By Dr. Steve Crawley, Exec. Dir. Ministers Resource Services
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives in no small way. These changes are pervasively reaching into most every area of life, but the most quantifiable of the changes obviously relate to our finances. As church members face financial challenges, churches will certainly be impacted.
How might leaders address these inherent financial challenges their congregations are and will be facing due to COVID-19?
Bill Wilson, director of The Center for Healthy Churches, estimates that as many as one-third of churches across the United States may close within the next five years and that there will be a 33% decline in giving this year. Part of the reason for this drop is obviously related to a general prediction that post-pandemic church attendance is expected to drop, particularly among those who are occasional attendees.
While Wilson’s estimate is hopefully high, a decrease in giving is most likely, as we are experiencing first-hand at BMA America’s national level.
While the current worldwide pandemic presents a formidable financial challenge, it also presents an opportunity for churches to rethink their overall strategy for reaching and teaching people — financially and otherwise. To thrive and not merely survive in this environment will likely require that we are intentional in our leadership approach. Here are four suggestions to consider in response to the looming financial challenges we may face:
• Preach and teach financial stewardship. Empirical data provides a clear correlation between teaching about biblical finance and higher giving levels. David King, director of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving (part of the prestigious Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy), shares that churches that regularly discuss the theological importance of giving through sermons, money management classes and stewardship training have significantly higher levels of giving.
As an example, a recent research project revealed that just 12% of the 1,200 churches surveyed reported that they addressed financial matters on a regular basis; yet of those that did, 73% reported increases in giving.
• Implement alternative methods of giving. When conducting my dissertation research in 2013-14, I found that just 6% of churches affiliated with BMA of America offered electronic giving options. Yet much has changed over the past six years, particularly with the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Churches with electronic giving options in place when the pandemic hit were better poised to maintain cash flow. It might be wise to consider an on-going option for such giving.
As a practical measure, Phillip Martin of The Church Network suggests that churches send out regular emails on Saturday evenings or Sunday mornings to prompt and remind members to give. Further, to overcome the stigma of online giving and to aid in the act of worship when members do return, churches may consider providing giving cards to place in the offering plate for those with electronic drafts containing a simple statement: “I gave online.”
• Be less focused on physical assets. We know that the church is not a building, but our practices in the U.S. might suggest otherwise. Billions of dollars are tied up in physical assets that carry significant overhead costs. These costly assets are often used only a small portion of the week.
With tighter financial margins likely, churches will be forced to become better stewards of their brick and mortar. This may mean cooperating with another congregation in the use of the facilities, or possibly leasing a portion of the property to generate income.
• Set aside sufficient cash reserves. Bill Wilson, director for The Center for Healthy Churches, claims that based on his years of experience in working with churches, approximately 30% of congregations operate with little to no cash reserves. The past two months provide a good example of why it is important to set aside an emergency fund for lean times.
Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability suggests churches adopt policies requiring, at a minimum, reserves adequate to cover accrued designated gifts and debt service reserves.
Moreover, it is advisable to be intentional in building a cash reserve by incorporating a line item into the church’s annual budget; otherwise, it is not likely to happen. A general rule of thumb is to aim for 90 days of cash on hand to cover your operating costs.
In conclusion, in the midst of the financial challenges facing churches across the world, we recognize God as our Sovereign Lord and know that He is in control. The earth and everything in it belong to the Lord, and His Word instructs us to be good stewards of his assets. May God use the challenges of the current pandemic to lead us to become more effective in the use of His resources, in the fulfillment of the Great Commandment, and in carrying out His Great Commission.