COVID-19: Numbers and beyond, what Churches of Christ need to know
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‘Don’t waste time. Do it now.”
That’s Jason Thompson’s advice to Churches of Christ contemplating online giving amid the COVID-19 quarantines that have driven congregations to virtual worship assemblies.
Thompson serves as executive minister for the Harpeth Hills Church of Christ in Brentwood, Tenn., which had a Sunday morning attendance of about 1,200 prior to the pandemic.
The Nashville-area church has encouraged online giving for almost 10 years, Thompson said. About 60 percent of its contributions are made via the Realm platform that allows gifts from debit or credit cards or by ACH (Automatic Clearing House) transactions.
After three weeks of sharing pre-recorded sermons via its website and using Facebook Live for two devotionals per day, the congregation had seen no drop in online gifts, he said. Some traditional givers had mailed checks to the building, but Harpeth Hills’ elders encouraged those members to make the switch.
It was too early, Thompson said, to know the full impact of the coronavirus crisis on the church’s finances.
Many large congregations with a history of online giving have had similar experiences using Realm or other church database software with online giving options.
Others use apps like tithe.ly or Pushpay that may allow text-to-give options or permit scheduled giving via credit or debit card or ACH bank transactions. And many began years ago by simply asking members to set up bank drafts or make payments using PayPal.
Most apps have a percentage fee, and some have transaction fees of a few cents per gift. However, the fees are typically covered by the increased consistency, and some apps allow the members to voluntarily pay the transaction fee themselves, experts say.
About 1,400 gather on Sunday mornings at the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas, where Ben Siburt is the executive minister. Online giving has been an option for Highland members for at least eight or nine years, originally via the Kindred app, which Siburt believes is still a good option for smaller churches. They have since shifted to Realm.
“After the first week of online-only worship services, we saw a big drop,” Siburt said, “but the second week was above what normal giving would be.” After three weeks, they were on budget.
Some smaller congregations have been hit harder.
Jim Oliver is a deacon and the church treasurer for the Ventura Church of Christ, a 100-member Southern California congregation where tithe.ly was instituted four months ago and had increased to about 20 percent of contributions.
After the first week of online services, Oliver described the 25 percent drop in giving as “pretty stark.”
“But we have had a lot of people who have mailed in contributions,” Oliver said. “Typically, it’s our seniors that are doing that. Most of them accepted the online streaming, but not the (giving) apps.”
And then there are the tiny Churches of Christ with no online giving.
Tory Watson Johnson is the bookkeeper and social media manager for the 50-member Gonzales Church of Christ, a Texas congregation about 75 miles east of San Antonio.
Johnson has priced online giving options for the congregation in the past, but for now the leadership “is not wanting to pull that trigger.” They have posted two weeks of sermons via YouTube and are beginning a Facebook Live watch party for Wednesday night Bible study. Still, giving was down about 85 percent.
Among the nine church leaders interviewed by The Christian Chronicle for this story and the more than 50 who responded to an unscientific survey shared over social media, declines of 25 percent to 50 percent during March were common.
Some with declines in the 20-25 percent range saw that as highly concerning while others viewed a contribution at 75-80 percent of budget under the circumstances as encouraging. The most common threads were a high level of consistency in online gifts and a desire to keep serving church members.
Of course, more is involved in the decline than just preference or predominance of online vs. traditional tithing. In a Pew Research Center survey, a third of Americans said “someone in their household has lost a job or taken a pay cut or both because of the outbreak.”
Even congregations such as the Bammel Church of Christ in Houston — where giving actually has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic — may be negatively affected as members face economic consequences of the virus outbreak.
“Given where we are with COVID-19 and the oil industry, particularly in Houston, and churches not gathering as we have, my concern is it will play out in a negative way,” said Bob Stephen, interim executive minister and a shepherd at Bammel.
“We are trying to reinforce that, ‘We are here, we are active, we have community, and your offerings to the Lord are being utilized — they’re needed,’” he added. “I’m concerned that as we don’t meet, that can suffer.”
Indeed, more than 16 million Americans have filed for jobless benefits during the last three weeks reported. Those numbers are expected to rise and the types of industries affected increase as shelter-in-place requirements tighten.
The reality of lost income and other complications brought on by a stay-at-home life have affected how church finances should be directed, according to numerous church leaders.
“Remember that the church Jesus died for was a church that sold their possessions in order to provide for each other.”
Harpeth Hills’ Thompson said that while the long-term impact remains unknown, he believes church leaders should be planning now to be conservative for the rest of the year.
“We need to be sure we’re also meeting the needs of our members,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to ask people what their needs are at the same time we ask people to give. Remember that the church Jesus died for was a church that sold their possessions in order to provide for each other.”
Jim Martin, vice president of the Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn., and a member of the Highland Church of Christ in nearby Cordova, Tenn., said he talked with numerous ministers and church leaders about the pandemic’s impact.
“One church I talked with … only received 30 percent of their budget,” he said. “Some elders and finance committees are very intentional about what they do next, but others are kind of taking a wait-and-see approach. I have to wonder: Where’s that going to go?”
Doug Peters is the senior minister for the Grace Crossing church, a Church of Christ in the Houston suburb of Conroe. Peters also is a partner in the Hope Network, which consults with Churches of Christ.
Amid the coronavirus crisis, the number of online givers at Grace Crossing have increased to more than 50 percent. However, overall contributions had dropped by about half in the congregation of 300.
Peters suggests that church leaders have a spiritual obligation, not just a financial one, to move people to online giving as a means of involving a group he calls “a checkless, Venmo generation.”
Venmo, Cash App and PayPal Mobile Cash all allow users to send or receive money using a phone app, commonly called P2P cash transaction apps.
“This issue is crucial for the culture of churches — what does it say about a church that does not offer online giving in 2020?” Peters said. “What does that communicate to young people growing up in a Venmo society? It denotes a certain amount of irrelevance.”
Even before the coronavirus, the Manhattan Church of Christ — at the U.S. epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis — had been encouraging members to make contributions using bill-paying systems.
“We had been in the process of adding an online payment system that was just starting up when we ceased to have our regular worship time,” said Tom Robinson, senior minister for the Manhattan church. “People have picked it up pretty well.”
Giving took an immediate substantial decline, Robinson said, but then began an upswing.
The Manhattan congregation took a leadership role among Churches of Christ after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
In that circumstance, churches began calling the New York church’s office, asking how they could help and where they should send contributions.
The coronavirus crisis is different, Robinson said: “Everyone is in this boat. There’s no outpouring of funds. Everyone’s funds are cut off. And we’re figuring out what our resources are going to be and how we can help each other and carry on as many ministries as we can.”
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