Members of Blaine Memorial United Methodist Church in Seattle were all set to fill bellies with tasty sukiyaki when the coronavirus crashed the party.
A dinner featuring the traditional dish of simmered meat and vegetables is typically one of the biggest fundraisers of the year for this Japanese American congregation of about 640 members.
However, the week the dinner was scheduled, the governor urged a halt to large gatherings. Church leaders reluctantly canceled the March 7 dinner. And, Blaine Memorial now has been worshipping online for four weeks.
“In these times, it’s hard to be a leader,” said the Rev. Karen Yokota-Love, the church’s senior pastor. “You are making hard choices that are so unforeseen, and you know we’ve never done it like this before.”
Yokota-Love and other United Methodists in Washington were somewhat ahead of the curve in practicing church life at a social distance. Now, United Methodist churches around the globe must likewise find new ways to do ministry amid a pandemic.
And that means finding new ways to fund their ministry needs. After all, most churches still rely on offerings even when they can’t pass the plate.
Just as churches are turning to online worship to stay connected, many also are turning to online giving to stay solvent.
A United Methodist Communications survey of nearly 1,000 U.S. church leaders found 67% of their churches are using online or livestream worship during the crisis, and slightly over half — 52% — offer some form of electronic giving at their church. The survey, intended to guide agency work, was conducted March 26-30.
Blaine Memorial’s experience is in line with the survey findings.
The first two Sundays of online worship, Yokota-Love said she skipped making an offering request. “I remember seeing our numbers and thinking ‘We’re not pulling in any income. This is not good,’” she said. “We still have bills to pay.”
The third week, she did a special presentation on the multiple ways to give, including on the church’s website, through text or by dropping off a check at the church. Blaine Memorial leaders still check the mail every day.
“That worked,” Yokota-Love said. “We brought in a fair amount of offering.”
United Methodist churches in Zimbabwe, where the government has ordered a lockdown and banned gatherings of more than 50 people to slow the virus, are also turning to online giving.
Engineer Ben Rafemoyo, chair of the Zimbabwe West Conference’s council on administration, said members are encouraged to use various electronic platforms to give.
“We do not expect much challenges or reductions in giving since there are such available options for the convenience of those who want to give to their God,” he said.
Nevertheless, leaders across The United Methodist Church are bracing for steep financial loss during this time of rising death, canceled worship and increasing unemployment. Board members of the denomination’s finance agency, the General Council on Finance and Administration, spent most of their recent meeting discussing how to acknowledge that economic hardship.
The U.S. Labor Department reported April 2 a record 6.6 million surge in Americans filing unemployment. That's on top of the 3.28 million Americans who the previous week had filed for their first week of unemployment benefits. The United Methodist Communications survey found about a third of U.S. church leaders said their congregation’s giving already is down by 40%.
Recognizing local church needs, some conferences are looking at ways to give a financial boost to congregations.
For example, the Baltimore-Washington Conference is waiving local church benefit obligations for three months. The Greater New Jersey Conference advises churches to postpone paying for shared ministries in April and May.
The Arkansas Conference declared a Month of Jubilee, starting on March 22, when churches are not expected to tithe the income they receive to the conference.
“We realize churches are the front lines, and they are being hit incredibly hard financially,” said Bishop Gary Mueller, who leads the Arkansas Conference and proposed the jubilee.
“At its heart, this is a recognition that the local church is where disciples of Jesus Christ are made, and the conference needs to not just say, ‘we support you’ but find a powerful way of illustrating it.”
Even amid challenges, United Methodist churches are seeing signs of hope.
The Rev. Brett M. Dinger, pastor of Lakeside United Methodist Church in DuBois, Pennsylvania, said his church is not experiencing a financial crunch at this point.
“Giving did not experience any kind of drop-off,” he said. The weekly receipts on March 22, the first Sunday the church went to online worship, were on par with what the congregation has been seeing this year, he said.
“We invite people to give as they can,” he said. “But we also understand that economic reality may prevent people from giving at or anywhere near the level they are used to.”
He stressed that even in this time of keeping physically distant, church members are finding a way to work together in ministry. The church partners with local schools, and church volunteers are dropping off meals to the students now that schools are closed and school meals unavailable.
The Rev. Laura A. Saffell, pastor of both Liberty and Amity United Methodist churches in rural western Pennsylvania, also speaks with confidence in her congregations’ resilience.
She knows farmers and others in her congregations are struggling now, and she is discussing with church leadership how the church might care for those in financial distress. But she also thinks people will be able to rebound once the crisis is over.
“Once we get past this, I really think the economy will boom because people will be so eager to get together,” she said.
“I am filled with hope and not really anxious,” she added. “When we are ready to worship again, I want our worship to be epic and our Bible study to be great. I want us to get together and have a big picnic.”
According to the United Methodist Communications survey, more than half — 59% — of the polled U.S. church leaders say church “finances are tight, but they can manage by reducing expenses.”
The congregation of Blaine Memorial, for its part, is still planning to have its sukiyaki fundraiser later this year when it is safe for people to gather.
Yokota-Love, like most other pastors, is now preparing to mark Holy Week and Easter out of the church building and physically apart from parishioners.
But she also looks forward to celebrating Christ’s resurrection again when the crisis has passed.
“I want to celebrate Easter properly,” she said.
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News. Chenayi Kumuterera, a communicator with the Zimbabwe West Conference, contributed to this report. Contact them at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.