Mar 22, 2020 4:58 PM

As offerings dwindle, some churches fear for their future

Posted Mar 22, 2020 4:58 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — As in-person worship services are canceled or downsized amid the coronavirus outbreak, some churches across the U.S. are bracing for a painful drop in weekly contributions and possible cutbacks in programs and staff.

One church leader, Bishop Paul Egensteiner of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Metropolitan New York Synod, said some of the 190 churches in his region were unlikely to survive because of a two-pronged financial hit. Their offerings are dwindling, and they are losing income from tenants such as preschools which can no longer afford to rent church venues.

“As much as I’d like to help them, everybody's reserves are taking a hit because of the stock market,” Egensteiner said,

At Friendship Baptist Church in Baltimore, a mostly African American congregation of about 1,100, the Rev. Alvin Gwynn Sr. bucked the cancellation trend by holding services last Sunday. But attendance was down by about 50%, and Gwynn said the day’s offering netted about $5,000 compared to a normal intake of about $15,000.

“It cuts into our ministry,” he said. “If this keeps up, we can’t fund all our outreach to help other people.”

There was a brighter outcome at the Church of the Resurrection, a large United Methodist Church congregation that operates out of five locations in the Kansas City area.

Cathy Bien, the church’s communications director, said about 25,700 people logged in to join online worship last Sunday after in-person services were canceled. That compared to normal Sunday participation of 14,000 worshippers -– 8,000 in person and 6,000 online.

“It blew our minds,” Bien said. “They were coming from all over the country -– a lot of Methodists from other churches.”

The huge turnout didn’t translate into a larger than normal offering, although the church is still processing checks that were sent by some of the worshippers, Bien said. She expressed hope that financial support will remain robust as the church stresses the need to bolster food pantries and other community programs in the face of COVID-19.

t Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, giving was down modestly last weekend as the church cancelled in-person worship and made the service available online.

The pastor, Walter Kim, said some of his roughly 1,000 congregants have grown accustomed to online giving in recent years, but many worshippers still give in person at the services - an option not available for now.

“We’ll be asking them to sign up (for online giving) or mail a check,” said Kim. He will be urging congregants to bolster the church’s “mercy fund” for use assisting hard-up members of the community as job losses multiply.

In addition to his pastoral duties Kim is president of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents more than 45,000 evangelical churches. The NAE will be co-hosting a two-day digital summit next week featuring videos from church leaders advising other pastors nationwide how to respond creatively and effectively to the virus outbreak.

The co-host is the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois, which already has offered resources to churches in response to COVID-19.

“Some changes are going to be required,” Kim said. “The church is a very creative institution. In the end it will find ways of fulfilling its mission.”

In Western Massachusetts, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield has indefinitely cancelled all public Masses, and recently rescinded permission for parishioners to pray individually at their churches.

Funeral Masses were still allowed with a maximum attendance of 25; the diocese said the times of those Masses were not to be shared in the media,

“Lack of access to the churches and Eucharist is particularly difficult for many older parishioners whose entire daily routine is built around getting up, out of the house, and going to Mass,” said the Rev. Mark Stelzer, who has served in the diocese as a parish priest and college chaplain.

The Rev. William Tourigny, pastor of Ste. Rose de Lima Church in Chicopee, Massachusetts, said his parish had a solid financial foundation and expected it could maintain all programs and staff payroll for the time being.

“For smaller faith-based communities with little or no reserved funds, difficult decisions will need to be made,” he said.

Joe Wright, executive director of the Bivocational and Small Church Leadership Network in Nashville said many pastors in the network have been holding regular in-person services, while monitoring the spread of the virus.

“Once the coronavirus rises to the level where it starts hitting smaller groups, then we’ll see even the smaller groups back away and seek ways to gather, probably electronically,” he said.

When that happens, Wright said, financial giving will depend on the church, especially the age of the congregations.

“Some churches with older congregations do not give electronically so the transition to that will be a little bit harder,” he said.

Ron Klassen, executive director of Rural Home Missionary Association, said it’s too early to say how the rural churches he represents are being impacted.

"My sense is that in the past, people rise up and, if anything, the giving might increase,” he said. “People are going to give. They’ll take care of their church and their community.”

In Baltimore, pastor Gwynn worries that tensions might rise past the point that church outreach programs can help.

“With all the uncertainty, I’m afraid this could turn into anarchy,” he said. “Not everybody’s patient. Not everybody’s law abiding.”

He even envisioned the possibility of a stampede toward the goods being doled out after church’s annual food drive.

“My biggest fear right now is what's happening to the minds of our people,” Gwynn said. “How long can we hold them together?’

___

Continue Reading Panhandle Post
Mar 22, 2020 4:58 PM
FIRST FIVE: In crisis times, balancing safety and freedom
Lata Nott is chief content officer of the Freedom Forum.

In times of crisis, safety and freedom may seem like they’re at odds with each other. A society that respects individual liberty can’t implement the same kinds of drastic laws and policies that a more authoritarian one can.

This puts more of an onus on citizens of a democracy to make responsible choices. As we face a virus that we can easily pass on without realizing it, that may not cause any symptoms in those who are young and healthy but is potentially deadly to the elderly and those with preexisting conditions, we need to keep in mind that our independent media and civil society can be assets in this fight, as long as we balance our personal freedoms with care and compassion for each other.

As I write this column, 7,038 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the United States. The highly contagious nature of the virus has led Ohio to postpone its presidential primary, Washington and Maryland to shut down all restaurants and bars (except for delivery and takeout) and California to call for all people 65 and older to shelter inside their homes. More than 30 states have closed their schools. On Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that no gatherings of 50 people or more be held in the U.S. for the next eight weeks. On Monday, it amended that warning to apply to gatherings of more than 10 people. I’m certain that by the time you read this, there will be more cases of COVID-19, as well as more shutdowns, both voluntary and mandated by state and local officials.

All of this was unimaginable last week. Just last month, the coronavirus seemed like a rather distant problem, even though the first confirmed case in the U.S. occurred in late January. We had several weeks to observe China’s handling of COVID-19 and at first, a lot of our conversations had a tone of reluctant admiration for how swiftly an authoritarian government could act in the face of an outbreak. In a matter of days, the Chinese government had quarantined entire cities, suspended travel, closed schools and businesses and built two new specialized hospitals. What democracy could match that?

It didn’t take long for the truth to come to light. Not that the Chinese government had been censoring information and violating civil liberties — that was sort of a given — but that censoring information and violating civil liberties actually made the outbreak worse. China’s suppression of news about the outbreak prevented health care practitioners and individuals from being able to take appropriate precautions and hindered officials from being able to coordinate a response. As this personal essay from an anonymous resident of Wuhan put it, “Before this coronavirus, I always thought it was OK to sacrifice some level of democracy and freedom for better living conditions. But now I have changed my attitude. Without democracy and freedom, the truth of the outbreak in Wuhan would never be known.”

Of course, now that it’s our turn to deal with the virus, it’s hard to argue that we’re doing much better. For weeks, the Trump administration downplayed the severity of the situation, contradicting public health experts and news media reports and delaying containment and mitigation efforts. According to The Washington Post, early problems with manufacturing coronavirus tests, “along with an initial decision to test only a narrow set of people and delays in expanding testing to other labs, gave the virus a head start to spread undetected — and helped perpetuate a false sense of security that leaves the United States dangerously behind.” Officials in China are reportedly watching our mishandling of the outbreak with a “mix of shock and pleasure. They find it hard to believe that the world’s top superpower might be bungling its response to the virus, even after having had weeks to prepare for its possible arrival.”

 As the national security law blog Lawfare has pointed out, many observers are using the coronavirus as a proxy war for democracies versus authoritarian systems. This is, of course, an oversimplification, but it does highlight an important truth — civil liberties do have an impact on how governments deal with crises. Our freedoms of press and speech ensure the free flow of information, but they also allow misinformation to spread. And while South Korea, a fellow democracy but one with less regard for civil liberties, was able to curtail its COVID-19 outbreak by forcibly shutting down a series of churches where the virus initially spread, it’s hard to imagine an American government official doing the same. Such an action, “might register to many Americans as an egregious violation of basic First Amendment instincts regarding the freedom of religion, right to assemble and separation of church and state.”

Our state, city and federal officials do have the power to place people in isolation or quarantine, but that power is tempered by the Constitution (the government cannot confine people arbitrarily and without adequate explanation) and by the norms of our society (the impact on liberty means that these are considered measures of last resort). Officials in the U.S. are more likely to recommend that people voluntarily practice social distancing. And even when they do make some aspects of this behavior compulsory, these policies aren’t nearly as draconian as they would be in an authoritarian system. When Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ordered bars, restaurants and recreation centers closed, he added, “we hope that Ohioans will follow this advice. Just as with every other law or rule, you can’t enforce it every time.” Compare this to language a Chinese party committee used to discourage citizens from hiding infections: “Whoever deliberately delays or conceals reporting for the sake of their own interests will be forever nailed to history’s pillar of shame.”

Our democratic approach means that we run the risk of our citizens not taking the warnings seriously. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie observed on Monday that, “There are still too many Americans going out to restaurants, bars and other public areas as if this is business as usual.” In a way, this is the cost of our freedoms. We’ve been advised, whether we are healthy or ill, to practice social distancing, by minimizing contact with other people, limiting nonessential travel, working from home and avoiding gatherings. But for most of us, this isn’t a mandate. Instead, it’s a choice we make — every time we cancel plans, stay in our homes and forego human contact for another day. These decisions might not make much of a difference to your personal health and safety, but can have an outsized impact on the health and safety of others. As the director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, has said, “I think we as a nation have to get into a place of not just thinking about ourselves, but thinking about everybody else around us, and particularly the most vulnerable people — those who are older and those people with chronic diseases. Young people may have a relatively low risk of serious illness, kids seem to have a very low risk, but if you want to avoid what could be the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, then it is incumbent on all of us to severely limit our social interactions. We need to ask the question about every interaction we have and whether it is necessary or not.”

It can be quite daunting to realize that flattening the curve — slowing the rate of new infections in order to buy researchers more time to develop vaccines and give hospitals some respite — is a responsibility that falls on all of us as individuals. But the thing about democracies is that they’re fundamentally optimistic about human nature. We give people civil liberties, knowing full well that some will abuse those rights, because we expect that, on the whole, most will use them wisely. We protect heinous speech, false information and pointless assembly from government crackdowns because we don’t want to risk infringing on valuable speech, information and assembly — and with that there is an inherent assumption that it’s worth it, that the good outweighs the bad.

There is no requirement that you exercise your freedoms responsibly, but the fact that you have them reflects the underlying belief that you will.

Lata Nott is chief content officer of the Freedom Forum. Contact her via email at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter at @LataNott.