NEW YORK – As in-person worship services are canceled or downsized amid the coronavirus outbreak, some churches across the U.S. are bracing for a painful drop in weekly contributions and possible cutbacks in programs and staffing.
One church leader, Bishop Paul Egensteiner of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Metropolitan New York Synod, said some of the 190 churches in his region were unlikely to survive because of a two-pronged financial hit. Their offerings are dwindling, and they are losing income from tenants such as preschools which can no longer afford to rent church venues.
“As much as I'd like to help them, everybody's reserves are taking a hit because of the stock market,” Egensteiner said,
At Friendship Baptist Church in Baltimore, a mostly black congregation of about 1,100, the Rev. Alvin Gwynn Sr. held services last Sunday. But attendance was down by about 50%, and Gwynn said the day's offering netted about $5,000 compared with a normal intake of about $15,000.
There was a brighter outcome at the Church of the Resurrection, a large United Methodist Church congregation that operates out of five locations in the Kansas City area.
Cathy Bien, the church's communications director, said about 25,700 people logged in to join online worship last Sunday after in-person services were canceled. That compared with normal Sunday participation of 14,000 worshippers – 8,000 in person and 6,000 online.
The huge turnout didn't translate into a larger-than-normal offering, although the church is still processing checks that were sent by some of the worshippers, Bien said. She expressed hope that financial support will remain robust as the church stresses the need to bolster food pantries and other community programs in the face of COVID-19.
At Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, giving was down modestly last weekend as the church cancelled in-person worship and made the service available online.
The pastor, Walter Kim, said some of his roughly 1,000 congregants have grown accustomed to online giving in recent years, but many worshippers still give in person at the services – an option not available for now.
“We'll be asking them to sign up (for online giving) or mail a check,” said Kim. He will be urging congregants to bolster the church's “mercy fund” for use assisting hard-up members of the community as job losses multiply.
In addition to his pastoral duties, Kim is president of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents more than 45,000 evangelical churches. The NAE will be co-hosting a two-day digital summit next week featuring videos from church leaders advising other pastors nationwide how to respond creatively and effectively to the virus outbreak.
The co-host is the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois, which already has offered resources to churches in response to COVID-19.
“Some changes are going to be required,” Kim said. “The church is a very creative institution. In the end it will find ways of fulfilling its mission.”
But in Baltimore, pastor Gwynn worries that tensions might rise past the point that church outreach programs can help. He even envisioned the possibility of a stampede toward the goods being doled out after church's annual food drive.
“My biggest fear right now is what's happening to the minds of our people,” Gwynn said. “How long can we hold them together?'