Tithes in corona-time: Who gave more, who stopped giving, and why
A Pillar special report - Part 3
When the infamous March 2020 rolled around, Jenna Jensen was working at her local farmer’s co-op and expecting her third child. Due to COVID-19 shutdowns, Jenna was laid off of her job for 6 weeks. She came back in April and worked through her daughter’s birth in July, only to be told in the middle of her maternity leave that she would be laid off again.
Jenna and her husband Justin, who live in Wausa, Nebraska, and attend church in the neighboring town of Bloomfield, were used to tighter budgets in the winter and spring, because of the seasonal nature of working in agriculture. But the loss of Jenna’s income - twice - was a big hit.
“We had to completely stop tithing monetarily for most of last year,” Jenna told The Pillar. “Instead we volunteered more of our time.”
The Jensens helped with pandemic-friendly outreach like drive-through meals and virtual fundraisers, and are now slowly building back their income as well as their monetary tithe. Jenna said the time was stressful, especially the second layoff during her maternity leave.
“We got through it though,” she said.
This is part three of a series from The Pillar on parish collections during the pandemic.
Brandon Schetgen, 30, is an Iowa Catholic who had to stop tithing for a short time after being laid off during the pandemic. In early 2020, Brandon’s wife decided to leave her job to stay home with their two daughters and niece. Then when the pandemic came and lockdowns started, Brandon was laid off, and the Schetgens cancelled their automatic payment offering to their parish, which was about 5% of their total income.
They re-upped in April, Schetgen said, though they considered the 5% amount to be more of a “moving target” as they navigated unemployment, stimulus payments, and other changing circumstances throughout the summer. They are now tithing again to their parish, an obligation they take seriously, as Brandon is employed again.
Schentgen told The Pillar that his family doesn't always attend their local parish. They sometimes go to Mass at parishes where they can receive the Eucharist on the tongue, which is important to them, and is not yet allowed at their parish. He said the family hasn't moved their offering to one of those parishes, but they have considered it.
The year 2020 was a tumultuous time for Catholic tithing throughout the United States. When Masses shuttered throughout the country due to the pandemic, Catholic parishes feared the worst - massive losses due to lockdowns, layoffs and dropped donations.
While overall giving is down, things are not as dire as they were first feared. A study of 100 parishes across 10 dioceses, conducted by Brendan Hodge for The Pillar, found that Sunday offertory collections dropped by an average of 12% between 2019 and 2020. While some parishes saw big swings - a majority-Hispanic parish in California reported a 44% drop in donations, while a small parish in South Dakota reported a 35% increase - most landed somewhere in the middle.
Part of the reason donations did not fall more drastically is because many people who were still in a position to give decided to give more.
Gregg Fanselau, 57, a Denver-area Catholic who had just moved to a different neighborhood when lockdowns began, is one of those people.
Early in the pandemic, Fanselau logged on to his old parish website to access its livestreamed Mass, when something malfunctioned. He decided to tune into Denver’s Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception livestream Mass instead.
“Father Ron gave a brief but really profound homily, and then towards the end, he was announcing all the different things that the parish was doing to help people in need,” he said.
Those things included making breakfast sandwiches every day for about 100 people and giving out snacks as well. In the afternoon, the parish runs a sandwich line at St. Elizabeth’s, its mission parish downtown. The cathedral also announced a program to help families make rent who had just lost their jobs due to lockdown-related layoffs.
That day, Fanselau joined the cathedral as a parishioner and increased his tithe by 50%. Fanselau said he was already considering a change in parishes since he had moved, and he loved the outreach the cathedral was doing.
“Right at that moment, I just decided to change over to being at the cathedral and give more, because the amount of effort that was going to help people in really grave need really touched my heart,” he said.
Lia Moran, 44, also a Catholic in Colorado, told The Pillar that she started tithing in May 2020. She realized she had expendable income that was no longer being spent on things like eating out, and she was one of the lucky ones who had kept her job and had money to give.
“I kept my job (and) I learned to tithe,” Moran said. “I realized I had money to give and I wasn’t doing it.”
Now Moran tithes every payday, the same time she pays her bills. While she moved parishes in the fall, she kept tithing and set up automatic payments so she wouldn’t forget.
“I specifically give to my parish for now, but have looked into donating to organizations who support causes I care deeply about,” Moran told The Pillar.
Fr. Brian O’Brien is a pastor at St. Francis Xavier in Stillwater, Oklahoma. From what he’s observed in his deanery (a region of parishes within a diocese), O’Brien said he has noticed two things: one, that those who could afford to give decided to give even more, and two, that the parishes who offered the most forms of alternative ministries or outdoor sacraments fared the best.
“People who have done okay financially feel obligated,” he said, to continue giving and to even give more.
“We have a number of people who passed on their stimulus money to us, they didn’t need the extra $600,” he said.
The parishes that “did everything humanly possible” to still offer the sacraments or outreach, from livestream Mass, to drive-up outdoor confessions, to virtual Bible studies and small groups, were the ones that thrived, he said.
Those took a “wait it out” approach and didn’t offer even so much as a livestream Mass, “it put those parishes that much further behind.”
This tracks with what Andrew Robison, president of Petrus Development, a consultant to parishes and other non-profits on development and fundraising, observed during the pandemic on a broader scale.
“There were kind of two responses to COVID,” Robison told The Pillar. “One was the pastor or the leadership team that said, ‘Well, we'll see you when this is over’, and kind of shut down and didn't increase communication...and didn’t shift what they did.”
“And then we saw some pastors and leadership teams that said...we know we have to have restrictions when gathering, but we're going to do other things. So some of the biggest stories were...pastors or priests that did parking lot Masses or parking lot confessionals, or they shifted some of their small group ministry from in-person to virtual gatherings.”
O’Brien said at his parish, he tried to be as accommodating as possible during the pandemic, by offering livestreaming Masses, as well as checking in with parishioners via an occasional phone call, and other forms of pandemic-friendly outreach. He also revamped an “old, junky mailbox” that parishioners can use to drop off donations with a “new, secure, locked mailbox” so that they would feel secure leaving money there.
In some ways, O’Brien said, the pandemic was the nail in the coffin for smaller parishes, especially in rural areas — parishes already struggling to make ends meet.
“Oklahoma is not a very Catholic place to begin with,” O’Brien said. According to The Oklahoman, just 3.6% of the state is Catholic, compared to 21% of the U.S. as a whole. For small parishes that were already losing people and donations, he said, the pandemic just accelerated what was already happening.
What is going to be key, Robison said, is for parishes to reach out to people as restrictions lift and more people can start coming back to Mass and parish events.
“I would say that, if they haven't already, they need to be proactively reaching out, not just to the people there that are in the pews...they have to be willing to reach out to their flock,” he said, including those who haven’t been in the pews prior to the pandemic.
“Build that relationship. That comes through genuine communication that comes from showing a genuine concern for their well-being, and their family's well-being,” Robison said.
O’Brien said he and many priests within his deanery are already thinking along these lines. They are making phone calls and even doing home visits, if the priests and families have been vaccinated.
The priest added that he found some good resources on post-pandemic evangelization through the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, which has posted to its website ideas and resources for outreach.
“I think being creative and innovative is one of the lessons that we learned in 2020,” Robison said. “People weren't necessarily looking for organizations, pastors, leaders, to (adapt to COVID) in a perfect way.”
“And the reality is, the ones that tried, even imperfectly in the beginning, that was appreciated significantly.”
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