Pastor J. Artie Stuckey has cut or eliminated every staff salary at his small Mississippi church. He is nervously watching the payments for the building where Restoration Baptist meets. He reminds his congregation to keep tithing, but he knows many of them — the barber, the electrician, the musician — have also seen their finances rocked by the pandemic shutdown.
Stuckey, a 42-year-old who sold cars until the ministry called him 15 years ago, is sympathetic to being cash-strapped. Restoration wasn’t in great financial shape even before the virus wiped out more than 50 percent of its weekly offerings.
But now the 65-member evangelical church outside Jackson is in survival mode. Which, to Stuckey, feels like a test of faith.
“I made a commitment to God, to my people. We’ve been teaching and preaching faith. Anyone can be a leader, but if you’re a faith leader, what do we do?” he asked. “Do we fold, or do we become a living example of what we’ve preached for so many years?”
The novel coronavirus is pressing painfully on the soft underbelly of U.S. houses of worship: their finances. About a third of all congregations have no savings, according to the 2018-2019 National Congregations Study. Just 20 percent streamed their services and 48 percent were able to accept donations electronically, the study found, making it more challenging to serve the faithful and gather their donations during the virus shutdown.
The blow has been hardest on the nation’s many small congregations (about half of U.S. congregations are the size of Stuckey’s or smaller). Some experts think the coronavirus could reshape the country’s religious landscape and wipe out many small houses of worship. These are places where members typically go to seek guidance and comfort, but members are now finding closed buildings and desperate pleas for funds.
“It’s like a father who can’t do for their child. Like if God sent Jesus to Earth but couldn’t do nothing for him. There’s nothing I can do, and that’s one of the worst things a father can say to a child,” said the Rev. Rickey Scott, pastor of the 175-member East St. Peter Missionary Baptist Church outside Oxford, Miss.
With funding at about 65 percent of normal, Scott has cut all of his staff, including church musicians and secretaries, and is agonizing about congregants who are isolated. He streams Sunday services and Wednesday Bible studies live on Facebook but knows only about half of the congregation is connected. The region has poor connectivity, many people lack money to pay for devices to connect to the Internet, and some are older and uncomfortable with the technology.
“I see my psychological effect like that of the Apostle Paul when he was in prison, to the Philippians,” he said, citing writings attributed to an imprisoned Paul sending a message to a community of Christians in Greece. “I feel I’m in spiritual solitary confinement. For the sake of Jesus Christ, I have to endure this suffering.”
It’s too early to know how hard houses of worship ultimately will be hit, and clergy say a lot depends on how long giving is disrupted.
Patrick Markey, executive director of the Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference, said most Catholic dioceses were able to apply for aid made available this spring by the Small Business Administration to help with paying salaries.
That includes about 8,000 parishes, he said. About 20 percent of those that applied got federal aid. However, Markey said, the bigger concern is the longer-term financial crisis that is coming. Most parishes didn’t have online giving, though Markey says the virus crisis has radically improved that situation.
Scott said he applied for the SBA money but did not get any. Stuckey did not apply.
Typically U.S. Hindu temples collect money when worshipers come throughout the week to pray and make offerings or when priests go to their homes to perform special blessings. Many smaller temples are staying open to do the required prayers with skeleton staffing even as no visitors come to donate.
Among them is the Sri Panchamukha Hanuman Temple in Torrance, Calif.; this month, it put out an urgent Facebook appeal for financial help.
“There are no devotees. The temple is completely closed,” the priest, Sriman Narasimhacharya Cherukupally, says in the appeal video, with a large representation of the Hindu deity Hanuman behind him. “Please be with us, with your kind heart, and protect and save your temple.”
In addition to the federal payroll protection program, there are private efforts. Among them is a nonprofit named Churches Helping Churches, which is collecting money from larger congregations, foundations and individuals to help smaller churches. It has received 850 applications since opening in the first week of April.
Clergy are making hard choices in the meantime.
The Rev. Chris Butler oversees three small congregations in the Chicago area. One, in South Holland, has experienced a drop of 70 percent in giving. Another, which has about 30 members and had been based at a city McDonald’s, has shifted to group conference prayer by phone. Giving remains steady at Butler’s Hyde Park congregation, which for now is helping sustain the overall operation, he said. He also has received aid from Churches Helping Churches.
“I think the financial situation is going to be all right. I just believe in God’s provision,” he said.
Indeed, some clergy see the virus as a divinely inspired challenge, a chance to refocus on the core of their faith, to purify, to pray in the quiet, to worry less about building funds and costly programming and to think more about getting out and helping the needy, about evangelizing.
Some say the virus may speed up a cruel evolution — the end of congregations that have not embraced technology for functions such as streaming services, paying bills and using cloud computing. That includes congregations with members who can’t afford devices or connectivity. The virus is also forcing a reckoning about the way younger Americans give — sporadically, not weekly as older churchgoers do.
The Rev. C.J. Rhodes of Mount Helm Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss., said 20 to 30 percent of his 165 members are uncomfortable with electronic technology and avoid going online, which has made it more challenging to be in touch with them during the viral outbreak. The biggest cost, he said, has been the emotional and mental impact on the older members who depend on the church for social interaction and support.
Rhodes said he thinks the virus will trigger a religious revival once people come back together.
But Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves, director of the National Congregations Study, said research from previous recessions shows that their impact is mostly negative: People have less money to give.
“There’s this thing people say: ‘Oh, recessions can be good. People want to come back to religion.’ But it’s the opposite,” he said. “Recessions are very hard on churches because of the financial impact.”
Stuckey is trying to find the right tone. He has building payments to make, a six-person crew that is not getting regular salaries. And he’s still hustling to put on live-streamed and drive-in services, to make calls to those who are hurting. He knows there are congregants who are not working and can’t give. He has seen people posting on social media, saying the church shouldn’t be asking for money at all during a crisis.
“What I try to say is, ‘The Lord is aware of your situation,’ ” Stuckey said. “We survive on generosity. If people stop giving, we die.”