Any way you look at it, the pandemic is having a profound impact on how parishes respond to ministry needs, stewardship education and worship. This past spring, the Stewardship Development department, with the help of our diocesan stewardship volunteers, conducted one-on-one engagements with parish leaders, probing into matters related to giving, website development and use, online worship, FaithWorks and parish communications.
We have summarized some helpful conclusions from their responses about how parishes have adapted to the pandemic. The survey identified eight key findings:
Rural parishes are finding it difficult to stay connected. In many cases, staying connected is difficult because many distant households have slow internet service – or none at all. In this information age, a lack of technology impairs our ability to communicate. Social distancing and the absence of corporate worship has meant that, for some, the pandemic has severed their ties with their local parish.
Parish websites are essential. Websites are the gateways to church activity, and for many they are the first point of contact with a church. Websites need to be well organized, easy to navigate and attractive, and contain relevant and up-to-date information. They are the new ministry hub. People seek direction for online worship, donations, activities and outreach from our websites. Updating them is essential, as outdated and poorly organized sites can drive members and seekers away.
Good habits beget good habits. Simply put, if you were actively promoting good stewardship and utilizing congregational resources prior to the pandemic, there is a good chance you continued to do so during the pandemic. Indeed, some parishes have thrived during the turmoil, experiencing an increase in worship attendance and giving.
Pre-Authorized Giving (PAG) and Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT) use has spiked. In 2019, only three parishes in the diocese had at least 60 per cent of their givers enrolled in PAG. By the end of 2020, that number had jumped to 26. Twelve parishes have over 70 per cent of their givers on PAG and one has over 90 per cent. EFT use has also grown as parishes seek to identify new ways for people to contribute financially.
Giving to FaithWorks has increased. Last year’s result has already been widely reported, as we experienced our second-best result ever. That generosity has continued this year as online giving and the response to direct mail is strong. We hope for a similar overall result this year as parishes commit to the 100+1% Challenge, which you can read about on page 1 of this month’s issue of The Anglican.
Worship attendance is difficult to track. How do you take an accurate headcount on Zoom, Facebook or YouTube? With great difficulty. Parishes have reported widely varying attendance figures over the last 18 months. It is difficult to know who is watching, when and how many are seated in front of the computer screen. Our best guess is that attendance is on a gradual decline – consistent with an earlier observed 20-year trend. Some parishes report strong attendance numbers on YouTube as it tracks unique views. For the most part, however, attendance numbers during the pandemic have been unreliable.
Promoting giving is not a priority during online worship. A big surprise for me and my team is that more than two-thirds of parishes do not ask for a donation during pre-taped or live services. If we aspire to duplicate online what we experience face-to-face, why would we not encourage a gift from our treasure at offertory time as well? It has often been said that if you don’t ask, you won’t get. This same principle applies to online worship services.
Some parishes were unable to adapt. For a myriad of reasons, some parishes were unable to adjust to the change brought by the pandemic. This meant that their website looked pretty much the same over the last 18 months, that worship opportunities were limited, redirected or non-existent, that giving was not promoted and thus declined, that fellowship disappeared, and that few volunteers came forward to help. For these parishes, the pandemic may have hastened closure or reconfiguration.
We cannot afford not to act. The stewardship survey was a satisfying exercise, as it provided clear evidence that when parish leaders can adapt to their circumstance, they can continue to provide a robust ministry experience. Our health indicators did not change, as about 30 per cent of parishes in the diocese continue to experience growth. A pandemic does not need to imperil the work of God’s church.
Parishes can and will experience growth – even in times of great difficulty – if they are responsive, connected, open to new ideas and eager. The prophet Isaiah provides inspiration when he says: “I am about to do a new thing, now it springs forth” (43:19). It is the newness that is brought on by the unexpected that has moved many to do things they could not have imagined before. There is good news to be found in this.