“Church donations have plunged because of coronavirus. Some churches won’t survive.”
That’s what the newspaper headlines blared a couple of weeks ago as the financial problems of churches across the country began to erupt.
According to a 2018-2019 National Congregations Study, a third of the churches had no savings, just 20% streamed their services and only 48% were able to accept donations electronically.
In a “State of the Plate” national poll covering 65% of churches, giving was steady in 27% of the churches; 10-20% down in 34% of the churches; 30-50% down in 22% and down 75% in 9% of the churches.
ND churches doing OK: But this bad news does not seem to prevail in North Dakota, where churches of various sizes seem to have the crisis under control, according to a quick survey of 30 churches in both large and small communities.
One possible reason for the upbeat morale is that a number of them have applied and received grants (initially called loans) under the federal Payroll Protection Plan.
For the churches approved for grants, PPT covers payroll and associated costs and is calculated by using 2.5 times the monthly payroll.
A number of North Dakota churches noted that income has dropped between 25 and 50%, especially in the smaller communities. Churches in the larger cities are doing better. They all expect giving to rebound when the crisis is over.
More electronic giving: All of the churches seem to be getting more experience with electronic giving. That approach may well become a mainstay in the future.
Some churches expressed concern over restoring fellowship after parishioners have found online streaming comfortable in pajamas, raising the question of whether parishioners will be back in the pews on Sundays.
Pastor Erik Weber of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Jamestown writes, “we are learning every week and long for a return to in-person worship supported by song and fellowship, but as a congregation we are struggling to understand the new opportunities that are available in the midst of this pandemic.”
New opportunities: “Best practices for online worship,” he continued, “will continue to evolve and will challenge congregation members to look at worship in a new way.”
When asked if any churches were in danger of closing, First Lutheran in Minot noted that “spiritual and religious practice have become more important during these wild times.”
The Portland Lutheran Parish: “If anything, it is leading to a reawakening of the importance of faith in God and His church.”
Our Redeemer’s in Williston: “Our Redeemer’s will continue to proclaim the Gospel and worship through many challenges of life and seasons of change.”
Government money?: In this time of crisis, there has not been time to deliberate over the breaking of a standing tradition since Thomas Jefferson that the government does not finance churches. It is difficult to debate when the sky is falling, but the issue will come back after the crisis is over. In fact, some Baptist churches in the South are passing up the money as a matter of principle.
Aside from the merits of both sides of the issue, it should be pointed out that churches have been underfunded for years, and it is hurting the efficacy of Gospel work. Churches are literally being starved by their parishioners.
Pushpay reported that religious giving is down by 50% since 1990 and on average Christians give 2.5% of their income to churches – a far cry from the old tithing standard of 10%. Nonprofit Source tells us that families that make less than $20,000 are eight times more likely to give than someone who makes $75,000.
For churches today, the pandemic is another bump in the financial road. They are confident of a rebound when the virus passes.
Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor and professor at UND.