Before we get started ... did you know you can watch the full interview with Frank Barry, COO of Tithe.ly and Dr. Warren Bird? Check it out below!
When you pause to take stock of how much has changed in the past year, it’s incredible.
As we turned the calendar page from 2019 to 2020, who would have thought that a virus was about to spread across the globe, wreaking havoc on our health, our economy, and even the way we worship? Who would have believed we were about to step into a world of social distancing and mask wearing? And who would have considered that many churches would close their doors for months, shifting much of their ministry online?
This has indeed been a strange year, and nothing about it has been easy, but the biggest headline ought to be this: God remains faithful. Things are not as grim as many thought they might be.
God’s Provision in the Pandemic
At the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), we’ve been conducting periodic surveys to understand the financial impact of COVID-19 on local churches, and while there continues to be real struggles across the country, I’ve been surprised by just how optimistic many pastors and church leaders are about the state of church giving, even in these difficult times.
In January 2020, when the world was still largely unaware of COVID-19, we conducted our annual poll of churches and nonprofits, asking how 2019 ended and whether they were optimistic about the financial outlook for 2020. Respondents were overwhelmingly positive about the future.
But then, of course, the pandemic hit.
So, when we conducted a follow-up survey in May, we expected optimism to plummet, given the upheaval in the economy and a prolonged lockdown.
But to our surprise, more than three times as many churches said they were “optimistic” rather than “uncertain” about their church finances for next three months. And when we asked the same question in August, the percentage of those who answered “optimistic” held relatively even, moving from 69% to 68%.
So how do we explain this?
When lockdowns began to take place all over the country, church finances took an immediate nosedive. But it only lasted a few weeks.
Churches that didn’t have a significant online presence prior to the pandemic began to figure out how to do ministry without gathering together inside a building. And people remembered they needed to continue giving to their church, realizing that their churches needed funds to reach out. Donations bounced back.
Now, over the past few months, giving has been slightly under their church’s budget, which is what we might expect with a prolonged pandemic. But there hasn’t been a dramatic drop, and many churches have been able to manage their expenses to stay on budget—some in surprising ways.
I heard from one pastor who told me his church had increased their budget for 2020 significantly in order to follow God into a certain outreach. When COVID-19 changed the world, he was worried they wouldn’t be able to meet their commitments.
About that time, his town began installing new gas lines in the area. The construction company that was hired to do the work approached the pastor and asked if they could pay the church to use its parking lot to store their construction trucks. Suddenly, the church had a new source of revenue to help bridge the gap.
I share this story—and there are plenty more just like it—not to minimize the pain many pastors and their congregations are feeling right now, but to remind you that God is still on His throne. Churches are moving forward, focused on the mission God gave them, because they trust in His supernatural provision.
Giving During COVID
Maybe the biggest surprise from our surveys has to do with year-over-year giving.
Sixty-six percent of churches surveyed said giving in April 2020 was the at the same level or higher than giving in April 2019. In July, after the coronavirus had been around for a while, the number dropped only slightly—down to 61%.
You might be thinking, What about the rest of the churches surveyed? That’s still a lot of churches not doing as well as before. Yes, that’s true. Our survey allowed respondents to indicate a decline in giving using three categories—“Up to 20%,” “20% to 40%,” or “More Than 40%.” Thankfully, the vast majority of the churches that saw a decline indicated their situation was in the “Up to 20%” category.
Since many churches have been able to offset lower giving numbers with reduced expenses, it may be that many of the churches in the “Up to 20%” category actually saw declines in the 5% to 10% range. And when you consider how much our world—and the ministry of the local church—has changed in the past several months, it’s actually quite remarkable that these numbers aren’t worse than they are.
One other thing we noticed is that, much as it is with COVID-19 itself, pre-existing conditions play a tremendous role in a church’s ability to survive and thrive in the world of lockdowns and reduced capacity church services. In other words, churches that were struggling before the pandemic saw their troubles accelerate, while those that were growing have continued to grow.
A New Approach Online
Historically, churches have fared better than other nonprofits during economic downturns. That’s largely because there’s a weekly meeting where church members have an opportunity to give. But with everything going online, there’s no physical plate to pass. Add to that the reality that many people are suffering financially, and it’s even harder to talk about giving.
Pastors who were shy about church offerings prior to the pandemic may find it more difficult now that there’s no one—or very few people—physically present during a church service. One way to approach the subject is simply to say something like this:
“This is the time when we give back to God financially. Please do whatever He tells you to do. Would you allow me to pray that God would lead you clearly? For some of you, this may not be the time to give, but for those who have been blessed, this may be a time to bless others, especially those who are hurting right now. Just listen to God, and do what He tells you. Let’s pray.”
You may also want to encourage members in your church to make their giving part of the rhythm and flow of their life. Instead of giving being confined to Sunday mornings, remind them they can give to God according to their pay schedule (i.e., recurring giving). For example, if someone gets paid on the first and fifteenth of the month, they can give to their local church on those dates. Set a reminder. Have it be automatic.
That was the heart behind Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth: “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income” (1 Cor. 16:2). Online giving makes this easier than ever.
There may be difficult days still to come for many, but God is working through these unprecedented times. Remember what Jesus promised in Matthew 16:18. If not even the gates of hell can stand against the church, then a global pandemic is nothing God can’t handle.
To learn more about the ECFA and the survey of churches discussed in this blog post, visit ecfa.church/surveys.