How is your church doing financially in these pandemic days? Do you know?
I set out to write a column about financial shortfalls congregations are facing as fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic continues. It was inspired mainly by a recent email from my own church indicating the prospect of a big deficit for the year.
But when I started checking in with pastor friends, I discovered their churches were generally doing quite well. Some had seen an increase in giving over the previous year despite the lack of face-to-face meetings. Others were running about the same or slightly behind but still ahead because operating expenses were lower.
When I searched online for articles about churches facing financial struggles, most were dated last March and April and based on dire projections rather than much experience.
My suspicions that things don’t seem as bad as expected were confirmed by a Baptist News Global (BNG) story posted August 10. The article cited financial consultants who said the churches they deal with are about equally divided between those who are ahead in their giving, relatively flat or considerably behind.
What’s up – or down – with giving?
With congregations not doing business and passing the plate as usual, one would expect a precipitous fall in contributions. It seems counterintuitive that offerings would increase or even stay the same.
Allen Walworth, an executive with financial consultant Generis, told BNG that the churches doing well were typically healthy and committed to their mission, as well as being quick to adapt to virtual services and meetings that helped to maintain a feeling of connection.
I know an email from my church hits my inbox every day, and I get regular emails from pastor friends who send a message to their congregations weekly, if not more often. Churches that stay in touch are more likely to see their members continue to support the program.
Even if they cannot come to worship, members know the church staff is still working, planning, “Zooming” in to stay in touch and seeking to minister as best they can.
I’ve heard a couple of pastors note many people seem to have more spendable income than before the pandemic. We’re driving so little and gas has become so cheap that commuting costs can be inconsequential. We’re not eating out, going shopping, attending ball games or spending on vacations as we usually do.
Some folks feel good about sharing some of the surplus with the church, especially if they know the funds can help others who aren’t so fortunate.
My cynical side wonders if some of us don’t secretly enjoy sleeping in on Sunday morning and listening to a live stream in our pajamas – or pulling up a recorded service and being able to fast-forward through our least favorite parts.
Maybe we figure the least we can do for the added convenience is to keep the contributions coming. I suspect many churches that didn’t already stream or record their services will continue to do so once it’s safe to regather. Some members may not want to give up their new habit of worship over waffles.
Keeping up with contributions is easy in churches that offer pre-planned online giving, “Donate” buttons on their website or app-based options like PayPal, Venmo and CashApp. Others have placed secure boxes for drive-by donations outside the building, and the post office is still delivering checks for those who want to mail them.
We can only hope churches currently doing well will continue to do so and don’t find donations decreasing if members should grow increasingly disconnected from their sense of congregational community. There’s still work to be done.
Even the healthiest churches still have fixed costs like mortgage payments and maintenance for aging buildings that don’t change whether anyone is meeting or not.
Some churches that would otherwise be doing well are suffering because they may sponsor or house programs like weekday preschools that bring in positive income to fill out the annual budget, but that income is either gone or seriously diminished.
Funds available through the Paycheck Protection Program may have helped keep the staff paid for a while but are probably exhausted by now.
And what about churches that are less healthy and trustful of leadership? What about churches whose leaders and members are way behind on the technological curve?
What about churches whose members have been hit disproportionally by layoffs or diminished hours or having to close their businesses?
Even if “just” a third of the churches are struggling, that’s still troubling news.
This could be a time for churches who are doing well to extend their ministries by offering to share some of their expertise or resources to help floundering congregations that are falling behind.
It is definitely a time for all kingdom people who have the resources to open our hearts and our wallets to folks less fortunate than we.
It is clearly not a time to become complacent. Financial troubles had become endemic for many churches before the pandemic came along, and a COVID-19 vaccine won’t do anything to cure that condition.
On whatever level, whether in congregational settings or in supporting needed social ministries, this is a time when generous folk step forward to do what needs to be done.
And keep on doing it.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.