For decades, churches in Maine and the Northeast have seen their memberships shrink. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, they worried that without being able to pass collection plates at services, or to hold fundraisers such as suppers and craft fairs, they would be forced to close their doors forever.
Thanks largely to an influx of approximately $20 million in federal loans that hundreds of Maine religious organizations received, and because of reduced operating costs from shutting down buildings and offices, most of Maine’s houses of worship have survived.
Along with churches and other houses of worship, those organizations include religious schools, food pantries, individual clergy and organizations such as Volunteers of America, whose roots are in the religious social justice movement of the early 20th century, according to a database of Paycheck Protection Program recipients posted online by FederalPay.org. The federal Paycheck Protection Program loans that the groups received enabled them to continue paying nearly 4,000 employees during the pandemic.
While the federal money helped churches pay staff, utilities and embrace online streaming, some, including First United Methodist Church in Bangor, found ways to flourish by trying things they’d never considered before.
For the past 15 years, the primary fundraiser for the church on Essex Street has been its monthly bean suppers held on the fourth Saturday of each month. The money from that event helps pay for the weekly free community meal the congregation offers and other church missions.
When the pandemic shuttered the church doors, bean supper coordinator Mary Beth Allen wondered how the people who regularly prepared the meals, many of whom were high risk for COVID-19 due to their age, could work 6 feet apart in the kitchen.
“A few people suggested that we try takeout but we were stuck in the mode of sit-down [meals],” she said. “After a spring and summer without doing them, my husband and I got cabin fever. We figured out that we could reduce our offerings, use three or four helpers, spread out and wear masks. It turned out that because the church is set back from the street and we have this large circular driveway, we were perfectly set up for takeout.”
From left (clockwise): Lesley Whittington scoops beans into containers for a drive-thru bean supper fundraiser at First United Methodist Church on Essex Street in Bangor; As Lesley Whittington (right) scoops beans into containers, Judy Smith (center) and Pastor Steve Smith (left) put lids on and label each one before a drive-thru bean supper fundraiser on Saturday, April 24, 2021 at First United Methodist Church; Lesley Whittington (left), Judy Smith (right) and Pastor Steve Smith arrange three different types of beans before customers arrive to make their orders on Saturday, April 24, 2021 at First United Methodist Church in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN
When they held the first takeout supper in November, Allen and her fellow kitchen workers weren’t sure if anyone would come, but the takeout option brought in nearly twice as much money as the sit-down meals did. Because they nearly ran out of beans in March, the church cooked 8 more pounds of beans in the following month.
On April 26, Mary Myshral and Kathy Bland, both of Hudson, arrived early and were first in line. Neither attends the church.
“We saw the handmade signs out by Tractor Supply on Broadway and decided to come into town,” Myshral said. “We like to support the community.”
She said getting takeout from the church led her to think about attending the church.
Like Myshral, nearly 33 percent of Maine residents don’t have a religious preference, higher than the national number of 25 percent, according to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study, conducted in 2014 and updated in 2019.
About 60 percent identified as Christian, with 21 percent of that population identifying as Catholics, which is the same number as those who said they belong to mainline Protestant denominations. Evangelical Protestants make up about 14 percent of Maine residents, far fewer than the national average of 25 percent. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and other faiths make up the remaining 7 percent.
From left: Pastor Steve Smith hands an order to a customer at his church’s second drive-thru bean supper fundraiser since the pandemic on Saturday, April 24, 2021 at First United Methodist Church in Bangor; Judy Smith takes an order at a drive-thru bean supper fundraiser event on Saturday, April 24, 2021 at First United Methodist Church; Beans for a drive-thru bean supper fundraiser on Saturday, April 24, 2021 at First United Methodist Church in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN
The state’s largest denomination, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, suffered a loss of $1 million in net assets in the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2020, according to its annual report issued in December. Its finances were helped considerably by nearly $5 million in loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, but its retiree pension and health care costs grew by $2.5 million.
Almost every revenue account the diocese has was lower than the prior year, led by parish offerings, which was down almost $2.3 million compared with last year, the report said. Total operating expenses were also down $1.6 million due to the shutdown, which helped offset the loss in revenue.
Finances for the diocese are looking better for the fiscal year that ends in June, according to Dave Guthro, communications director.
“Investment performance has come back strong and, with the return of parishioners and the incredible support offered by Maine Catholics over the course of the pandemic through electronic giving and other generosity, things are certainly looking up,” he said.
The Episcopal Diocese of Maine, which has more than 10,000 members, received nearly $2.6 million in PPP loans. While Sunday plate collections were down about $160,000, or 2.3 percent, during the pandemic, income from all sources was down a little more than $2 million.
“The financial shortfall came due to the disruption and cancellation of the fundraising activities that churches normally do such as church suppers, community dinners, auction events and art shows, thrift shops,” Katie Clark, director of communications for the diocese, said. “Additionally, daycares were closed throughout the diocese during the pandemic, and Camp Bishopswood was closed last summer, resulting in zero camper revenue.”
Other large denominations in Maine, including the United Methodists and Congregationalists, don’t keep centralized records the way the Catholic and Episcopal dioceses do. Data provided by the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church showed that more than 40 of their churches in Maine obtained PPP loans ranging from $160,000 in South Portland to $5,300 in Farmingdale, according to the program’s website. All Souls Congregational Church in downtown Bangor took out a nearly $65,000 loan.
Independent evangelical churches also needed loans to survive the pandemic. Crosspoint Church on Broadway in Bangor obtained a $314,000 loan and the Rock Church on Ohio Street in Bangor, which completed an addition just as the state shut down, borrowed $129,000.
Some small congregations, especially those that did not own and maintain buildings, had an easier time with finances during the pandemic.
“Not having a physical building to support was a blessing in disguise,” Brian Hurst, pastor of Destiny Worship Center, said. “Our overhead was lower than a normal church in that sense.”
This small independent church, known in the Bangor area for its gospel choir’s performances at Martin Luther King Day events, was meeting at the Bangor Masonic Center when the pandemic hit.
That organization, located on the former Bangor Theological Seminary campus, shuttered its doors. As many churches did last year, Destiny held outdoor services in a parking lot for as long as the weather allowed it.
So Hurst turned to the church he grew up in and where his father had served as pastor — Apostolic Lighthouse Church on Hammond Street in Bangor. Now, Hurst preaches online with the praise team but without Destiny’s signature choir. Recently, 30 to 35 members have attended in person, with a few more joining in online.
Like most churches, Destiny, which considered merging with Columbia Baptist Church in 2018, plans to continue streaming services when indoor gathering limits are lifted on Monday. The church also plans to stay where it is.
“Apostolic Lighthouse has everything a church needs and we don’t have to set everything up and take it down before and after services,” Hurst said. “But having a 12:30 p.m. service has been a huge change for people used to going to church on Sunday mornings,” he said.
While Destiny and other congregations did not lose core members during the pandemic, they did lose occasional worshippers who did not show up every Sunday.
“We are going to have to be creative, in a different way than we were during the pandemic, to get them back,” Hurst said.