Most pastors said this week that they are not planning to open in time for the holiday, generally considered the holiest day on the Christian calendar. They are bracing for huge financial problems as they face empty pews on what is normally one of the biggest collection days of the year.
“The messaging that’s coming out from the president is confusing for many people,” said Jamie Aten, executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois. “I appreciate the fact that he’s encouraging hopefulness, but we have to approach this with a dose of humility.”
Just before pastor Chris Beard shut the doors on Christ Covenant Church in Beaumont, Tex., a congregant told him that the coronavirus “was ‘just the flu,’ and that the media needs to shut up.” Stopping in-person services, Beard said, seemed like the best way to protect his congregation, which has fewer than 100 members.
Beard watched in disbelief this week as Trump suggested that the economy would be “opened up and raring to go” by Easter. “I was kind of gobsmacked,” he said. “We finally have people paying attention and taking this seriously.”
Other churches across the United States are already trying to cut their expenses by trimming programs, putting employees on furlough or laying them off.
The stimulus bill, passed by the House on Friday, could offer some relief to all houses of worship, nonprofits and their employees, according to Nathan Diament, Orthodox Union’s executive director for public policy, who worked with legislators to help craft the bill. The legislation expands the availability of unemployment benefits to laid-off employees and provides a loan program for nonprofits with fewer than 500 employees, which would be forgiven if used for purposes such as paying salaries, rent and utilities. And it creates a charitable deduction of $300 for every taxpayer.
Meanwhile, most pastors are trying to plan for a different kind of Easter. Locally, Washington Episcopal Bishop Mariann Budde has suspended public worship through May 16. Public Mass for the Washington Archdiocese has been suspended until further notice.
Easter services are among the most highly attended of the year. It is when many adults are received into the Catholic Church and celebrate their first Communion. Churches across the country usually raise $9 million to $10 million for refugee services, said Patrick Markey, who runs a national group of diocesan finance officers. But with churches closed, no one can pass the plate — at least not in person.
Even though Pope Francis set an example for Catholic leaders by streaming services several weeks ago, Markey said U.S. Catholic leaders are getting some pushback over decisions to stop public Mass, especially in areas where no coronavirus cases had been confirmed.
“Bishops are getting nasty letters, saying, ‘Why did you cancel church? There’s nobody sick,’ ” Markey said.
As Catholic dioceses were already facing financial challenges amid the sexual abuse crisis, these next few weeks could be especially difficult for local parishes. The Knights of Columbus fraternal organization announced this week that it has established a $100 million fund to offer a $1 million line of credit for each Catholic diocese to help with short-term financing.
Johnnie Moore, who does consulting and public relations for several of Trump’s evangelical supporters, said that religious advisers to the president are not pressuring him to enable them to reopen their churches by Easter. Moore said that Trump is trying to address not only the pandemic of the virus but the “pandemic of fear.”
“This was him speaking aspirationally, not irrationally. But no one is holding him to it,” Moore said. “People need hope. They need to know that this isn’t indefinite.”
The number of churches shifting to online giving has skyrocketed, according to David Rogers, senior vice president of marketing of Ministry Brands, which hosts several platforms for online giving. On Sunday, twice as many people donated on those platforms than gave on the same Sunday the previous year.
On average, people who contribute online give 33 percent more than people who give money in person, according to Rick Dunham, chair of the board for the Giving USA Foundation. Churches have already been moving quickly toward online platforms where people give automatically, but the bigger, more urban churches have been faster to adopt the platforms. Most Americans attend smaller churches of fewer than 100, where online giving is much less common.
Jim Winkler, president of the ecumenical organization National Council of Churches, said his organization is recommending that people celebrate Easter by taking steps at home. He suggests blowing out a candle on Good Friday, putting up Christmas lights in their window and writing “Christ is Risen” in chalk on the driveway.
Even as most church doors are closed, the demand for the kinds of services churches offer has skyrocketed, said Winkler, who attends Fairlington United Methodist Church in Alexandria.
“I haven’t seen church life slow down,” he said. “I’m seeing it as busier than ever.”
Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said Christian leaders in European and Asian countries are telling him that the fight against the spread of the coronavirus is long-term, not something that will lift around Easter.
“Some may believe this is a short-term battle,” he said. “If the wisdom of the global church is to be received, it’s possible it’s a prolonged shift in the ways we think about worship and mission. It requires broad and sustained efforts.”
Most historically black churches are adapting to virtual worship for the first time and are still making sure parishioners can join them online, said Suzan Johnson Cook, who has served as a pastor for the past 30 years.
“Easter’s our high holy day, but there’s nothing worth the human life,” said Cook, who was the ambassador for international religious freedom under President Barack Obama. “We have a Pentecostal experience. Whether that’s virtually, we can experience that spirit.”