Churches find COVID-19 hits the collection plate as well as services

Members at a Decatur church pass around the collection plate. During the coronavirus crisis, churches must rely more on online giving, but not all churches and members are accustomed to that yet. JOSH D. WEISS / SPECIAL

COVID-19 has not only changed the way many Georgians worship on Sundays, but the pandemic has hit the collection plate as well.

Across the state, some pastors are seeing a dip in giving as the virus ripples through the economy and as more churches forgo in-person services.

“If contributions are down, it could have an adverse effect on what you are trying to do,” through ministry, said the Rev. E. Dewey Smith, senior pastor of House of Hope Atlanta, which also has a church in Macon.

House of Hope has experienced a 20% drop in giving, said Smith, and other pastors he’s talked with have reported similar declines.

His church has fed older residents and first responders since the outbreak hit Georgia.

“Typically, when a crisis occurs, people can come to the church for help. This is the first time I’ve seen churches fearful, particularly those doing ministry or who have a mortgage.”

Some churches have added alternative payment methods in hopes their members will continue sending contributions. Technology allows congregations to give through text, websites, phone apps or automatic withdrawal. However, some places of worship — and members — eschew online giving.

At least 35% of House of Hope’s 11,200 members in Atlanta and Macon, for instance, prefer to write checks, rather than use mobile or online giving platforms.

Screen image from the website of House of Hope Atlanta. With the coronavirus outbreak, many churches are collecting tithes and offerings online.

The megachurch planned to make the final payment to build a new church in Rwanda, give between $50,000 and $75,000 in scholarships to graduating seniors and build a second home and counseling center for victims of human trafficking.

Those projects have since been put on hold.

The financial issues arise as Christians prepare to celebrate Easter, one of the most important religious observances of the year, and when many churches would typically see some of their largest crowds of the year.

On Good Friday, Gov. Brian Kemp, who has been hesitant to outright ban in-person worship services, urged Georgians to plan for online or call-in religious services, including on the holiday.

“To all Georgians celebrating Easter this Sunday, I am pleading with you to not attend any services in person. If you attend worship services in person, you risk exposure to coronavirus — potentially endangering your life, the lives of your neighbors, and your loved ones.”

>> Follow the AJC’s complete coronavirus coverage

Signs of concern are everywhere.

From the pulpit of empty churches, where services have gone online, pastors make sure to remind the faithful about giving.

One church in McIntosh County posted a message on the marquee giving members a time — 1-3 p.m. on Saturday — when they can bring their tithes and offerings. It touched off a Facebook debate about whether a church should issue such a prominent call for money.

“At times like this people know to bring their tithes,” said Peter Campbell, a member and a local business owner, who posted a photo of the marquee on his Facebook page. “It’s really a bad time. People need to stay home and stay away from people if we plan to stay alive.”

The drop in giving is often found in those churches — particularly small ones — that may not have an online presence or never embraced online giving.

About half of 400 pastors say giving has decreased compared to earlier this year, according to a recent online survey by Nashville-based Lifeway Research, an evangelical-based research firm that focuses on trends in the church and culture among most Protestant denominations. About 1 in 5 (18%) say giving has continued at similar levels, while 2% say it has increased. Around a quarter of pastors (28%) aren’t sure.

Among those who say giving is down at their church, 60% say it has decreased by 25% or more, including 30% who say it has dropped by at least half.

Additionally, 42% of pastors surveyed said they know of at least one attendee who has lost a job, and 75% know of someone whose income has been affected, said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research.

“If members are tithing, which is the biblical principle of giving 10% of your income, as soon as income drops, their giving drops,” he said.

The Rev. Greg DeLoach, interim dean at the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta, has led several Zoom video conferences with pastors over the past few weeks.

The sign outside Due West United Methodist Church in Cobb County. 

The check-ins often lead to pastors talking about giving.

It runs the gamut: from giving has just gone through the basement to it’s consistently strong, they’re making the budget and are able to continue with their mission and ministry obligations, he said.

“The concern is palpable,” said DeLoach. “And they have very legitimate concerns. One example is many churches operate preschool programs that employ a number of teachers, so when you’re closed, that obviously compromises the ability to support the staff.”

The effects could potentially reach the McAfee School, which receives donations from several denominations. “We’re trying to operate wisely as we look ahead to the unknown future.”

At Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta, Senior PastorDock Hollingsworth saw giving drop about 30% in March compared to the same time a year ago.

Still, the church has reserves to help make it through the current times.

Dr. Dock Hollingsworth, senior pastor, greets his flock at the front of the church after the conclusion of the Palm Sunday service at Second Ponce De Leon Baptist Church in this AJC file photo. 

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

“We’re not going to be impacted by this unless it continues through the rest of the year,” he said. “We’re going to weather the short-term drop in the offering plate.”

The church embraced online giving several years ago.

At Givelify, a free app for places of worship giving and nonprofit donations that launched in 2013, sign-ups have risen more than 400% from March 1 to April 4 of this year, compared to the same weeks in 2019.

Currently, there are more than 40,000 organizations, including places of worship, on the platform.

According to Doug DeLor, vice president of sales and marketing, people are giving. “Despite the economic impact of this pandemic, American generosity is still going strong,” he said. “We’re nothing more than a barometer of that generosity.”

>> READ | Coronavirus adds unwelcome twist to religious holidays

“The real variable is not the weekly giving but what the stock market looks like in December because that’s when many of the church’s biggest donors give out of their appreciated assets (like stocks),” Hollingsworth said. “If the economy hasn’t turned around by then, now that could be a different thing.”

“Churches are made up of people, so when people struggle financially, it is certainly felt by the church,” said Sybil Davidson, a spokeswoman for the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church.

The conference is helping churches navigate aid programs like those through the Small Business Administration and the Department of Treasury Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act such as the Paycheck Protection Program. Additionally, for the next three months, the Conference is using reserve funds to pay clergy insurance premiums that are normally paid by each respective church.

The Rev. Jentezen Franklin is senior pastor of Free Chapel church in Gainesville, which has eight campuses in three states — California, Georgia and South Carolina — with more than 26,000 members.

Pastor Jentezen Franklin began the livestreamed service at Free Chapel in Gainesville by reading the National Day of Prayer proclamation from President Donald Trump. The president watched the church service online Sunday, March 15, 2020. 

“The church is a ministry but has to be run like a business, and like any other business, when the economy comes to a grinding halt, that has a tremendous financial effect on the weekly giving,” he said. “Thankfully we have stored up and been frugal and have not had to lay anyone off or stop funding our major ministry efforts.”

The church and related ministries play a significant role in the community and for those who are vulnerable financially.

To date, Free Chapel has given more than $220,000 to smaller local churches, evangelists, gospel performers and other ministries.

“These are times like I have never seen in my lifetime, and when the national and world economy comes to a grinding halt, it is inevitable that the church will be affected because the church is not built on the sale of goods and services, ” he said. “The church is financially dependent on the free will offerings of its members, and for many, this giving is seen as discretionary as opposed to essential.”

HOW PEOPLE GIVE

A 2017 LifeWay Research survey found 30% of churches used a website to facilitate online giving, while more than half of Americans said they paid bills online.

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