Churches’ adaptations to the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic may determine how well they will be able to reach and serve communities in the future.
For many churches, the changes will be permanent.
Most churches learned the value of offering services online early in the pandemic – keeping congregations involved from home and maintaining their faith. But without in-person attendance and without people depositing weekly tithes in collection baskets, churches have had to find different ways to garner financial support from congregations.
Online donations have increased.
Lutheran Church of Our Savior pastor Scott Musselman said his church is blessed to be one step ahead. It was heavily focused on online donations before the pandemic, he said.
“We made this kind of point a few years ago – to really encourage online donations,” he said. “At the time, people were talking about the summer crisis. People were going on vacation and all of a sudden the churches were struggling to pay the bills during the summer. Our people realized that the churches had bills during the summer season.”
Most of the people he serves donate once a month to the church.
Because it was already focused on online giving, the church avoided the financial challenges that other churches might have faced.
Second Baptist Church members have found blessings during the pandemic, according to the Rev. Cornell Sudduth Sr. He added that the past two years have changed the church forever. The pandemic took the Second Baptist Church by surprise, he said. But it fits.
“During this pandemic, some churches did not survive and had to close,” Sudduth said. “We didn’t have to close our doors. It evened out.”
Revenues plummeted, he said. But fewer people doing fewer church activities meant spending went down.
“Whatever money we received was enough to get us through,” he said.
Some church members sent tithes by mail. Meanwhile, the church has shifted to accepting mobile payments through services such as Cash App.
“We have a good, strong church working together to support the church. Even those watching on Facebook and online continue to give to the church because they know our spending continues,” Sudduth said.
The past two and a half years have been difficult at St. Peter’s Catholic Parish, according to Father Jeremy Secrist.
“Something that transformed because of what we went through was how we ask our parishioners to contribute to the church,” Secrist said, “how we ask them to be good stewards.
Secrist arrived at the church in February 2019. At that time, he said, the vast majority of contributions from St. Peter’s Church were received in the Sunday collection basket.
“Due to COVID-19, there has been a transformation towards the use of modern technology that is not solely dependent on actually passing a basket on Sunday mornings,” Secrist said. “So far we haven’t started passing the basket again.”
He said a majority of parishioners now use credit cards or pay online.
He pointed out that contributions are more private this way. And, he said, when the basket was passed — despite staff’s diligence in putting the collections in a safe — there was always concern about the security of the contributions.
Some cash-outs are still taking place, Secrist said.
“We are always very diligent after Mass to put the collections in a safe. But there is much less worry and anxiety about what would happen if someone ran away with the collection,” said he declared.
The priest on the porch
The community has focused on what is truly needed in parish life, Secrist said.
“Here in St. Peter, we haven’t totally shut down,” he said. “We continued to have masses every day and every Sunday, but in very reduced numbers.”
Many in the parish wanted to continue having face-to-face interactions with their priests. The church, at 216 Broadway St., began offering “Priest on the Porch” availability. Thus, passers-by on the sidewalk could have conversations with a priest without having close contact.
“It gives the opportunity to visit the priest, to go to confession or to get a sacrament – in a way that is not in a small space,” Secrist said. “It provided more public availability that might not have been contemplated without COVID-19.
“It is my intention to do so in the future.”
Secrist – like many others – had never heard of Zoom two years ago. But the pandemic has forced the church to prioritize which meetings to hold and who to include. Just about everyone in the parish has learned to use Zoom, he said.
There are meetings today that the parish still only conducts via Zoom.
“They don’t take as long. It saves gas. It saves time,” Secrist said. “And we can still see each other.”
The pandemic has forced St. Peter’s School to offer only online instruction for some time. For this reason, teachers and students got Chromebooks.
Thus, the school no longer needs its computer lab – which is now freed up for a much-needed classroom, and the students use their computers in the classrooms.
Some of the instructors are very experienced educators, Secrist said. They also had to learn how to prepare daily online classes.
The most common change among churches in the region — and the one that seems to have the most resistance — has been the move to streaming services. Streaming has helped churches keep in touch with attendees who couldn’t attend due to the danger of crowds gathering.
But it also provided a way to reach people confined to their homes and people who have moved away from churches, according to Father Louis Nelen, rector of St. Joseph’s Cathedral.
“Yes, the pandemic has prompted us to start streaming Masses live, and this practice will remain for those who are (sick) or housebound, so they can feel a greater connection to their parish community,” Nelen said. “However, many parishioners have returned in person and seem happy to have the opportunity to share time together again.”
“I’m old school,” Sudduth said. “I believe people should be in church.”
But he understands that many in his congregation are elderly and fearful of being in a crowd with others. And some would simply prefer to participate from home.
“We’re broadcasting live now, so people can watch our services in their pajamas at home,” Sudduth said.
And people who didn’t attend services are finding the church, he said.
“We picked up – I think all churches would say this – they picked up other people who can watch our church live or the next day,” he said.
Our Lutheran Savior had an online presence before the pandemic, Musselman said. And it saw an initial surge in interest online.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the pandemic has propelled us all into the electronic age,” Musselman said. “We were sort of dabbling, if you will. We all – all of a sudden – had to update our gear to be adequate.”
Churches today are about as equipped to provide video services as anyone but a television studio.
“There’s no question the technology is bittersweet. All kinds of doors have opened up,” Musselman said. “But it can be frustrating when the technology isn’t working properly.”
There is no doubt that the technology is ideal for people who cannot attend church. And that’s great for people who travel, he said.
Another helpful benefit of so many online churches is that they tend to give people considering churches the option to shop from home. This is a “huge” change for people.
“You absolutely have to…have an online presence,” Musselman said. “A place where people can go and see what you provide on Sunday mornings. They can go and check it out before they go (to church).”