In many churches, the pandemic is hitting collecting plates and budgets

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(AP) – The Biltmore United Methodist Church in Asheville, North Carolina is for sale.

The church was already financially strapped due to declining membership and a struggling preschool, but the coronavirus dealt a devastating blow to the church. Attendance fell, with many staying at home or moving to other churches that stayed open all the time. The income that the church used to earn by renting out its space for events and meetings is gone too.

“Our maintenance costs are just exorbitant,” said Rev. Lucy Robbins, senior pastor. “And we just don’t have the financial resources that we used to have to do the kind of ministry work that we would like to have.”

Biltmore is just one of countless communities across the country that have struggled to stay afloat financially and serve their flocks during the pandemic, though others have managed to weather the storm, often with help from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP and sustained member donations.

The coronavirus arrived at a time when fewer Americans were already attending church services — with at least half of the nearly 15,300 congregations polled in a 2020 Faith Communities Today report reporting weekly attendance of 65 or fewer — and exacerbated the problems in smaller churches where ever tightening budgets often prevented them from hiring full-time ministers.

“The pandemic hasn’t changed those patterns, it just made them a little bit worse,” said Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and co-chair of Faith Communities Today.

Participation was a constant challenge. As faith leaders moved to return to personal worship, first the highly transmissible Delta variant and now the even more rapidly expanding Omicron have staggered such efforts, with some churches coming back online and others still open and with fewer souls in the pews to report .

In Biltmore, for example, attendance at weekly church services has dropped from about 70 before the pandemic to just about 25 today, counting both in-person and online worship.

After the congregation voted to put the church property, a two-building campus on a leafy hill just off Interstate 40, on the market last May, church leaders are still considering what comes next, including where the residents will live Local community. However, they hope to use a portion of the proceeds from property sales to support marginalized communities and for causes such as affordable housing.

Unlike Biltmore, Franklin Community Church, about 20 miles outside of Nashville, Tennessee, does not have its own shrine but instead holds services in a public school. That proved to be a blessing during the pandemic, as there were no worries about mortgage, child support, insurance, or utilities.

“We wouldn’t have survived if we had all of that,” said Rev. Kevin Riggs, the church’s pastor.

Still, it was a struggle. During the 15 months that Franklin’s services were online-only, some members went to other churches or got used to donating, according to Riggs. Weekly attendance has dropped from about 100 to less than 40, and the Omicron spike recently forced the church to go virtual again.

The effect is reflected in the collection: the money now coming in is only about a third of what it was before the pandemic, said the pastor. The church has cut spending where it can and has sought grants to make up the difference and has worked to raise more money from parishioners who are not attending but support church services, such as the homeless.

“We survive. … But we felt the pain,” Riggs said.

Another struggling congregation, Friendship Baptist Church in Baltimore, lives essentially week-to-week. The predominantly black church received a PPP loan of more than $55,000, but that did little to mitigate spending. Rev. Alvin Gwynn Sr. has given up his pastoral salary and is now living on Social Security checks and his other job in construction.

There, as elsewhere, the decline in attendance has affected the bottom line. Friendship Baptist has about 900 active members, but only about 150 attend, making their donations very important.

The church “survives because of the offering of the 150,” said Gwynn, who has no intention of drawing another paycheck until the church is stable. “They give way more than a normal offer every Sunday individually.”

During the pandemic, experts said many communities have welcomed online giving, which The Faith Communities Today report could increase contributions by $300 per person annually.

More broadly, various other surveys and reports across the country paint a mixed picture of community giving.

Giving to religious organizations increased 1% to just over $131 billion in 2020, a year in which Americans also gave a total of $471 billion to charities, according to an annual report from GivingUSA. Separately, a September survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors by evangelical firm Lifeway Research found that about half of the congregations are receiving about what they projected last year, with 27% receiving less than expected and 22% receiving more.

Hope Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, a mostly upper-middle-class congregation of about 400, is among those enjoying relative stability despite the pandemic.

Rev. Josh Robinson had expected contributions to decline when in-person worship was paused for more than a year, but they have remained steady. As such, members have pledges of upcoming gifts in 2022. Some in the community even donated their state stimulus checks to the church, which they used to set up a fund to provide direct financial assistance to those who have lost income due to the pandemic.

It all prompted the pastor to reconsider his own handling of the pandemic.

“I had to take a step back and consider what it meant for me as a spiritual leader not to have the same belief system as I anticipated a downturn?” said Robinson. “This was where the members of the Church were performing—I had to get involved. And I was able to do that with great pleasure, and rightly so.”

Even before that, the church had adopted thrift to pay off its debt, which has fallen from $2 million in 2013 to less than $300,000 today.

As services went virtual, savings on utility and other costs helped balance the budget. About $290,000 in PPP loans was also key to keeping employees on the payroll and making up for lost revenue from space rentals and other services.

At West Harpeth Primitive Baptist Church, another church in Franklin, donations have fallen, but only slightly. Hewitt Sawyers, the pastor, attributes this to the low turnover among members of the more than 150-year-old, historically black congregation, many of whom have pledged to support the church financially and work in sectors made less vulnerable by the pandemic were harmed than others.

“We’ve just been wonderfully, wonderfully blessed,” Sawyers said.

Budget forecasts for this year are so rosy that West Harpeth officials are hoping they can tackle a much-needed building renovation.

“We’re extremely optimistic about this,” Sawyers said. “We’re planning on trying the ’22 and we’re very, very, very comfortable trying that.”

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The Associated Press receives support from the Lilly Endowment for reporting on philanthropy, nonprofits and religion in partnership with The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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