COVID-19 isn’t just a biological phenomenon, it’s a financial one too.
And it’s probably hitting your church – hard. Most congregations have already seen a significant financial impact. Most, but not all.
I work with a lot of different churches, so when a church defies the trends, it gets my attention.
Something surprising has occurred for some congregations in the past couple of months: Giving has held up and sometimes even increased.
In the middle of all the hard stuff that’s going on around us, it’s sure nice to hear some ministers say things like, “All of us were worried about what this meant for our church, but our people have responded in amazing ways!”
That begs the question, “What is going on in these churches that has created that kind of response, and what can the rest of us learn from them?”
The data is more limited than I would like, so we can’t draw hard conclusions. Yet, there are at least a few commonalities among the churches holding up financially during the pandemic, which I think are reliable enough to share.
- They have a plan and they’re already executing it.
The only things that might be spreading faster than the virus in this moment are anxiety and uncertainty.
Fear is a very understandable response in a crisis but that doesn’t make it any less destructive.
When a crisis hits, people feel out of control and they tend to extend those fears and anxieties to anything they care about.
In talking with ministers whose churches seem to be holding up well in this moment, I have heard a common refrain. “We took some steps quickly to get ahead of the crisis.”
Those steps weren’t just about money, but the churches who were quickest and most intentional about a crisis response almost all thought through the issue of finances.
Most of them made preemptive cuts in certain areas, froze spending in other areas and communicated what they were going to do.
When your congregation knows their staff team and lay leaders are thinking ahead and responding appropriately, it builds trust.
Trust is one of the most important factors in people’s willingness to give. That’s truer now than it has ever been.
- They are focused on mission not maintenance.
Long before the pandemic, the day had already passed when the people of your congregation were going to contribute simply to maintain the status quo.
With the possible exception of the builder generation whose sacrificial love for the institution of the church remains, people want to know their giving is effective and accomplishes something important.
I am working with a church in the suburbs of Kansas City who made a decision to give away half of everything their church received one Sunday to help those hardest hit by the pandemic in their community.
This courageous, faith-filled move on their part communicated to their congregation that being the church wasn’t first and foremost about meeting their budget, it was about meeting needs.
Their offering doubled that Sunday.
- They have staff teams that have surged the frequency and methods of their communication with their congregations.
The military has a phrase “the fog of war.” It’s what happens when the best laid plans are instantly outdated because everything is changing in various, unpredictable ways.
Almost any crisis will create something similar, so the most important thing you can do to lift the fog is communicate, communicate, communicate.
Tell people what you’re doing. Tell people what they can do, and then get busy doing it. Rinse and repeat.
It’s going to feel like overkill, but until you start to feel like a broken record reminding people what you’re doing, what they can do and why, then you’re not communicating enough.
But when you do, the people of your congregation will see that together you’re accomplishing something meaningful.
That effect will actually be amplified in a crisis because people’s emotions are amplified in a crisis.
Maybe the best way to gather up all these insights is to compare the biological impact of COVID-19 with the financial impact on churches.
Some churches have preexisting conditions, which have exacerbated the financial impact.
If you’re in a low trust environment, or in a congregation that lacks a cohesive identity or a shared vision, there’s a good chance that giving has been or will be down in this moment.
On the other hand, if there’s a high degree of trust and strong sense of who you are and what you’re capable of doing together as the people of God, you’ll probably see stronger giving as a result.
But even if you’re in the first category (low trust, lack of cohesion), you shouldn’t give up hope. Winston Churchill said, “Never waste a crisis!”
The intensity of this moment can actually make it easier for your church to rally and focus on what God is calling you to be and do.
What it will take from you as a congregational leader is to work hard, be creative, communicate clearly and create opportunities for your people to engage in the mission of God through your church in this challenging moment.
If you do that, there’s at least a chance your church will see not only the financial benefit but also an even greater spiritual and missional benefit.
Matt Cook is assistant director at the Center for Healthy Churches. Previously, he served local congregations for more than 25 years, with nearly 20 years as senior pastor in churches in Texas, Arkansas and North Carolina.