Churches covered under coronavirus economic relief package

(Photo courtesy of the Rev. Elizabeth McVicker) The Rev. Elizabeth McVicker, pastor of Salt Lake City's First United Methodist Church, is shown preaching.

Washington • When the Rev. Elizabeth McVicker halted in-person worshipping four Sundays ago, she knew the empty church would also mean an empty collection plate.

“People haven’t been able to come in to contribute and so our income, our giving is vastly down,” said McVicker, who presides over the First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City and its sister congregation, Centenary United Methodist Church. “It’s really scary for us to be able to continue to pay our staff. ... The financial uncertainty is very real right now.”

As the coronavirus outbreak continues, churches across the country face new challenges in reaching their flocks, often substituting Sunday in-person services with online sermons. But many aren’t used to accepting online payments and the faithful may also be curtailing their giving amid the economic downturn.

It wasn’t initially clear that churches would be able to seek help under a massive economic relief package Congress passed to aid small businesses, the health care industry and lower-to-middle-class Americans.

The Small Business Administration, which is managing loan programs under the newly passed law, now says that faith-based organizations will qualify, allowing churches to apply for money to pay employees as well as low-interest loans to keep them afloat.

"During an economic crisis, often the first thing people have to cut back on is making donations to their favorite charities,” Marla Trollan, SBA’s Utah District director, said in a statement Monday. “But it’s the nonprofits that step in and fill the gaps when people are in need. It’s critical that these organizations are able to continue to provide services to their communities.”

McVicker says her two churches will seek the help for which many have been praying.

“Absolutely, yes,” she said. “Payroll is our biggest expense in our budget and so if we could have help with that, that would help us survive through this.”

The Rev. Curtis Price of the First Baptist Church of Salt Lake City said the loans would go a long way amid the outbreak that has prompted online services for the past month.

“It’s really a huge relief to have that available to us. We were really concerned,” Price said Monday. “Our giving goes down when we’re not meeting just in general and, of course, a lot of people are fearful and concerned and possibly reluctant to be giving at this moment. Many are out of work, or their work is precarious or their financial situation is precarious, and we’re a little careful about pestering people to give to the church at a time like this.”

Congress passed a $2.2 trillion rescue package last month in record time to try to alleviate the economic disaster the coronavirus had sown across the country and specifically carved out loans — some of which will be forgiven under certain circumstances — to aid small business and nonprofits. But the quick rollout left a lot of questions about the program and who would ultimately be eligible.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., tweeted his concern last week that churches should be covered.

“I am furious to hear that the SBA is WRONGLY telling churches and lenders that churches and religious nonprofits don’t qualify for the new #COVID19 relief program. This needs to be fixed immediately, or this program will not work,” the senator wrote.

SBA officials couldn’t answer last week how faith-based organizations would be treated, though Utah banks were getting guidance that nonprofits with a 501(c)(3) tax status would be covered.

President Donald Trump on Sunday said that “faith-based organizations, including houses of worship, are eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program — that's great — as well as the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program that you're familiar with, on the same terms as every other applicant.”

Congress could be back with another relief package if the economic troubles continue to roll into the summer.

For now, some churches in Utah would like to take advantage of the helping hand.

The Rev. Steve Aeschbacher of the First Presbyterian Church of Salt Lake City said he’s seen some drop-off in donations, but it hasn’t been staggering — yet.

“It hasn’t been as bad it could have been, but we’re still figuring it out,” Aeschbacher said, noting some congregants pay monthly and not every week. “This month will be a new story.”

The governing council of his church has voted to seek the government help, which could aid the ministry’s child care center’s employees as well.

The SBA loan programs are limited to businesses or nonprofits with fewer than 500 employees.