The Asheville, North Carolina-based Biltmore United Methodist Church is up for sale.
The congregation was already in financial trouble due to dwindling membership and a struggling preschool when the coronavirus struck. Many people stayed at home or switched to other churches that remained open during the ordeal. The church used to make money by renting out its space for events and gatherings, but that is no longer the case.
‘Our maintenance expenditures are just ridiculous,’ said senior pastor Rev. Lucy Robbins. ‘And we just don’t have the financial resources that we once did to be able to perform the kind of ministry work that we wanted to accomplish.’
Biltmore is one of a slew of congregations across the country that have struggled to stay afloat financially and minister to their flocks during the pandemic, though others have weathered the storm, thanks to the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, and consistent levels of member donations.
The coronavirus struck at a time when fewer Americans were attending worship services – at least half of the nearly 15,300 congregations surveyed in a 2020 report by Faith Communities Today reported weekly attendance of 65 or less – and exacerbated problems at smaller churches where increasingly tight budgets often prevented them from hiring full-time clergy.
‘The epidemic didn’t change those tendencies; it simply made them worse,’ said Scott Thumma, co-chair of Faith Communities Today and director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
Attendance has always been a problem. As Christian leaders attempted to reintroduce in-person worship, the highly transmissible delta variant and now the even faster-spreading omicron has thrown a wrench in their plans, with some churches reverting to online worship and others reporting fewer souls in the pews.
Attendance at weekly services at Biltmore, for example, has dropped from over 70 pre-pandemic to just over 25 now, counting both in-person and online worship.
Church officials are still working out what comes next, including where the congregation will call home after worshippers decided last May to place the church property, a two-building complex nestled on a lush knoll just off Interstate 40, on the market. However, they want to donate a portion of the revenues from the land sale to marginalized communities and organizations such as affordable housing.
Franklin Community Church, roughly 20 miles west of Nashville, Tennessee, unlike Biltmore, does not have its own sanctuary, instead of having services at a public school. With no mortgage, upkeep, insurance, or utilities to worry about during the pandemic, this turned out to be a gift.
‘We wouldn’t have survived if we’d had all that,’ said the church’s pastor, Rev. Kevin Riggs.
Even so, it’s been a struggle. According to Riggs, during the 15 months when Franklin’s services were only available online, some members left for other congregations or fell out of the practice of giving. The church’s weekly attendance has dropped from approximately 100 to less than 40, and the omicron increase has caused it to go virtual once more.
The impact can be seen in the collection plate: according to the pastor, the money coming in now is only about a third of what it was before the pandemic. The church has cut costs where it can, relied on grants to make up the difference, and sought to generate more money from community members who don’t attend but support the church’s activities, such as serving the homeless.
‘We’re surviving,’ Riggs remarked, ‘but we’ve felt the pain.’
Friendship Baptist Church in Baltimore, another impoverished community, is practically living week to week. A PPP loan of more than $55,000 was given to the largely Black church, but it barely covered expenses. For the time being, the Rev. Alvin Gwynn Sr. has given up his pastor’s income and is surviving on Social Security and his other construction work.
Attendance declines have harmed the bottom line there, as well as elsewhere. Friendship Baptist has over 900 active members, but only about 150 of them attend services, making their contributions all the more important.
The church is surviving because of the 150’s sacrificial generosity,’ Gwynn said, adding that he won’t start drawing a wage again until the church is solvent. ‘Each Sunday, they donate way, way more than a usual contribution.’
According to The Faith Communities Today research, several congregations embraced internet giving during the epidemic, which may enhance contributions by $300 per person annually.
Other surveys and analyses reflect a mixed picture of congregational contributions across the country.
According to an annual analysis by GivingUSA, donations to religious groups increased by to a little over $131 billion in 2020, a year when Americans donated a record $471 billion to charity overall. Separately, according to a September study of 1,000 protestant pastors conducted by the evangelical business Lifeway Research, almost half of congregations received roughly what they budgeted for last year, with receiving less and receiving more.
Despite the pandemic, Hope Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, a mostly upper-middle-class congregation of roughly 400 people, has remained relatively stable.
When in-person services were suspended for more than a year, the Rev. Josh Robinson expected contributions to decline, but they remained stable. Member promises for upcoming gifts in 2022 have also been received. Some members of the congregation even sent their government stimulus checks to the church, which utilized them to establish a fund to provide direct financial aid to individuals who lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.
All of this caused the pastor to reconsider his approach to the pandemic.
‘I needed to take a step back and consider what it meant for me as a spiritual leader not to have the same faith mindset because I was expecting a downturn?’ Robinson remarked. ‘Here were the church members stepping forward, and I had to lean into it. And, to be sure, I was able to do it with tremendous pleasure.’
The church had already adopted frugality to reduce its debt, which had dropped from $2 million in 2013 to less than $300,000 now.
Savings on utilities and other expenditures helped keep the budget balanced when services went virtual. $290,000 in PPP loans were also crucial for keeping employees on the payroll and compensating for lost revenue from renting out space and other services.
Giving is down slightly at West Harpeth Primitive Baptist Church, another Franklin church. The pastor, Hewitt Sawyers, credits this to the low turnover among the members of the more than the 150-year-old historically Black congregation, many of whom are dedicated to financially supporting the church and working in sectors less affected by the pandemic than others.
Sawyers stated, ‘We’ve simply been absolutely, wonderfully blessed.’
Budget forecasts for this year are optimistic enough that West Harpeth officials believe they will be able to complete a much-needed building makeover.
‘We have a lot of confidence in it,’ Sawyers added. ‘We’re planning on trying to do it in ’22, and we’re very, very confident in our ability to do so.’
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