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Churches adopt online services, find new way to raise funds

As the looming threat of COVID-19 became apparent, the Rev. Shawn Walker had one concern: keeping his congregation safe.

He made the difficult decision to close Shiloh Baptist Church’s doors in March, shortly before government mandates brought life to a halt, leaving his small church in North Scranton with deserted pews and empty collection plates.

“We didn’t know what to do, then it got very serious really quickly,” Walker said of the pandemic.

Walker wasn’t alone. Turning from in-person fundraisers to collecting donations online, congregations and their leaders across the country have spent six months working to stay afloat during the pandemic, placing their faith in their religion to see them through.

SS. Cyril and Methodius Ukrainian Catholic Church in Olyphant will likely be forced to cancel its major fundraiser this year, compounded by a drop in donations. The Diocese of Scranton saw more than half of its parishes take out Paycheck Protection Program loans. The Cornerstone Alliance Church in Dickson City saw donations decrease while coronavirus delays held up construction at a new church.

Although churches throughout Northeast Pennsylvania largely say they have been able to pay their bills without dipping into their savings and will survive COVID-19, they’ve felt the financial effects of the pandemic. Funding during pandemic

Regardless of whether it’s collected physically or online, the overwhelming majority of funds for most congregations come from individual giving, said Mark Chaves, Ph.D., a Duke University professor who specializes in the sociology of religion. Chaves is the principal investigator of the National Congregations Study (NCS), — a national survey collecting information on congregations of varying faiths throughout the country. The NCS has conducted surveys in 1998, 2006-07, 2012 and 2018-19. The 2018-19 results, not yet released, surveyed 1,262 congregations.According to Chaves’ findings, a third of churches have no savings accounts, endowments or reserve funds. He noted a strong correlation between a church’s size and its likelihood to have savings. Larger churches are more likely to have money to fall back on compared to smaller churches. Donations from churchgoers are “by far the most important income stream for the vast majority of churches,” he said. His survey determined only about half of congregations even had the capacity to accept electronic donations in 2018 and 2019, but he suspects many more have established ways to donate online during the pandemic.

Churches with electronic donations set up before the pandemic were in a better position to “keep the giving flowing” compared to those starting from scratch, he said. However, simply not attending in-person services can affect someone’s willingness to give, in addition to economic turmoil affecting churchgoers’ ability to donate to their churches, Chaves said.

Though he has not studied it specifically, “it’s a very plausible thing to worry about,” he said.

Expanding online outreach

Although giving among church members decreased, Shiloh Baptist largely maintained its finances by expanding its online outreach during the pandemic, Walker said.

“The giving from the membership went down because they weren’t there,” he said. “The giving from people that we’ve met online picked up where there was a shortfall from membership.” Donations are down overall, but not significantly — just a few percentage points, Walker said.

As a smaller church with a largely older population, Walker focused on safety when the pandemic began. Closing their doors in mid-March forced them to become more technologically savvy, something the church already wanted to do before the pandemic, Walker said. The church reopened June 29. With church leaders advising older and at-risk members to stay home, anywhere from 12 to 25 people attend weekly services, Walker said. Pre-pandemic, the approximately 75-member church would see about 50 people at its services. Shiloh hasn’t had to dip into its emergency fund, which Walker attributed to lower overhead costs as a small church.

“We don’t have a large operating budget,” he said. “What we do have, most of, if not all of it, goes to keeping the church afloat.”

Thinking smaller

With the expected cancellation of its major fundraiser — a rummage sale which can bring in more than $30,000 — SS. Cyril and Methodius Ukrainian Catholic Church in Olyphant shifted its focus to multiple small fundraisers rather than one large event.

Until a vaccine is available, the Very Rev. Nestor Iwasiw said he doesn’t believe the annual sale is viable. In previous years, the rummage sale offered upward of 27,000 items. The church did hold its annual furniture sale, a smaller offshoot of the rummage sale, and recently hosted a food truck festival where it received a percentage of profits, he said. Since the pandemic began, donations are two-thirds of what they were a year ago, and attendance is about half, Iwasiw said. Still, he was amazed by the number of parishioners who continued donating by mail, calling it “a big help for us.” SS. Cyril’s closed March 18 and reopened in June when Gov. Tom Wolf eased restrictions in Lackawanna County.

With about 225 families in the church, a normal, pre-pandemic Saturday afternoon service would have about 60 to 70 people. Now, it’s about 30 to 35, Iwasiw said. Sundays went from two liturgies with about 40 to 50 people each to one service with about 45 people, he said. The church retains its part-time secretary, and a full-time and a part-time maintenance worker, he said.

New home delayed

By now, the Rev. Nestor Soto had hoped Cornerstone Alliance Church would be situated in its new home, a former car dealership in Dickson City, with an anticipated increase in membership thanks to the high-profile location.

Instead, COVID-19 delayed the 35-member church’s plans by nearly six months, leaving the congregation without a home after it sold the building in Blakely. Cornerstone bought the former Gibbons Ford showroom on Main Street for $365,000, according to a property transaction recorded April 24, 2019.Soto planned for construction to be completed by May, but the pandemic prevented crews from starting work and there was an unexpected issue with the building’s HVAC system. They now plan to move into the new church by mid to late October. Donations are down by about a third. Soto attributed the drop to a lack of in-person services from March 15 through July 5, before he temporarily resumed services in their old church until selling it less than two months later. During the brief return, attendance hovered at about 15 to 20 people each service. Ordinarily, they’d have up to 30.

While some churchgoers still faithfully donate online or by mail, others only donate when they’re physically present, he said, explaining it’s not an issue unique to his church.

With members of the congregation on vacation, giving can decline during the summer under normal circumstances, Soto said. People from outside the area started tuning in to the services Cornerstone broadcast online, he said, recalling a family from Pike County who started donating every week.

“We had irregular giving come in from different sources that I would relegate to the goodness of God,” he said. “We didn’t have to dip into savings. We didn’t go any month without paying our bills.”

A boost early on

As a pastor, paying bills is always a concern, but God provided during the pandemic, said the Rev. Jack Munley of Rescue & Restore Church.

The storefront church at 125 W. Lackawanna Ave. in Olyphant saw an increase in donations for several months during the pandemic, Munley said, attributing it to the community noticing their ramped-up charitable efforts.

“It hasn’t been easy,” he said. “We’ve been very active.”

Normally, his church would take in about $12,000 a month, but for the first two to three months of the pandemic, they raised $13,000 to $14,000, Munley said.

The congregation also rallied to help, he said.

“We were never in lack,” Munley said. “It’s amazing.”

In the early months of the pandemic, Rescue & Restore doubled its free takeout meal distribution to twice a month and quadrupled its food distribution from monthly to weekly, serving about 90 hot meals and helping around 100 families at each distribution, he said.“People couldn’t come to church,” Munley said. “We could still bring some hope, some brightness to their day.”

The church closed early in the pandemic and reopened in June. Since then, turnout dropped from around 100 people each service to about 75 split between two Sunday services, he said. With the surge in donations subsiding, Rescue & Restore is back to where it was financially before the pandemic, he said. Parishes seek protection

Across the 118-parish, 11-county diocese, there have been no discussions about closing churches, though 78 parishes applied for federal Paycheck Protection Program loans spokesman Eric Deabill said. There were initially furloughs in the diocese, but the loans helped, Deabill said. He was unaware of any layoffs.

Of the parishes that applied for loans, 77 received them. They are still waiting to receive word on the final church, Deabill said.

In total, the diocese received about $10.2 million in loans, spread across various diocesan organizations, including parishes, he said. The diocese raised $251,000 from 1,384 donors through its coronavirus emergency fund — about $80,000 of which went to parishes, Deabill said. They established the emergency fund in late March primarily to help parishes with no online donation options after halting in-person services, he said. While some churches had already been accepting donations online and were able to smoothly transition, others had never collected money online.

Parishioners have continued donating to the fund, earmarking payments for their churches. With popular summer events canceled because of pandemic restrictions, churches became creative, instead holding raffles and drive-thru breakfasts, Deabill said.

Overall, diocesan congregations are weathering the pandemic, said the Most Rev. Joseph C. Bambera.

“Even though our numbers in the pews are not up to where they were pre-COVID, our people still feel they want to support the church and are sending in their offerings or dropping them off at parish offices and the like,” he said.

Even when churches face declining participation, they’re often resilient.

Loyal members will give more in order to ensure their church is operational, Chaves said. Churches also will divert more money internally by reducing benevolent work in the community to continue functioning, he said.

Churches have seen an obvious decline in participation from congregations over the years, he said.

“But, the people who are there tend to give more when they need to, which keeps things going,” Chaves said. “Older people are never going to feel comfortable coming back probably … unless there’s some kind of a vaccine that will be 100% effective. And, some people have just gotten out of the habit. … Will they get back into the habit? I don’t know.”

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Online:

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Information from: The Times-Tribune, http://thetimes-tribune.com/

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press.

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