidays. And in the past, many who showed up often did so with a year-end bonus or other financial windfall in hand. That led to a surge in giving to churches, which then typically helped them meet their annual budgets just as the year came to a close.

That didn't happen for many in 2009, though. And if the pattern continues in 2010, it may change the way churches view giving initiatives year-round, not to mention the ways they budget for expenses—and when.

The "State of the Plate" told us the following about December and the start of 2010:

• 32% of churches surveyed said that their December year-end giving "missed" their expectations.

• Only 23% of churches indicated that year-end giving surpassed their expectation.

• With nearly a third missing giving expectations at the end of 2009, many churches likely entered 2010 looking for ways to slow their church spending.

The full report is available on ChurchLawAndTaxStore.com.

As Kluth points out in his forthcoming report for Your Church, "Even Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, with about 20,000 people attending weekly worship services, ran behind its multimillion-dollar budget before Warren sent out a last-minute email appeal encouraging year-end gifts. Saddleback Church received more than $2.4 million, allowing the megachurch to end the year in the black. But other churches weren't as fortunate."

While we watch 2010 to see how December plays out, especially as the economy (hopefully) begins to show signs of recovery, church leaders should still learn from these three lessons of 2009:

• Make conversations about giving and generosity a year-round endeavor, and not just one that comes up when there's a budget crisis;

• Temper expectations for December collections, even with expected increases in attendance;

• Tighten any spending occurring in December.

Did December collections fall short at your church? What are you doing this year to respond?

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