The Blade

They have a heart for helping their community – and a taste for LongHorn Steakhouse.

City of Zion, also known as the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, accounted for a steady stream of dinner orders from the steakhouse as its doors were closed to in-person patrons this spring. Members knew their community needed to eat, particularly amid a sudden wave of furloughs and layoffs that left some financially struggling, and they knew others of their neighbors would continue to need their restaurant jobs.

They saw their at-cost orders as a way to meet both needs.

“The church’s impact and involvement in the community is so much greater than a Sunday service,” Pastor Talmadge Thomas said. “I can speak for my church: We feed into the community in more ways than just coming into the community for a service.”

It’s an illustration of the important role that local churches play in their communities, and, consequently, the gravity of the financial setbacks that many are experiencing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. With direct individual donations accounting for the vast majority of the average congregation’s budget – 81 percent, according to the National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices – a sudden economic downtown is a serious concern among the faithful.

In a letter he sent to Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz on April 30, the Rev. Donald Perryman detailed this concern on behalf of more than 200 area congregations, and he specifically asked for the administration’s assistance in regard to their utility bills.

“To borrow a phrase from the Great Recession of the late 2000s,” Rev. Perryman wrote, “Toledo’s churches are too essential to fail.”

“Our churches provide basic community services and are situated at ground-zero of the devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and other social and economic ills,” he continued. “The Church is uniquely connected and responsive to the community, and much of the impact on our congregations cannot be quantified.”

The city responded to his concern in another letter, informing pastors that the City of Toledo Department of Public Utilities, Columbia Gas of Ohio and Toledo Edison had each appointed a primary contact person to specifically address concerns from religious congregations.

That’s in addition to suspending late fees and shut-off for nonpayment during the pandemic, as well as expanding repayment options in response to it – measures that had already been in effect for all utility customers since the onset of the pandemic.

“Generally we try really hard to work with customers and figure out a repayment that works for them,” Toledo Deputy Chief of Staff Abby Arnold said. She added that the sooner a customer reaches out, “the better equipped we are to help them through it.”

While City of Zion is among those congregations feeling the financial effects of the pandemic to some extent, Rev. Thomas said last month that they weren’t struggling to keep their lights on.

He expressed concern is for the well-being – financially and otherwise – of the city’s church community as a whole.

“What affects the local church affects the community, and what affects the community of course affects us all,” he said.

The National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices offers broad insights into the impact of a pandemic that’s affected both the finances of congregants and their congregations. It was released last year by the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, based on surveys distributed in early 2018.

While many congregations have multiple sources of income, such as rent, an endowment or denominational support, the study showed that the average faith community depends on direct individual donations; 40 percent of congregations receive essentially their entire annual revenue from individual donations.

Seventy-eight percent of those individual donations are offered during worship services, according to the study, presenting challenges as congregations suspended in-person services this spring and in some cases continue to gather only virtually.

“Passing the plate” is a practice in the vast majority of congregations, 92 percent, according to the study. An offering box is present in 26 percent, and a kiosk in 5 percent.

Text-to-give and smartphone apps are available in 14 percent and 21 percent of congregations, respectively, although many congregations have since scrambled to introduce these methods since the onset of the pandemic.

David King is the director of the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving. While every congregation is different in terms of its own and its members financial situations, he said the temporary loss of in-person opportunities to give, as well as the financial concerns of members themselves, have emerged as a serious concern for many congregations as they weather the pandemic.

The institute’s study shows that 39 percent of all congregations didn’t have enough funds to cover three months’ worth of expenses.

“They’re not going to simply make it back up in a few big gifts when they come back online. I think most congregations, particularly in the fall, will have to seriously reconsider their budgets and their operations for the rest of the year and into the next year,” Mr. King said. “They’ll have to make some hard choices.”

He said he also anticipates that some churches, particularly those that were already financially struggling, will ultimately not recover from a drop of revenue related to the pandemic.

“Just like small businesses, there will be a number of congregations that won’t be able to come back from this,” he said. “For the most part congregations, I feel, are very resilient organizations. While they might look different or operate differently, the majority of them will find ways to survive and reinvent themselves afterward.”

Rev. Perryman contacted city administration on behalf of a wide swath of the city’s churches, more than 200 represented by various faith networks: United Pastors for Social Empowerment, the International Ministerial Alliance, Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, the Baptist Ministers Conference, Baptist Foresight and Merge, among others.

Rev. Perryman heads United Pastors for Social Empowerment. He also pastors Center of Hope Community Baptist Church.

He echoed Rev. Thomas, of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, in saying that he’s seeing some of his members unable to give weekly offerings to the same extent as they had, but that his congregation overall appeared able to financially weather the pandemic.

He, too, worries about the church community in a broader sense, he told The Blade. As he laid out in his letter to the city administration in regard to utility bills, he pointed to the integral role that churches hold in meeting the needs of their members and their communities.

“The Church has a unique legacy, mission, and purpose,” he wrote in part in his letter. “Historically, its members have strongly relied on these organizations for emotional support, social services and tangible assistance during periods of economic or social instability.”

His experience reflects the national study, in that he sees weekly collections in local churches dwindling both as congregants’ incomes do the same and as collection plates go unpassed. Rev. Thomas also points out that churches are reallocating their resources to support their communities during the pandemic, as his church has done to cover the costs of restaurant meals, accounting for another reason for a church to look closely at its bottom-line budget.

While pandemic-specific loans have been made available to religious congregations through outlets like the Small Business Association’s Payroll Protection Plan, in practice, pastors said they’ve found their access to funds is limited without the staff or resources to navigate the application process.

At Second Baptist Church in Monclova, the Rev. Jerry Boose said his church had opted to cut staff salaries in response to the pandemic. Although their congregation was already set up with online giving platforms, they’ve seen giving drop about 10 percent. It hasn’t pushed them to the point of worrying about how they’ll keep the lights on, he said, but it has forced them to look ahead to the future financial health of their congregation.

He said he appreciated the utility companies’ willingness to work with the faith community; he credits their response as removing an immediate concern for pastors, as well as offering them a needed chance to return to some semblance of normal, financial and otherwise.

As of last week, Ms. Arnold, in the mayor’s office, said just one congregation had made contact with the appointed representatives regarding their financial situations.

Rev. Boose emphasized that the faith community isn’t looking to shirk their bills or ask for a handout. They’re asking for a hand up, he said, so that they can continue extending that hand to their own neighbors at a critical time.

“We just need some help to work our way through this,” he said, “so that we can still try to be effective for our communities.”