Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Rise of the Million Dollar Parish

In our previous post we noted that the Catholic Church in the United States has experienced a net loss of 1,753 parishes since 2000 (-9%). When the Church closes a parish it does not leave the parishioners “homeless.” They become members of a new territorial parish in a consolidation. This is creating a “supersizing” effect that parallels newer and larger parishes being built in the South and West where the Catholic population is growing strongly. With these two trends combined something new has emerged: the million dollar parish.

The knee jerk reaction to the existence of such an institution might be “sell it all and give the proceeds to the poor.” If you haven’t heard someone say this you need to spend more time reading the comments section of any news article referencing the Catholic Church. Of course if the Church did as suggested there would be no permanent presence of a brick and mortar institution in place to help those in need or to serve the Catholic community with Mass, religious education, and sacraments. The reality is that million dollar revenue parishes often now have million dollar expenses (i.e., these aren’t “bling” parishes!).

According to CARA’s recent National Survey of Catholic Parishes (NSCP), 28% of U.S. Catholic parishes now have annual revenue that exceeds $1 million. About one in ten parishes collects more than $1 million a year in offertory collections. Among the larger group of parishes with at least $1 million in annual revenue, the average expenses are more than $1.7 million with revenues, on average, coming in at more than $1.8 million.

As shown in the table below, the million dollar parishes are significantly larger than the average parish. Parishes collecting more than $1 million a year in offertory donations have, on average, nearly 8,300 parishioners and nearly 2,400 of them attend Mass on a typical weekend in October. With an average of 928 seats in their churches they host an average of about 5 Masses per weekend at this time of year to accommodate parishioners (at Christmas and Easter they need to double the number of these Masses).

Those employed by million dollar parishes don’t make much more in wages than those in the typical parish. However, because million dollar parishes tend to be bigger than the average parish they also have more staff members. If you add up the annual estimated wages for the staff members in the chart below they total about $500,000 (and when larger parishes have multiple people in some of these roles obviously the amount needed for total payroll increases even higher. The table also only includes a sampling of positions a parish may need to fill). The typical parish in the United States has expenses of more than $700,000 per year. With a good chunk of these expenses being wages, salaries, and benefits there is not a lot left over for other costs.

Even small parishes in the United States are still large buildings. Think about what you pay for energy, heat, telephones, internet, etc. for your home. Unless you live on a large estate, your pastor likely has to find a way to pay much more than you each month to keep the physical plant operational. Parishes also have rectories and some landscaping that must be maintained (…although pastors have among the lowest wages in the table above, they also receive housing, food, and living allowances that along with income total about $42,000 per year according to NACPA). The parish also provides for many in the community who are having trouble providing for themselves with food pantries, soup kitchens, and other assistance. It is also common for parishes to have a mortgage and/or other debt obligations.

On average, 16% of expenses in a typical parish, excluding wages and benefits for the staff involved, are related to providing religious education, faith formation, and worship ($144,000 per year). This is slightly higher in million dollar parishes (by revenue) at 18% of expenses ($337,200 per year). Most parishes have revenues that just exceed their expenses. About one in four parishes (25%) run deficits and some require diocesan subsidies for operations (8% of all parishes in 2013). 

Beyond offertory collections (and subsidies) parishes raise revenue in a variety of other ways. Twenty-eight percent utilize fundraising meals (e.g., dinners,  a fish fry during Lent), 25% have special collections (e.g., year-end giving requests, capital campaigns), 24% host parish picnics, carnivals, and/or fiestas, 18% use raffles and lotteries, 10% bake and food sales, 9% yard sales, 8% auctions, 5% seasonal events, and 4% use bingo. Other types of revenue can come from rental income, investments, sacramental fees, and votive candles.

There are national discussions concerning just wages and educational debt occurring in the United States. Catholic parishes are at the crossroads of both of these debates. More and more dioceses and parishes are seeking out professional lay ministers who have college degrees (often at the graduate level) and/or certifications from college programs. With college tuition costs rising much faster than incomes many have to finance their education through loans. However, when they are prepared to begin working in a parish they find it difficult to pay their bills (including school loan payments) with their ministry incomes. Many in America who earn graduate degrees in other fields do not go on to earn only $15 per hour. Yet, parishes would struggle to pay much more without a shift in the decisions of parishioners in the pews. The typical Mass attending Catholic household only gives about $10 per week to their parish. There is not much room at that level of giving to push wages higher. On average, 68% of total parish revenue is from parishioner giving at offertory collections.

The Church is grappling with the issue of educational debt on a variety of fronts. It is impeding religious vocations as well as discouraging highly-trained professionals who are struggling to live out their vocation as lay ministers. Unfortunately, the economics of million dollar parishes make it no easier to resolve these challenges.

About the National Survey of Catholic Parishes (NSCP)
The survey data described above was collected and analyzed through funding provided by SC Ministry Foundation and St. Matthew's Catholic Church in Charlotte, NC. In October 2013, CARA began sending invitations to 6,000 randomly selected parishes (5,000 by email and 1,000 mail) to take part in the National Survey of Catholic Parishes (NSCP). Stratification was used. The total number of parishes randomly selected in each diocese was determined by weighting the diocesan averages of the percentage of the Catholic population and the percentage of Catholic parishes in the United States in each diocese as reported in The Official Catholic Directory (OCD). This stratification ensures that parishes representing the full Catholic population were included rather than a sample more dominated by areas where there are many small parishes with comparatively small Catholic populations. A total of 486 email addresses were not valid and 68 of the mailed invitations were returned as bad addresses or as being closed parishes. Thus, the survey likely reached 5,446 parishes. The survey remained in the field as periodic reminders by email and mail were made until February 2014. Reminders were halted during Advent and the survey closed before Lent in 2014. A total of 539 responses to the survey were returned to CARA for a response rate of 10%. This number of responses results in a margin of sampling error of ±4.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence interval. Respondents include those returning a survey by mail or answering online. The survey consisted of 169 questions and spanned eight printed pages. A slightly smaller national CARA parish survey, including 141 questions from 2010, obtained a 15% response rate. Response rates for CARA parish surveys are correlated with the length of the questionnaire. Responding parishes match closely to the known distribution of parishes by region. Data for sacraments celebrated also match the OCD closely.

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