September 30, 2020

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Camps, retreat centres hardest hit ministries: survey

Plummeting donations, program cuts, staff layoffs: this is the reality facing most Canadian churches and Christian ministries due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

That’s the finding of a new survey of 2,630 churches and ministries, sponsored by think tank Canadian Council for Christian Charities, Flourishing Congregations and Cardus. The survey was conducted by Waybase, an online platform that supports Christian ministries in Canada.

According to its findings, almost 70 per cent of Canadian churches and other ministries have had revenues decrease due to the pandemic, with 23 per cent saying they think it will have a long-term negative effect on their organizations.

In response, 14 per cent have cut staff pay, 20 per cent have laid off staff temporarily, and three per cent have laid staff off permanently.

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

The No. 1 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.

Sixty per cent 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 the main areas of need are reopening safely, fundraising, technical support and support for stress on staff. Many reported the pandemic has increased the workloads of leaders, and more than half of churches indicated clergy are spending more time preparing online worship services.

The situation in Manitoba mirrors the national picture, with 76 per cent of churches and ministries saying they have experienced revenue declines. (Compared with 72 per cent in Saskatchewan, 63 per cent in Alberta, 65 per cent in B.C. and 67 per cent in Ontario.)

Three per cent of churches and ministries in the province have temporarily closed, while 77 per cent have reduced services. Sixteen per cent have increased services, most of these being front-line agencies responding to needs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The survey also found many churches are responding to practical needs in their communities, with almost half of them 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 centres.

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

Post-secondary schools are also a question mark, he noted; potential 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, Thiessen is less worried, believing most will adapt.

"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."

For Canadian Council for Christian Charities chief executive officer John Pellowe, while this is a tough time, it is also an opportunity.

"God can redeem this terrible situation and bring some good out of it," he said, noting one benefit of the pandemic for churches and other charities is it has "brought them out of their usual way of doing things... there are fewer sacred cows now."

It will also give them a chance to implement new ways of raising money, instead of only passing the collection plate at worship services.

"Three-quarters of churches that responded relied 100 per cent on passing the offering plate at services for donations," Pellowe 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."

There are 32,000 Christian organizations in Canada, with $15 billion in annual revenue. Seventy-seven per cent are churches, eight per cent provide community and international relief and development services, while others are camps, schools and evangelism and discipleship organizations.

faith@freepress.mb.ca

John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.

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