The pandemic has hit churches pretty hard. Now they’re slowly coming back

When the coronavirus pandemic hit more than two years ago, few organizations felt its effects more immediately and more dramatically than religious institutions.

Even among nonprofits, churches and spiritual centers stood out: worshipers attend weekly, and finances depend almost 100% on donations to the fundraising plate. Only occasionally do these institutions seek or receive support from businesses, governments or institutions to help them achieve their goals.

At Grace Church in San Diego, for example, COVID-19 and its related issues have taken their toll on weekly attendance and giveaways.

Executive Pastor Scott Laughlin, who has been involved for 22 years and has been on full-time staff for eight years, said the 110-year-old medium-sized evangelical Christian church has grown from 1,100 to 2,000 people attending Sunday services at around 200.

“At first, some people went to other churches that opened earlier than us,” Laughlin says. “Some stayed with us.”

Now that Sunday services have returned to normal, he adds, attendance has increased steadily, doubling in number since January.

“People are coming back,” he says. “They miss the religious community itself. There is no such thing.

“Virtual worship is comfortable and convenient from your kitchen or living room, but there’s no substitute for being in person, for that one-on-one contact with the community.”

Grace Church is just one of many American congregations that have struggled during the pandemic. Like some, he managed to weather the ravages of COVID-19 with help from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, and donations from generous donors, among other aids.

As CBS MoneyWatch noted, the coronavirus hit when few Americans were attending worship services — at least half of nearly 15,300 congregations surveyed in a 2020 report by Faith Communities Today reported weekly attendance of 65 people or less.

Fearing illness and uncertain about their finances, many worshipers have reduced or even withdrawn their contributions, Laughlin says. The church closed, then offered online and small group services. Eventually Grace’s faithful met in the parking lot with social distancing; domestic services resumed last Easter.

“We haven’t dropped as much as some other churches, but we’ve lost between $15,000 and $20,000 a month” in donations, he says.

In addition to receiving two rounds of PPP loans, both of which have been forgiven, and participating in an employee retention program, Grace Church has taken further steps to ensure financial stability and drive growth.

“No. 1 is that we have increased transparency,” says Loughlin. “People are really skeptical of churches and their money, and they should be.” So Grace Church ensures continued openness regarding financial updates, future vision of the church and other fiduciary discussions.

Church members appreciate transparency and want to know more.

“A major donor gave us a huge check as a thank you,” he says.

Areas of vulnerability

The Lewis Center for Church Leadership, formed by Wesley Theological Seminary, aims to promote effective Christian church leadership worldwide. Its website includes a recent article written by Lovett Weems and Ann Michel offering eight key strategies leaders can use to deal with the COVID-19 financial crisis.

“Shrewd church leaders will seize this opportunity to create a healthier financial future for their congregations by managing resources wisely, engaging donors more effectively, and seeking creative new approaches to economic sustainability,” the authors state.

Grace Church’s Laughlin observes that churches – especially in Southern California – should expect change to become the norm, with leaders successfully weathering the coronavirus and other challenges by developing sensible budgets, by exploring new revenue opportunities and remaining flexible.

“The pandemic was in some ways a wake-up call to address issues and opportunities that existed long before the advent of COVID-19,” Weems and Michel write. “The crisis has revealed areas of vulnerability and increased receptivity to change.”

Religious institutions continue to help struggling churches, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which recognizes that dioceses, parishes, and individual Catholics are severely impacted by the coronavirus and offers resources for Mass, prayers, catechetical material and reflections to help during the pandemic.

And while many congregations have suffered financial losses, others have embraced online giving, according to a report by Faith Communities Today. Donations to religious organizations reached more than $131 billion in 2020, with Americans giving a record $471 billion to charity, according to an annual report from GivingUSA.

Laughlin says Grace Church is stepping up its community outreach efforts, including resources for homeless and neighborhood landscaping projects and developing innovative ways to generate income.

“We have an amazing kindergarten, and we are thinking about how to expand it,” he says. “We also plan to open a café and apply our funding to projects and areas where people can see concretely where our money is going.”

Also, he says, the church is not focused on numbers but on engagement, emphasizing small group and family activities, Bible study and service.

Perhaps most importantly, he says, Grace Church approaches worship differently by focusing on upholding scripture and emphasizing the faith journeys of its members.

Their reaction, he says, “was amazing because it didn’t look fake or superficial. It’s something real.

Douglas is a freelance writer.

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