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Churches feel the financial effects of COVID-19

WITH PARISHIONERS no longer gathering at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jamestown, N.Y., during the COVID-19 pandemic and some dealing with lost jobs or reduced work hours, the Rev. Luke Fodor knows his parish will feel the financial effects of the crisis as much as anything else.

“There are a number of folks who are impacted and aren’t able to give what they expected to give,” he said.

But it’s also a chance, Fodor said, for the church to recognize the scriptural concept from 1st Corinthians 12, that if one part of the body suffers, every part feels it.

“It’s a moment where, sure, we’re hurt as a church and our funding’s cut, but it’s not about us, it’s about helping” those in need, he said.

Many churches have had to forgo in-person services to follow government orders not to gather in large groups and maintain social distance of at least 6 feet between individuals in an effort to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Even so, they continue to offer services through various online platforms and other methods while they also try to meet the needs of people in the community.

Church offerings typically support minister and staff salaries and benefits, church utility costs and expenses and ministries from local food pantries to international missions. That said, people can continue to contribute online and by mail, but Fodor said the absence of free-will, open-plate offerings has had an impact.

St. Luke’s has not had to lay anyone off, Fodor said, but it is asking staff to work from home when feasible and it continues to support those who cannot support themselves.

“It is likely (we) will be able to continue to make payroll for several months before we reach a difficult decision point,” he said.

Contributions for March to ministries organized by the West Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church saw about a 3 percent decline compared with the same month in 2019, said Jamion Wolford, treasurer for the West Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Informal polling of conference treasurers around the country suggests that the decrease is consistent with others, he said.

Statistics weren’t available at the individual church level, Wolford said, but anecdotally, he’s heard both positives and negatives when it comes to what churchgoers give.

“We have heard stories of dedicated, long-term church members giving more than normal and stories of expanded online ministries encouraging donations from around the world,” he said via email. “However, we have also heard from mid-size churches that were already in tenuous financial positions being distressed by the mitigation measures.”

Larger churches have adapted to or have already been using online giving platforms, while smaller churches “seem to have a consistent core of donors less affected by the societal changes caused by COVID-19,” Wolford said.

If offerings continue to be reduced, the church will “look for how we can support each other and share in the struggles presented by the current social and economic conditions,” Wolford said. “Churches and the Conference are finding new ways of sharing the message of Jesus Christ through new and sometimes less costly methods. … However, if support declines dramatically, churches and the Conference may have to limit or suspend some ministries.”

Catholic churches in West Virginia likewise have seen a financial impact as well as efforts to help among parishioners, said Tim Bishop, director of marketing and communications for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.

“We have also received a great number of letters and phone calls from the faithful to ask how they can continue to financially support their parishes during these unprecedented times,” he said in an email.

At www.dwc.org, the diocese established a means by which parishioners can contribute online to churches that don’t already offer that option.

A number of parishes have seen an increase in donations of food and cleaning supplies to help those in need, Bishop said, and existing services have expanded. The Priest Field Pastoral Center in Kearneysville, W.Va., has been utilized — in conjunction with Jefferson County officials — as a homeless shelter since many such facilities there have closed, he said.

Asked how they would address shortfalls, the diocese spokesman said that Bishop Mark Brennan “remains committed to supporting parishes and schools throughout the Diocese during these times.”

Pastor Tom Orth of Grace Lutheran Church in Alpena, Michigan, said not only have church members continued their offerings with in-person services suspended, but other community members have donated needed items as well.

“I occasionally will find bags of food outside our entryway,” he said. “People are stepping up and responding and taking care of each other.”

Those items are placed in the church’s “Little Food Pantry,” an exterior container where people can take and leave items as they need and have them, or in cabinets inside the vestibule, which folks can also access around the clock.

As for the church budget, its average need was met the first two weeks of April. That wasn’t the case when services were first suspended, but Orth said funds don’t come in evenly during a month, even under normal circumstances.

“Our experience right now is that people are giving,” he said, noting some have even made extra contributions.

At Ravenswood Free Will Baptist Church in West Virginia, the Rev. Pastor Chris Skeens said members have been mailing in their offerings or leaving them in a designated offering plate at the church without coming into contact with others. Although they’ve been streaming content on social media, the 80-member church does not have an Internet giving mechanism, though that may be something they consider.

“They’re wanting to reach out and help,” Skeens said. “This is such a beautiful part of such a daunting situation.”

Giving has actually increased, Skeens said, although at least part of that is seasonal, due to people receiving tax refunds.

“Some have been challenged because of the situation we find ourselves in, and that’s totally understandable,” he said.

Skeens is president of the Jackson County Ministerial Association, which holds combined services crossing denominational lines during Holy Week, which this year ran from April 5-11. That’s when the group usually receives a lot of donations to support programs like a homeless ministry, providing safety equipment to the county school district and assisting churches in need.

Holy Week programming was offered online and by radio, but so far, donations “have been slow,” Skeens said.

“It’s just different,” he said of not having events where people can give directly. “It causes a delay.”

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