How The Paycheck Protection Program Rescued Christian Organizations During COVID-19

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Executive Summary

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) provided unprecedented support for Christian organizations when COVID-19 became a global pandemic and the government enforced social distancing guidelines, preventing churches from gathering and worshiping together in person for months. Of course, churches do far more than worship services. They also provide essential, life saving services to their communities on a daily basis. The emergency assistance program not only kept staff employed but it also allowed these churches to continue to focus on the needs in their communities. The program not only saved jobs; it literally saved lives. 

After spending months researching PPP and working with hundreds of Christian organizations to help walk them through the challenging application process, we ultimately reached over 275,000 people through our PPP resources. We surveyed thousands of organizations who applied for and accepted PPP loans. The responses have helped us understand how this money impacted and sustained Christian organizations across the country. Below is a summary of the themes derived from the extensive data we collected from over 900 churches and Christian organizations that responded to our survey. 

Most Christian organizations who acquired funds to maintain all or the majority of their staff from April to the current day have received 100% forgiveness. The majority of PPP loans given to Christian organizations were less than $150,000, and a majority of these Christian organizations said “The PPP money allowed us to pay employees that would otherwise be laid off.” Giving in these organizations has been reduced, however, expenses have also been reduced. 

Most churches were not prepared for online live services before COVID and the majority of churches have returned to in-person worship. For those churches that have returned to in-person worship, most are seeing less than 50% pre-COVID attendance. 

The majority of Christian schools are returning during August with 100% of their classes in-person, but most Christian schools expect enrollment to be down in the fall. 

The Normal-Sized Church

At Vanderbloemen, we do not call a church “small.” According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, the large majority (98%) of churches in America are below 1,000 in weekend attendance and 94% of the churches are less than 500 in attendance. We refer to these churches as “the normal-sized church.” In our survey, we found that the PPP mostly helped these normal-sized churches with 76.09% of the respondents being below 1,000 in attendance and 58.85% below 500 in attendance. 

Let’s break down these statistics.

1. COVID-19 Accelerated The Online Presence Of 60% Of Churches

On March 15, 2020, when the CDC came out with the guidelines that gatherings were limited to 50 people maximum, 56% of the churches that participated in our surveys were not set up to offer online and live services on Sundays. 

Most churches would post their sermons (no worship) to their website post-service, but it was not coordinated, and it was after the sermon was communicated in person. 

When CDC guidelines hit, churches had to quickly move online, flocking to YouTube, Facebook Live, and other live streaming options within a week to get their services to their congregations live on Sundays. Many churches in the US had resisted pursuing “online church,” however COVID-19 pushed them to make this change very quickly to reach their people in a time of dire need. These last few months may prove to be one of the single greatest technological disruptions to the Christian church in history. Literally, the pandemic could be listed in the top 10 or 20 technological disruptions to worship, a list that would include Gutenberg’s Printing Press.

As fear and panic swept the nation, churches knew they were needed by their communities more than ever. In this way, we’ve seen COVID-19’s ability to bring the church out of its comfort zone and into the area it’s needed most, meeting people where they are. 

Since the move online, churches have begun to understand the potential for expansion and exposure of God’s work to those who might never hear it without an online presence. We’ve heard from dozens of church leaders who have shared incredible stories of salvation, hope, and encouragement through their online outreach. Interestingly, they have reached relatives of church goers who didn’t attend church, but who couldn’t avoid it when a family member was watching it online, at home.

2. In-Person Worship Has Returned For Most Churches

Most churches have returned to in-person services, and a majority of these churches have seen more than 26% of pre-COVID attendance. In short, here’s what we know:

      • 70% of the churches who took PPP have reopened in-person worship

      • 64% of the churches have experienced attendance greater than 26% of pre-COVID attendance

      • 85% of the churches that have reopened in-person Sunday gatherings are still open

 


By the middle of May, many churches across the country wanted to open in-person Sunday services. In many states, governors allowed people to begin gathering with social distancing guidelines and procedures. Many churches by mid-June had returned to in-person services, however most did not offer children’s ministry to limit the amount of close contact with others. This restricted some parents from attending, but many churches made accommodations for keeping children entertained during service.

Without available children’s ministry and with populations of older and at-risk people continuing to stay online, these open churches did not see attendance numbers reach pre-COVID levels. In July, there was a spike in COVID cases across certain areas of the US, and some churches had to stop conducting in-person services. However, as our data shows, the majority of churches have continued to stay open with in-person services. 

3. Christian Schools Are Returning To In-Person Classes

With the semester in its early stages, we expect there will be changes and updates to this data throughout the year. As of now, the majority of Christian schools plan on having 100% of their classes in-person, and 90% of our surveyed schools plan on at least 50% of their classes being in-person. Even though the general plan for public schools is to not return to in-person education, Christain private schools have decided to return in person, according to our survey. Some schools have decided to delay their start, but 73% will start back in August. 54% of Christian schools plan on seeing a decline in fall enrollment compared to 2019. 

4. Church Giving Increased During COVID-19

75% of the Christian organizations that took PPP funds and responded to our survey have seen their giving either increase or stay the same. In circumstances where giving has declined, it has declined on average by 10% since March. This has allowed many churches and Christian organizations to use their resources to serve their communities during a time of extreme need.

Many of our church clients served their cities and the hurting during COVID-19. For example, our friends at Central Christian in Las Vegas fed armies of people and Church Of the Highlands became a certified COVID testing center long before they were prevalent. Over and over, I saw churches not focus on their survival, but on helping others. 

What's most encouraging is that despite a nationwide moment of scarcity, one of the greatest contributions of Christian culture is that people have continued to give to charities, including local churches, that help people in need. Without the PPP money, it's clear that churches would not have been able to keep the staff and programs that were needed to help those in need during this time. By the time they discovered their giving would somewhat be sustained staff would have been terminated and programs ceased. Likely, there would have been less giving had this happened, but because it didn't, then the generosity of church members allowed the churches to extend their reach into their communities at a time of national crisis where many more were in need than before.

5. 75% of Christian organizations reported that the PPP money prevented them from staff furloughs and layoffs.

Three-out-of-four Christian organizations reported that PPP prevented them from laying off or furloughing staff. The PPP was designed for small businesses and faith-based organizations to continue to employ their staff and prevent higher numbers of unemployment. The government hoped that the economic impact of COVID-19 would be temporary and wanted to improve job stability by enabling organizations to continue paying their employees, rather than having the government pay for unemployment. This definitely worked out for everyone involved. With very little turnover in Christian organizations, they were able to maintain staff and continue to help their communities during a time of crisis. 

During COVID-19, churches have played an essential role in uplifting and serving their communities. Without PPP funds, churches and Christian organizations would lack the staff necessary to establish volunteer efforts, provide time and resources to those in need, and run their day-to-day operations. 

6. The PPP money helped us cushion the risk and negative cash impact to our organization (75%).



The immediate shift COVID-19 demanded from churches to move from predominantly in-person service and worship to exclusively online created an enormous amount of work. Churches spent the first weeks of COVID-19 trying to stay afloat and care for their hurting communities while managing the immense amount of change with shifts such as researching and learning new technology systems, figuring out how to digitize bulletins and communications, and moving community events and engagement online. All of these changes also meant an increase in workload for current staff and reallocating resources to fill the gap in an unprecedented time.

If PPP wasn’t available, there would have been layoffs for 75% of churches, reducing the amount of people available to manage the changes, pivot to learning new roles, and mitigate risk. Instead, they were able to keep the staff to do the new work that came their way so quickly. 

7. The majority of Christian organizations surveyed were able to receive 100% forgiveness on their PPP loan. 

On March 15, 2020, the CDC restricted gatherings of over 50 people which directly affected churches, Christian schools, and nonprofits. On March 19, 2020, our team at Vanderbloemen began to watch the legislation in the Senate to help small businesses to see if it would include faith-based organizations. We were uncertain of what these packages would look like for Christian organizations, but as of April 3, 2020, we found out that the SBA had extended the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to churches and faith-based organizations.

Over the course of time, the government has continuously made changes in regard to PPP loan forgiveness that has made it easier for churches to apply and qualify for forgiveness. Many faith-based organizations had worries about the PPP, but these questions have since been addressed. 

In a June update to the PPP, including the release of the EZ PPP Application, the SBA gave guidance that any organization that has not been able to return to the same level of business activity prior to February 15, 2020, because of CDC guidelines can still obtain full forgiveness of their loan. This was an amazing development for these organizations. Along with the increase from 8 to 24 weeks in the covered period, most Christian organizations were left without a loan to repay. 

8. There’s been an outpour of gratitude to the lawmakers that provided a way for Faith-based organizations to participate in the PPP program. 

Senator Tim Scott, Senator Marco Rubio, Senator James Lankford, and Senator Susan Collins were key members of the U.S. Senate responsible for pushing for and drafting the PPP. In early March, there were four members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship that worked to include “Faith-Based Organizations” in the CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program. This was unprecedented for a government program to come out with a benefit organization that does not pay income taxes. The Senate bill came to both the US House and Senate and was approved by unanimous consent by all members.

We have asked our survey participants to tell these leaders of their gratitude for allowing faith-based organizations to participate. Here’s how they expressed gratitude for these lawmakers. Here are some of the messages they left behind:

    • I thank God for your brilliant minds and loving hearts. I'm blown away!

    • You guys are awesome! This is some very good news that our Administrative Board will be so happy to hear.

    • I appreciate you sharing your 'heart', and how you are serving the larger church community. Thank you for your dedication and assistance in this entire effort.

    • Thank you for not forgetting how important churches and nonprofits are to what make America great! We hope to be approved and able to keep staff on during this difficult time.

    • Thank you for supporting churches! Churches are the first place people turn to when in need, and helping us to continue the mission of meeting the needs of the community is a huge blessing! Praying for you, for continued wisdom, protection, and teamwork alongside your counterparts in Washington.

    • The PPP program is so needed as so many of our churches have community ministries serving low income (and now no income) families and individuals and our staff and our church volunteers are still preparing meals, delivering food and doing as much as we can in our community. The PPP program is so beneficial for us in continuing the ministry!

    • Thank you for your leadership and service for the churches and faith-based non-profits. The PPP loans are making a difference to keep our people working and fulfilling our mission. May God bless you and others that made this happen!

    • We greatly appreciate your work in securing help for churches and nonprofits through the Cares Act and the PPP. Your work is blessing all of us and we are greatly appreciative!

Participants: 

  • 74% of the churches and Christian organization had an annual budget of less than $2M. 

  • 61% of the churches and Christian organizations received a PPP of less than $150k. And 85% of our respondents received less than $349k in PPP loan proceeds. 

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