Early this year, Jim Seymour changed the way he donates to his parish, St. Peter in Newberg. Instead of writing a check each Sunday, he authorized a periodic automatic bank withdrawal that goes directly to St. Peter for its good works and operating expenses.

Now, Seymour is doubly glad he made the shift. Some parishes in western Oregon report a 50% drop in offertory since mid-March, when public Masses were halted to stop the spread of COVID-19. Seymour, president of the pastoral council at St. Peter and a member of the Archdiocese of Portland Pastoral Council, says the decrease is not right because many parish staffs are working harder than ever to communicate with the faithful and spread the good news online, in the mail and over the phone.

At St. Peter, for example, Father Martín Tavares is finding ways to hear confessions with social distancing. Shelly Didway, director of religious education, labored hard to configure web-based faith formation sessions.

“What the church does is make God’s love present for us in a way that casts out fear,” said Seymour, who credits Sacred Heart Parish in Tillamook for guiding him decades ago when he was a troubled youth.  

Seymour wants pastors and their staffs to focus on that mission amid coronavirus, not on making ends meet.

“It is more crucial than ever that the staffs be available and be able to reach out and be in contact with members of the church and be a blessing to the whole community,” said Seymour.

Here is the message Seymour wants parishioners to send their parish staff: “We have your back. We love you like you love us.”

Seymour knows that when Masses return, it will be awkward for automatic depositors to let the collection basket float past each week. If that’s too hard, drop in a encouraging note or a prayer for the parish. In the end, the regular gifts will help parishes get through tough times like this.

Even with public liturgies and events suspended, parishes have utilities to pay for, salaries to cover and sometimes housing expenses to meet for pastors, said Jo Willhite, chief administrative officer of the archdiocese. It is also “very critical to keep giving” because parishes have ministries they still are attempting to fulfill; they are “serving the people, trying to keep the different groups engaged remotely,” said Willhite.

Most parish employees are working remotely and are taking on added tasks they’ve never done before, Willhite said. Pastors may assume some business operations that can only be accomplished at the office. Some payroll systems, for example, can’t always be completed remotely.

Parishes are trying to find ways to keep parishioners connected through technology. Churches are livestreaming Masses and hosting new events. St. Rose Parish in Northeast Portland recently held a “coffee and doughnuts” over Zoom.

Sometimes parishes need to spend money on essential technology. A Zoom subscription, for instance, “is relatively inexpensive but it’s still an investment,” said Willhite. And there’s a learning curve for using new technologies.

Parishes thus are facing “a combination of ongoing expenses and technology that in some ways is outside the scope of people’s previous comfort level.”

Carmen Gaston, director of stewardship and development for the archdiocese, said that parishioners having trouble meeting their own expenses because of layoffs or medical treatment should of course reduce their giving until things get better.

“We hope people help how they can if they are able,” said Gaston.

About three quarters of parishes in western Oregon offer the option of online offertory. For those that don’t, Gaston and her team rushed to create a web portal through which the faithful can give to their parishes via the archdiocese. The portal was in operation before Easter. Gaston said it’s still good, and simpler, to give directly to the parishes, whether it be through their parish website or by mailing a check directly.

“As we navigate these uncertain times, our work and God’s work are more important than ever,” Gaston said. “We are all responsible.”

One donor from Woodburn gave online and told Gaston he was amazed at all the online Masses and digital ministry. He even watched the Chrism Mass livestreamed from St. Mary Cathedral; he had not attended the Chrism Mass for 25 years.

In addition to all the digital liturgies and reaching out by phone, many parishes have kept up charitable work like offering food and helping with rent and utilities. Those needs have surged. 

Parishes are how we help people now and carry the faith into the future, Gaston said. “If our communities can come together, really we can move mountains.”

edl@catholicsentinel.org

katies@catholicsentinel.org