By Kent E. Fillinger
As I write this in late June, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to morph daily as it impacts the world, economy, and church in innumerable ways. During the week of June 7, I conducted a COVID-19 Church Impact Survey to take a “snapshot” of how churches fared during the initial three months of quarantine (March to May) and what they anticipated would be happening over the next three months (June to August) as many started to regather for in-person worship services. A total of 334 church leaders from 39 states responded, providing a balanced cross-section of all-sized churches from various locations. Survey respondents consisted of the following:
- Megachurches (averaging 2,000 or more in weekly worship attendance): 6 percent
- Emerging megachurches (1,000 to 1,999 weekly): 14 percent
- Large churches (500–999): 17 percent
- Medium churches (250–499): 19 percent
- Small churches (100–249): 23 percent
- Very small churches (99 or fewer): 20 percent
(One percent of the respondents did not provide their church size.)
These churches canceled their onsite worship services an average of 10.7 weeks overall during the preceding few months. Seventeen percent of the churches said they would be closed for an unknown length of time with no specific date set for regathering. Larger churches canceled in-person services for a longer period than smaller churches. For example, at the time of the survey, megachurches had suspended services an average of 12.8 weeks compared with 9.3 weeks for very small churches.
How Financially Prepared Were Churches to Survive COVID-19?
Almost two-thirds of the churches overall (63 percent) said that “finances were not a major concern” during the pandemic. Smaller churches were more likely not to feel a financial crunch than larger churches. About three-fourths (73 percent) of small and very small churches said finances were not a major concern, but only one-third (33 percent) of megachurches reported the same.
Fifty-eight percent of the churches in our study were debt-free. Unsurprisingly, these debt-free churches were more likely to report that finances were not a major concern than churches with debt (76 percent compared to 51 percent, respectively).
An average of 56 percent of the megachurches and emerging megachurches said it was “tight financially” compared with only 25 percent of small and very small churches and 36 percent of large and medium churches.
Only 22 percent of debt-free churches said finances were tight, while almost half of the churches with debt (46 percent) said it was tight financially.
Only 7 percent of churches surveyed said they canceled or delayed budgeted expenses during the shutdown period. By comparison, an April State of the Plate (www.stateoftheplate.info) national survey of many denominations—mostly Protestant—found 40 percent of churches had postponed spending on projects or purchases. Again, larger churches were more likely to have canceled or delayed budgeted items.
Of the churches we surveyed, emerging megachurches were the most likely to report cutting or postponing expenses and medium and small churches were the least likely (15 percent versus 3 percent, respectively).
In our survey, two very small churches said they might have to close due to the effects of the pandemic, while one emerging megachurch and one large church said they had to make major cuts (such as staff pay cuts or layoffs) because of COVID-19.
How Did Church Giving During the Quarantine Compare with Pre-COVID-19 Budgets?
Growing up in Ohio, snow days and church cancellations were a common occurrence. My experience was that church giving suffered when churches closed for weather. So, I was eager to see how closing for a pandemic affected church giving.
Church giving fared extremely well during the closures. Almost two-thirds of the churches overall (63 percent) reported that giving from March to May either met or exceeded their budgets. By comparison, the State of the Plate survey found the opposite to be true for churches. Their study revealed that 64 percent of churches had below-budget giving due to the pandemic.
A May 13 Barna report showed more than one-third of pastors (37 percent) reported lower giving, while 38 percent said giving remained the same and one-quarter (25 percent) confirmed an increase in weekly giving.
The State of the Plate survey found that 30 percent of surveyed churches experienced giving that was 30 percent or more below budget. By comparison, only 4 percent of churches in Christian Standard’s survey saw offerings dip 30 percent or more. So, while the three surveys were snapshots taken at different times, the numbers seem to indicate that Christian churches fared better than the average Protestant church.
The small churches in our study fared the best financially, with 73 percent of them either meeting or exceeding their budget during the initial phase of COVID-19; that compared with 56 percent for emerging megachurches and medium churches, which saw the lowest percentage in this category. Just over one-quarter (28 percent) of churches reported that giving during the closures was about even with their budget, while 20 percent said giving was 1 to 9 percent above budget, and 19 percent of churches said giving was 1 to 9 percent below budget.
How Did Churches Respond?
With no on-site services, churches had to find new or different ways to collect weekly offerings. Mail-in giving and drop-off giving at the church were the top two new methods added by churches during COVID-19. Forty-one percent of the churches added mail-in giving (which included several churches providing their members with stamped envelopes to speed the process). Forty percent of churches encouraged their members to drop-off their weekly offerings, with some churches even installing special offering lockboxes outside their building.
Online giving, however, was the real driver behind giving success at churches during the closures. Most churches noted they already had online giving in place prior to the pandemic, which made it easier for people to quickly transition from offering plate to online portal. Sixteen percent of the churches in our survey added online giving after the pandemic started. (This was the same percentage LifeWay reported.) Several churches created instructional videos to help their congregation understand how to set-up online giving accounts.
Churches that saw their giving decline during March–May noted that in many cases a good percentage of older adults were leery or unwilling to give online. In some cases, the churches said their folks made up for their missed giving once the church regathered for in-person services.
I am curious to see the long-lasting, positive benefits of increased online giving during the pandemic. After all, online giving helps to ensure a church has a steady flow of funds that is not reliant upon someone being in the church building to give.
Almost half (45 percent) of churches said they mentioned the church’s financial needs more often during the closures to encourage people to keep giving and to give more to help meet special benevolent needs in the community. A slightly smaller number (38 percent) said they anticipated continuing to talk more about financial needs during the months of June to August.
Many churches noted an increased level of communication with their congregations during the closures. Churches sent more emails and letters, posted more social media videos and content, and used Zoom calls to encourage giving, as well. Several churches even called every member on the phone. A few churches created video stories sharing how their giving and generosity were impacting folks in the community.
During the closures, numerous churches (41 percent) cultivated new and additional givers, while more than half (51 percent) anticipate cultivating more new givers in the months to come.
The government provided a financial outlet for many churches to seek help with their finances during the pandemic through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), part of the CARES Act. Overall, 61 percent of the churches in our June survey received PPP funds. Our churches were more likely to receive PPP funds than churches included in either the April State of the Plate survey (35 percent) or an April LifeWay survey (40 percent). Among the churches we surveyed, 2 percent applied for funds but did not receive any, while 37 percent did not apply for PPP funds.
The larger the church, the more likely it was to receive PPP funds; 95 percent of megachurches received PPP funds compared with only 16 percent of very small churches. Among the rest—emerging megachurches, large and medium churches—73 percent received PPP funds. Churches with debt were more than twice as likely to receive PPP funds than debt-free churches; comparatively, it was 76 percent to 31 percent.
From March to May, 15 percent of the churches tapped into some of their cash reserves to help survive the shutdown, while 1 percent used all their cash reserves and 3 percent accessed a line of credit and used borrowed money.
Similarly, 17 percent of churches anticipated using some of their cash reserves from June to August. Megachurches were the most likely to report plans to use some cash reserves (29 percent), while very small churches were the least likely (10 percent).
How Do Churches Feel about Their Financial Future?
The May Barna report found that despite the array of challenges COVID-19 has presented, the vast majority of pastors (95 percent) were certain their churches would survive the pandemic. (Of that 95 percent figure, 67 percent of pastors were “very confident” and 28 percent “confident”). Just 4 percent were “unsure,” and 1 percent was “not very confident” about their church’s survival rate.
The Christian churches in our survey echoed the same optimism about the future financial health of the church for the remainder of the year. Overall, 83 percent of the churches surveyed said they were optimistic for their financial future. Fifteen percent said they were uncertain about their financial health for the remainder of the year and only 1 percent reported being pessimistic.
Kent E. Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, Indiana, and regional vice president (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan) with Christian Financial Resources.