Churches and ministries in the US have never before been offered the kind of financial relief now available through the coronavirus stimulus package.
For some—like the religious liberty advocates who lobbied to clarify eligibility for faith-based employers—their inclusion in the federal government’s $350 billion small-business loan effort comes as a major answer to prayer.
But for many Christian leaders, the unprecedented setup still raises questions. With the country’s long tradition of church-state separation, is it a good idea for congregations to accept the funding that comes as part of a government stimulus? And if they decide to, how does it work?
Special guidance released Friday stated that religious employers including churches would be able to participate in the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). It allows small businesses that have suffered financially due to the COVID-19 outbreak to apply for loans, which can be forgiven if used to cover payroll and mortgage costs.
This week, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), assured Southern Baptists that the program “is not any way a ‘bailout’ of churches” but part of a broader safety net to stave off widespread unemployment. He wrote that he did not see the financial relief as a dangerous entanglement, saying that funding through a forgiven loan in these circumstances would not open up a church to government oversight.
Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) president emeritus Dan Busby anticipates that tens of thousands of churches at minimum will apply for the PPP loans.
Over the past week, financial resources ministries have been rushing to answer FAQs, host webinars, and advise leaders on whether or how to pursue the government options, which include not only the payroll loan forgiveness but also the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), a low-interest loan of up to $10,000 for particular costs due to the coronavirus shutdowns.
“Ah yes, seminary taught me well on how to fill out loan forgiveness forms from the Small Business Administration,” one small-town Virginia pastor remarked sarcastically on Instagram on Monday.
Fellow Christianity Today publication Church Law & Tax held a webinar for a record-setting 12,000 registrants last Thursday, while organizations like the accounting firm CapinCrouse, Guidestone Financial, the ERLC, and the ECFA have shared similar resources to help answer questions about the stimulus loans and how to apply.
After some lenders had initially turned churches away early last week, the biggest questions have been whether churches really qualify in the first place—they do—and how to submit their loan applications, which can be used request as much as two-and-half-times their typical monthly payroll.
Busby called the speed at which the government passed the loan package through the CARES Act and issued the guidance addressing religious employers “miraculous,” joining evangelicals leaders in applauding the efforts by legislators such as Senators Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton, who prioritized explicitly including churches and religious nonprofits.
Crown Financial Ministries, whose workload has “doubled in intensity” during the past couple of weeks, has also offered guidance on PPP, but with a far more apprehensive approach. Crown CEO Chuck Bentley explained that though the ministry qualifies for around a quarter-million-dollar loan, it won’t be applying. In addition to avoiding taking on debt, “our bottom line is that we think we should not accept any taxpayer funds for our ministry, and that we should trust the Lord to provide,” he wrote.
Bentley told CT that though he doesn’t believe it is sinful for others to take the loans, he urges leaders to be prayerful and thoughtful before rushing to accept the assistance.
“Is it really manna from heaven? It’s manna from Caesar, that’s for sure,” he said. “What’s it going to look like in terms of the optics in the long term, that this is where the church went for a rescue?”