Ways to Support Your Church in the Time of Virtual Worship

July 16, 2020 by Sherry Hester Kenney

Our laptop computer is open, and our church’s Facebook page is in full screen mode, with the cursor positioned on the “Live Stream” button. The Sunday worship service at Central Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado will soon begin.

When Pastor Louise Westfall walks to the pulpit and declares, “Christ is risen!” my husband Andy and I respond, “Christ is risen indeed.” In the background we see our historic century-old sanctuary filled with empty pews.

But as our pastor reminds us, the church is not the building – we are the church.

In this time of virtual worship, pastors are doing an amazing job of mastering new technology, building faith in community, providing pastoral care, and keeping hope alive for a return to normal or something even better. What are the best ways now to support our churches, many of which were already facing challenges to a balanced budget? Church buildings may be closed much of the week, but expenses go on. Some, such as utilities, may be lower; but others, such as broadened internet access and additional tech resources, may be higher. The Board of Pensions has invited some smaller churches to postpone dues, but staff salaries and benefits, which represent mission and ministry, continue for most.

Passing the offering plate and physically placing cash or checks in it, impossible for now, represent an important act of worship for some; for others, they have become less relevant. Some churches have ceased passing the offering plate altogether. This in no way symbolizes a lessened commitment to the spiritual discipline of giving, nor does it indicate a reduced need for funds, but rather it acknowledges and accepts changes in giving preferences.

Some parishioners have long since gone to periodic electronic funds transfers from their bank account to that of the church. This method of giving is ideal for our “new normal.” There are typically no fees involved, and although the amount or frequency can be changed by the giver, the expectation of systematic deposits is one the church can rely on.

Many churches have set up online giving using the platform available through the Presbyterian Foundation, or another similar one. Giving through a bank account or a credit card at your church’s website, or using a mobile app, is easy and convenient, and the administrative fee deducted from your gift is a minimal expense to the church. The funds you direct are deposited into your church’s designated account – no checks, stamps, or envelopes – just a couple of clicks and your gift is on its way, either on a one-time or a recurring basis.

Mailing a check to the church, using your bank or another vendor’s bill pay services, or making a grant from your Donor-Advised Fund at the Presbyterian Foundation are also excellent ways to remain faithful to your giving practice during this time of social distancing. But those methods require physical processing. If you prefer sending a check or having one sent for you, consider larger gifts made less often and lengthening your giving interval from weekly to monthly, or monthly to quarterly.

Some who give annually do so by making a Qualified Charitable Distribution, a direct transfer from an IRA to the church. Assuming the giver is at least 70½ years old, the QCD results in no recognition of income, and up to $100,000 qualifies for the Required Minimum Distribution (the first of which must now take place by age 72).

Others make year-end gifts of appreciated stock to satisfy a commitment, or to fulfil a desire for extra giving. In times of economic prosperity, when stock values are rising, a gift of appreciated stock made directly to your church from your non-IRA investment portfolio offers the advantage of capital gains tax avoidance. This option also offers a current tax deduction for those who itemize.

During this time of economic uncertainty, when many values have fallen, gifts of cash are more efficient, and allow you to stay invested and wait for values to return. Historically, this is the case; values have returned, but of course past performance is no guarantee of future results. Keep in mind, of course, your own needs for liquidity to pay for living expenses.

Giving options and tax strategies will be irrelevant for those who are suffering financial hardship brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic. Many will likely be forced to reduce or suspend their financial commitment. This is certainly understandable.

For those who are in a more secure financial position, this represents an opportunity to demonstrate that we are the church, and that we care for one another. Those in a position to do so may advance some or perhaps all of their annual financial commitment to fill in cash flow deficits. When the federal government distributes direct deposits or checks into many taxpayers’ bank accounts, those who don’t need this extra income may consider donating their payments to the General Offering Fund or the Deacons’ Fund at their church to assist those most in need – members of the church and of the broader community.

We don’t know how long the need for virtual worship only will continue, how long we will gather at our computers rather than in the narthex, or what the long-term effects of the economic devastation will be. And different parts of the country may gather sooner than others.

We do know that God is faithful and promises to provide for our needs. This is knowledge we can bank on.

Sherry Hester Kenney is a ruling elder at Central Presbyterian Church in Denver, CO, and serves on the Committee on Ministry for the Presbytery of Denver. She is a Certified Financial Planner who served as Ministry Relations Officer for the Presbyterian Foundation prior to her retirement in 2019. She holds a Certificate in Ministry from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.