Churches across the country are seeing larger declines in donations amid coronavirus stay-at-home orders than they did during the Great Recession more than a decade ago, according to a leading church finances pollster.
Nearly two-thirds (65%) of the 1,000-plus U.S. churches surveyed by Brian Kluth for the State of the Plate project reported that giving has decreased since mid-March, the outset of widespread social distancing measures intended to stop the spread of COVID-19.
The combination of closed houses of worship, rising unemployment and shaky financial situations among congregants has taken a bigger toll on donations than at the start of the previous decade, when roughly a third of churches reported year-over-year losses, the pollster said.
“This is much worse than the [Great] Recession was,” Mr. Kluth told The Washington Times. “This is more across the board and deeper.”
The State of the Plate survey was produced in collaboration with the National Association of Evangelicals and Christianity Today’s Church Law and Tax service for clergy and churches. It gathered responses mostly from mainline Protestant and evangelical churches.
But the decline in church donations isn’t limited to any particular denomination or faith. The Archdiocese of New York has reported a 50% decrease in cash donations, while the Jewish Federations of North America reported last month its groups will require at least $650 million in donations to continue.
Another leading church financial adviser, Nic Prenger of Prenger Solutions Group in Omaha, Nebraska, told The Dialog that churches that rely on monetary donations are likely seeing weekly declines of up to 80%.
Patrick A. Markey is the executive director of the Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference in Phoenix, an association for Catholic employees working on financial matters across North America. He said at least one church financial director has told him that giving has slowed by 85% in poorer parishes.
“Fifty percent, you can make it,” Mr. Markey said Thursday. “But once you drop into 15%, they’ll have to lay people off.”
Unlike Protestant churches that have turned to online donations, many Catholic churches have relied on cash and checks, leaving them particularly vulnerable to the economic headwinds, he said.
“If people aren’t in church, the chances of them remembering they should donate decreases exponentially,” Mr. Markey said.
To that, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, said its churches increasingly are offering online tools for giving, with some parishes receiving 20% to 80% of their total donations that way. The need for donations is greater than ever, she said.
“Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington and parish food pantries have experienced a rapid increase in requests for food assistance as the coronavirus continues to take an economic toll on families,” said spokeswoman Amber Roseboom. “Parishes and Catholic Charities have seen generous donations of financial resources, food for distribution and volunteer time.”
Budget crises are emerging among churches across the country. At Stony Creek Church in Utica, Michigan, Executive Pastor Chris Bourdeau told WDIV News 4 in Detroit that giving had decreased by $10,000 on a weekly basis.
St. Joseph Catholic Church in Springfield, Missouri, received a $103,000 federal loan to cover the payroll for its 31 employees, but the Rev. Karl Barmann told local reporters that contributions are still down 60%.
Mr. Kluth said the steep declines are linked geographically to outbreaks of COVID-19. Churches where the disease is not widespread have been less scathed.
According to the “State of the Plate” survey, 8% of churches reported an increase in donations, while 9% reported a decline of 75% or more. About 22% of churches said they had seen 30% to 50% decline in giving.
Matt Goodsell, pastor at Ashland Baptist Church in Boone County, Missouri, said his congregation is generous but he has had sobering conversations with the church’s financial manager.
“He told me we have been staying above water. What’s been coming in has just been enough to sustain what’s going out,” Mr. Goodsell said Thursday. “But, of course, we’re aren’t doing the ministry we normally do, either.”
The loss in funds is forcing churches to make hard choices. Mission trips and visits to the Holy Land, funded during Lenten appeals, will take hits because of the drop in giving.
The Archdiocese of San Francisco has reported a salary cut for staff and a hiring freeze until July 2021.
Meanwhile, a Lutheran bishop in New York said many of the 190 churches in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Metropolitan New York Synod might not survive a long-term financial hit.
“For pastors and church staff, there will be difficult days ahead as more church families are laid off or experience reduced incomes,” Mr. Kluth said.