Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Ministry Finances in the Midst of Pandemic: A Survey of U.S. Catholic Priests

This is the third in a series of posts CARA has prepared on the effects of the pandemic on the Catholic Church in the United States. The first post provided estimates on how the pandemic is affecting the amount of individual giving to parishes. The second post summarized U.S. Catholic Bishops’ views on how the Church is faring during the pandemic. This, third, post describes how the pandemic is affecting ministry finances from Catholic priests’ perspectives. The following is a summary of selected findings from a national survey conducted by CARA this summer (full report can be found here).

Financial Concerns Related to Covid-19 Pandemic
When asked about their biggest concern regarding the financial health of their parish, school, or other primary ministry, about 16% of responding priests indicated that they are doing fine financially and/or they are optimistic about the financial future of their ministries. Some of them attribute this good financial situation to the continued generous support of their parishioners, successful transition to electronic giving, receiving funds from the Paycheck Protection Plan, as well as financial and strategic support from their dioceses. A few priests stated that they are not concerned about finances, because they are putting their trust in God. A few of these comments are presented below.

  • Electronic giving is helping, but people are very generous and continue sending checks by regular mail.
  • The support of the parishioners has been nothing short of phenomenal. The parish will close the financial year (June 30) significantly ahead of last year.
  • Honestly, I don't have big concerns. I trust in God.

However, the majority of priests expressed various apprehensions about the financial well-being of their ministries. Priests were often worried about declining revenue streams (in particular, collections and donations from parishioners). Among those most worried were priests overseeing Catholic schools who were uncertain about future tuition revenue. A few priests noted that they had to cancel fundraising events and, in some cases, suspend fundraising campaigns. Pastors in parishes getting a lot of visitors (e.g., tourists, students, or seasonal visitors) had to further adjust their revenue expectations. Some of these comments appear below.

  • Many people only give when they attend Mass (especially those who give cash). So, that income is not materializing, until we have larger Masses again.
  • (…) I have a concern that people do not understand that Church is not a pay as you go situation, but a real stewardship opportunity to show gratitude for what God has given us even in this time of refinement (maybe even especially during this time).
  • My biggest concern in how many students, and how much tuition, we will lose if e-learning is what we are still doing (…).
  • The largest fundraiser of the year is put on hold during a crucial time.

In consequence of declining revenue streams, priests were worried about their ability to continue on with their ministries. One of the chief concerns regarded the need to lower salaries/benefits and/or terminate/furlough staff. Many of the priests reported that they already had to take those steps while others anticipated that they will need to do so soon. Additionally, some priests expressed concerns about their ability to pay for expenses related to ongoing construction and maintenance. To some of the priests, the main concern was the ability to administer the Sacraments, to support the poor, and to keep schools open. Some examples are below.

  • The biggest concern is to find ways, alternatives to support new ministries, pertinent to the “new situation” (pastorally) emerging from this pandemic.
  • Although the financial health of the parish is of significant concern in as far as the physical plant and its maintenance depend on it, it is not, however, the most important part for the administering of the Sacraments, which is ultimately, the reason of being for a parish and the service of God's people.
  • Our elementary / middle school has done a herculean lift of offering distance learning to all students. However, the poorest students (though provided w Chromebooks), they lack internet connectivity. How do we keep the school running for the next year without a guaranteed enrollment?

Instead of focusing on the financial challenges to their ministries, some of the priests focused on the financial and other problems of their parishioners. They were worried about the effect of the pandemic on the growing unemployment and/or lower financial health of parishioners. A few of them noted that their parish’s declining finances has affected their ability to support parishioners in need (in particular, families with children, old people). Some were worried about the effects of the pandemic on the long-term engagement of their parishioners.

  • The fall out of unemployment, domestic abuse/ violence, alcoholism, suicide as a result of the lockdown.
  • Biggest concern is the financial health of our parishioners and their ability to support the parish.
  • Ability to continue meeting needs of families, especially those with children in school.

Actions Taken to Address the Financial Problems of the Parish
Catholic priests described how their parishes considered and/or acted upon various means of addressing the financial health concerns described above. Specifically, priests were asked to indicate in regard to seven specific actions whether they “considered doing so,” they “considered doing so, but decided against it,” they “are currently deciding whether to do so,” or they “have done so as a result of the pandemic.” Responding priests could also opt to leave the question unanswered, if they have not considered a particular option, or if this option was not applicable to them. The chart below shows the seven actions, ordered from those most likely to have been done to those least likely.

In terms of parishes’ efforts to mitigate the financial consequences of the pandemic, at the time of taking the survey in the summer of 2020, seven in ten priests reported that they have been encouraging parishioners to consider electronic giving for parish collections (72%) and that they applied to Federal or State assistance programs (Paycheck Protection Program, etc.) (70%). One in five priests furloughed some staff (22%) and eliminated one or more pastoral programs where they serve (21%). One in six priests reported that they decided to close their Catholic elementary school (17%) and to close the parish or ministry where they serve as a result of the pandemic (16%). And, one in ten priests (11%) laid off some staff as a result of the pandemic.

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