As America’s economy struggles with the repercussions of the pandemic, churches everywhere are adjusting their financial plans. How can institutions which are founded on in-person worship survive a season of physical distancing?
On the most recent ChurchPulse Weekly episode, podcast hosts Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnaman sit down with Christopher Harris, pastor and founder of Diverse Church Jobs, and Jim Sheppard, CEO and Principal of Generis, to discuss how church leaders can pursue financial health in a season of disruption.
Financially, Many Churches Are Weathering the Pandemic
Despite the economic strain caused by the crisis, many churches are seeing their financial situation remain steady. Seven in 10 churches (73%) say that financial giving within the last week either stayed the same or increased—and in fact, most churches are meeting their expenses. About half of pastors (48%) report that their church’s income is meeting all expenses, and 43 percent even report that church income is exceeding those expenses.
Harris says that this can be a moment of growth for churches, both to prepare for the coming months and for paying off past debts. He says of his Tampa church, “We were able to reprioritize some budget and line items to really focus in on the things that we really had dreamed about… It really turned out to be a very fruitful season for us.”
Sheppard expresses cautious optimism, saying, “I hope this is going to be this good. I’m not confident this is going to be this good.” For churches in good financial health, he advises leaders pay attention to their mental and emotional health—while church leaders should attend to financial prudence, “make sure you’re taking care of your soul and your emotional well-being as well.”
Leaders Should Remain Adaptable in Lean Times
While many churches are surviving financially, the pandemic is throwing off leaders’ plans for the future. “In a normal year,” says Kinnaman, “people think about planning for 2021 around September or earlier. Even as early as before July, they’re already planning their 2021 calendar… Now, pastors tend to be pushing that back to October or later. In fact, 14 percent of pastors say they’re not even sure when they’re going to plan.”
Sheppard recommends switching to a model of budgeting with room for these uncertainties: “If I were the CFO or the executive pastor of a local church, if I had one thing I could do financially, I would move my entire church to a rolling three-month financial budget… As soon as September rolls off, I’m now [budgeting for] October, November and December.”
In this season, he suggests, a more adaptable model for budgets can help. “I think if a lot of churches would adopt that tool, they’d find some financial clarity that they don’t have right now.”
And for Harris, the most important financial advice comes from God’s wisdom. He shares the story of God’s providence for his own team. “In 2019,” he says, “as we were planning for 2020, some of us on our team had something in our gut… [a desire to focus] on the bare minimum and put some money aside, reserve some things, pay some things off.” His church leadership decided to do all these things, even with no knowledge of what 2020 would bring.
Harris reminds leaders that God can provide for them in a similar way. He advises, “sit still for a moment, and actually pray and see what God is saying to you for your local church… God is not going to lead you wrong.”
Despite Uncertainty, Churches Can Still Prepare for the Future
Although plans need to be flexible, Harris and Sheppard both recommend that leaders continue to develop a vision for the future.
Financially, Sheppard emphasizes the importance of setting aside reserve money for future crises. The pandemic provides a reminder of what can happen if churches don’t have a rainy day fund: “In the conversations that I had, and that my team had with church leaders, you could absolutely tell the churches that had proper reserves from the ones that didn’t… If you didn’t have reserves, your panic was really high.” He suggests a reserve of money to cover four to six months of ministry expenses.
More broadly, Harris says that “one of the core values of the Kingdom of God moving forward is going to be collaboration. I think any church, any pastor that doesn’t intentionally make local community collaboration and even regional collaboration as a part of their DNA is going to find themselves struggling and on an island.” As communities move forward, churches have the opportunity to work alongside them.
Sheppard agrees that leaders have an opportunity to move forward—and learn from the pandemic. “The tectonic plates have been shifting underneath this for years,” he notes. “I think we’ve had this sense that the spiritual level of our people is not as deep as it should be. We now know that—COVID has exposed that.” Instead of seeking a return to a pre-pandemic normal, churches can look to a future informed by the lessons learned during this year of disruption.
About the Research
COVID-19 Data: Barna Group conducted these online surveys among Protestant Senior Pastors from March 20–September 28, 2020. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Church Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size.
Data Collection Dates
Week 1, n=222, March 20-23, 2020
Week 2, n=212, March 24-30, 2020
Week 3, n=195, March 31-April 6, 2020
Week 4, n=246, April 7-13, 2020
Week 5, n=204, April 14-20, 2020
Week 6, n=164, April 21-27, 2020
Week 7, n=167, April 28-May 4, 2020
Week 8, n=165, May 5-11, 2020
Week 9, n=184, May 12-18, 2020
Weeks 10 and 11, n=191, May 19-June 1, 2020
Week 12, n=203, June 26-29, 2020
Week 13, n=256, July 9-14, 2020
Week 14, n=285, July 24-26, 2020
Week 15, n=336, August 13-17, 2020
Week 16, n=315, August 27-31, 2020
Week 17, n=422, September 10-18, 2020
Week 18, n=475, September 24-28, 2020
Barna Research is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2020