The pandemic and the collection plate
A Pillar special report
The near-universal closure of Catholic parishes that began in late March 2020 was an unprecedented event in American Catholic history: one with spiritual, pastoral, and operational consequences for the nearly 17,000 Catholic parishes in the U.S.
A special report from The Pillar looks at financial consequences of the pandemic for parishes across the country.
Parishes in our study saw on average a 12% drop in offertory collections between 2019 and 2020. The average parish we reviewed collected $599,000 in 2019 offertory, and $70,000 less than that, or $529,000, in 2020.
To assess the impact of the pandemic on the financial health, we created a database of 2019 and 2020 parish collections data from 100 parishes in dioceses in ten selected ecclesiastical provinces across the U.S.
This is part one of a series from The Pillar on parish collections during the pandemic.
To conduct our study, we had to select parishes with an online archive of at least two years of bulletins, and which included parish collection data in their bulletins. But in all other respects we tried to get a completely random sample: the parishes within our study represent a broad range of income levels, population densities, and demographics.
Here’s some data about the parishes we studied:
There is a limit to what the demographics of the zip code in which the parish resides can tell us. Often parishes draw most of parishioners from the area immediately around the parish, but some parishes see, either on weekends or during weekday Mass, a large influx of “commuter parishioners.” Still, the demographics convey the variety of communities in which the parishes we studied actually minister.
We also found a wide variety in annual parish collections, and the size and resources which those finances suggest. As we saw from the bulletins, the smallest of these parishes had well under a hundred families and shared a priest with multiple neighboring parishes. The largest parishes had thousands of registered families and were served by multiple priests.
Across all these statistics, we believe we captured a cross-section of Catholic parish life within the United States. So our question was: What effect did the pandemic and its disruption of parish life (as well as the disruption of parishioners’ employment) have on tithing in these parishes?
A look at the average collections by week across all 100 parishes in our sample makes clear that what happened at the start of the lockdowns in mid-March 2020.
2020 and 2019 data show two high points for weekly collections in American parishes. Christmas in its full liturgical season (perhaps in combination with secular notions both of making donations before the end of the tax year and of making resolutions for better tithing in the new calendar year) causes twin high points at the beginning and end of the calendar year, while Easter stands as the high point for giving in the middle of the year.
But in 2020 the normal Easter surge in giving was reversed: the very lowest weeks of tithing came during the Lent and Easter weeks when nearly all U.S. parishes were closed and not offering public masses.
By late May, the worst of the 2020 drop in parish had passed. Weekly collections mirrored the trend of the previous year through the rest of 2020 — but while the shape of the trend was the same, collections consistently averaged 13% lower than 2019 for the remainder of 2020.
The consistent drop-off is especially noteworthy given that for the first ten weeks of the year, before to the pandemic, average giving in 2020 was 5% above 2019 levels.
The effect of the pandemic on parish collections was not the same across all parishes or across all dioceses. We found significantly different average changes in collections in the different dioceses we examined in our data sample.
Within each diocese or regional group of dioceses, there was still significant variation. The parish that suffered the largest drop in tithing in 2020 was a large, mostly Hispanic parish in the inland region of Southern California, which saw a staggering 44% drop in tithing versus 2019. At the other end of the spectrum, one small rural parish in South Dakota saw collections increase by 35% during 2020.
Most parishes did not come especially close to those extremes.
While there are variations both between regions and within them, the broad effect of the pandemic on Catholic parishes is clear: Eighty-two percent of the parishes we examined suffered a decrease in collections during 2020 compared to 2019. In normal times, those tithing dollars would go to support salaries and programs, repairs and utilities.
Our data does not include other losses of revenue, including parish fundraising events that can, in some parishes, account for a sizable portion of annual income. Those events, if they were cancelled or significantly scaled back in 2020, would add to a drop in total parish incomes.
The drop in giving during the pandemic means that parishes likely faced tough choices on how to maintain staff and facilities while meeting the needs of the parishioners and communities.
In several lengthy stories in recent months, the Associated Press expressed indignation that many parishes and other Catholic organizations had sought funds through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) set up by the CARES Act. The program was designed to provide small businesses and nonprofits with loans intended to allow organizations losing revenue during the pandemic to continue paying their employees. Those loans would be forgiven by the government if the receiving institutions did not in fact lay off workers.
While the Associated Press stories expressed skepticism over the fact that Catholic organizations had received a total of $1.5 billion in PPP loans, that number might be close to actual 2020 revenue losses faced by parishes.
If the parishes in our study represent the 16,914 parishes in the United States as a whole, our data indicates that U.S. parishes saw a total shortfall in offertory collections of $1.2 billion during the course of 2020, along with possible additional revenue losses. While not all parishes that received funds may have experienced losses in revenue, the data indicates that most did.
A year after the shutdowns which had such a dramatic effect on the sacramental, social, and financial activities of Catholic parishes, restrictions are beginning to ease as vaccines become widely available. Parishes are working to restore their liturgies and social activities. They will also have to find a way to rebuild their finances if they are to maintain the staff and services for which parishioners and communities rely on them.
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