From time to time, we all hear complaints about certain benefits churches receive from the government - most notably, our exemption from property taxes and the income-tax deductions our members can receive for their contributions. Critics of these benefits tend to see churches as freeloaders, living high on the hog at the public's expense.
A recently-published research study, if its results are generally accepted, will go a long way towards putting such objections to rest.
The "Halo Effect" Study conducted by the non-profit group, Partners for Sacred Places, examined historic churches in Philadelphia. As reported in a February 1, 2011 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the positive economic impact of churches on their surrounding community - both in terms of direct spending and services provided cheaply or at no cost to their recipients - is massive:
"They added up the money generated by weddings and funerals, festivals, counseling programs, preschools, elder care. They tallied the salaries of staff and the wages of roofers, plumbers, even snow shovelers. They put dollar signs on intangibles, too, such as helping people find work and teaching children to be socially responsible.
They even measured the diameter of trees on church campuses.
The grand total for the 12 congregations: $50,577,098 in annual economic benefits.
The valuation for 300-member Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Episcopal Church in Queen Village, for instance, was a middle-of-the-road $1.65 million. By contrast, the figure for Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic parish in Kensington, with 7,000 congregants, a parochial school, and a community center, was $22.44 million.
The numbers, culled from clergy and staff interviews, 'just blew us away,' said Robert Jaeger, executive director of the research group Partners for Sacred Places."
The report has also been mentioned in a May 20, 2011 BBC News story.
As the article makes clear, there will certainly be challenges to some of the calculations included in the report. Pricing intangibles is always a tricky business, in some respects more of an art than a science.
Still and all, the Halo Effect report is a telling reminder that our communities would be poorer places without their churches.
A final note: the photo of the church steeple with the blue-neon halo hanging from it is not Photoshopped. It's the Oran Mor bar and nightclub in Glasgow, Scotland. It's located in a former Church of Scotland sanctuary that once belonged to the now-defunct Kelvinside Church.
Sometimes the message of a church's intangible positive benefits to the community just doesn't get out in time.