Longhurst: Now there are fewer sacred cows

Plummeting donations, program cutbacks, and staff layoffs — that’s the finding of a new survey of 2,630 Canadian churches and ministries about the impact of the pandemic.


Sponsored by the Canadian Council for Christian Charities, Flourishing Congregations and Cardus, a Canadian Christian think-tank, the survey found almost 70 percent of Canadian churches and other ministries have seen revenues decrease in the past several months. Twenty-three percent said they think it will have a long-term negative impact on their organizations.

In response, 14 percent are cutting staff pay, 20 percent have laid off staff temporarily, and 3 percent have laid staff off permanently.

The hardest hit ministries are camps, retreat centers and educational institutions. Churches and ministries located in rural areas are also more likely to be temporarily closed or have greatly reduced services.

The number one reason for the decline in donations cited by churches is their inability to meet in person. For other groups it is the cancellation of regular in-person fund­raising events.

Looking ahead, 60 percent of groups think it could be as long as three years before things are back to normal financially and for programming.

In the short term, groups said their main areas of need are reopening safely, fundraising, technical support and support for stress on staff. Many groups reported the pandemic has increased the workloads of leaders, and just over half of churches indicated clergy are spending more time preparing online worship services.

The survey also found that many churches are responding to practical needs in their communities, with almost half distributing food and other essential supplies.

The main takeaway for Joel Thiessen, director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute, is the severe impact on camps and retreat centers.

“The question is whether some of them will be viable,” he said. “Can they go an entire season without any revenue?”

Schools are also a question mark, he noted; students who don’t have jobs might flock to them in fall or they may decide studying online isn’t worth the price.

As for churches, he is less worried, believing most will adapt and get through the pandemic.

“I think the pandemic will prompt many to pivot, experiment with new things,” he said.

The exception may be some rural churches. “Smaller rural congregations that lack technological abilities or find it harder to engage people will struggle the most,” he said.

For Canadian Council for Christian Charities CEO John Pellowe, the pandemic looks like an opportunity.

“God can redeem this terrible situation and bring some good out of it,” he said. The pandemic has brought churches and other charities out of their usual way of doing things. There are fewer sacred cows now.

Some are implementing new ways of raising money.

“Three-quarters of churches that responded relied 100 percent on passing the offering plate at services for donations,” he said. “They had no other options for giving. They hadn’t even explored it.”

As a result of the challenges, “I think the church will come out of this stronger than before,” he said.

John Longhurst is a freelance writer and communications and marketing consultant in Winni­peg, Man.

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!