ST. PAUL — Without a physical offering plate to prompt the faithful to give, churches are taking a hit during a time they’re needed most.

With churches closed because of the coronavirus, the in-person giving has taken a nosedive.

“Our monthly average of giving by automatic withdrawal or electronically is about $30,000,” Cathy Sullivan, director of finance and administration for the Church of St. Timothy in Blaine, posted on the church website after federal and state leaders ordered a temporary end to gatherings over 10 people to prevent the spread of the virus. The church averages $70,000 a month from gifts put in the plate each Sunday.

“We have received some envelopes from parishioners despite no Masses being celebrated and for that we are grateful. However, the total that has come in from envelopes for the past two weekends is $8,158, which is $26,842 lower than usual,” Sullivan said.

Similar letters or posts from other churches have gone out over the past week, asking congregants to give now, rather than later, when the stay-at-home orders are lifted. Those that had little reserves, such as Central Baptist Church in St. Paul, which was already struggling financially, are considering more drastic measures to stay afloat.

“The Board has been working diligently to address these budget shortfalls,” Catherine Westby of the Stewards’ Board posted on the church website, “including a freeze on all spending except for essential ministry, and the elimination of two staff positions. … As your Board, we face some very difficult decisions in the days ahead.”

Churches, which share a common mission of caring for those in need, are finding that they are the ones heading to the proverbial bread line. And there’s no guarantee that deficit will go away in a weakened, post-coronavirus economy.

“The aftermath of COVID-19 is anyone’s guess right now,” said Knox Botsford, senior account executive with Barna Group, an organization that polls churches on a range of topics. “From what we’ve seen so far, most pastors’ top concern is figuring out how they can continue to meet the immediate needs of their congregation and community and provide hope and encouragement throughout the crisis.”

Easy for some, uncharted waters for others

To combat sluggish giving, churches have turned to technology to pass the virtual offering plate.

Some, especially larger churches, were already using online giving, so the transition has been less stressful.

Others who’ve used online giving as a rarely-touted option, have been dusting off the PayPal links and pointing congregants who prefer to pay in cash to this “new” way of giving.

Some are still struggling to come up with a plan.

Barna Group polled pastors across the U.S. about online giving and found that for some, it’s a new concept altogether.

“Last week, we asked church leaders about their strategies for encouraging financial giving,” Botsford said. “Most of those surveyed said they were directing people to existing online giving options they already had set up (38 percent). Many are still relying on cash and check donations (19 percent), and an emerging set of churches have set up online giving for the first time (15 percent). Fourteen percent of churches hadn’t strategized about it yet.”

Besides a link on the church website, leaders are experimenting with other ways to give as well, such as texting.

“Text to give options were used by few (3 percent) either for the first time or highlighting an existing option or implementing it as a new option. I think we can expect to see these percentages shift over the coming weeks though,” Botsford said.

Within the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, parishes have dabbled in a variety of technological giving.

“I think that our parishes are being creative to connect with parishioners to offer them a sense of hope and God’s presence with us during these days,” said Fr. Michael Tix, Vicar for Clergy and Parish Services. “Our Cathedral, for example, now has a QR code for donations on its online liturgy guide. In terms of finances that help us to do this work, our parishes are encouraging everything from electronic contributions to asking people to mail their Sunday contribution envelopes.”

For some, the idea may take time to catch on.

“Although electronic giving has been on the increase over the past few years, parishes currently rely heavily on those attending Mass to contribute to the weekly offertory,” said Tom Mertens, Chief Financial Officer at the Archdiocese. “Electronic giving is assisting with maintaining some level of contributions and parishes have added options for online giving.”

Hope, faith and optimism

And what happens after the coronavirus restrictions are lifted? For the most part, churches are optimistic giving will rebound, eventually.

“I think that the economic concerns will be a dominant conversation among our pastors and their parish finance councils as they consider how to be good stewards of the funds entrusted to them in living out their God-centered mission to serve,” Tix said. “Given some of the economic realities both in the immediate and long-term, this may mean a reduction in services at a time when they are as necessary as ever before.”

There’s also the hope of a post-crisis boom, as churches saw after 9/11.

“What’s really interesting is that 46% of pastors expect to witness a growth of faith in their congregations through the course of the pandemic,” Botsford said. “If what they expect is true, people will return to their church buildings with a renewed sense of faith, and I hope that’s what sets the tone for that season regardless of what the economy is doing at the time.”

In the meantime, church leaders are reminding the faithful that they’ve survived hard times before.

“Central Baptist Church was founded in 1893; the same year a major economic collapse occurred in the U.S., and the national unemployment rate soared to 25 percent,” Westby said. “Central has survived world wars, economic hardships and depressions and global pandemics. In those same 127 years, we have had more than 15 senior pastors and countless board members who have faithfully led, served, and loved the church. What has remained constant over the years is our unwavering faith and trust in the Lord, and the hope that is ours in Jesus Christ.”