SCRANTON, Pa. — As the looming threat of COVID-19 became apparent, the Rev. Shawn Walker had one concern: keeping his congregation safe.
He made the difficult decision to close Shiloh Baptist Church’s doors in March, shortly before government mandates brought life to a halt, leaving his small church in North Scranton, Pennsylvania, with deserted pews and empty collection plates.
“We didn’t know what to do, then it got very serious really quickly,” Walker said of the pandemic.
Walker wasn’t alone. Turning from in-person fundraisers to collecting donations online, congregations and their leaders across the country have spent six months working to stay afloat during the pandemic, placing their faith in their religion to see them through.
Churches with electronic donations set up before the pandemic were in a better position to “keep the giving flowing” compared to those starting from scratch, he said. However, simply not attending in-person services can affect someone’s willingness to give, in addition to economic turmoil affecting churchgoers’ ability to donate to their churches, Chaves said.
Though he has not studied it specifically, “it’s a very plausible thing to worry about,” he said.
Although giving among church members decreased, Shiloh Baptist largely maintained its finances by expanding its online outreach during the pandemic, Walker said.
“The giving from the membership went down because they weren’t there,” he said. “The giving from people that we’ve met online picked up where there was a shortfall from membership.” Donations are down overall, but not significantly — just a few percentage points, Walker said.
With the expected cancellation of its major fundraiser — a rummage sale which can bring in more than $30,000 — SS. Cyril and Methodius Ukrainian Catholic Church in Olyphant, Pennsylvania, shifted its focus to multiple small fundraisers rather than one large event.
Until a vaccine is available, the Very Rev. Nestor Iwasiw said he doesn’t believe the annual sale is viable. In previous years, the rummage sale offered upward of 27,000 items. The church did hold its annual furniture sale, a smaller offshoot of the rummage sale, and recently hosted a food truck festival where it received a percentage of profits, he said. Since the pandemic began, donations are two-thirds of what they were a year ago, and attendance is about half, Iwasiw said. Still, he was amazed by the number of parishioners who continued donating by mail, calling it “a big help for us.”
New home delayed
By now, the Rev. Nestor Soto had hoped Cornerstone Alliance Church would be situated in its new home, a former car dealership in Dickson City, with an anticipated increase in membership thanks to the high-profile location.
Instead, COVID-19 delayed the 35-member church’s plans by nearly six months, leaving the congregation without a home after it sold the building in Blakely. Cornerstone bought the former Gibbons Ford showroom on Main Street for $365,000, according to a property transaction recorded April 24, 2019.
“We had irregular giving come in from different sources that I would relegate to the goodness of God,” he said. “We didn’t have to dip into savings. We didn’t go any month without paying our bills.”
A boost early on
As a pastor, paying bills is always a concern, but God provided during the pandemic, said the Rev. Jack Munley of Rescue & Restore Church.
The storefront church at 125 W. Lackawanna Ave. in Olyphant saw an increase in donations for several months during the pandemic, Munley said, attributing it to the community noticing their ramped-up charitable efforts.
Normally, his church would take in about $12,000 a month, but for the first two to three months of the pandemic, they raised $13,000 to $14,000, Munley said.
The congregation also rallied to help, he said.
“We were never in lack,” Munley said. “It’s amazing.”
In the early months of the pandemic, Rescue & Restore doubled its free takeout meal distribution to twice a month and quadrupled its food distribution from monthly to weekly, serving about 90 hot meals and helping around 100 families at each distribution, he said.“People couldn’t come to church,” Munley said. “We could still bring some hope, some brightness to their day.”