The Columbus Dispatch

Vineyard Columbus and First Church of God are asking congregants to help smaller churches survive the coronavirus pandemic with a special offering.

Two large Columbus churches are asking their congregants to help their Christian counterparts in smaller churches that may have been hit harder financially by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vineyard Columbus and First Church of God are both taking up COVID offerings that they plan to distribute to smaller central Ohio churches in danger of closing their doors due to trouble connecting online with their congregants and challenges getting donations in the current economic fallout from the virus.

In a late-March survey of pastors at 434 Protestant churches, 5% of pastors were unsure of their church’s survival, and 1% were not at all confident, according to Barna Group, an evangelical Christian polling firm based in Ventura, California.

Vineyard members donated $400,000 to help smaller churches and others in need.

Though they have different denominations and practices, Bishop Timothy Clarke believes all churches are “part of the body of Christ.”

That’s one reason he is asking congregants at First Church of God to donate to help churches smaller than his Southeast Side congregation continue their work in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Clarke is working with the Rev. Rich Nathan, pastor at Vineyard Columbus in Westerville, to “bless” smaller churches with financial help so they can survive the pandemic.

The effort by the two Columbus-area churches is similar to a national movement called the Churches Helping Churches Challenge, of which Clarke is a board member. The challenge encourages stable churches to help smaller at-risk churches in their area. It also gives grants to churches in need all over the country.

Clarke’s church easily switched from in-person to online services and giving when it had to move to home worship because of COVID-19. But he knows some smaller churches have had trouble coming up with the equipment, technological know-how or resources to make the needed changes to keep people connected while at home.

“There are some churches that are really struggling right now because they’re closed and they don’t have the big online presence and ability to do that,” Nathan said. “Vineyard would like to come alongside … and assist those churches.”

It’s a national problem.

In most worship services, collection plates are passed around to finance congregations’ activities. And congregations nationwide have stopped holding in-person services due to the virus.

Even before the pandemic, a study by the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at Indiana University noted significant differences in how smaller and larger churches handle offerings.

Smaller churches of fewer than 100 people “rely on more traditional means such as ‘passing the plate,‘” while 83% of congregations with more than 250 members offer digital giving options, according to the institute’s 2019 National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices (NSCEP).

Church giving was down 65% in April compared to mid-March, more than it was during the Great Recession of 2007-09, according to State of the Plate, a national church research group based in Denver.

Larger congregations showed more revenue growth over a three-year period than smaller congregations, according to the 2019 NSCEP.

Clarke and Nathan are asking congregants to donate money to help people impacted by COVID-19, especially other smaller central Ohio churches.

“Jesus said to be the light to the world,” Clarke said of why it’s important to help other churches. “As human beings, we do better together.”

Vineyard began taking a “COVID offering” — people can give online, via text or by mailing in a check — at the beginning of the month.

Some of the $400,000 raised so far will go to help smaller, struggling churches. Another portion will go toward helping families and individuals who are struggling because of the pandemic. And still more will go to hire a bilingual social worker at the church.

All of the money collected when the COVID offering is launched at Clarke’s church in the next week or so will go toward struggling churches and pastors.

“We have connections to other churches in our city,” Clarke said. “We’ve sought to be a presence for good in our city.”

Clarke calls his church a “microcosm of Columbus, Ohio, and the nation.”

He said the church has helped individual families and people in his congregation who have suffered financially due to COVID.

But it also has the resources to work with other, smaller churches who are struggling, he said.

“Our church is greatly blessed and is a church that has a solid financial foundation,” Clarke said. “I’ve watched people rise up and give. … God’s people are generous people.”