By Neva Rae Fox
When the pandemic closed church doors last March, many jumped to online worship. Now that churches across the country are re-opening, some have opted to maintain an online presence, while simultaneously preparing for parishioners to return.
As congregations reoccupy their buildings, leadership is recognizing the cost of returning. Equipment required for online services, Plexiglas, and specialized cleaning materials, to name a few, all carry unexpected and unbudgeted price tags. But there are other, disguised costs that are being recognized – staff who were let go, Twelve Step and community groups who could not meet in the facility, and the emotional toll at the loss of community events like weddings and funerals.
“The real question is not the cost of returning to in-person services but of adding in-person services to the on-line services and programs that we have created during the pandemic,” remarked the Rev. Susan Fortunato, rector of Christ Church, Poughkeepsie.
Citing assistance from the Diocese of New York, Fortunato explained, “Basically we are now trying to run two churches – one is completely on-line, and we have already bought two iPad Pros and have plans to expand our technology in the next few months. We have also needed to re-design our website because we have realized that it has become an important portal of information for our members in a way it had not been previously. In addition, we have had to subscribe to Zoom, and purchase equipment for videotaping.”
The Rev. Vicki Ix, vicar, St. John’s, Ashfield, Massachusetts, shared a typical situation facing many churches. “We needed a laptop right away for Zoom,” she said. “We are still considering the permanent streaming solution. This will cost somewhere between $1,000 and $2,500 depending on which protocol we decide to go with.”
Ix noted that while fall fundraisers were cancelled, the Diocese of Western Massachusetts has helped along with “new pledges (that) have come from folks who have been joining us online.”
On the other hand, there have been some savings in uncommon places. Ix reported, “We’ve spent less on things like vicar’s mileage, liturgical supplies, paper and printing, and more on platforms like Zoom and OneLicense.”
College campuses are not immune to pandemic costs. The Rev. D. Scott Russell, Chaplain at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, cited more than software and sanitizing needs. “Our food budget is typically one of our major expenditures during the school year. Students are hungry. There is a lot of food-insecurity on campus, and many students visit us because we have a reputation for serving tasty and filling meals throughout the week.”
Russell continued, “Suddenly that aspect of our ministry came to a halt. We immediately had inquiries about meals ready to-go, but this fall semester most students are at home and not living in town anymore. Our resources have instead moved to increased on-line advertising, software, licensing, and even changes in personnel. We’ve had to hire a musician in addition to our organist to serve as a cantor.”
Then there is the unexpected. The Ven. Jeffrey Queen, rector, St. Andrew’s, Fort Thomas, Kentucky, and Archdeacon for the Ohio River Valley in the Diocese of Lexington, explained the church had just concluded a capital campaign for a new parking lot, which was recently completed. “Our first use of the parking lot was not for what it was purposed,” he remarked. “It was done during COVID – and now we don’t have any cars to park!”
In some locales, the cost of closing churches has been taxing on the community.
The Rev. Rosalind C Hughes, rector of Epiphany in Euclid, Ohio, said, “Our community meal has been suspended. We tried offering alternative food assistance, but what our guests really came for was the chance to sit around a table together, and that is exactly what we are unable to offer just now.”
“Our parish had a very robust pre-pandemic outreach program, and we were in the middle of our second year of hosting a homeless shelter in our church,” Fortunato related. “Because of the pandemic, the shelter had to be relocated to a safer location with more space for the shelter guests.”
At St. Mark’s City Heights, San Diego, California, “We are small so we don’t have a lot of weddings, funerals or baptisms, but we do have fundraisers and service events such as a back-to-school bash where we outfit kids with all they need to return to school,” said the Rev. Hannah Wilder, curate. “We usually provide showers twice a month, but we haven’t been doing that. We usually host people at church during Christmas as part of an interfaith shelter, but we have stepped back from that. We usually have a big foot washing and shoe giveaway on Maundy Thursday that we canceled.”
Of significance are the intangible costs.
“I was ordained a priest on January 4, celebrated the Eucharist about eight times, and then Coronavirus hit,” Wilder shared. “I have experienced a strange sense of loss because I cannot celebrate the Eucharist in the traditional way. Something I have been anticipating for a long time has suddenly become one of the vectors first spreading a deadly virus. It’s very strange.”
“The major ‘loss’ we’ve suffered is the lack of community,” Russell said. “Our ministry is very much one of ‘presence’ on campus, welcoming students with hope, fellowship, and food. Virtual gatherings lack the connections that have been our hallmark.”
Queen cited another difficulty from the pandemic. “People are kept at arm’s length.”
Ix named the emotional toll. “Leadership is fatigued – lay and ordained,” she observed. “Some members are not sustained by online worship and their absence from us is a poverty. I hope that when we do return or, better yet, begin again, those whom we miss will be part of the next chapter.”
Fortunato agreed. “Our parish leadership (staff and volunteer) are stressed beyond belief. And we are stressed in totally different ways.”
“What came to me under the category of incidental costs of the pandemic is sleep,” Hughes said. “We are all losing sleep. Parishioners are concerned about job security, family members, schooling, their own health, you name it.”
Hughes urges to “trust and pray. Trusting the faithfulness, loving-kindness, and remarkable creativity not only of God but of the people God has placed me amongst: my parishioners. I am comforted when I hear how well they are keeping up with one another, checking in and making plans to cheer one another up and on. I am so grateful for their patience with our technological stumblings and fumblings.”
Queen concluded, “I think it’s a reminder to us that we have to lean on Jesus. I have been able to make it through, to be hopeful in all of this. Personal prayer, daily office, and really trying hard to stick to it. This is what is keeping me sane. In the midst of this craziness, there is an anchor.”