Online giving takes on new importance for Conference and local churches
As the coronavirus (COVID-19) sweeps through America, temporarily changing our way of life, the nation’s key institutions continue to churn.
That includes the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.
But at a time when most congregations are prevented from meeting in person, when technology offers streaming services to meet everyone’s spiritual needs virtually, there are sobering business concerns to accompany the new normal.
“No matter how much things are changing, no matter what we’re dealing with, there are fixed expenses that do not change,’’ Conference Treasurer Mickey Wilson said.
So online giving has taken on a new importance.
Most of the conference’s 600 churches have some element of online giving — a modern way to tithe through electronic donations or automatic debits — although some smaller churches don’t have that capability. And some church members hesitate to break from the tradition of stuffing a check or cash into an envelope.
“But the bottom line is even though we are being thrown a lot of curveballs and people can’t physically go to their church at this moment, it is crucial to have a steady stream of payments and maintain a consistent cash flow,’’ Wilson said. “The (financial) health of each church and the entire conference depends on that.’’
Click here to learn more about options for online giving.
Wilson said the conference has voluminous fixed expenses, including three major ones:
- A monthly $800,000 insurance premium.
- A monthly $265,000 subsidy payment that is distributed to churches for help with expenses and compensation.
- A monthly $250,000 obligation for clergy pensions.
Local churches also have their fixed expenses, including all the infrastructure needed to run a business.
“I would classify most local churches with what small businesses are currently encountering,’’ Conference Controller Craig Smelser said. “The liquidity is very fragile. Missing a large part of their offerings will cause them to make some pretty hard choices regarding staffing and what bills to pay. And it’s going to happen pretty fast.
“We’re already hearing from churches having to make some of those choices so they don’t have to let their employees go. This is going to be hard on individuals. But we are confident that people will pull together and the needs will be met.’’
Meanwhile, the churches are resolute in their ability to meet everyone’s spiritual needs.
“We want people to lean on the church,’’ Smelser said. “We’re taking these times very seriously and working with the efforts to stem the spread of the virus.
“We remain a place where people can turn for prayer and comfort and spiritual guidance. The church is here now and the church will be there after this is all done.’’
The Conference has an annual budget of $19.3 million for 2020, but a $16.8 million budget was proposed for 2021, even before the virus took hold.
“We are already doing virtual meetings — our Cabinet just met virtually instead of bringing everyone to the Conference office and putting them up in hotels for three days,’’ Wilson said. “We’re looking at expenses that can be postponed or maybe eliminated. We have eliminated some positions.
“We always have an obligation to be fiscally responsible. Regardless of what’s going on with the virus and the (stock) market, cutting back where necessary is our way of being fiscally responsible.’’
Online giving has become an important part of the fuel to make it all work.
“Times are changing,’’ Wilson said. “The weekend (after the virus mandated church closings), we had 1,400 people for an online streaming service for one church. Now that’s not the same as getting up and going to church. You lose some things during the time when you’re not able to (physically) meet.
“You hope everyone can make up their tithing. Even though we are off the routine, it creates difficulty when the expenses continue.’’
With many businesses sending their employees home to work and with public schools conducting virtual learning, the act of online giving to a church isn’t a novel concept. But it has become a necessary one.
“Not everyone is comfortable with the technology yet,’’ Smelser said. “It has become more and more common and I think we will see more and more churches take advantage of it, although there will still be folks who want to mail a check to their local church.
“There’s a practical side to it in order to keep the business side of all churches up and running. But our decision to continue making our offerings is also an expression that God is in control of this situation. God will see us through this.’’
--Joey Johnston is a freelance writer from Tampa.
Click here for more information from the Florida United Methodist Foundation about online giving by Rev. Mark Becker.