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Churches across Tampa Bay grapple with coronavirus economic fallout

Offerings are down, layoffs threatened, salaries cut, but leaders say outreach remains a priority in uncertain times.

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ST. PETERSBURG — Dazed, fearful and for the most part heeding the guidance of government health experts about social distancing, the religious are staying away from houses of worship.

For believers, it’s meant diminished spiritual comfort, ritual and community. But the coronavirus that has emptied churches, synagogues and temples has had fiscal ramifications as well.

Related: Amid coronavirus constraints, Tampa Bay Christians will celebrate Easter differently Interactive online worship, a parking lot Palm Sunday service and a drive-through Easter egg hunt are some of the ways the faithful are adjusting to social distancing.

The Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, which serves close to a half-million people in the Tampa Bay area, is making $1.7 million in cuts to address an expected revenue shortfall and to help parishes cover their expenses.

Everyone at the diocese’s pastoral center, including Bishop Gregory Parkes, will see pay reductions, ranging in increments of 10, 7, 5 and 3 percent, from the highest to lowest paid, said Frank Murphy, secretary for administration and president of Catholic Charities. There is also a hiring freeze.

Bishop Gregory L. Parkes, heads the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

The budget for the church’s outreach efforts will not be affected, Murphy said, adding that the bishop believes “this is the time people need the most help.” It’s a philosophy shared by others.

Related: Diocese of St. Petersburg cancels all public Mass celebrations in Tampa Bay

The major concern is not so much the finances, said Patrice Hatley, coach and coordinator of the Presbytery of Tampa Bay. It’s about pastoral care, about not being able to visit members in hospitals and nursing homes. The Presbytery, a jurisdiction in the more than 1.7 million member Presbyterian Church (USA), is offering grants to congregations to continue their mission outreach, such as food and meal distributions, Hatley said.

“We will get through this,” said Bishop Dabney Smith of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida. “There will be an end, but right now, we need to be extremely careful in how we live compassionately. Finances are a concern, but that’s not the major concern. The major concern is well-being.”

Rev. Dabney T. Smith [ Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida ]

Regardless, there’s no avoiding the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has put some congregations in precarious financial circumstances.

“There is concern that some smaller churches might not be able to reopen. We have some presbyteries that some staff have been furloughed for the time being,” said Rick Jones, spokesman for the Presbyterian Church (USA), headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky.

“Thousands are out of work and cannot make contributions. And not being physically in a church building does have an impact, but individual churches are looking at options for online giving. We are anticipating that we will be impacted when we come out at the other side of this. Our first and foremost goal is to ensure that the church and church leaders have the resources they need to minister to their congregations at this time.”

The Presbyterian Disaster Assistance website provides information about support, Jones said.

Locally, the situation appears less dire for the denomination’s churches. “I’m not seeing lots of staff being let go,” Hatley said. “There are a few that have some urgent needs, because they are feeling a drop-off from offerings. But most of them have done a a really good job in terms of providing for online giving. There are a couple of churches that even do a text to give.”

While some members are still sending checks, "the offering plate is actually becoming less of a thing,” Hatley said.

In the Catholic diocese, Murphy said parishioners are giving online and some are even dropping off checks to help out. Monsignor Robert C. Gibbons, pastor of St. Paul’s Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, has already begun making contingency plans. With uncertainty about the virus, the parish cancelled its annual Vacation Bible School, which requires an initial financial investment.

The parish also canceled its popular four-day festival, which has been held annually since 1975 and was to take place from March 19 to 22. “We took a financial hit,” Gibbons said, adding that the event usually makes a $75,000 profit.

The Rev. Monsignor Robert C. Gibbons, left, applies ash to the forehead of parishioner Donald Sigley of St. Petersburg on Wednesday morning's Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. [SCOTT KEELER | Times (2013)]

The large parish consists of the church, a school and a daycare. While the daycare is closed because of the coronavirus shutdown, Gibbons has chosen to continue paying its 15 trained and experienced staff a portion of their salary to ensure their return when the daycare reopens.

The school is operating virtually, so school fees are coming in and teachers are being paid. The school’s 22 part-time employees, classroom aides and after-care staff are not currently working. Like the daycare staff, they are being paid “a major portion of their compensation, at least through the month of April, at which point we will reassess the situation,” Gibbons said.

At the church itself, Gibbons and other staff have taken a temporary wage reduction. Offerings are continuing through an automatic payment plan, Gibbons said, adding that it is fortunate that many parishioners have signed up for the program. "Other parishioners have joined up since,” he said, adding that some parishioners have sent in offerings by mail, “but a lot of it has dried up.”

Smith, the bishop of the Episcopal diocese, said the pandemic will have an effect on finances, but believes it “will be a temporary negative experience.”

“The reality for congregations of whatever faith is there are going to be some that have more of a cushion and others who are on the edge of fragility ... and then something like this comes along,” Smith said, adding that for Episcopal churches, the diocese is there to provide help.

A survey by Faithlife, a Bellingham, Washington-based church technology company and maker of Logos Bible Software, showed that church offerings were down in March. During the week of March 15, one in five churches experienced a 10 to 50 percent decrease in giving. And nearly a quarter of churches experienced a decrease of 50 percent or more. Churches with established online giving are generally faring better than those without.

“A lot of churches were still used to passing an offering plate,” Bob Pritchett, Faithlife’s CEO, said. “Not being there in person reduces the cash giving in the offering plate.”

Faith-based groups are hoping to benefit from the Paycheck Protection Program, part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, recently passed by Congress. Bishop Smith said he hopes that loans under the program will help keep Episcopalians and members of other religious groups employed.

Murphy has seen some of this before. During the 2008 recession, now retired Bishop Robert N. Lynch instituted a hiring and salary freeze.

“I think this is actually worse,” Murphy said of the current financial situation, adding that it will take time to recover. “People have lost a lot of their income. A lot of people who are older are going to be nervous about crowds.”

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