News and Views

CFA continues COVID-19 response for churches

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by Erik Alsgaard

Churches throughout the Baltimore-Washington Conference continued to be challenged in their giving to mission shares in March, according to information shared at a Council on Finance and Administration (CFA) meeting April 15.

Meeting on Zoom, CFA members, led by chairperson Phil Potter, learned that March receipts were $908,237, or nearly $243,000 (21%) below budget. For the first three months of 2020, income at the conference level stood at 2,757,188, or $388,764 (12%) below budget. 

Even though those numbers are down, it was expected to be much worse, leaders said. As a result, CFA did not take any additional budget reduction actions like what they did in March when they cut $1.1 million from expenses for 2020.

“We don’t have to panic,” said Potter, “because we don’t have enough data. But it behooves us to pay attention to these numbers.”

Read more about the BWC's response to COVID-19, and its 'State of the Church' webinar

The conference is helping churches in several ways. Starting this month, the BWC is paying medical and pension invoices through and including June 2020, meaning that local churches will not be billed for the local church component of the Conference Sponsored Pension and Health Benefits Plans.  Benefit obligations waived include Employer Pension Premiums (CRSP-DB, CRSP-DC, and CPP/UMLife Option); and Employer HealthFlex Premiums ($860/month per participant).

The conference also offers one-on-one consultations with the BWC financial team. These 15-minute conversations start answering questions church leaders have and, to date, more than 100 churches have taken advantage of the program.

In addition, an online webinar dealing with financial aspects of local church ministry, which aired March 31, has been viewed hundreds of times. A special financial resource page was also developed.

The BWC is rolling out a new program for churches that do not currently offer an online giving option. Working with vendors, the conference will provide a web portal that allows churches to offer online giving at no cost for 60 days. According to Dave Schoeller, BWC data analyst, churches who sign up will receive funds twice a month from their online givers with the conference paying the normal fees. At the end of the 60 days, transaction fees begin for the church but at a reduced rate.

Another step the conference is taking to help are micro-grants of $500. These grants, using funds from Peace with Justice offerings, are to be used by local churches to assist with their feeding, clothing, or other assistance programs, according to Christie Latona, director of connectional ministry.

“Since we introduced the program on April 13, we’ve had 31 churches apply,” she said. Once approved, grants are paid out within a week.

Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, episcopal leader of the conference, said that she and the Cabinet know that churches are facing challenging times, but they are rising to meet them.

“We know that churches are giving their best efforts to meet their Mission Shares,” she said. “We are not tone-deaf to the fear and uncertainty that families are experiencing as some of them are trying to make sure they can stay current in their own bills and put food on the table. We have a lot of folks who were living paycheck to paycheck before, and now their living paycheck to ‘we don’t know what’s coming next.’”

Paul Eichelberger, BWC treasurer, said that he and his financial team expected churches to hold on to cash in March because of the economic uncertainty. “But we sense there is some pent-up capacity out there,” he said.

That glimmer of optimism is because in addition to financial help the conference has already provided to local churches, some are starting to see income from the Payroll Protection Program (PPP). As of April 15, two churches in the BWC have received funding. The BWC itself has applied to the PPP, asking for nearly $1.2 million. That request is pending, Eichelberger said.

As in any other year, giving at the local church is varied in its response. The Rev. John Wunderlich, superintendent of the Cumberland-Hagerstown District, said that he knows some churches in his district where people have given their whole year’s pledge already.

“There are some churches that have seen an increase in giving,” he said. “But that is tempered by churches that are below in their giving. The uncertainty of the future is causing them to be inordinately cautious.”

Eichelberger also noted that the contract with Baltimore Marriott Waterfront was canceled because of the outbreak, with no liabilities on part of the conference. The BWC is in year 3 of a 5-year contract with the hotel.