Why this Baptist pastor signed up his church for a Paycheck Protection Program loan
(RNS) – I went to our local bank this morning and filed our request for the Paycheque Protection Program, which is administered by the Small Business Administration to help businesses with payroll as their revenues decline dramatically due to COVID-19.
Our business is a church.
I am the pastor.
Paycheck Protection Program rules allow nonprofits – including churches like ours – to apply for these loans. I have to admit that I am not entirely comfortable with this. As a Baptist pastor, I belong to a tradition that is rooted in a deep skepticism of government entanglement with religion, particularly government funding for clergy salaries.
the First Baptist Church in America was founded in 1638 in Providence, Rhode Island, by the spirited Puritan minister Roger Williams. One of the most enduring parts of Williams’ theology was a strict separation of church and state. In fact, when Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists about a “wall of separation,” he was paraphrasing Williams’ language. two centuries earlier when Williams pleaded for a “hedge or dividing wall between the church garden and the Wildernes of the world.”
Today our Baptist church, which was founded in part on the separation of church and state, is asking for tax dollars to pay my salary and that of our part-time secretary. Williams might not approve.
Russell Moore, chairman of the Ethics and Religious Freedom Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention, believes the loans are acceptable for Baptist churches. He recently declared that he saw no theological or legal issues with churches requesting funds under the Paycheck Protection Program. Its logic was that local banks – rather than the government – provide the money for the loans, which are backed by the Small Business Administration.
Still, Moore should know that nearly all of these loans will be canceled in the near future – meaning any loan to churches will in effect become government grants for religious purposes.
When the idea came up for our church to apply for the program, I approached the leadership of the congregation with some trepidation. I didn’t know how many of them would support our nomination. We are a small church now – just 20 active members – but once pews were filled with some of the upper crust of our local community.
It is a humiliating position to be in.
We have also gone through significant financial difficulties due to the decline in our membership. In fact, last year we donated our building to a local Christian school. We simply could no longer afford the utilities, maintenance and insurance costs of a 15,000 square foot facility. Fortunately, the school still allows us to worship there for free on Sundays.
As a result, our application for a small business administration loan is small – much less than $ 10,000.
For some reason this seemed important to me and the pragmatic leaders of our small church community. We weren’t asking for much. Our overhead costs are incredibly low now – payroll, funds to buy flowers for funerals, some literature that we buy for our shots.
If the money does not pass, we will find a way to make ends meet. But I am worried about the larger churches in our community. Those who carry heavy mortgages, who have to pay the pay of dozens of full-time employees. They are put in a terrible situation.
There seems to be a cottage industry of people looking for blatant examples of pastors asking for money on TV or online. As the angry mob focuses their anger on prosperity preachers like Creflo Dollar needing a new private jet, many pastors making these calls this week just want to make sure they don’t have to. fire the part-time janitor or nursery. .
Churches also have bills. Can we just show a little grace to these pastors in the days to come?
Twenty-two million people who had a job a month ago are now unemployed. The specific purpose of the Paycheck Protection Program is to keep people off the unemployment lists. So while I am well aware of Roger Williams’ warnings about the government turning God’s garden into a desert, I also teach public policy at the graduate level. I know all too well how the government’s laissez-faire stance during the Great Depression made it all worse.
Programs like the Paycheck Protection Program will clearly and objectively limit human suffering, an outcome we can all agree is a laudable goal – regardless of religious belief.
So we have applied for a loan and hope to get it. And if some of our neighboring churches applied, I hope they get it too.
And I pray that Williams, if I ever meet him, will show us a little grace.