“Are we going to make it?”
It’s a question leaders at downtown St. Thomas's Centre Street Baptist Church are asking as the number of members showing up for in-person Sunday service drops, a longstanding issue accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We're looking ahead as to what can we do . . . which is very, very unfortunate,” said Annie Robert, the church’s clerk.
Where a typical pre-pandemic service would draw about 75, it’s now about half that, Robert said. Churchgoers aren't required to be fully vaccinated against COVID, but must mask up and practise social distancing.
During on-and-off lockdowns – and resulting church closings – some members grew accustomed to watching services online. That, and health concerns, prompted many to stay home when the church reopened in July, Robert believes.
“I think there is still quite a bit of fear for some of those older people to go out in the community,” she said.
And while half of its members still attend on Sundays, Robert said attendance simply isn’t where it needs to be to sustain the cost of repairs and upgrades to the historic cathedral-style building.
Donations, too, are “down substantially,” she said. “Without (donations), we don’t survive. That’s how we pay all our bills, through collections.”
While the scope of the problem isn’t the same for other London-area churches, many are seeing reduced attendance and donations nearly two years into the pandemic.
At the Roman Catholic Diocese of London, which has 104 parishes across Southwestern Ontario, parish collections — which accounted for nearly 65 per cent of total revenue before the virus crisis — have fallen by about 40 per cent, a spokesperson said.
“There has been a drop in revenue with the drop in attendance, and people who aren't coming might not be willing to make a contribution,” said Matthew Clarke, the diocese's communications director.
“The vast majority of our collections, pre-pandemic, were given in person when the person came to mass, in a traditional envelope and basket."
Many locations have shifted to stream their services and accepting donations online, Clarke said.
Health and safety concerns, not lack of interest or membership, appear to be driving the drop in overall attendance, he said.
“I would say the majority of our (weekend) masses, with the limited seating we’re able to offer, are full,” Clarke said. Churchgoers don't have to be vaccinated, but physical distancing requirements limit capacity to between 15 and 25 per cent, depending on the church.
For Rev. Paul Browning, minister at Trinity United Church community centre and Mount Zion United Church in London, doubling up – offering Sunday services online and in person – has helped.
“Attendance is down, but on the flip slide, we stream our services online and it’s actually reached more people," he said.
Then there has been the decline in fundraisers and rentals, for everything from martial arts and seniors programs to English as a second language classes, over the last two years, Browning said.
Federal government support has been “the only way we were able to keep staff on," he said.
But for Browning, the pandemic’s toll on churches goes beyond dollars and cents: it's made it tougher to maintain a sense of community.
“From a community point of view and ministry point of view, it's the most complicated situation I've ever encountered,” he said.
“It's a huge thing that so many people are experiencing differently. And so, in that way, it's kind of a challenge to provide leadership that connects everybody.”
His wife, Rev. Sue Browning, a psychotherapist and minister at two United churches on London's outskirts, Littlewood and St. Andrew's Westminster, echoed that sentiment.
“I have sat and watched programs be taken away that could have been provided safely," she said. "It’s been devastating, the impact on people’s mental wellness.”
Sue Browning has been safely conducting in-person services when permitted and, luckily, has seen no members contract or transmit the virus.
“Every time we've been allowed to open, I have reopened, because that face-to-face contact makes such a difference in people's lives," she said.
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada
Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press