- The Washington Times - Monday, June 15, 2020

A new study on giving shows that the outlook for charity remains at high levels in evangelical churches during the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 2 out of every 3 evangelical churches remain optimistic about cash donations, says a June financial impact report from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA).

“Rough and uncertain waters are still ahead for some, particularly summer camps, schools, short-term missions, and other ministries involving near-term travel and large in-person gatherings,” said Warren Bird, ECFA vice president of research and equipping and the report’s author. “Yet the responses in this report indicate the impact of the pandemic to date is reasonably manageable.”

More than 60% of churches said online gifts increased between January and April of this year, with nearly 30% saying giving online increased by 30% or more.

What’s more, 72% of churches said giving was the same or higher this April compared with the same month in 2019. However, for a small few, the pandemic has been devastating: 5% of churches reported a 40% annual decrease in April.

The study sounded a note of caution about the economic future of the Christian education sector: Nearly 40% of education ministries in the ECFA report reported they were “pessimistic” about cash donations. The attitudes dovetail with a spike in closures among Catholic and parochial schools.

Last month, the Archdiocese of Newark announced the closure of 10 Catholic schools in New Jersey, blaming “present circumstances” and a significant decrease in enrollment.

“The snowballing crisis that threatens both health and economic stability continues to expand and has exacerbated the dual threats of declining enrollment and swiftly increasing subsidies that have been necessary to sustain schools,” Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, archbishop of Newark, said in a letter to the diocese.

Concern over a decrease in giving has rattled congregations around the country. Earlier this year in Toledo, Ohio, the Rev. Donald Perryman of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church wrote a letter to the city’s mayor detailing concerns about outstanding bills, including utility fees, for more than 200 churches.

“To borrow a phrase from the Great Recession of the late 2000s, Toledo’s churches are too essential to fail,” Mr. Perryman wrote.

Giving via the collection plate remains a lifeline for roughly 40% of congregations, according to a study by the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Other sources of income can include rent from managed properties, endowments and denominational support.

But many denominations have shaky financials, too. In April, a financial board for the United Methodist Church reported a 26% decrease in monthly giving.

That same month, The Barna Group, a California-based Christian polling service, reported that 97% of pastors said COVID-19 had affected the overall well-being of the people in their churches, with 21% of churches reporting that giving was “significantly down.”

Also in April, a “State of the Plate” survey showed that 65% of churches reported a decrease in giving during the first few weeks of nationwide church closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new ECFA report suggests the storm that was expected to uproot churches and their ministries never materialized. The report says that more than 80% of churches kept staffing “about the same.” At this point, roughly 1 in 10 churches anticipate reducing staff hours.

In addition to donations, other support came in the form of the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program. According to the ECFA, 80% of nonprofits surveyed applied for the PPP, operated out of the Small Business Administration. Some 60% of churches reported filing for PPP assistance.

Other emergency funding arrived from fellow congregations, including the Churches Helping Churches Challenge, which so far has raised $700,000 to redistribute in $3,000 grants to churches across the country.

ECFA’s survey targeted 684 churches and 657 “Christ-centered nonprofits,” and was compiled during two weeks in May, as many churches were still under closure orders from state governors.

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