Church pews

As they move worship services and other programming online, churches throughout the region are struggling to balance declining contributions with increased community needs. (Metro Creative Images)

Over the last month, area churches have been forced to adapt on the fly in the face of a global pandemic, pushing services and programming for the faithful online during what is traditionally the busiest time of the year.

As the pandemic extends into the indefinite future, churches are facing more stress than ever. With contributions down across the nation but community needs on the rise, faith leaders are facing difficult and unprecedented choices. According to the 2018-19 National Congregations Study, about one third of all congregations report having no savings. Meanwhile, two-thirds of churches report a decline in plate offerings since mid-March, according to a survey from the National Association of Evangelicals.

Phillip Parrish, executive administrator at Divine Mercy Catholic Church in Faribault, said that the parish has seen an overall decline in tithing. Although the church has only been closed for a little more than a month, Parrish said parishioners began changing their behavior beforehand.

At this point, the church hasn’t yet experienced a decline in contributions as steep as Parrish had feared. He said that while the church has been forced to reduce hours and staffing, its overall financial outlook has remained stable.

During the pandemic, Parrish noted that the church has stepped up to provide care for children of essential workers. Minnesota’s already severe childcare crisis has been significantly exacerbated by the pandemic, leaving the industry with a deeply uncertain future.

Like area business owners, Parrish is deeply worried about the uncertainty of just how long the pandemic might last. Should it drag on past the summer, inflicting ever more severe economic damage, more programs could be at risk.

“It’s a very stressful unknown,” he said.

Local

Pastor Carl Bruihler of the First Lutheran Church in Le Sueur also reported a decline in contributions, but he said the church isn't facing devastation. Overall, donations have remained at a fairly consistent level and losses are being made up for through savings and other revenue sources.

With the church closed down due to the coronavirus, programs like Sunday school, bible study, confirmation and quilting group are not operating and don't require funding. The church has also applied for assistance through the CARES Act. 

First Lutheran Church has not only seen fairly consistent donations, but consistent attendance as well. The church has converted to pre-recorded services which are uploaded to YouTube. While First Lutheran would normally see 130 people at a regular service, the convenience of online  services has raked in over 200 views. 

"We’ve been quite frankly surprised that contributions are pretty consistent," said Bruihler. "But I think as far as worship goes we've been doing a pretty good job of it. My own thinking goes that getting more volunteers involved whether its through a children's sermon or special music or a word of welcome or a thank you for logging in and watching YouTube, we try to incorporate as many of those through the services as we can because I think that helps with the viewership too."

For First Lutheran, the central challenges of COVID-19 for the church haven't been financial, but spiritual. Already a new baby has been born in the parish but the church has not been able to give them a baptism. Bruihler has also had to halt his visits to nursing homes and hospitals.

Pastor Allyson Bowman, of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Le Center, said that she hadn't noticed a decline in donations. The church has an automatic giving system, which patrons can sign up for and the church is still taking offerings through the mail.

"We have a very generous and supportive community which has continued to be generous and supportive even during this time," said Bowman.

Regional

The Rev. Rachel McIver Morey, of Northfield United Methodist Church, said that while reporting data over the last month is incomplete, she's extremely grateful for strong continued support from church members.

That hardly means the church is out of the woods yet. However, McIver Morey said that while the church will keep an eye on its finances, its primary concern is with the plight of those suffering from financial stress or the virus itself.

While Northfield UMC has joined other area faith communities in holding worship services online, McIver Morey said that the importance of community outreach through efforts like sewing masks for first responders, is more important than ever.

For Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Owatonna, that has meant keeping the church’s food pantry well stocked. A longtime staple of the church’s mission work, the Pantry has become even more vital now that a trip to the grocery store is dangerous for some and unaffordable for others.

Like McIver Morey and Parrish, the Rev. John Weisenburger, of Our Savior's Lutheran, said he’s seen a bit of a drop in his congregation’s offerings, but nothing too severe just yet. At this point, Weisenburger said that many church members in need have been able to get help from unemployment insurance.

Under guidelines announced by the Small Business Administration last month, churches are eligible to receive federal assistance, including the vaunted Paycheck Protection Program that was the centerpiece of Congress’s most recent coronavirus legislation. Under PPP, the SBA is providing fully forgivable loans to small businesses so long as at least 75% of the funding is devoted to retaining personnel. It’s proven one of the most popular SBA loan programs in history.

The decision to include churches, synagogues and mosques in SBA loan programs raised concerns among strong advocates for a separation between church and state, especially since churches are eligible for the program even if they do not provide secular social services.

In announcing the parameters of the PPP loan program, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that President Trump and Vice President Pence had insisted that churches and other religious organizations be eligible for loans.

The administration has long been supportive of providing federal dollars for religious organizations, supporting efforts to extend disaster relief aid in 2018 through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. However, the PPP loan program is highly competitive, and even those religious institutions that receive funding may end up waiting for months to receive it. To help the most at risk churches, larger faith-based organizations set up the Churches-Helping-Churches challenge.

While the program has already helped dozens of churches, more than 1,000 churches nationally have applied for it. That has overwhelmed the available funds and forced the organization to stop accepting applications.

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