Religious groups reel from lost collections, fundraising
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Religious congregations large and small are being pummeled with a series of sudden financial hits that are unseen in living memory.
Measures taken to contain COVID-19, including avoiding gatherings larger than 10, are shutting down in-person worship services where the plate is passed.
Also shut down are fundraisers such as Lenten fish fries. Many parishes hope to make those up at later dates.
Harder to make up will be the lost tuition and rental payments from the preschools and other revenue-producing programs that are housed by many churches and synagogues, and which also are shut down.
Any congregations fortunate enough to have endowment income now have less of that due to the stock market crash.
Across the denominational spectrum, religious leaders say their immediate concern is to make sure their members and neighbors are OK at a time when people aren’t interacting face to face, and when joint worship has gone virtual, if at all.
Communal gatherings are for most groups off limits for the upcoming high points on the religious calendar for Christians (Holy Week, Easter), Jews (Passover) and possibly Muslims if social distancing extends through the late-April start of Ramadan.
“There are a lot of decisions to be made, a lot of creativity, a lot of hand holding,” said United Methodist Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi of the Western Pennsylvania Conference, with about 800 congregations in 23 counties.
“Just like most households live from paycheck to paycheck,” she said, many “of our churches live from Sunday morning offering to Sunday morning offering.”
One in four Protestant churches in the United States as of 2016 had seven or fewer weeks’ worth of operating reserves, according to a LifeWay Research study.
Congregations that employ weekday childcare workers, or rely on rent from independent providers, are suffering an immediate hit because there’s no tuition coming in.
“We have churches that are in deep trouble right now,” said the Rev. Sheldon Sorge, general minister of the Pittsburgh Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), with 130 congregations in Allegheny County. “They depend on the income from these auxiliary programs to pay these workers.”
While technologies like Zoom make online meetings possible, the crisis has made hours of such meetings necessary as religious leaders manage the crisis.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has unveiled a COVID-19 emergency fund, citing a “sharp decline in weekly offertory donations” that could lead to layoffs and other cuts at parishes and the diocese. The diocese already suspended publication of its newspaper and laid off its staff because its main distribution points — the parishes — are closed to public Masses.
“We’ve got to continue to look on God to help us through this difficult time,” Bishop David Zubik said. “But when we’re experiencing the hard knocks of the financial piece of this, we can’t look inwardly but we have to look outwardly (to help people) going through the same things.”
Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside said it’s important to maintain a congregation’s values when responding to the crisis.
“There are big decisions that’ll need to be made,” he said. “But it’s imperative we not make decisions about people’s livelihoods and lives out of fear.”
Some have more leeway to do that than others.
“We are continuing to keep open our parish office while practicing social distancing, and to keep a staff employed at least for the next two to three months,” said the Rev. Frank Almade, administrator of a grouping of Catholic parishes along the Monongahela River east of Pittsburgh. “We are in a position where we can continue to do that, and our employees are doing good stuff here.”
Some are on a tighter timetable.
“We’re taking things one day at a time,” said the Rev. Deb Warren of Second United Presbyterian Church in Wilkinsburg. The church has hourly staff, including at its preschool, “that we were able to continue to pay through the end of the month, but we probably won’t be able to continue doing that much longer.”
Leaders of congregations large and small say they’re trying to balance priorities of keeping the lights on while meeting the growing needs in the community and recognizing members may have lost jobs.
“The needs of the church continue, the light bill, the gas bill, the water bill,” said the Rev. Glenn Grayson of Wesley Center AME Zion Church in the Hill District. But he also needs to be “sensitive to asking people to give when they’ve also lost jobs and don’t know where their next paychecks are coming from.”
Added Jason Howard, lead pastor at Amplify Church: “I want to make sure the voice the world hears is a voice of hope and encouragement and inspiration, and not in this difficult time, ‘The church needs your money.’ “
While the church does have bills and salaries to pay, “I don’t want that to be primary message to the world right now,” said Pastor Howard, whose church has campuses in Plum, the Hill District and Bethel Park. “The church is needed now more than ever in my lifetime.”
A lifetime event
No one around has seen a crisis like this in their lifetime.
Religious congregations were battered by the Great Recession — but even then, houses of worship themselves weren’t suddenly shuttered. Nor were entire sectors of the economy, from sports to restaurants to airlines to convention centers. On Thursday, Pennsylvania reported a record-shattering 378,900 new unemployment claims in the previous week.
“The Great Recession came on fairly quickly, but not this quickly” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, which surveys trends across Protestant denominations. “What typically happens in a recession, there are enough people employed, there are enough faithful givers. After that recession starts, it usually takes months for a church to notice it. This one will be different in that it’s going to happen all at once, and everybody’s going to feel it immediately.”
During the Great Recession, member donations declined in a large number of Protestant denominations, according to a study by the Illinois-based research group empty tomb inc. (which uses lower-case letters in its name).
But history offers mixed lessons. In three of the last seven recessions dating back to 1968, church giving actually went up, including those of 1980-82, 1990-91 and 2001. Donations sank, however, during much of the Great Depression, according to empty tomb.
But none of those recessions involved the total shutdown of worship, and the study didn’t go back to 1918, the last time a pandemic (influenza) shuttered churches.
And “patterns of philanthropy and stewardship have changed utterly since those times,” said the Rev. Sarah Drummond, dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School, which has integrated management courses into the training of future pastors.
“We really don’t have data for situations like the one we’re experiencing,” she said.
Bishop Dorsey McConnell of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh said he and his staff have been “simply going one by one and asking parishes for some basic information.”
He added: “We’re asking them how they’re doing with their people. Is anybody ill? Do they have other pastoral issues that we should be aware of, that we should be praying for? Are you able to pay all of your bills?”
In many cases, he said, parishioners are maintaining donations.
“People love their churches,” he said.
The sudden financial wallop comes at an especially bad time for religious groups facing their own particular challenges.
The Western Pennsylvania Conference was already spending cautiously as it braced for a likely split in the United Methodist Church over its decades-long debate over sexuality. COVID-19 delayed that impact by causing the postponement of the denomination’s General Conference in May, which was expected to vote on an amicable separation.
“God has a way of putting things into perspective, right?” Bishop Moore-Koikoi said. “These things we in our human condition think are so urgent become not so urgent.”
The Catholic diocese was already experiencing a slump in donations as parishioners reacted both to a controversial merging of their parishes and the devastating 2018 grand jury report into sexual abuse by priests. The diocese cut more than 30 jobs last year. Bishop Zubik said the diocese may need to make more budget cuts but that this would not affect the ongoing compensation program for victims of abuse, which drew 367 claims that are currently being processed.
He said the diocese is trying to avoid a bankruptcy filing like that submitted recently by the Diocese of Harrisburg.
Many denominations are helping churches to adopt the widgets enabling people to contribute funds online, if they haven’t already. Some members faithfully mail in their contributions, but not everyone contributes unless they’re at worship in person.
At Crafton Heights United Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Dave Carver said the members strive to be as generous as they can, particularly as the church has outreach programs such as hosting addiction-recovery groups.
“Our congregation’s commitment is to weather the storm and move forward, because the needs in our community will be significant,” he said.
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com