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Shepherding the Budget Amid Pandemic

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Fluctuations in the economy and the parish census have always been reflected in the collection basket, but the overnight plunge in charitable giving due to the coronavirus is unprecedented.

“Uncharted waters” was how Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Seattle, chairman of the USCCB National Collections Committee, termed it. “The focus clearly for bishops today is on our people,” he told Catholic News Service. “We are facing a pandemic, and every bishop in this country right now is making many, many, many decisions about keeping our people safe, our parishioners, our workers, our volunteers.”

People’s health and safety were of primary concern, Archbishop Etienne stated. They were also working to help parishes and the archdiocese get back on their feet again. “But we trust always in the goodness of our people. They always step up, and I have trust in God, and I have trust in the people of God, and I’m not going to let go of that,” he said.

Unchartered Waters

Faith in God and trust in the goodness of people is echoed in parishes throughout the country as pastors, in union with their bishops, navigate these unchartered waters. Finding ways to still pay the bills is part of that.

After three Sundays without public Mass, the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., strongly recommended that parishes begin to furlough nonessential staff, according to Father Shaun Foggo, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows in Takoma Park, Maryland.

“First are the music people,” he said in an interview with The Priest magazine. “With no Masses, there is no music. The cleaner of the rectory and cook are also nonessential.” The secretary and bookkeeper are necessary, he explained, as is the maintenance man who cleans the church, which is kept open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. so people can come to pray. “His hours are getting cut back, but people are worried about cleaning and disinfecting,” Father Foggo said. For those getting furloughed, he noted that employees will qualify for unemployment to make up for lost income.

Some priests are also cutting their own salaries. “We were told it’s completely up to us,” Father Foggo said. “There’s no pressure either way.”

Our Lady of Sorrows has around 1,400 registered families. “I would say that right now we are receiving about $900 a week, whereas before it was around $9,000,” Father Foggo said. The parish is home to a large Spanish-speaking population — about 60% — with the rest made up of Haitian, Ghanaian and a small number of Caucasians. There are 11 staff members,including two full-time priests and a Haitian priest whose salary is split between the parish and diocese.

The parish is actually on stable financial footing at the time due to a generous bequest two years ago of $1.3 million. “In that sense, we are good,” Father Foggo explained. “It’s a poor area, but the people give and help out a lot. I am more concerned for the people getting laid off around the world.”

Online Giving

Father Matthew Hood, associate pastor of the Church of the Divine Child, parish to 1,985 families in Dearborn, Michigan, said they have been encouraging online giving. He estimates there has been a 40% decrease in donations. “It’s great that some people are still remembering their parish at this time,” he said. “One guy, who had been laid off, told me he could not give as much, but he would still be giving something.”

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The Archdiocese of Detroit has offered webinars specifically for priests on issues ranging from finances to catechizing at home, according to Father Hood. “They just did one on how to apply for forgivable loans that the federal government is making available. Some priests are doing that so they won’t have to lay anyone off,” he said. No employees have been let go at Divine Child. Even the music minister has been kept busy providing music during livestreamed Masses and for daily video messages from the parish’s two priests.

Father Martin Flum, in the Archdiocese of Washington, is the pastor of two small churches: St. Michael, with 125 families, and St. Dominic’s Mission, with 60 families. He lived as a hermit for six years before Cardinal Donald Wuerl asked him to pastor the two parishes two years ago.

“The first week without Mass, donations dropped to nothing,” Father Flum said, “but the following week, 10 people dropped off money.” Online giving has not been very successful, he said, partly because when it was offered, some vocal parishioners complained that 3% would go to the company.

“Everyone will be working half their time and keeping their benefits,” he said. Father Flum plans to furlough his own salary since he has very few expenses and parishioners regularly bring him food. “Payroll is the biggest part of our budget,” he said. “The most expendable part of that was my pay. I lived as a hermit and realized how little you need.”

St. Michael’s has an aging population in an area of the city that is not aging, according to Father Flum, but it is showing signs of growth. Parishioners were relieved that their church was not closed. “When I first got here, during the Year of Mercy, Cardinal Wuerl had just forgiven $600,000 that they owed the diocese. Since then, we have always been paid up and don’t have any debt.”

Part-time and Volunteers

Long before the pandemic dried up donations, Father Flum had already cut expenses, such as reducing spending on Easter flowers from $2,200 to $500 and doing likewise at Christmas. There was a complete overhaul of the staff. People in the music ministry were volunteering, so the one paid person was let go. Father Flum served as the cantor for the Saturday Vigil Mass, which encourages the congregation to sing heartily, although he would still welcome a volunteer. A bookkeeper pressured with more duties ended up quitting and was replaced with someone able to do the bookkeeping and secretarial duties in three-fourths the time at less money. When the full-time groundskeeper left, a parishioner offered to do it part-time.

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Father Flum has a business degree and owned a real estate development business before entering the priesthood and noted that it is his job to be a good steward of parish resources, but said he does not worry about money. “Just before the coronavirus scare, I had a couple of big donors,” he said. “Someone gave two times the usual weekly collection and there was another $2,500 check from an inheritance someone wanted to tithe.”

Although both churches need new roofs, and the hall floor at St. Michael needs replacing, Father Flum believes that if he leads people faithfully, the money comes. For instance, recently a parishioner pointed out that the Church needed painting and then took care of getting it done.

“I think the people love their parish, and I suspect when things spring back, if they have jobs, they will probably do some catch-up contributing,” Father Flum said. There has even been a positive effect from the pandemic, according to him. “It seems that we might have an awakening in regard to Eucharistic adoration,” he said. “We are having adoration from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. and have all the hours covered. We have never had that before.”


Father Jason Signalness, is pastor of North Dakota’s Queen of the Most Holy Rosary in Stanley and St. Ann in Berthold, with 235 families, or 456 individuals. Father Signalness has had previous experience operating churches on a tight budget. A day shy of his first year as a priest, he was assigned to three parishes, two of which include huge historical churches in areas where the populations have been in decline for decades. “We didn’t spend extravagantly — like we used the same old copier instead of buying a new one,” he said. They also relied a lot on volunteers.

In Stanley, there are mineral rights that help with a few hundred dollars a month for the parish and the church has a savings of roughly $200,000. “We are probably in better shape than most and could run for a while with no staff changes, but it’s not a long-term solution; there are building and staff expenses. St. Ann’s has a cushion of less than $30,000, and most of the employees are already volunteers.”

During the first weekend without Mass, the collection at St. Michael in rural Linton, North Dakota, Father Signalness’ third parish, was only 26% of the budgeted $3,500, but by the second week it went up to 65%, to $2,010. At St. Ann, there was only one donation the first weekend, but by the next, 94% of their weekly $788 budget was received: $740.

Online giving has been encouraged and staying connected with parishioners is probably helping, Father Signalness believes. They have been livestreaming Masses on YouTube and Facebook, and using Facebook and Flocknote to communicate with parishioners.

“We do have to think about the possibility of this going on for months,” Father Signalness said. “If it got to that point, the diocese can even take on bookkeeping at an hourly rate with the pastors scanning in receipts to save money on a bookkeeper. If it got bad enough in small parishes, we [the priests] could be the only staff person. In a worst-case scenario, we own the building, so we would still be here offering Mass and confession. That’s the most important goal — even though Mass is just getting livestreamed right now.”

PATTI MAGUIRE ARMSTRONG writes from North Dakota.


Faith-based organizations and SBA loans

Faith-based organizations are eligible to receive Small Business Administration loans through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program (EIDL). The PPP and EIDL loan programs are neutral, generally applicable loan programs that provide support for nonprofit organizations without regard to whether they are religious or secular. The CARES Act has provided its program funds as part of the efforts to respond to the economic dislocation threatened by the COVID-19 public health emergency.


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