RALEIGH — The last six and a half months of social isolation due to the coronavirus has been particularly hard on religious institutions, their leaders, and their congregations. To top it off, historically the most stressful times on people and churches tend to be election years, times of economic struggle, and times of social unrest or social mistrust, all three of which are currently happening across the nation. Add in a health crisis and as one local pastor puts it, “we have a table set for people to struggle.”
Earlier this year, State of the Plate and CapinCrouse released a poll of U.S. churches in which roughly 65% reported a drop in donations. Six months later, religious leaders are still wrestling with how to fill the financial void left from a lack of giving in a recession while also trying to navigate how to best serve their communities when restrictions forbid more than a handful of people from gathering in person.
John Butler, spokesman for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, which represents around 4,400 churches, says he talked with pastors as early as this spring who were already considering dissolving or merging with another church. “The virus just basically exposed the tenuous nature of their financial situation, the same as it has done with a lot of small businesses all over this state. The weaker you were at the beginning, the more likely that you’re not going to survive,” Butler said in an interview this spring with The News & Observer.
Along with small businesses, the federal Paycheck Protection Program in all its iterations has offered some relief to local churches, but funds in the program have been limited and small churches with less sophisticated bookkeeping may have had a hard time competing with their larger counterparts. Pastor Christopher Edmonston who leads the congregation at White Memorial Presbyterian in Raleigh says the PPP was a great help to them as they worked to keep all their employees paid on time. “We are a large church with over 100 full and part time employees so this was a tremendous help,” he says. Edmonston says that while they aren’t currently considering any huge cutbacks the church is going into the final stretch of this year fully prepared to make the necessary changes if their fundraising falls short.
“From March 2020 forward and with the closing of much of our campus, everything has been a guessing game,” Edmonston says. He says the church is currently stable thanks to some incredibly generous supporters but that what is difficult to know is the impact the pandemic will have on year-end giving. Most churches experience their greatest funding for their budgets during the final 10 weeks of the year. “This year we are hopeful, but it is anyone’s guess. I am very often in prayer about this.”
North Carolina is currently stuck in a Phase 2.5 posing many challenges to institutions that rely on in person gathering. This fall, White Memorial is offering most of its ministries virtually by way of Zoom. For families who are unable to tune in live for Sunday School the church is sending out a pre-recorded portion of each class as well as any extra activities after class, which often includes recipes kids can make at home. Some of WMPC’s in-person programs are being held outside or consist of much smaller groups. “A large church like ours quickly exceeds the attendance limits which have been set by NCDHHS,” says Edmonston. “Our youth groups will have some campfire-type meetings and we are trying to work with partners like Alcoholic Anonymous to discover how we can support them.”
Edmonston points to the fact that one of the biggest challenges to running everything onsite is that it is difficult to find volunteers because so many of their volunteers are older adults, a more at-risk population. In addition, he fears folks will eventually grow weary of virtual only engagement. WMPC had been live-streaming worship virtually for about seven years prior to the start of the pandemic so its members had some familiarity with connecting this way. The biggest change is the movement of Bible studies, spiritual growth, and Christian education offerings online. Over the last six months some members have embraced this new normal inviting friends and family from other parts of the country to join the services as well. “In some ways our impact is as large as ever and attendance virtually has been encouraging, but I do think people are becoming tired of virtual-only offerings, which creates other challenges to navigate,” he says.
Another problem churches are encountering is figuring out how to increase pastoral care and pray with people during unprecedented times when person to person contact with at risk groups like the sick and elderly is strictly prohibited. Leaders point out that most care is taking place over the phone. Pastors cannot currently visit hospitals or most adult care facilities. “The needs since March have been overwhelming…we have done more pastoral care and more praying with people than we ever have before,” Edmonston says. “Older adults are isolated and alone; families are stretched and stressed by economic pressure and changes around virtual schooling; people have lost jobs; we are hearing of levels of stress on marriages we don’t often see. So, there is a lot of anxiety and pain in our world right now.”
The big question on many pastors’ minds is ‘will the people come back to the church after we have taught them how to use the online tools and they have become used to church services at home?’ We don’t know the answer to that. And we won’t know if people have gone elsewhere for quite some time,” Edmonston states. Indeed, there are some groups around the Triangle who have stepped up to fill the void left the loss of religious activities. For example, at St. David’s School in Raleigh a group of parents have organized an adults only bible study book club called “Side by Side.” The small groups meet outdoors once a week at someone’s house and discuss the challenges involved with life these days.
Another thing to ponder: will people even be willing to crowd back into sanctuaries and family life centers right away, even after the governor and state health officials say it’s OK. “You’re so far into changing people’s habits at this point that getting back to where people have a comfort level with being in the pew at a large, mass gathering is going to take a long time,” Butler said.
Yet many local church officials remain upbeat and positive and focused on what they are able to offer the community versus what they are not able to offer. “COVID has been very difficult for every organization and business. However, the mission of the church has not and will not change,” says Anne Thompson, Director of Finance and Administration at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in downtown Raleigh. “In fact, the necessity to talk about the good news about Jesus Christ becomes even more evident during difficult times such as these. We embrace the opportunity to proclaim this good news virtually and in person, to care for our neighbors, and to serve our city despite our current circumstances.”