There’s nothing like a crisis to shed light on the nature of Church finances.
They aren’t about budgets, spreadsheets or those ubiquitous Sunday envelopes.
They’re about ministry.
“Specifically, they’re about maximizing the ministry we can do with the resources we have,” stated Deacon Joseph Braddock, Chief Financial Officer for the Jefferson City diocese.
The COVID-19 pandemic has tightened those resources, even as it has revealed new opportunities for charity and outreach.
In that way, it has highlighted the importance of a Christian ethic of returning to God a portion of His generosity.
“As Christian stewards, we receive God’s gifts gratefully, cultivate them responsibly, share them lovingly in justice with others, and return them with increase to the Lord,” Bishop W. Shawn McKnight explained.
That return includes a financial tithe.
Parishes receive most of their money from Sunday offertory collections, which go toward carrying-out essential ministries, including Catholic schools, religious education and outreach to the vulnerable and the poor.
Disrupted household finances and an eight-week suspension of publicly celebrated Masses have contributed to a 20- to 50-percent decline in parish revenue.
Parishes that rely on parish fund-raisers to help pay their bills are also suffering. State health mandates aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 have led to the cancellation or heavy modification of numerous fish fries, spring dinners, summer picnics and other events.
“All of this is having a significant impact at the local level,” Deacon Braddock noted. “The needs do not go away. The work of the Church continues, even during a pandemic.”
Zeal and Innovation
On the whole, parishes that provide options for online giving and automatic withdrawal have been weathering the COVID crisis better than parishes that don’t.
However, a recent survey indicated that only 30 of the 108 parishes in the diocese offer some sort of online giving option.
Putting such options in place and encouraging people to use them could go a long way toward ensuring fiscal viability.
“If the faithful utilize the online giving options or simply mail their offertory tithe to the parish, the parishes and schools throughout the diocese will have a better chance of being strong when the pandemic is over,” said Deacon Braddock.
Other factors, such as demographics and local economies, have affected parish finances.
The major employers in some communities shut down for a time due to the pandemic, and industries such as farming and tourism have taken a hit.
Some parishes are still recovering from serious flooding last year.
Even so, “many parishes have really stepped up their works of charity and mercy by providing for the needs of not just their parishioners but of people in the local communities,” Deacon Braddock noted.
He said the Church’s response to the pandemic continues to highlight the importance of the three pillars of the diocese’s pastoral planning process:
“Parishes that are farther along in embracing this vision are expanding their outreach to people in need, giving witness to why this is so essential in living out our Catholic faith,” he said.
Bishop McKnight pointed out that the loss of event revenue is another reminder of why tithing is “a more reliable, stable and spiritually mature way of financing the work of the parish.”
Help staying afloat
In mid-March, the diocesan Finance Office helped eligible parishes apply for federal loans through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
“These funds have had a tremendous impact on our ability to continue our works of charity and mercy,” said Deacon Braddock.
That money from the PPP has also benefited local communities because employees have been able to continue paying for goods and services.
“Without the PPP funds, many workers would have been furloughed,” he said, adding that church employees in Missouri do not qualify for state unemployment benefits.
The Finance Office is now working with parishes to apply for forgiveness of the PPP loans under the terms of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
“We expect that all of the loans will be forgiven since they are being used 100-percent for personnel costs,” said Deacon Braddock.
He noted that Congress intentionally created the PPP to include religious and other not-for-profit organizations, with the understanding that the services of churches and other nonprofits are a necessary component of the social safety net, especially during times like this.
One of the conditions for loan forgiveness is that the employer maintain its current staffing level.
“Without these loans, it’s likely that most parish and school employees would have been furloughed,” Deacon Braddock stated, “and many schools would not be able to reopen for the next school year.”
He noted that U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri worked closely with the Small Business Administration to clarify that the loans do not create any issues related to the separation of church and state and that religious liberty would be protected.
Treasure in heaven
Deacon Braddock pointed out that one of the Church’s main hallmarks is unity.
“We are not alone,” he stated. “We have each other and Christ, and we will get through this.”
He called to mind that Jesus told His first followers to go forth and spread the Good News to the ends of the earth.
“Most of us today aren’t in a position to do that, so we send others in our place,” said Deacon Braddock. “It’s the same with our care for the poor and outcast and sick. The tithe we give to the Church is used to provide works of charity and mercy as Christ asks of us.”
Parishes, Catholic schools and the diocese have employees to help carry on the mission of Christ.
“Each of us individually can do these things on our own, but there are economies of scale with doing things organizationally, so that we can minister to a greater number of people,” Deacon Braddock noted.
He pointed out that contrary to a common claim, the Church is not financially wealthy.
“I see the finances, I know that we aren’t,” he said. “What we are is the largest provider of charitable services. We are the largest private educators of students. We are the largest private funder of the sciences.”
People think the Church has vast earthly riches because it possesses priceless works of art, “but you don’t hear people say the Smithsonian Institute is rich or that the Metropolitan Museum of Art is rich,” he noted.
No quick fix
Deacon Braddock has been in contact with fellow diocesan CFOs from around the country.
“Many dioceses are being hit quite hard,” he said. “While we have our own challenges, we are faring better than many other dioceses because of being able to get the PPP funds early.”
He emphasized that those funds have been extremely helpful but are not a permanent fix. Once they are exhausted, parishes will have to draw on any reserves they have available.
Full recovery from the pandemic is expected to take a while.
“Parish and school budgets will be tight for the foreseeable future,” said Deacon Braddock. “Hopefully, once an effective vaccine is created and widely available, we will be able to return to a more normal life.”
In the meantime, pastors are encouraging parishioners to stay current on their tithing and remain focused on the Church’s multifaceted mission of worship, evangelization, education and charitable outreach.
“We do need to continue or even increase our sacrificial giving, going forward,” Father Daniel Merz, pastor of St. George parish in Linn and Our Lady Help of Christians parish in Frankenstein, recently wrote to his parishioners. “This enables us to continue the ministries of our parishes and school.”