Over $443 million — that’s the total value of the economic benefits the Winnipeg gets from its 307 houses of worship in the city.
That’s the finding of the Halo Project, an online calculator that shows what houses of worship mean to the cities and towns they are located in on an economic basis.
For Steinbach, the total is $37.5 million from 25 congregations. Winkler gets $39.1 million from 18 congregations. Brandon gets $17.5 million from 22 groups. Selkirk gets $1.1 million.
The province of Manitoba, as a whole, gets $953,484,092 in economic benefits from the 853 congregations of various religions in the province. Across Canada, the total is $18.2 billion.
By benefits, the makers of the Halo Project mean things like how congregations provide their facilities for free or at low cost to arts groups, for concerts, for addiction programs, sports clubs, food banks, refugee and immigrant centres, at-risk youth and so on.
"It’s easy to pass by a church or temple of some kind in your neighbourhood and just admire the architecture, not stopping to consider just what an effect the folks who worship there have on the surrounding area," says Lisa Richmond, vice-president of research at Cardus, a Christian think tank that sponsored the project.
The calculations by the project "are a good reminder that religiously motivated activity goes well beyond holding worship services, creating measurable benefits for all Canadians," she said.
This is the second time Cardus has done the Halo Project; the first time was in 2017. This time around they have updated and fine-tuned the calculations, estimating that for every dollar budgeted by a congregation the local community receives, on average, $3.39 in economic benefits.
To arrive at an estimate of economic benefits, the Project includes things like open space, direct spending, magnet affect (spending by visitors attending weddings, funerals, etc.), individual impact (helping immigrant and refugee families settle in Canada; marriage and family counselling), social capital and care (programs that benefit people in the surrounding community, volunteer activities, food banks).
The project got its data on congregational spending from the T3010 Registered Charity Information Return that congregations are required to submit to the Canada Revenue Agency.
The researchers acknowledge some limitations with the findings, which are extrapolated from a sample of 100 congregations across Canada. They also don’t include any negative impacts a place of worship might have on a community, such as increased traffic or noise complaints.
One new thing this time around is the ability to plug individual congregations into the calculator.
From that I can tell my own church, River East Church, has a benefit of $1.64 million to the surrounding community in North Kildonan. Calvary Temple downtown produces $13.2 million, St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Wolseley produces $1.1 million, and St. Boniface Cathedral provides $4.3 million. (Not all congregations are listed on the Project’s map.)
For Richmond, the importance of the Halo Project is how it allows faith communities — and their critics, who say they should be paying more taxes — a different way of looking at their impact.
"We usually think of congregations in terms of their spiritual goals," she said. "This shows an angle, economics, that is typically not looked at."
Through that angle, faith groups might "see themselves in a different light," she said, as economic contributors in their neighbourhoods.
It can also help local and provincial governments see faith communities in as valuable partners in serving the community, not as a drain on tax revenue.
"It can help them put a dollar value on what congregations provide," she said, adding the research shows congregations are giving out ten times more than they are taking in from tax breaks.
It also puts a new light on the news about so many churches closing these days. As she noted, when a church shuts down it can mean more than the loss of service space — it can hit programs that depend on it for meeting space hard.
"These buildings are more important than many people realize," she said.
That’s an important point. According to National Trust for Canada, the country is poised to lose about one-third of its over 27,000 churches and other places of worship in the next five to ten years — 9,000 in all.
For many people, that’s ho-hum; who cares? Most Canadians aren’t going to religious services these days, anyway.
But as the Halo Project shows, places of worship are more than just places for people to go sing songs, pray and hear a sermon on weekends. They are vital to the ongoing life of a community, especially some of its neediest residents.
There’s no way to reverse the decline in attendance at worship services. Churches will close. But as they close, it’s important for everyone — religious and non-religious alike — to be aware of the cost. The Halo Project is a reminder of what that cost might be.
For more information, visit https://haloproject.ca
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.