All About Estates

The Decline of Churches

The Hazlet Lutheran Church, northwest of Swift Current, Sask., sat empty for nearly 25 years until two friends, Lindsay Alliban and Erin McKnight, bought it in 2016 and converted it into a live music space. (Katie Toney via CBC)

Organized religion has been the bedrock of the Canadian charitable sector.  When charities were first required to register federally in 1967, over 60% of organizations were religious and most were churches.  As of January 2022, Christian charities represent just 29.7% of Canada’s 86,080 registered charities.  The implications for society, giving, and estate planning are significant.

Society

Let me start with real estate.  Most churches play a role as community centres in addition to places of worship.  They host community groups that are varied as Alcoholics Anonymous, food programs, Girl Guides, bridge clubs, social justice groups, and nursery schools.

In addition to halls and community-access green spaces, some churches had/have significant non-religious infrastructure.  The francophone Catholic church near my childhood home in Ottawa had a school, a pool, a bowling alley, and a credit union on a one-block campus.  Even the Protestants bowled there.  It’s now a strip mall and condo, all gone except the school. In my neighbourhood in Toronto, we have four massive churches within three blocks.  Three are now condos.  Community space vanishes.

It also means a loss of communities with shared values that rallied behind other charitable initiatives.  These include education, healthcare, social services, and refugee sponsorship.  Look around any community and you’ll see core public institutions that grew out of and were initially sustained by churches.

Giving

In 2013 in Canada, giving to religious charities represented 41% of all giving.  On average, donors who are religious give more than those who are not, and their giving extends beyond their place of worship. Imagine Canada, citing Statistic Canada, reported that in 2013 donors who attended religious service weekly gave an average of four times more per annum than non-religious donors: $1,284 v. $313.

Organized religion provides a faith and values-based motivator for regular charitable giving and community action.  Being religious trains you to give.  You have a natural community that comes together to act.  It’s likely that the overall decline in the number of Canadians who report donations on their taxes in both percentage and absolute terms is related to the reduction in religious charities.  This concerning for all charities.

Recently, I have talked to several mainline churches that have seen a decrease in attendance and giving during the pandemic.  Older community members are staying away and may be permanently lost. This may push the marginal places of worship into bankruptcy.

Estate Planning

These trends have implications for estate planning.  Bequests to churches have traditionally been an important source of funding.  We may see a further decline in estate donations with a loss of church goers.  Churches have a shrinking base of donors that is feeling less connected.  Donors may also have less confidence in the future of their churches.

Aside from a possible reduction in the number of bequests, the planning challenges increase.  What happens if a church fails?  What successor entity will end up receiving an estate donation intended for the local church?

Churches are responding to these concerns by promoting giving through foundations or central bodies.  Other donors may go through foundations in the community to protect the donated property and serve the cause.  With churches becoming more imperiled, the estate planner needs to ask different due diligence questions.

Change

These trends have been developing for the last 60 years – just ask Quebec.  With the pandemic and the aging population (especially of regular attendees of mainline churches) I suspect the pace is accelerating.  I write not to be nostalgic – each generation has its own way of addressing public needs – or suggest all churches are failing. I write to reflect. The loss of churches affects the whole charitable sector.

About Malcolm Burrows
Malcolm is a philanthropic advisor with 30 years of experience. He is head, philanthropic advisory services at Scotia Wealth Management and founder of Aqueduct Foundation. Views are his own. malcolm.burrows@scotiawealth.com

11 Comments

  1. RICHARD ARBLASTER

    January 20, 2022 - 2:22 pm
    Reply

    Although somewhat off point, it should be noted that property owned by religious organizations and used for places of worship are exempt from property taxes. In a way everyone contributes to the support of these institutions and their services by waiving what would otherwise be an expense eating into the declining revenue. The latter’s health can be more expressive of weakened confidence in organized religion rather than declining faith.

    • Malcolm Burrows

      January 20, 2022 - 3:17 pm
      Reply

      Rick – I appreciate your thoughts. It’s a complex subject and there are inevitably many perspectives. Malcolm

  2. Peggy Killeen

    January 20, 2022 - 4:08 pm
    Reply

    One of my clients is a church (in Quebec) and they have actually seen an increase in giving in the pandemic by encouraging their parishioners to move to online giving rather than relying on the collection, which of course isn’t there if you’re not able to have full services. It helps that they pivoted very creatively to virtual offerings and have a younger demographic. The online giving is creating more loyal donors and of course these are the most likely to leave a bequest. They had great success with an online estate planning seminar too – I think being more “anonymous” actually helped to engage more people in the conversation.

    • Malcolm Burrows

      January 20, 2022 - 4:11 pm
      Reply

      Peggy – That is a great story. There are many effective responses to connect and mobilize community. I’ve also experienced some great responses though the pandemic, as well as tales of struggle and decline. Thanks for contributing to the discussion.
      Malcolm

  3. Janice Meighan

    January 20, 2022 - 4:44 pm
    Reply

    Thanks for this Malcolm. Yes, indeed churches, attendees, and thus donors, have been declining for many decades. The United Church is closing one congregation per week now and this will accelerate. Similarly for other mainline. The Evangelicals and Catholics are not far behind. Second-generation immigration has not been able to sustain these organizations. Planned Giving may help some churches or denominations to reimagine new ways to be of service within their communities but this would take vision and leadership, which is missing from most churches and denominations (but not all). Mostly because they are in fear with a “survival” mentality. It would also be interesting to see the effects that giving by other faith-based traditions’ has on the overall charitable sector. It is a complex issue and the churches did play a vital role in the overall charitable sector, and others do lose because of this decline. Giving patterns are also shifting. Generational shifts play a significant role too. The older generations that built the civic and religious institutions are crumbling. Younger generations, those after the Civics/Silent and to some extent Boomers, do not want to continue to support institutions they don’t trust, scandal after scandal. So, dollars are shifting to causes, one by one – Go Fund Me – which do not issue charitable tax receipts. The shift will continue away from institutional giving. Perhaps there is still a lot of charity being given, it just isn’t being measured in the traditional way through Rev. Canada and charitable giving receipts on income taxes. Again, thanks for posting. It is a complex issue.

    • Malcolm Burrows

      January 20, 2022 - 8:59 pm
      Reply

      Janice –

      Thank you for your insightful comments and additional information. It’s good to put a modest spotlight on the issue.

      Malcolm

  4. Allyson Morris

    January 21, 2022 - 4:08 pm
    Reply

    Really well presented. So often in today’s society churches are considered a relic of days gone by. Apart from”religion” one of the church’s main functions is to support & uplift community. Sadly, as attendence dwindles, so too does community.
    Thanks Malcolm.

    • Malcolm Burrows

      January 21, 2022 - 5:08 pm
      Reply

      Allyson –

      Thank for your comments and validation of my community impact theory.

      Malcolm

  5. Jamie Laidlaw

    February 23, 2022 - 7:11 pm
    Reply

    Hey Malcolm:

    A good friend of mine The Reverend Alexa Gilmour was the minister at Windermere United for ten years. She was hired ten years ago to keep the church alive which she did with incredible dedication. I attended her last service in the fall of 2021. She succeeded in her task but most heartening was the large number of neighbours who supported the church’s well-developed outreach programs through the last two years. Donations of time, food and money grew and grew.

    • Malcolm Burrows

      February 23, 2022 - 7:25 pm
      Reply

      Jamie – Thanks for the great story. It’s most heartening. To survive and thrive churches – and any other charity – need to focus on serving the community, however it may be defined. Easy to say; not so easy to do. Malcolm

  6. Jamie Laidlaw

    February 24, 2022 - 2:32 pm
    Reply

    Malcolm: thank you. Alexa is a real champ, and she always found a way to make something work that helped. We have had lunch twice since her ten years at Windermere. She is happy not to be listening to the eternal conversations about the shrinking church. More to say but perhaps for another time.

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