By Jessica Brodie
The social and emotional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is already difficult for some people, who struggle with being forced to stay inside, avoid friends and extended family, homeschool their kids and steer clear of large gatherings.
But the financial impact is taking a toll, too. Many are furloughed from work or newly unemployed, facing pay cuts and other economic issues.
Church giving is down, too, in many areas of the state.
Beth Westbury, treasurer for the South Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church, said apportionments were down as of the end of March.
“It’s significant compared to the prior year, maybe $500,000,” Westbury said, though it is not all pandemic-oriented, and some of the decrease might be because the conference center was closed and they were not able to get the mail as readily.
Still, as the economy begins its slow upturn and churches—and church members—get increasingly confident with online giving, many conference leaders are feeling optimistic that giving will rebound, both giving to churches and giving from the churches to the annual conference. And much of that, Westbury said, has to do with people being receptive to online giving.
“I want the people in the pews to understand this can be an easier form of giving rather than writing a check each week,” Westbury said about online giving. “I’m hoping this will help people see the benefits.”
Across the conference, some churches are doing well, while others are struggling.
The Rev. Jim Arant, director of Connectional Ministries, said he and conference congregational specialists have been calling pastors to check in, and their consensus is many churches are doing well, with some even seeing an increase in giving.
The Rev. Tim Shaw, pastor of Asbury-St. James UMC, Charleston, said his church’s giving has been slightly higher than normal since the pandemic shut things down.
“We have been receiving tithes and offerings via PayPal, mail and members dropping offerings by my front door at home, along with homemade masks,” Shaw said.
Also, during each broadcasting, he has been intentional in telling viewers the church mailbox is checked daily, and staff is wanting to make sure their needs are met.
The Rev. Kenneth Middleton said Bluff Road UMC, Columbia, has also noticed an increase in giving during the pandemic.
“We are experiencing this spike because of the social media platforms used, Go To Meeting and Zoom, to reach our target audience and beyond,” Middleton said.
He and computer-savvy church members are also being intentional about training aging members how to use Cash App as a means to give, and they have made available a post office box for those who prefer mail.
“I have discovered that my consistent engagement, beyond Bible study and church services, with the members encourages giving, especially among the aging in our church,” Middleton said.
However, Arant said, many small, rural churches are not doing well.
“Many are not able to use virtual worship because of lack of internet in rural areas, and people are not giving. There is an old saying, ‘If they plop it in the pew, they plunk it in the plate.’ If people don’t go to church, often they don’t give,” Arant said.
He also said many African-American churches they have talked to are not doing well, and many people do not trust online giving, as most services charge a 2 percent fee. Arant suggested one way to give online is through “Bill Pay,” a service banks offer where you enter payment information to your online account, the bank writes a check and mails it to the payee. There is no charge.
The Rev. Bill Masciangelo said Smyrna UMC, Moncks Corner, is on budget so far.
“We mailed a letter to all giving units and included two self-addressed envelopes to make it easier to respond. It worked,” Masciangelo said, noting they are getting ready to send another letter with financial updates and Scripture readings for May.
The Rev. Jamie McDowell said Zion UMC in Walhalla and Hopewell UMC in Westminster are giving at rates fairly close to normal.
“Most members are able to just go by the bank and deposit their tithes,” he said.
Wendy Parnell, treasurer for Springhill UMC, Rembert, said her church’s giving is about the same as pre-pandemic. Members can mail checks to the church, give online through Givelify.com or drop their envelopes at church on Sundays at a designated time.
“The addition of the online option has been the only change in our financial operations, and it has made a huge difference in what we receive versus what we were likely to receive,” Parnell said.
Tommy Hill, pastor of El Bethel UMC, Spartanburg, said so far the church is “OK” financially. “Giving is through mail and drop-in through a slot in the door (where mail comes),” Hill said. “Nothing creative yet!”
Judy Chapman, treasurer for Epworth UMC, Charleston, said they have also stayed about the same. “Pastor Rabenstein has communicated by email, texts and Facebook so that the congregation was aware of the different ways we could continue our giving,” she said, noting most choose to mail their tithes to the church, though a few use Vanco. “The offering counters are at the church on Sunday mornings for anyone who wants to donate cash, but that has only occurred once.”
Jeffrey Salley, pastor of Canaan and Sand Hill UMCs, Ridgeville, said their giving is also about the same. Offerings are received via online giving as well as by mailing in weekly offerings, and Salley, along with class leaders and finance teams, is in constant conversation with members to encourage them to continue in being good stewards.
Other churches are down, though most are saying it’s not terrible so far.
The Rev. Daniel Eplee, pastor of First UMC, Laurens, said they had only one week that was about one-third of their usual Sunday giving, and overall giving has been down 15-20 percent, but that is quickly changing now that they have started online giving.
Now, Eplee said, “Every other week has been about the same amount as a usual Sunday. We just got online giving through Vanco. The application, process and time waiting to be approved was long. However, the setup and even payment process are both extremely easy. … We’ve had it up for a week now and have already received funds from people we do not usually receive funds from.”
The Rev. Jeff Kersey, pastor of Mount Horeb UMC, Lexington, said his church has seen a decrease in giving during the pandemic, with the most significant losses incurred in the first three weeks. But despite the decline, they have stepped out in faith. They designated $50,000 of their Easter offering for COVID-19 relief for Harvest Hope, Mission Lexington and financial assistance to smaller-membership UMCs in South Carolina hit hard financially. Since then, giving has surpassed even their initial projections.
“We believe the reason for the large initial losses is due to our folks slowly and gradually adapting to a new way of ‘normal’ giving,” he said, noting the church offers both online and mail-in giving. “It is also our belief that, once it was acknowledged that we may not be returning to the physical church for an extended time, our givers gave in surplus to compensate for weeks of missed giving.”
Colette Duncan, financial secretary at Bethel UMC, Spartanburg, said their church members continue to send in their offerings, and their givings-to-budget percentage is nearly the same, while dollars-wise they are about 5 percent lower. “I would say about a third give online, with new enrollees each week. The other two-thirds or so still mail theirs in, and a few even bring theirs by—usually with a mask on,” Duncan said. ”We are doing what we can to have someone in the office Monday through Friday, and we have cut back expenses where we can.”
The Rev. Lois Helms said giving is down at the St. Matthews Charge, Orangeburg District, in spite of her posting weekly sermons on YouTube and Facebook. “As part of those postings I remind them we need their offerings in order to meet the budgets, and display a placard with the addresses to send the offerings to,” she said. “They are mailing checks in, plus one of the churches has online giving, and they are using that method, too.”
Diane Ford, financial chair at Wesley UMC, Moncks Corner, said offerings have gone down, “but we are grateful to God that donations are still coming in.” Their members donate online, by mail or through “curbside offering.”