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Churches a major force in NZ economy

By Julia Stuart

Despite public perceptions of the Church as a marginalized and fading institution in New Zealand, new figures released last month show religion makes a huge contribution to our economy.

Religious organisations are numerous and diverse, they employ a large number of paid and unpaid staff, and, when their involvement in schools and social services are added to their figures, they are one of the top five players in the not-for profit sector.

Rod Oram
These interesting figures are found in the unpromisingly-titled Statistics New Zealand’s Non-Profit Satellite Account report which measures the contribution of non-profit institutions to the New Zealand economy.

The report shows non-profit institutions contributed $3.64 billion or 2.6 percent to New Zealand’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2004.Unpaid work in the non-profit sector is worth about $3.3 billion, and when paid work and other economic activity is added in this figure rises to a massive $6.95 billion – nearly five percent of the total New Zealand economy, on a par with the tourism sector.

“It’s a fascinating document and a good effort at measuring the previously unmeasurable,” says economist and churchman Rod Oram of Auckland. “The methodology is good and reworks existing data to create a new picture. It also shows for the first time the valuable extent of the religious contribution.”

Largely ignored by the general media, the report contains a wealth of previously-unpublicised data. Its figures show the religious sector has

  • the second-largest number of institutions employing staff;
  • the fifth-largest number of employees;
  • a large number of small employers but a few large ones (local workers being paid from a central body.

But wait, there’s more. The report also notes that “The social and economic influence of religious institutions extends unto other activities such as education, health and social services”. Where the church has set up a separate institution for these purposes, it is counted in those sectors.

In education and research, 7.5 percent of institutions had names clearly identifying them as being affiliated with a religious body. This number is almost 10 percent in social services. The true level of religious affiliation may actually be much higher, the report says.

Church people are generous with their money as well as their time. The report remarks on the high level of donations, which make up over 70 percent of religious institutions’ income. These donations come almost exclusively from households. In contrast, donations make up only 24 percent of the income of the non-profit institutions as a whole.

There’s a flip side to this, though. “New Zealand churches are shown as donation-dependent, and have very little income from investments, compared with say the UK,” Rod Oram notes. “Churches still operate on the generosity of current members rather than bequests.

“As institutions they are also reasonably generous, paying out $56 million in donations – presumably to missions, schools and maybe social services.

“Their interest payments are also very low – only four percent of outgoings – indicating very low borrowing. One could commend the churches for being very conservative in their financial management.”

But Rod Oram says it could also be an indication that they are not borrowing to invest in their future. This could be taken as a sign of a lack of growth.