Churches Face Cash Crunch as Lockdowns Stretch Into Holy Week

This story is being co-published with Religion Unplugged.

Pastor and singer Benjamín Rivera and his wife Bernice Vélez launched the evangelical free church Iglesia Vida Dallas in August, drawing a diverse crowd of more than 100 people from Mexico, El Salvador, Venezuela, Colombia and other Spanish-speaking countries each week.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Their weekly tithe, used to keep their building and pay Rivera's salary, has dropped about 75 percent since March 15.

"A lot of our people are immigrants," Vélez said. Most work in hotels, schools, construction sites, housekeeping, and retail stores and restaurants. "So they lost their jobs, most of them. The ones that have companies, they have to close. There's only a few able to keep giving."

Vida Dallas En Casa

"Adios Desánimo" un mensaje de fe y esperanza predicado por el pastor Benjamin Rivera de Vida Dallas.Preparate para re construir ruinas y ser un motivador delante de este desafío."Tus sentimientos no son mandamientos"

Posted by Iglesia Vida Dallas on Sunday, March 29, 2020

The church has switched to Facebook live streaming for Sunday services and Zoom meetings for Wednesday night prayer and Bible study, drawing about 30 people on Wednesdays and more than 1,000 views for Sunday service March 29. Before the coronavirus spread, only 5 percent of the congregation gave online.

In a recent poll by Barna Group of more than 500 pastors, two-thirds said their giving is down, while 38 percent said it's significantly down in the past two weeks, when widespread concerns of the COVID-19 outbreak first caused many non-essential businesses to close, including many churches that have moved services online.

A third of Americans say either they or someone in their household have lost a job or taken a pay cut because of the pandemic, according to Pew research, while nearly half of Hispanics, 36 percent of African Americans and 29 percent of Caucasians in the U.S. say the same. More than 3.3 million Americans filed for jobless benefits the week of Mar. 15, almost five times the record high from 1982.

While traditional and mainstream denominations have a hierarchy of funding to tap into, evangelical churches operate more independently in loose associations or none at all.

Larger churches, which often receive support from umbrella networks, and those led by younger pastors, who were more likely to have used online tools before the coronavirus crisis, are less affected than smaller churches, according to the Barna research. Seventy-four percent said their church's attendance is lower or they did not know.

Despite falls in offerings, only 18 percent of pastors who responded to the Barna poll said they are considering reducing staff hours, and less than 1 percent said they are considering layoffs.

Steve Tomlinson, senior pastor of Shelter Rock Church in an affluent suburb of Long Island filled with hedge fund managers and doctors, said his church has seen a 30-35 percent drop in giving since March 15. The church has already furloughed employees that worked only on Sundays and cut salaries of the executive team by 20 percent and other staff by 10 percent, hoping to pay back the difference when the crisis ends. With the changes, the church could operate without debt on half tithes until December.

"We thought we need to be ready to have a marathon and not a sprint, not knowing how long this will go on," Tomlinson said. "Prudence seemed to be to plan to survive for a longer time."

empty church
As the coronavirus closes businesses and puts people on lockdown, many churches, including the Washington National Cathedral in Washington D.C., have moved to giving online services. Patrick Smith/Getty

Closing the giving gap online

At least part of the drop in giving can be attributed to an older generation preferring checks over online donations.

Mark Tucker, pastor of New Life Community Church in Farro, Calif, says their tithes have dropped 50 percent in the last two weeks. Only about a quarter of the congregation is under 40.

"Some of our older congregants who are faithful in giving, they don't use the platforms... online and so we are trying to help them with that," he said. "We still receive checks in the mail."

The church sold a building to raise $400,000 of a needed $2.4 million for a new construction. Now the church leadership has paused that plan and set aside the money as reserves if needed.

A handful of pastors recently tuned into a webinar by the church consulting group Church Ops, led by Matt Svoboda.

"Some of you have 70-80 percent online giving but a gap is a big deal," Svoboda said on the online video chat with pastors. "Some have only 30 percent online giving, so there is anxiety. This is a big threat."

He recommended sharing the exact tithe gifts and needs during each online church service in the normal time allotted for offerings, asking for members to give what they can to meet the needed budget, and following up with emails about how to give online.

"Don't say you have no idea what we're going to do," he advised. "Have the mindset of you're addressing people who are already generous and you're just empowering them to give online. It's not a 'We're so nervous,' but, 'We know God is faithful and generous.'"

Responding to needs in the community, the church lives on

One of the bright spots for churches with resources is that they can allot money they would have spent on community events to immediate assistance like buying groceries for those in need or running errands for the elderly.

Calvary Baptist Church in Lake Havasu City, Ariz. has organized volunteers to buy and deliver groceries and prescription medicines and pick up and drop off kids who can pick up free lunches from their school but need transportation. The church has also helped pay rent and utilities for some and last year, spent about $80,000 in benevolence needs from grocery store gift cards to car repairs, according to Chad Garrison, Lead Pastor of Calvary Baptist.

"We want to bless the community as the crisis is unfolding," Garrison said. "We recognized this is going to have a financial impact on everyone."

At Bridge of Hope, a church in Youngstown, Ohio, Pastor Doug Reed says the best part of the coronavirus crisis is watching the church be the church.

"As cool as it is to have spaces, the ministry is what people do," Reed said. "Something about a crisis triggers something in us like 'I have to do something.' People are finding needs."

One family in the church is preparing meals for students who are home and rely on the school district's free lunch program, to give the families groceries and more than one meal a day. Other church members send the volunteers money on Venmo to purchase the groceries for the prepared meals.

Another member in the church, a teacher, is helping families transition to online learning and homeschooling.

Before the coronavirus spread, Iglesia Vida Dallas sent volunteers to a local homeless ministry to hand out groceries. Now, that ministry has surplus donations and the church delivers some of the food to its members at home and through a drive-through pick-up at the church.

Other needs are more spiritual and emotional.

"We are people that kiss and hug a lot and those things are taken away from us," Vélez said. She describes her church community as one family and talks to them everyday on a WhatsApp chat. Her and her husband Rivera also call people everyday, asking what their family's needs are.

"Whenever we can help we are trying to help, the most we can do, because there's not much we can do," Vélez said. "Today a group of us came together [on WhatsApp] and by talking and messaging, we were fasting and praying during the morning, praying for each other."

Anticipating resurrection

All of the church leaders Religion Unplugged spoke to evoked a sense of calm over despair, leaning on their financial preparedness and budget adaptations, or simply their trust in God. Several view this time as an opportunity to bring hurting, anxious people into their church communities who have not previously practiced much faith.

For Israel Martinez, a church planting missionary, the coronavirus spread completely changed months of planning for the launch of worship services. The new evangelical Redeemer Church Irving switched gears last minute to launch for the first time March 29, online rather than in their venue shared with Iglesias Vida Dallas.

"We wanted to reach people in Irving [near Dallas], and maybe God has a different plan," Martinez said. He's from Puerto Rico and has many international connections from his time served in the military. "My old friends are looking in and seeing, let me see what this guy is doing now... that's what I'm excited about now. Those people loosely connected and just sitting at home and then tuning in."

While their venue would have seated up to 144 people, the Facebook live stream of the service counted more than 1,000 views.

This Wednesday again...Pastor Doug would love to see you and pray for you between 11am-1pm. #bohchurch #drivethruprayer #prayer #youngstown

Posted by Bridge of Hope Church on Monday, March 30, 2020

With support from the Acts 29 network, Dallas-Fort Worth-based The Village Church, the Midland, Texas-based Reliant Ministries and monthly donations Martinez raised from his personal network, the church's finances have a longer runway before they're impacted. And with support from Midland, an oil industry hub in West Texas, oil prices could impact his support just as much or more than coronavirus. A recent price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia led Riyadh to slash oil prices and pledging increased oil production despite record low demand during the global pandemic.

For Easter, on April 12 this year, most churches are planning to hold services online or through creative ways that maintain social distancing.

Shelter Rock Church has discussed an idea for families to sing the Easter hymn "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" in unison wherever they are on their front porches or door steps so that their neighbors may hear, inspired by ancient aesthetic monks in Israel who lived in isolation in caves but sang hymns together on the Sabbath across a 20-mile stretch of cliffs.

"They kept their separation but still understood the importance of corporate worship," Tomlinson said.

He's also optimistic that the collective fear and anxiety from coronavirus and self-quarantines can draw more people into worship. During the 2008 financial crisis, Shelter Rock drew so many new visitors that they set up overflow rooms six Sundays in a row.

The Bridge of Hope Church pastors are considering a drive-in service on Easter Sunday where families can park their cars and pray together but at a distance from each other.

"I am sure we will feel the pinch and usually the first stuff to go is giving," Doug Reed said. "God provides, and if he isn't God in this economy, he isn't God at all."

Meagan Clark is the managing editor of Religion Unplugged. She previously reported retail and economic news for International Business Times, and human rights and religion stories from India for several outlets like Indian Express, the Wire and Scroll.in.

Liza Vandenboom is a student at The King's College, an editorial intern with Religion Unplugged, and a religion columnist for The Empire State Tribune.