Missionary response to COVID drives collections

By Matthew F. Manion

The impact of COVID-19 on parish collections this year could be devastating, but it doesn’t have to be. Churches still have time to pivot to a new model of being church before the economic impact is irreversible.

But they need to act quickly.

To assess the financial impact of COVID-19 on churches, Villanova School of Business Center For Church Management analyzed annual offertory collection trends from 169 Catholic parishes from FY2017 to FY2020. These churches are a mix of urban, suburban, rural and seasonal churches in the dioceses of Fall River, MA, Camden, NJ, and Raleigh, NC. We looked at four years of data to see if the changes in FY2020 were an anomaly or were part of a multi-year trend.

The overall drop in collections for these churches was 7% in FY20 after three years of consistent parish offertory collections of an average of $660,000 per year. The FY20 drop in collections occurred in the last 15 weeks of the year after the pandemic shut down churches in mid-March. If you annualize that rate of decline through FY21, collections will decline 24% this year.

It wasn’t bad news for everyone, though. On the positive side, 1 in 6 (28) parishes saw collections increase in FY20 by an average of $41,073. Only 12 of those 28 parishes had an in increase in collections the prior year, so something changed in 2020.

“[Our] data confirmed an essential hypothesis that a church’s response to the pandemic was directly proportional to the missionary impulse that drives their decisions.”

On the negative side, 1 in almost 5 (36) parishes will see collections drop 50% or more in FY21 if they don’t change. These parishes saw collections decrease in FY20 by an average of $89,637, which was a decline of 14% or more. That rate projects to an annualized decline in FY21 collections of 50% or more, which would be devastating for those communities.

We thought there might be characteristics of the parish that contributed to their increase or decline, but we were wrong.

  • While there were slight differences in the change in collections between rural, urban, suburban and seasonal parishes, those differences were not statistically significant.
  • Using parish collections as a proxy for parish size (<$250k, $250k- $500k, $500k – $750k, $750k – $1,250k, $1,250k+), again, while there were small differences, those differences were not statistically significant. Surprisingly, many smaller parishes outperformed mid-size and larger parishes.
  • Finally, we looked at geography. While Raleigh had less of a decline than Fall River or Camden, again, the difference was small and not statistically significant.

The one characteristic that made a big difference was whether the parish offered services online or not. 72% (121) of parishes offered Mass online — either recorded or livestreamed. While the ones who offered Mass online had an average drop in collections of 5%, parishes who did not offer Mass online had an average drop of 12%. If you annualize that over 12 months, it’s a statistically significant 20-point difference in collections (annual average decline of 19% with online Mass compared to 39% without online Mass).

This data confirmed an essential hypothesis that a church’s response to the pandemic was directly proportional to the missionary impulse that drives their decisions. Ones with a strong missionary impulse moved online and were better able to adapt to the challenges of the pandemic and survive. When they were not able to fish in normal waters, the figured out how to put their nets on the proverbial other side of the boat. Paradoxically, churches that focused on waiting this out and hoping for a return to life before the pandemic are more likely to struggle and possibly close before it is over.

How is your church responding?

 

Matthew F. Manion is Professor of Practice, Management and Operations and Faculty Director for the Center for Church Management at Villanova School of Business. View the complete study results online.

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