Small Churches Are in Particularly Big Trouble Right Now

A church surrounded by flowers

Founded in the mid-19th century, New Hope United Methodist Church had been operating on a razor-thin budget for years. Even after renovating the sanctuary recently, Sunday attendance was low, with $300 in the collection plate on a good week. But the church’s small, bustling food bank served 50 people a week in the low-income Starlight neighborhood of Atlanta. Others came to the church for Bible study and a free meal on Thursday nights, where a volunteer made sure everyone went home with an extra plate.

But the pandemic accelerated New Hope’s struggles. More than half its meager weekly donations came through cash in the Sunday offering basket, and the congregation has not met in person since mid-March. To raise extra money, pastor Abby Norman had recently started renting out the historic church building for documentaries and other film projects, including rap and country music video shoots. (Norman said she mostly stayed out of it but did ask the artists to email her the lyrics first.) The pandemic killed those gigs, too. Last week, Norman told her congregation that the church—and the food bank—would have to close. “We were so close,” Norman said. “It’s not just that we’re losing a church that worships Jesus on Sunday. It’s generations worth of knowledge about how to care for a community.”

Temporary church closings have meant spiritual losses for many Christians. Zoom is no substitute for the fellowship of weekly gatherings and the ritual of communal worship. But for churches as institutions, with buildings to maintain and staff to pay, the pandemic has also prompted a financial crisis. About 40 percent of Protestant pastors say giving has declined since earlier this year, according to an April survey conducted by LifeWay Research, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Just 9 percent said giving has increased. “This will push some churches over the edge,” said Scott McConnell, LifeWay Research’s executive director. “It’s definitely an existential threat.”

The unexpected dry season is especially acute for smaller churches and those serving low-income communities. Small churches in particular tend to depend on weekly donations gathered by passing an offering plate on Sunday mornings. They are less likely to have the technology set up to receive donations digitally, and they often serve older populations who are not comfortable giving that way anyway. Half of Protestant churches have only enough cash on hand to cover expenses for 15 weeks at most, according to a 2017 LifeWay survey. Churches that stopped meeting on Sunday, March 15, have now forgone in-person giving for eight weeks and counting. Some churches are cautiously making plans to reopen, but for others there is no end in sight. (On Friday, Vice President Mike Pence will meet with religious leaders in Iowa to discuss reopening religious services.)

The vast majority of large churches had already implemented online and app-based giving before the crisis; many of them also livestreamed their weekly services with slick production values, requiring relatively few adjustments to current restrictions. Large churches do not necessarily have more weeks’ worth of cash reserves on hand, but with larger budgets, they have more wiggle room to trim their spending.

Small churches have no such capacity to maneuver. In Seattle, pastor Harvey Drake of Emerald City Bible Fellowship has seen donations decline by about one-third over the course of the pandemic. His church attracted about 50 people on a typical Sunday and was facing a $50,000 deficit this year even before the pandemic hit. So far, the church has been able to keep paying its part-time pastor and three other part-time church employees, and continues to help neighborhood families with groceries and utility bills. But the future is uncertain. “When we don’t meet, we don’t tend to receive offerings,” Drake said. In his experience, older churchgoers are the most consistent donors, and the least likely to be comfortable giving online.

Many pastors were encouraged when churches and other houses of worship were included in the Paycheck Protection Program administered by the Small Business Administration. The program is primarily intended to cover payroll costs, and it is an unprecedented opportunity for churches to receive direct financial relief from the federal government. CBS News reported Friday that 9,000 Catholic parishes have received PPP loans already. But early reports suggest that black churches and those serving low-income populations have had trouble accessing the program. “If you’ve got a big church that has a CFO or a full-time bookkeeper, it will be easier for you,” said Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. “The program was also set up where it prioritizes places that have salaried employees. They are plenty of churches who don’t.” Everett said she has heard anecdotal reports from smaller churches that have so far had trouble accessing PPP funds. Her organization is now conducting a survey of churches in the state to gather information on who is benefiting from the program. A recent LifeWay survey found that larger Protestant churches have so far been likelier to apply for the program; only a third of churches that average fewer than 50 attendees have applied.

Some nonprofits have stepped forward to try to provide aid of their own to struggling congregations. The Churches Helping Churches Challenge, an initiative from the Christian nonprofit And Campaign, is asking larger financially stable churches to make donations to smaller at-risk churches. The fund has raised $445,000 so far and distributed $3,000 grants to 126 churches, including Emerald City Bible Fellowship. The program is pitching itself to donors as “an opportunity to help heal racial and socioeconomic divides in the Church.” “The Bible says there are situations where you should be showing your love, rather than just saying it,” said Justin Giboney, president of the And Campaign. “It starts a conversation, to be able to say that at a time when minority churches and minority communities were hit hard, we found white evangelical churches and larger churches that were willing to help.”

The Massachusetts Council of Churches launched a similar fundraising initiative last week for black churches and those serving immigrant and homeless populations in the state. For Everett, it’s a matter of meeting the “overwhelming needs” of churches that provide not just Sunday morning spirituality but after-school programs, food pantries, opportunities for the elderly to socialize, and other vital services. “I’ll be damned if we get to the other end of this pandemic and only white churches survive, or only wealthy churches survive,” she said. “We’ll have a lot of to answer to in front of Jesus if that’s the case.”