Biltmore United Methodist Church of Asheville, North Carolina, is for sale.
Already financially strapped because of shrinking membership and a struggling preschool, the congregation was dealt a crushing blow by the coronavirus. Attendance plummeted, with many staying home or switching to other churches that stayed open the whole time. Gone, too, is the revenue the church formerly got from renting its space for events and meetings.
“Our maintenance costs are just exorbitant,” said the Rev. Lucy Robbins, senior pastor. “And we just don’t have the resources financially that we used to have to be able to do the kind of ministry work that we would like.”
Biltmore is just one of an untold number of congregations across the country that have struggled to stay afloat financially and minister to 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 levels of member donations.
The coronavirus hit at a time when already fewer Americans were going to worship services — with at least half of the nearly 15,300 congregations surveyed in a 2020 report by Faith Communities Today reporting weekly attendance of 65 or less — and exacerbated the problems at smaller churches where increasingly lean budgets often hindered them from things like hiring full-time clergy.
“The pandemic didn’t change those patterns, it only made them a little bit worse,” said Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and co-chair of Faith Communities Today.
Attendance has been a persistent challenge. As faith leaders moved to return to in-person worship, first the highly transmissible delta variant and now the even faster-spreading omicron have thrown a wrench into such efforts, with some churches going back online and others still open reporting fewer souls in the pews.
At Biltmore, for example, attendance at weekly services are down from around 70 pre-pandemic to just about 25 today, counting both in-person and online worship.
After congregants voted last May to put the church property, a two-building campus perched on a verdant knoll just off Interstate 40, on the market, church leaders are still figuring out what comes next, including where the congregation will call home. But they hope to use some of the proceeds from the property sale to support marginalized communities and causes like affordable housing.
Unlike Biltmore, Franklin Community Church, about 20 miles outside of Nashville, Tennessee, doesn’t have its own sanctuary, holding services instead at a public school. That turned out to be a blessing during the pandemic, with no need to worry about a mortgage, upkeep, insurance or utilities.
“We wouldn’t have survived if we’d had all that,” said the Rev. Kevin Riggs, the church’s pastor.