COVID Hits Houses of Worship from Many Angles

Photo by Christopher Alvarez

For Pastor Orlando Galeano, March 7, 2020, felt like any other normal day.  Then at 8 a.m., the phone rang. 

“I don’t know how you’re going to break the news to your people but today is the last in-person mass you will hold,” said his boss through the phone. Hearing this was a dagger to the heart of the 62-year-old pastor. He slouched on the edge of his bed in deep thought. Mass was starting in three hours and the heart breaking news had to be delivered to his parishioners to adhere to the new reality of COVID-19.  When the clock struck ten, Galeano paced and sat on the altar step of Nueva Vida church in Long Island City, still struggling to find the words to tell his parishioners that they were not going  to see each other for a long time.

Like the Evangelical Christian parish where Pastor Galeano preaches, just over the last year, many churches and congregations around the United States have been on the brink of shutting down, as their deficits increase due to donations plummeting during the pandemic. A little more than a year ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ordered houses of worship to shut down religious services. In-person church attendees, as a result, were restricted and many churches moved their services online, putting an end to the tradition of placing money in a basket to help keep their sacred places of worship open and active and further complicating the bottom line for many churches. All of this exacerbated a situation where many churches in the United States were already suffering. 

“Trends across America around religious affiliation patterns and attendance patterns were moving in a direction of decline for a number of years now,” said David P. King, a professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University and director of the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving. “Particularly in the last couple of decades.” 

Despite their fiscal troubles, active, they continued to be. For churches of all denominations, survival mode is what most houses of worship are used to. With in-person prayers, an afterthought, churches found a way to thrive. Many churches pivoted to Zoom and other online platforms. In the case of Galeano and others, live streaming became a must on Zoom, Facebook Live, and Instagram Live.

Worshipping through a screen, however, proved to not be as powerful or effective for worshipers and for the churches, mostly because many viewers feel free to get up at any given moment and walk away from the service. Over a third of congregations nationwide reported a decrease in attendance. 

Another downside has been that the drop in donations that used to come  in when churches passed  the plate during Saturday or Sunday masses. “The biggest question mark is, as congregations have closed for in-person services…what will happen with congregation finances?” King pointed out referring to a recent study by his Lake Institute on Faith & Giving conducted to track how churches are responding. “About 78% of all giving came in from individual gifts, and most of that was through some sort of worship.” 

Ironically, more than half of congregations surveyed reported an increase in participation, despite restrictions. Many churches vowed to carry on in some form despite restrictions. The issue of limiting church attendance even triggered a big political backlash with many Americans arguing that the rules violated the first amendment right to assemble. In fact, according to a recent study by the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, in mid March of last year, 67% of congregations said they were going to continue to use their usual space with some modification, such as, issuing mask mandates and social distancing regulations. In addition, 17% of the respondents said they had expanded their meeting facilities to parking lots, community halls, gymnasiums, or other outdoor spaces. 

Yet, even though many parishes struggled to keep going during the pandemic, the period also took its fiscal toll, further deepening the already existing economic problems faced by hundreds of parishes across the country.  

Nueva Vida, where Galeano preaches is just one of an estimated 4,000 Christian churches in New York City as of 2015, that has been hard hit by the pandemic. Its deficit increased six fold to 250,000 from the $35,000 in 2019, Its annual income for 2020 was $860,443, a 31% drop from the previous year, far lower than its budget of $1,124,773 for employees/contractors, rent/maintenance and other expenses.

On June 6, 2020, the CDC released a guidance that allowed churches to reopen at 25% capacity, but Galeano didn’t resume in-person service until four months ago with a mask mandate because he believed that people needed more time to adjust. When he did re-open, he blocked off seating to maintain social distancing. A space that held up to 700 people now seats only around 190 a week, not including kids or elders. 

To tackle the financial problem and make it easier for parishioners to donate, Nueva Vida set up multiple locked boxes at 12 feet each to safely hold checks and envelopes. But even this cautious method barely made a dent in the deficit. The pastor says he has tracked an 85% decrease in giving “and I understand them,” said Galeano. “The majority of my congregation is made up of undocumented Latinos who lost their jobs.” Giving even a few coins is hard for many of them.

Empty pews and donation plates is not where it all ends, though, not for Father Galeano’s church, nor for other parishes. Church fiscal troubles have also brought spiritual and emotional voids for church goers, especially during a time that has been extraordinarily difficult for so many. The COVID-19 pandemic ravished the world and many workers lost their jobs, worsening the situation for many undocumented immigrants. To help ease the burden of parishioners, Nueva Vida, organized several food drives and clothing donations working with congregations in North Carolina and Pennsylvania to gather vegetables, canned goods, and nonperishable food to give them away. 

Photo by Christopher Alvarez

The church’s generosity during this time of need, however,  further hurt its finances, adding costs to the church’s budget says Galeano. He says he continues to pray that the deficit can be “repaid, forgotten or restarted with a new contract.” 

It didn’t surprise church observers that many parishes offered to help others that were in need. About 30% of congregations, in fact, supported other congregations and nonprofits, according to King, of the Lake Institute. “I think this gets at the DNA of many congregations.”

For many parishioners though it isn’t only about gathering necessities to survive. Many of them have also sorely missed the social activity that being part of a parish provides.  

“Now that the church is closed,” says Gloria Muriel, a 63-year-old diabetic churchgoer, “I am locked up in my house.”  

Prior to the pandemic, Muriel says she was very active in her community. As part of the parish’s Ministry of Benevolence, she helped people get access to donated food and clothing and helped serve as a positive support system for many elderly parishioners. Every other weekend, Muriel would have breakfast and lunch with the group, playing games with them, exercising, and teaching them arts and crafts, helping many of them feel less abandoned and depressed.

Without in person gatherings, Nueva Vida has tried to fill the void on Mondays and Tuesdays with online evening prayers and Fridays for family and youth counseling. On Saturdays, they take to the streets to spread the positive word of God and on Sundays they meet in church, but in smaller numbers, of course. 

For King, this is why many churches are still staying afloat because like Nueva Vida they constantly remind people what their purpose is: to bring people together to understand the teachings of the Bible.

“It’s about storytelling,” says King. “Those who have a story around a mission share it and draw attention to why they’re still a necessary place for people to give; many are hurting but they’re doing fine.”

However, for Muriel, a COVID-19 survivor, it is not enough.  She  is emotionally drained, she says, because she can’t be as helpful as she was before. 

“It is not the same as being there in-person to feel that joy of seeing friends and family, hugging and everything,” says Muriel. “And then not being there for my church community makes me want to cry.”

But not everyone sees the pandemic’s effect on the church the same way. To be fair, in the eyes of Rev. Cheryl F. Dudley, regional executive minister of American Baptist Churches of Metropolitan New York, the pandemic has not been a curse, but a blessing.  

“This has been a grace,” said Dudley. “Through this, [we’ve] figured out ways early on to connect through social media…to connect…members that have been coming, and then reach out to those who have drifted. They could tune in, both in real time or afterwards and connect to the ministries of the church.”  

And in the case of American Baptist Churches, going online has been successful, for sure. At least for some parishes and faiths. Baptist churches, for example, have seen an increase in offerings and giving, through Zell, Paypal, Giblify because “they’ve been taught to be generous and their audience has expanded,” says Dudley. “It’s like an oxymoron, I would say it’s a “joyful obligation” a “duty in the spirit” to give. 

But she is also weary of the technological divide between different age groups, noting that smaller churches with older members might still be uncomfortable with online giving because of frequent technical glitches and their fear that the money might end up in the wrong hands. 

Still, two critical questions remain: First, alongside the financial crunch and the challenge of trying to increase donations, congregations are going to have to decide what to do with their spaces and buildings when “normalcy returns,” if it does. Will people come back when churches reopen safely? Or have people enjoyed watching from their couch? What is the mission of a congregation in a post-pandemic world that will look different than before? The answer to these questions will require a change in mindset, says King, who wants congregations to think strategically about how they can share their resources and think strategically about how this will work for their own communities. 

Second, should the federal government get involved and provide more aid despite a large number of congregations already receiving help in the form of federal payroll protection programs and loans? Most say yes. King, however, says that the city could also take action on the matter when appropriate. He thinks that congregations should and could make a solid case as to how they’re an important “community asset, as an employer, as a frontline service provider, to help communities during this time,” but he does not want both the federal nor the city government to make it a habit to support religious communities.

But Galeano, as a New York City resident, is fully on board with governmental aid because, he argues, unification is greatly needed among so many for a healthy economy and society’s well being. “Church is very essential for people because in these times of pandemic, people lock themselves up and begin to get sick spiritually and physically,” he says.

While many churches are under financial pressure because of the pandemic and their future is uncertain, many parishes have only  been marginally affected by the pandemic.  None have been in straits dire enough to force them  to shut down. According to King, many have even grown and managed to do just fine, despite the difficulties.

However, the congregants of Nueva Vida are still worried. James Lozano, 70, another member of Nueva Vida, said that if it has to get to the point of the church closing for good, it would be bad in multiple ways for so many of the church’s loyal parishioners. 

“For us Christians, no church means no congregation,” he says, adding, “People will forget their loyalty to God.”

But whatever happens, Galeano has not lost  faith. “God is going to sustain his church,” he said. “They can close the building but the lord’s church carries on.”