Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj. Rev. Dharmaraj is President of the Retired Clergy and Spouse Association of the New York Annual Conference. It is the first of a two-part series.
Part 1: The Impact of COVID-19 Upon Churches
The shopping malls are shuttered, church services suspended, places of recreation closed. COVID-19 has upended the laissez-faire in unprecedented ways. It has robbed many families of their dear ones and upended everyday life with death, fear, and anxiety.
Millions have lost their jobs, some permanently. Stock and commodity markets around the world gyrate unpredictably. Governments worldwide have reduced their benchmark interest rate which have resulted in lower fixed income for seniors who often rely on safe-haven income.
After re-evaluating the economic activities and health concerns of their citizens, leaders of many nations are in the thrall of unabashedly nationalist principles curbing multinational trade, international travel, and global migration. The doors may not open fully, even after an antibody vaccine is discovered.
The current pandemic environment is an unpleasant, alarming, and displeasing place where we do not want to be, but it is neither dystopian nor apocalyptic. COVID-19 is nonetheless a game-changer. It has already sown the seed for the evolution of new forms of worship gathering, church ministry, and mission outreach. It has spawned a three-axis disrupter to the church: its worship-style, its real estate, and its worldwide participation or partnership in mission.
The scars of this crisis will linger for years, if not decades, which will color views on using public places and congregating in large numbers. Seniors make up a significant percentage of our Sunday worship attendance. It will take a long time before they return with their generous giving.
Many parishioners may demand “virtual” services and ecclesial programs on-line, in addition to on-site services. A small group composing a dynamic worship team can garner a larger group of worshipers online than an on-site church gathering. Conversely, cross-cultural and cross-racial ministers will face an uphill battle. Several congregations, including small-town churches and service agencies, will be on a survival mode.
Since many established and start-up churches will offer worship services in cyberspace, there will be intense competition for membership, and there will be less demand for the church’s physical gathering space. Some will easily migrate from one worship setting to another.
The current crisis will reset our view of real estate, and our expectations from it. Will a massive church building be good stewardship of dwindling resources? Churches have already experienced a precipitous decline in demand for services held at their buildings, such as funerals and weddings, as more and more of them are being held in one-stop settings such as funeral homes or hotels or open-air settings.
COVID-19 is also impacting the funding of our mission partnerships. Social distancing has already disrupted fundraising efforts of churches, VIM, and mission events that are normally scheduled during spring and summer. Revenue generating programs such as daycare, summer camps, and various group activities will be adversely affected. Mega-donors and corporations may step in to fill the gap – but only to help multi-religious or Inter-faith organizations. They will promote their own agenda.
As a result, churches will have less cash revenue along with a reduction in the number of volunteers to run thrift shops, soup kitchens and engage in mid-week activities, which will weaken services to their local communities. Mission agencies and boards will have tough times keeping their doors open and programs afloat. With the cash flow much reduced, ecumenical and outreach programs will wane as well, while virtual connections remain.
Organizations that provide essential support services to groups on the front lines of issues such as human rights, social justice, poverty, environment, etc., will be heavily hit since they often run on a shoestring budget with no buffer, no cushion, and no room for error. Even if they have a sizeable endowment, they will be hit hard as their cash flow would be sub-par as the major stock index has lost a sizeable value and cut short the revenue stream. Even if the economy recovers, as recent history has proved, the recovery will only be partial for all industries.
COVID-19 will also remake academic institutions, especially seminaries and bible colleges that have already been adversely affected by dwindling resources and student enrollment. MacMurray College, a 174-year-old United Methodist-affiliated school near Springfield, Ill., announced last month that it will close in May 2020. The Chair of the board of trustees says that although the pandemic “complicated MacMurray’s financial condition,” it wasn’t the main reason for the closure.
The value of stock portfolios that several academic and church-related institutions hold has been seriously hurt. Loss of dividend income and the persistently low income from fixed securities will further crimp students’ scholarship, endowed chairs, and new faculty hiring. Fewer international students and racial-ethnic minorities would be able to attend theological schools full time as a good number of them are sponsored by church and mission agencies. Habitation rate of campus dormitories, usage of dining halls, and occupation of the classrooms will contract.
The church hierarchy’s hiring requirements will shift along with its current established boundaries: those ministerial candidates who know how to manage technology, with pleasant personalities and excellent communication skills, will succeed. More and more Schools for License for Local Pastors and Course of Study programs will be demanded by cabinets. Since those programs are totally geared towards practical aspects of church ministry, many pastoral candidates will seek that route. Resource-rich church and non-denominational groups will offer Bible Study and training programs online. Study materials will be digitized and translated into multiple languages.
Thus, the impact of the present crisis on the church will be pervasive, affecting all parts of the church and its ministry.