How restrictions on indoor gatherings will affect U.S. houses of worship of all kinds has been a question from the start of the pandemic, and with limits on the size of services and reopen dates varying by region, it has been hard to see a clear trend. However, many faith leaders worry that Americans who get out of the habit of attending regular in-person worship will simply stop altogether. That’s especially a concern for Catholics, who more than other faiths depend on in-person, pass-the-basket donations. Other experts see spikes in Americans experimenting and becoming connected virtually to new services and believe that could drive interest — and money — into religious institutions in the future.
Research by the Center for Church Management at the Villanova University School of Business found in three dioceses that the average drop in collections was 7 percent after three years of relatively stable collections. The center projects collections through June — the end of the next fiscal year — will decline on average in the dioceses by 24 percent.
The analysis, which looked at 169 parishes of different sizes, locations and backgrounds, found one in six experienced an increase in donations during the period reviewed. The center’s research looked at the last 15 weeks of fiscal year 2020, which was April through June 2020. The projections extend through June 2021.
The center estimates one in five parishes will see collections drop 50 percent or more by next June — if they don’t adopt changes, in particular offering online worship, Bible study and other engagement.
“The parishes that were able to survive adopted digital technology immediately. … The ones that didn’t are in bad shape — very bad shape,” said Matthew Manion, the center’s faculty director. The center does academic research and also trains church leaders. “For some, you can’t go to Mass, and there isn’t much for you to do online.” But “if there is ministry online and outreach programs,” he added, that’s different.
The Villanova study concluded online giving is “a must-have for parishes, but alone is not sufficient to survive the pandemic.”
Manion said the main point researchers took away from the study, which centered on dioceses in New Jersey, Massachusetts and North Carolina, was “this doesn’t have to be a disaster. And if you’re not reaching out to folks, start doing that. Don’t wait six months.”
Donations by parishioners to their parishes is a major metric of Catholic giving, with implications for the entire Catholic Church. It can be as much as 60 or 70 percent of the budget of an individual parish, said Joseph Gillmer, the director of development for the Archdiocese of Washington. Parishes also send money to their dioceses, which direct funds to groups including Catholic Charities — which often is a major regional player in social services like helping the homeless — and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Archdiocese of Washington, which covers the District and its Maryland suburbs, saw giving drop off an average of 30 percent in the early months of the shutdown, Gillmer said. However, through the fall, offertories have been off around 10 percent.
The good news, he said, is there has been new, substantial giving to new archdiocese-wide programs — expanded food pantries and a new landing page for all the parishes to spell out their specific needs. There has been nearly $2 million in giving to those additional programs, he said, and the annual archdiocesan appeal is actually up 5 percent over last year.
“What we have found is while unemployment is very high, and for many this is a devastating time — demand is unlike anything we’ve seen in a generation — but for those who can make gifts, they are doing so at a larger pace than we normally see. Those who can are stepping up in a big way,” Gillmer said.
In the Arlington Diocese, which covers north and eastern Virginia, the annual offertory has declined overall by about 5 percent, from roughly $98 million last fiscal year to just over $93 million for the year ending this past June across all 70 parishes, according to spokeswoman Amber Roseboom. Some parishes have had steep drops while others experienced increases, she said.
Anecdotally, however, since then, monthly giving has increased in many parishes, she said.
Other giving is doing as well or better than previous years in Arlington. The annual bishop’s appeal — the major fundraising appeal in most U.S. dioceses — came in for the calendar year 2020 a bit higher than in 2019. That is about $19 million. Catholic Charities brought in $1 million more in fiscal year 2020 than in 2019.
However, need for assistance has dramatically increased in Arlington, with Catholic Charities providing 154 percent more food and 288 percent more emergency assistance between March – September 2020 over the same period last year.
“We’re not fully healed yet, but it’s not as dire as what we feared in March,” Gillmer said. “We have dark days ahead. This virus will get worse before it gets better. Will we have another March, or April? Even if we do, it won’t be as bad as the shock of the spring. We’re ready.”
The national picture is similar, said Patrick Markey, executive director of the Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference: Bad but could have been worse. Finance directors, however, are worried about 2021, he said.
Parishes were helped in 2020 by “amazingly generous” Americans, Markey said, and some costs went down including things like air-conditioning and building maintenance because services were small or suspended, and some staff were cut. The CARES act also provided some paycheck protection.
“This year we expected [to be down] 50 percent so it’s great if it’s 15 or 20 percent,” he said.
However, the future looks bleaker if offerings continue to be down that same percentage — but costs increase with services restarting and no government assistance program passes, he said. Community needs for basic assistance like food are “through the roof,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported how much the Washington Archdiocese’s annual appeal increased over last year. It increased 5 percent. This version has been updated.