A new study has examined the economic impact of scores of historic congregations in three major American cities, revealing these urban places of worship each contributed more than $1.7 million to the local economy. The study found that congregations spend money directly in their communities, create jobs, attract visitors, and provide beneficial social services. Churches generate an estimated $3 billion in economic activity just within the three cities studied: Chicago, Fort Worth, and Philadelphia.
Non-profit organization Partners for Sacred Places conducted the study, which it publicized at an event at the Brookings Institution on November 29. The group says its missions has centered on helping “historic sacred places to better serve their communities as anchor institutions” since its founding in 1989.
In a previous study released in 1997, Partners for Sacred Places showed that churches spent $140,000 by providing “volunteers, staff and clergy time, free or below-market space, cash, and in-kind services” to their communities. Their new study took a broader perspective to calculate the value of direct spending, administering educational and social services, plus “catalyzing economic values” in other ways.
The newly released analysis showed that congregations each created five full-time and six part-time jobs. Salaries for these jobs, plus the value of goods and services purchased from local business, totaled nearly $550,000. Although slightly less obvious but significantly larger was the economic value of education and daycare programs provided by congregations, valued at an average of nearly $680,000.
Congregations also drew 780 visits to their community, most of whom (89 percent) were “attending an event, utilizing a program of the congregation, or going to and from a school or daycare” rather than a worship service. This “Magnet Effect” resulted in each congregation generating more than $375,000 for their local economy.
Another notable contribution congregations make to their local economy involves providing an “Invisible Safety Net” by supporting socially beneficial programs and non-profits. Congregations offered help in the form of “space that is shared, as well as volunteer time, and in-kind support” to a wide variety of efforts “ranging from substance abuse groups to after school programs” that served the public. The value of these contributions averaged more than $100,000 per congregation.
During the Brookings event, panelists discussed the significance of the findings. Dr. Ram Cnaan, a religious researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who helped conduct the study, said that new data show congregations that they should be “proud of how much they are important” to their local economy.
Partners for Sacred Places Co-Founder and President Robert Jaeger observed that the value provided by places of worship “should not be news to our civic leaders, but too often it is.” He added that his organization’s new report demonstrated that “the secular world has a significant stake in the health and vitality of congregations and sacred places,” because the benefits provided by these institutions extend beyond just religious well-being.
“For leaders in government, philanthropy, community development, the arts, and social services among others – those people who care about the health and vitality of our communities, especially outside the core downtown of a city or a town, investing in sacred places pays major dividends,” Jaeger said.
Former Philadelphia Mayor Rev. W. Wilson Goode Sr. said evidence from this new study could be used to “fight back” against local governments opposed to having congregations in their communities, showing that places of worship yield both spiritual and economic dividends.
“Sacred places are under attack by neighborhoods and zoning boards across the country,” Goode said. He explained during the Q&A time that “over the last 15 years” he had personally experienced “probably at least a dozen instances of communities and cities and zoning boards opposing the citing of locations of congregations” within their jurisdiction.
Video of the event is available below: