Still, it has been a battle. During the 15 months that services at Franklin went online-only, some members left for other congregations or got out of the habit of giving, according to Riggs. Weekly attendance is down from around 100 to less than 40, and the omicron spike recently forced the church to go virtual again.
The impact is felt in the collection plate: The money coming in now is just about a third of what it was before the pandemic, the pastor said. The church has cut spending where it could, turned to grants to try to make up the difference and worked to raise more money from community members who don’t attend but support the church’s ministries, such as serving homeless people.
“We’re surviving. … But we have felt the hurt,” Riggs said.
Another struggling congregation, Friendship Baptist Church in Baltimore, is essentially living week to week. The predominantly Black church received a PPP loan of more than $55,000, but that barely made a dent in expenses. The Rev. Alvin Gwynn Sr. has given up his pastor’s salary and for now is living off Social Security checks and his other job in construction.
Slumping attendance has hurt the bottom line there, as elsewhere. Friendship Baptist counts around 900 active members but only about 150 of them are showing up, making their donations especially crucial.
The church is “surviving because of the sacrificial giving of the 150,” said Gwynn, who doesn’t intend to start drawing a paycheck again until the church is stable. “They give way, way more than a normal offering each Sunday individually.”
During the pandemic, experts said many congregations embraced online giving, which could boost contributions by $300 per person annually, according to The Faith Communities Today report.
More broadly, various other surveys and reports show a mixed picture on congregational giving nationwide.
Gifts to religious organizations grew by 1% to just over $131 billion in 2020, a year when Americans also donated a record $471 billion overall to charity, according to an annual report by GivingUSA. Separately, a September survey of 1,000 protestant pastors by the evangelical firm Lifeway Research found about half of congregations received roughly what they budgeted for last year, with 27% getting less than anticipated and 22% getting more.
Hope Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, a largely upper-middle-class congregation of about 400, is among those that have enjoyed relative stability despite the pandemic.
The Rev. Josh Robinson had expected contributions to drop off when in-person services paused for more than a year, but they remained steady. So have member pledges for upcoming gifts in 2022. Some in the congregation even donated their government stimulus checks to the church, which used them to set up a fund to provide direct financial assistance to those who lost income due to the pandemic.
It all prompted the pastor to reexamine his own approach to the pandemic.