FARGO — For those living lives of faith, some of the most powerful moments happen when people are asked to give.
But in these days of global pandemic, how people give and how much they give is changing.
One big way it has changed is that the passing of the offering plate is now a thing of the past in many churches, at least while COVID-19 remains a threat.
In terms of in-person worship, one of the first things the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America did at the start of the pandemic was to advise its congregations not to physically pass the plate during worship service.
One of the simplest adaptations suggested by the synod was to set up a plate in the back of the church, so people could drop offerings into it on their way out.
"People still like that offering plate. It feels right to give that way," said Bishop Tessa Moon Leiseth.
She added that if churches hadn't set up some form of online giving before the pandemic, its arrival prompted many to do so.
"Smaller churches are still able to have people mail in checks, but a lot of churches have added online giving options; that's been really, really helpful," Moon Leiseth said.
She said since the pandemic struck, congregations have employed a variety of ways to gather, ranging from in-person worship to online and even outdoor services.
Giving has varied as well.
Some churches have experienced more giving, she said, because people are realizing "what a unique moment this is."
Other churches, she said, are experiencing less giving, especially with the loss of in-person worship in some locations.
"It's harder to get people engaged in the giving when they're not physically there," Moon Leiseth said, adding that the complete picture regarding giving won't be clear until after the holidays, as some of the strongest giving happens during Christmas.
Offertory down 4%
Paul Braun, director of communications for the Catholic Diocese of Fargo, said the pandemic is affecting individual churches in different ways and no obvious trends in giving have emerged.
He said smaller churches without online giving programs saw a loss when Masses were canceled, but larger parishes with online giving saw little change in donations.
Across the diocese, offertory was down 4% at the end of November compared to the same period last year, according to Braun.
"Since many people give in December, or give more in December, it’s hard to tell where the final numbers will end up," Braun said, noting that of the 129 parishes in the diocese, 38 are seeing giving equal to or greater than last year.
"The Catholic faithful have been very generous in stepping up to make sure parishes have funds to pay operating expenses. We are grateful for their love for the Church — they take their faith seriously and it shows," Braun said.
Gary Euren, president of the church council at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Moorhead, said overall giving is down 9% from a year ago.
"We have had an emphasis on electronic giving (automatic withholding) since mid-2019 and other members have been faithful in making sure to send (mail) their offering to the church," Euren said.
He added that church attendance has fallen a bit since the pandemic hit, noting that pre-COVID-19 attendance was about 225, while attendance at worship services this year is closer to 175, with about 130 attending one of two in-person worship services and another 40 or so watching online.
Our Redeemer records the first of its two Sunday morning services and plays it back later over YouTube.
While 2020 has been challenging, Euren said one bright spot was the hiring of Sam Pitsch as pastor.
The job of pastor was vacant for more than three years after the previous pastor retired and the church could not find someone to replace him.
"I think most denominations are looking at fewer and fewer people who are going to seminary, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod in particular," Euren said, noting that church doctrine requires pastors to be men.
Maybe next year
At Temple Beth El in Fargo, giving is down from what it was in the past and that is likely due to the pandemic, according to Bev Jacobson, congregation president.
"Some people are having impact on their income and we're not meeting in person — we're meeting online. I think when people aren't coming the thought of giving is not really in the forefront of their minds," Jacobson said.
She said services are held Friday nights or Saturday mornings and they are held over Facebook or Zoom.
Before the pandemic, perhaps eight or nine people might attend a service, according to Jacobson.
With online services, she said the numbers have bumped up to 15 or 16 people.
"In a sense, we have higher participation," she said, adding that during the week the synagogue's space is rented to a group that tutors new American students on how to navigate online learning.
Jacobson said the drop in overall giving is concerning, given the building's age.
"We have a fairly old building, so it's less funds for us to keep the building up," she said.
"Maybe next year it will get better," she added. "I hope."
Moon Leiseth said the pandemic underscores the importance of reminding congregations that ministry is still happening and remembering to thank people for the giving that still goes on.
"Ministry hasn't stopped. Church hasn't stopped. I think it (the pandemic) calls for us to be better storytellers about what we're doing," Moon Leiseth said.