Covid-19 has been a very uncertain and challenging time for congregations, and it appears that for some their congregation’s health might be getting significantly more precarious.
First a little bit of history.
A year ago, when we were all trying to make sense of the pandemic, a sister denomination predicted that they would lose about 20% of their congregations as a consequence of Covid. I agreed at the time; it made sense to me given what I knew about the synod and its congregations. However, as the weeks turned into months, our congregations continued to survive. In fact they seemed to be doing okay. CERB and CEWS helped, as did special grants and gifts. For some congregations, reduced expenses also made a big difference along with a mild winter keeping utilities to a minimum.
I was pleasantly surprised and increasingly optimistic about our congregations’ ability to weather this storm.
More recently though, things have begun to change. Over the past month or so, I have received a number of calls from congregations (and presbyteries) very concerned about their future. In every case, the caller has presented the same question, “Can you please tell me about amalgamation and/or multi-point charges?” Further conversation reveals that while they were able to endure one year of Covid, as they move into this second year, their financial resources are quickly disappearing and their leaders are very anxious about their future.
This is what I think has happened. Every congregation has those who support the church whether it is open or not; in season or out. As a best practice, this consistent support amounts to about 70% of a congregation’s income. The remaining 30% comes from those who give only when they are in worship and from outside rentals. A quick calculation suggests that our congregations have been able to absorb a 30% (or maybe even up to 40%) decline in revenues for a year, but are not able to sustain this for longer than that.
The only conclusion I can draw from this is that even as we (hopefully) are coming to the end of Covid restrictions, we may be entering the most precarious time for congregational survival. This will almost certainly be complicated by the fact that no one knows what a post-Covid church looks like in terms of who will come back and under what circumstances.
I have more questions than answers about what to do about this unexpected turn of events. However, let me make a couple of observations.
- It is real. Even with best of intentions and faithful givers, many of our congregations are on the threshold of their survival.
- The amount of money lagging may be more than congregations think. One congregation I work with reported a $9,500 deficit, but that was only because of a $30,000 loan which will need to be repaid. Thus the real deficit is $39,000. This is not only 1/6th of their reserves, but the loan repayment pushes their 2022 deficit to $90,000.
- It is happening quickly. Another congregational member said; “We have to start the changes by this summer and finalize them by next spring (2022) or we are done.”
- It is happening everywhere. Calls for help are coming from urban and rural locations, in and outside of the synod.
While I don’t have all the answers, I do have a number of options to present to congregations who find themselves in this circumstance. As a first step I urge congregations to look hard at their own situation to see if this emerging reality applies to you, and if so, to encourage you to contact me if you wish to discuss it further. You can always email me at email@example.com
Over the past year we have rediscovered the resilience and flexibility of congregations and their leaders. Facing these new challenges will require continuing imagination and courage. It will also require a prompt response. Putting off or ignoring our present reality is almost certainly the worst response of all. If you would like to talk further, I am here.