Religious Organizations

SIC 8661

Industry report:

This category covers organizations operated for worship, for religious training or study, for government or administration of an organized religion, or for promotion of religious activities, including religious groups reaching the public through radio or television media. Other establishments maintained by religious organizations, such as educational institutions, hospitals, publishing houses, reading rooms, social services, and secondhand stores, are classified according to their primary activity. Establishments of such religious groups that produce taped religious programming for television are covered in SIC 7812: Motion Picture and Video Tape Production, and those that produce live religious programs are classified in SIC 7922: Theatrical Producers (Except Motion Picture) and Miscellaneous Theatrical Services. Radio or television stations operated by religious organizations are classified under SIC 4832: Radio Broadcasting Stations or SIC 4833: Television Broadcasting Stations.

Industry Snapshot

Religious organizations in the United States have been involved in an innumerable range of activities. Many religious organizations are actively involved in meeting the needs of the poor by providing food and assistance in their local community or around the world. As the social welfare system in the United States continues to evaporate, religious organizations are being called on more and more to serve as social service agencies within their communities. While united on some fronts, religious organizations can be hotly divided on matters of religious, social, and political importance. In the late 2000s, many churches were struggling to meet their budgets as giving was generally down due to the economic recession. In 2009, there were approximately 339,420 different religious organizations in operation nationwide.

On a comparative level, the greatest number of religious organizations, and those boasting the largest membership figures, remain overwhelmingly Christian. Between the mid-1960s and the late-2000s, Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism (often in the form of nondenominational churches) increased their membership as mainstream Protestant groups suffered significant losses in membership. This shift in numbers in America's religious groups was especially painful for the largest, most well-established denominations. Some of the mainstream churches, including the Methodist Church, the Lutheran Church, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church were dealing with divisions within their own membership rolls over how to address the issue of the ordination of gays and lesbians. With membership a paramount concern for congregations across the country, many churches adopted active philosophies designed to attract and keep worshippers. The largest single religious denomination was Catholic, with 68.1 million members, accounting for about 22 percent of the U.S. population.

Background and Development

The United States has long prided itself on its diversity of religious expression. Numerous faiths are practiced in the United States, ranging from the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam to the other major world religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as myriad others. The church has traditionally functioned as a major institution for vast numbers of the U.S. populace.

Although churches do not have to pay government taxes, they still must secure income for a variety of purposes. Most churches sustain themselves financially through "tithes," which are contributions made to the church by those who worship there. Tithing permits churches to meet their financial obligations in the realm of operating costs and payroll, as well as to contribute to charitable or social causes. In recent years, this primary source of income has risen in value but fallen as a proportion of the giver's income. By 1998, the average annual family income of Catholic homes was $43,000, but the contributions to the church was a mere 0.6 percent of their income, a fact that observers attribute to factors such as a growing tendency for worshippers to disagree with the leadership's allocation of church resources.

The pilgrim fathers of the early seventeenth century created a powerful white Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment. From the mid-nineteenth century on, the majority of the nation's Protestant denominations increasingly consolidated in churches that operated the financial aspect of their existence in a manner not unlike a corporate business.

In the 1970s and 1980s, however, Evangelical Protestant congregations increased in popularity. Long part of the religious culture of the United States, but previously found among the poorest and least powerful sections of society, the numbers of Evangelical Protestants increased during this time, along with the socio-economic status of its members. This provided an influx of wealth that brought further conversions, together with additional power and prestige in both the religious and political halls of the United States.

During this same period, six of the seven sister denominations of mainstream Protestantism collectively suffered significant membership losses. From 1965 to 1995, the membership in the United Methodist Church dropped from 11 to 8.5 million. Losses were posted by other Protestant groups as well: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, from 5.7 to 5.2 million; Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), from 4.2 to 3.7 million; Episcopal Church, from 3.5 to 2.5 million; and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) from 1.9 to 1 million. The American Baptist Church, however, grew from 1.3 to 1.5 million members. The general loss of membership should have created a corresponding drop in revenue, which would have forced many congregations to tighten budgets and curtail community programs, but according to the 1996 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, most religious denominations showed an increase in revenue despite attendance figures. For example, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), with one of the biggest membership losses, still had an increase of 4.8 percent in contributions/revenue, totaling $2.1 billion.

By the late 1990s, the top five religious groups by membership size accounted for 61 percent of all memberships in religious organizations in the United States. The Catholic Church was the largest religious body in the United States with 61.2 million members and 33,000 churches; the Southern Baptist Convention had 16 million members and 41,000 churches; United Methodist Churches had 8.5 million members and 33,000 churches; the National Baptist Convention, USA, had 8.5 million members and 36,170 churches; the Church of God in Christ had 5.5 million members and 15,300 churches; and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America had 5.2 million members and 10,900 churches.

Among those Americans 18 years of age and older, 59 percent identified themselves as Protestant; 27 percent as Catholic; and 2 percent as Jewish. In addition, there were about 530,000 Muslims, 400,000 Buddhists, and 227,000 Hindus. Only 7 percent identified themselves as atheists or agnostics. Affiliation with a religious organization was directly correlated with age. Among those 65 and older, 75 percent belonged to a church, whereas the percentages dropped among younger populations to 63 percent for those between the ages of 18 and 29.

Protestantism, the most widely practiced religion in the United States, embraces more than 70 denominations. Most Protestants identify with one of the five major bodies of Protestantism: Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian. Since 2000, the leading Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, has seen tension grow between conservatives and moderates. The latter sought greater tolerance of diversity in doctrinal, ethical, and social issues.

While the Baptists considered separation, other Protestant organizations were striking alliances. The nation's largest Lutheran congregation, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Episcopal Church agreed in 1999 to fully accept each other's members and sacraments. Although the two denominations maintain their respective structures and practices, the alliance allowed for an exchange of clergy and collaboration of projects and services.

While church affiliation declined during the 1990s, the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches 2005 revealed that membership in religious organizations was increasing in the mid 2000s, reaching 163 million members. Among factors that benefited church attendance and membership levels during the early 2000s were the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, as well as the U.S.-led war with Iraq beginning in the spring of 2003. These events increased the importance of spirituality and prayer to many Americans.

Although church membership levels increased during the 2000s, this growth was not equally distributed among denominations. In 2003, the Catholic Church remained the largest religious body in the United States, with 67 million members. Sex abuse scandals rocked the Catholic Church during the early and mid-2000s and created a huge financial loss for the denomination, but membership numbers were only reduced temporarily. Similarly, the Episcopal Church in America was losing members, and affiliation with the global Anglican Communion, due to consecration of openly gay bishops and blessings of same-sex unions.

The Southern Baptist Convention was the next largest organization with 16.4 million members; United Methodist Churches had 8.2 million members; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints had 5.5 million members; and the Church of God in Christ had 5.4 million members. Membership in Protestant churches was expected to drop below 50 percent of the population, which would be the first time Protestants did not hold a majority in the United States. By 2006, the fastest growing churches were Roman Catholic, Assemblies of God, and Mormon.

In 2004, a study by the Barna Group measured the number of "unchurched" Americans, a term used to describe those who only appear at religious services on occasions such as holidays, weddings, and funerals. It found that the "unchurched" had grown from 21 percent in 1991 to 34 percent in 2004. Men and single adults made up a greater portion of this group than in the overall population, and those living in the Northeast and West were more likely to be "unchurched."

In 2006, Time reported that 85 percent of people in the United States identify themselves as Christians, but the stated beliefs varied widely. 34 percent of the people in this group identified themselves as Evangelical Protestants, 22 percent as mainline Protestants (i.e., churches who are members of the National Council of Churches), 21 percent as Roman Catholics, and 11 percent as unaffiliated with a particular denomination or church. In fact, Americans were increasingly willing to change their religious affiliation, and some were being attracted by nontraditional styles of worship. Membership rose dramatically at megachurches, a term coined to describe churches with attendance of more than 2,000 per week. There were some 1,200 megachurches in the United States in 2006. Almost half of these megachurches were located in the South. Thirty-four percent were nondenominational, while 26 percent were Baptist. Such institutions typically offer a variety of programs addressing family needs and interests.

Since the mid-1990s, churches have enjoyed a growing base of financial contributions. From $15.3 billion in 1994, contributions increased steadily, reaching $22.8 billion in 1999, $24.5 billion in 2000, $26.5 billion in 2001, and $32 billion in 2003. On an individual basis, church members were reported to have given an average of $757.90 each in 2006.

Current Conditions

According to a 2008 Gallup Poll, 54 percent of Americans considered religion to be a "very important" part of their lives and another 26 percent responded that religion was fairly important. Of the respondents, 48 percent were Protestants and 23 percent were Catholics; 11 percent claimed no affiliation, and small percentages were other affiliations such as Jewish, Orthodox, and Mormon. However, despite the fact that 80 percent of responders claimed religion was either very or fairly important to them, only 60 percent were members of a church and less than half (42 percent) said they attend church services regularly (i.e., very week or almost every week). In addition, two-thirds of responders said they believed that religion in America was losing its influence.

The reasons for mainline church decline were numerous and often overlapping. First, the aging of the population left many mainline churches behind the curve of cultural and social appeal to a younger generation. For youth and young adults accustomed to the high-tech, digitalized age of the Internet and instant access to multimedia, an organ rendition of "How Great Thou Art,"--a hymn first heard in the United States during Billy Graham revivals in the 1950s--held little appeal. Many local congregations responded by adding contemporary worship services, with contemporary music and a dressed-down style. Despite the continued decline in membership, the numbers were slightly misleading in that new attenders were less likely to join a congregation. Therefore, some churches were experiencing growth in attendance at the same time that membership was declining.

Second, numerous mainline churches were at odds internally during the late 2000s over the issue of whether to allow the ordination of gays and lesbians. The Episcopal Church USA was the first to ordain an openly gay bishop and to accept the ordination of gays and lesbians in committed relationships. However, the move led to a schism in July 2009, when roughly 100,000 conservatives broke from the church to create the Anglican Church in North America. The United Methodist Church, despite years of debate, continued to hold off the push from proponents for ordination of homosexuals. While the Presbyterian Church (USA) also continued to deny ordination to gays in general, the church was moving toward adopting an option that would allow ordination under the conditions of a vow of chastity. For its part, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America vowed in the summer of 2009 to begin the process of opening the door to gay and lesbian ordination.


Protestant ministers and diocesan priests have a wide array of duties. They read and study to prepare texts for preaching or publication, perform, offer religious instruction, and often are called upon to address various other community needs, such as conducting marriage and funeral services; visiting the elderly, sick, and handicapped; and responding to emergencies. Additional administrative, educational, and community service activities represent an unpredictable but typically heavy burden. Particular activities of course vary widely according to the religious group and the specific institution's mission and resources.

In the late 2000s, there were more than 400,000 clergy employed in the United States in some capacity, leading individual congregations or working in other environments such as correctional institutions, universities, military, hospitals, and other establishments. According to the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, there were 41,489 diocesan and religious-order priests in the United States in 2009. Statistics from 2009 revealed that 1.3 million people were employed in some capacity by religious organizations.

Employment prospects were considered much more favorable for Evangelical ministers than for those in the mainstream, where the number of qualified candidates seemed likely to exceed the available positions, with the possible exception of congregations in rural areas. The Catholic Church requires that its priests remain celibate and does not allow women to serve the church in that capacity. These restrictions have been widely viewed as the primary reasons for the shortage of Catholic priests in the United States. In 2009, approximately 10 percent of the Catholic Churches were without a resident priest, so many of them began to rely on women to act as administrative pastors, changing the participatory numbers of women greatly. Protestant denominations faced a less severe shortage of clergy, which in many cases was caused by congregations not having the funds to hire a full-time minister.

Salaries for clergy vary considerably depending on factors such as age, experience, denomination, size and wealth of the congregation served, and geographic location. For 2008, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found the average salary to be $44,870. Diocesan priests' salaries were typically lower, but were usually supplemented with a comprehensive package of benefits including a retirement plan, free room and board, a car or transportation allowance, and health benefits. Diocesan priests also often supplemented their income with teaching activities within the church parish. They are required to take a vow of poverty, so priests were reliant on the support of their religious order. In recent years, annual earnings of rabbis in the United States generally ranged between $45,000 and $75,000, including benefits comparable to those received by priests. Their income usually depended on the size and financial capabilities of their congregation.

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