The effects of the coronavirus pandemic have caused pain and financial suffering for millions of people across the nation for the past year. We’ve told stories of countless individuals and businesses who have struggled since the pandemic was first discovered in Wisconsin. Those months have also been especially hard on churches and their congregants, both spiritually and financially.
COVID-19 was the final straw for some Milwaukee churches, but other congregations say the pandemic is helping position them for success in the future.
Christ Memorial Lutheran Church on Milwaukee’s north side used to be one of the city’s biggest churches.
"At one point we had 2,500 members in the early 1960s and we're down to less than 100 now,” said James Kroemer.
Kroemer has been the pastor at Christ Memorial for three decades. He’s now preparing for his last sermon on Easter Sunday. Kroemer said declining membership and diminished funds amid the coronavirus pandemic leave the church unable to make ends meet.
"We tried many ways to invite people, make people feel welcome but nothing seemed to work,” he said.
Online records show Kroemer’s church applied for the federal Paycheck Protection Program last spring and received more than $20,000 to keep three people employed.
Kroemer said the relief kept them afloat, but only delayed the inevitable.
Abiding Savior Lutheran Church is also closing after deciding not to apply for the same forgivable loans. Pastor Dean Natterstad said the lifeline would have been a lost cause.
"COVID of course was the final blow,” he said. "We're not attractive to certain communities and then the other is just loss of faith."
It’s not just a Wisconsin problem. According to a recent Gallup poll, a record-low 50 percent of people say they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque.
Of those members, Pew Research said just one-in-three attend services at least once a week.
Studies show the younger the generation, the less likely people are willing to attend. 40 percent of Millennials said they belong to a church compared to 60 percent for Baby Boomers.
While the financial stresses of the pandemic have been difficult for just about every industry, the Wisconsin Council of Churches said just a small percentage of congregations are calling it quits.
"Generally it's in the single digits, maybe between 1 and 3 percent, and it's mostly the churches that were having trouble before the pandemic,” Reverend Kerri Parker said.
Parker said one common denominator is whether churches are embracing technology when the pandemic is forcing them online.
"We're finding that churches whose congregants had already made plans for recurring giving whether it was an automatic transfer from their bank, a monthly bill pay, or electronic giving have been doing OK,” she said. “It's the churches that didn't have any sort of electronic option that have been struggling the most. Those who counted on passing the plate on Sunday morning as the primary means of giving."
But possibly even more consequential is the decision not to offer virtual services at a time when in-person worship is largely limited or prohibited. Both Abiding Savior and Christ Memorial Lutheran said they didn’t have the means for virtual services.
Greater Mount Zion Missionary Baptist in Milwaukee said its virtual presence has helped grow its audience.
“Now we're able to reach outside of the state,” said Pastor Kenneth Cutler Sr.
Cutler said the most surprising positive to come out of this pandemic is the realization that younger members are buying into online worship more than anyone else.
"It reaches those 20-year-olds who have kind of felt that they don't need to come and congregate inside with worshipers which I would disagree with them but if we can reach them virtually I think that's even better,” Cutler said.
Cutler said even when it’s safe for his congregation to return to in-person services, Mount Zion’s virtual presence will remain to serve those who find it to be safer or more convenient.