How many churches will COVID-19 “kill”?


How many churches will COVID-19 “kill”?

Two definitions are essential to understand that question correctly. First, “church” denotes a local congregation. That is, “church” designates a local organization and not a theological concept. By extension, “small” connotes a church with a low Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) and not the size of the church’s physical plant. Second, “kill” connotes the institutional demise of an individual church and not the death, spiritual or physical, of that congregation’s members.

The Episcopal Church is experiencing a well-documented, long-term numerical decline. The number of Episcopal churches dropped from 6964 in 2008 to 6423 in 2018 (Episcopal Domestic Fast Facts Trends: 2008-2012 and Episcopal Domestic Fast Facts: 2018). The 2008 financial crisis, precipitated by the housing bubble bursting, placed many churches in dire financial straits, assuredly accelerating, if not causing, some of that 9% decline in the number of churches.

Forecasts project the COVID-19 pandemic causing severe economic disruption. Likely effects include unemployment spiking to 20% or more, the stock market remaining down significantly for months and much of the U.S. living under stay at home/work from home government orders for months. These effects will very probably culminate in a recession and perhaps a depression. If these prognostications are correct, many churches will again find themselves in dire fiscal circumstances. Early reports, although not specifically surveying Episcopal churches, indicate that giving to churches is already dropping (Emily Mcfarlan Miller, “Higher attendance, lower giving: New survey shows how churches are responding to COVID-19,” Religion News Service, April 1, 2020, accessed at https://religionnews.com/2020/03/30/higher-attendance-lower-giving-new-survey-shows-how-churches-are-responding-to-covid-19/). Inevitably, some churches will die.


Furthermore,
  • In 2018, the last year for which data is available, 5.5% of Episcopal congregations had an ASA of ten or fewer. The median ASA for all Episcopal congregations in 2018 was 53 (Episcopal Domestic Fast Facts: 2018).
  • A substantial, if unknown, number of congregations with an ASA of less than 53 (i.e., half of all Episcopal churches) struggle to pay their clergy, their diocesan assessment and other essential expenses while maintaining their building(s). Unless a church has an endowment or another source(s) of income such as rent or proceeds from a thrift shop, and even without a mortgage, small churches generally live hand to mouth. They continuously face an unrelenting and usually increasing financial threat to their survival. They focus on survival, not mission.
  • Churches with a larger ASA typically have more resources. However, they generally have higher expenses: a bigger staff, a larger diocesan assessment, perhaps a mortgage or other fixed financial obligations, etc. Unless their income, apart from offerings matches or exceeds expenses, these churches have some vulnerability to dying from causes related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Episcopal Church does not collect annual data on the age of church attendees. In 2010, the last year for which I could find data, the median age of Episcopalians was 57. Episcopalians also tend to be older than the populace. The higher a church’s median age, the more likely that church’s ASA is well below the median. (C. Kirk Hadaway, Episcopal Congregations Overview: Findings from the 2010 Faith Communities Today Survey (New York: Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, The Episcopal Church, 2014)) These factors, individually and especially collectively, put small churches at an increased risk of dying from causes related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many churches appropriately shuttered their doors for one or several months as part of the larger community’s defensive measures to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. This, combined with the risk factors outlined above, will contribute to the death of churches in at least two additional ways.

First, anecdotal evidence gleaned from conversations with clergy and laity, as well as visits to church websites, suggests that relatively few Episcopal churches utilize giving online, by credit card or by direct withdrawal from parishioners’ bank accounts. Churches successfully shifting most giving to electronic options during the pandemic seems doubtful. Consequently, in the absence of Sunday offerings, congregational income is likely to decrease, perhaps plummet. Moreover, an unknown number of the church’s regular givers will experience economic hardship, perhaps severe economic hardship, resulting in them reducing their giving to their church. Those churches, already in tenuous financial circumstances, may be unable to pay their bills. Clergy no longer receiving their stipend and benefits may need to seek alternative employment. Some of these financially strapped or bankrupt churches will inevitably close.

Second, some current church attendees will lose the habit of attending, decreasing or ending their attendance. Others will fill their Sunday mornings with alternative activities and, when worship in the church building resumes, opt to continue with those alternative activities either because of inertia or new preferences. Still other attendees will find the hiatus a catalyst for pondering why s/he should join in corporate worship and decide that attendance no longer satisfies a need or valued purpose in their life. Any decline in attendance will exacerbate long-term attendance trends, financial difficulties heightened by the pandemic and the negative effects of empty pews on church growth and survival.

The question is not whether the COVID-19 pandemic will kill churches, but how many churches will die as an indirect result of the pandemic.

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