JANESVILLE

When the Rev. Kathy Monson Lutes delivers a daily prayer service, it’s now in front of a camera.

And except for weekend services, she preaches from a riser that overlooks empty church pews at Janesville’s Trinity Episcopal Church.

Even as winter has descended, Monson Lutes and her staff deliver weekend services at a Lutheran church parking lot about a mile away from Trinity rather than in the church’s sanctuary.

The ministry rolls on, and Monson Lutes said she has felt blessed that she and her four-person staff can continue to offer members services even as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on.

Like dozens of types of small businesses, the pandemic has forced titanic shifts in how local churches operate. It has brought shifts toward virtual or outside services but also a sharp decline in churches’ main source of revenue: offering collections.

Last year, Trinity turned to a federally backed Paycheck Protection Program loan, or so-called “PPP loan,” which Monson Lutes said helped her church continue to run amid a pandemic that has brought financial pressure unlike anything the church has seen in its 175 years in Janesville.

This week, the U.S. Small Business Administration announced it’s opening another application period for a second wave of PPP loans. The agency has toggled the rules for the loan application phase to give first priority to some smaller lenders that weren’t involved in earlier waves of the program.

Monson Lutes and other local church leaders said they haven’t yet decided whether they will pursue additional PPP loans, but Trinity is one of many locally that are likely to see major, continued challenges as the pandemic rolls on.

According to a Gazette analysis of federal data, local churches were among the biggest borrowers through the federally backed loan program that first launched under the federal CARES Act signed into law last spring.

Federal data shows that during the program’s first wave last year, churches in Janesville have borrowed a total of $929,000 in PPP loans, according to a Gazette analysis. By business sector, that was the second-largest block of PPP money distributed locally—second only to the $1.1 million the local restaurant sector borrowed under the program.

In all, the PPP loans have helped local churches retain 22 workers, according to the data.

Larry Squire, regional president of Johnson Bank in Janesville, oversees his bank’s involvement in writing and managing PPP loans through the CARES Act.

Late last year, even before Congress had approved more CARES Act funding, Squire said businesses of all types still weathering the pandemic started reaching out to learn when and under what guidelines new paycheck protection loans might be available.

“They were asking, ‘When will (PPP) applications open, and do I qualify?’” Squire said.

Monson Lutes said her small staff has been able to continue working. She said the church held its PPP funding to help cover payroll because use of the funds that way allows the loans to remain forgivable under federal rules—making the money similar to a grant.

This was as the church had to shut down its sanctuary and shift to holding services in the parking lot at First Lutheran Church on North Randall Avenue. The Lutheran church allows Trinity and other churches to use its outdoor stage and radio broadcast equipment, which Monson Lutes said has helped to turn the church’s challenges into a “blessing” and a “wonderful opportunity.”

The Episcopal diocese Trinity belongs to decided last year to order its church sanctuaries closed to large-scale, in-person services, Monson Lutes indicated. That decision was part of a bigger, temporary shift by the diocese during a pandemic that health officials believe poses a larger risk of infection to those who gather in crowds.

Monson Lutes’ staff has retooled its ministry to allow virtual prayer services and weekend parking lot services to continue even as the church shut its doors to large group services. That shift might not have been possible to manage without a payroll protection loan that kept staff employed.

“We were able to meet our payroll, even though we weren’t able to meet together in the church. It helped us make it. It helped us get through 2020, that’s for sure,” Monson Lutes said.

Bond Haldeman, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in downtown Janesville, said a PPP loan last year helped his church keep its small staff of six part-time employees—including its custodial staff—employed.

Churches continue to be allowed to apply for paycheck protection loans under the loans’ structure. Haldeman said his church’s leadership wrestled with the idea of applying for PPP funds.

Among other functions, St. John allows humanitarian social service nonprofits to use church spaces to provide programs for residents in need. Without church custodians remaining employed, Haldeman said, St. John might not have been able to maintain the church for use by outside groups that rely on it.

“We’re not contributing into the federal government the same way as a business does, but we see ourselves and part of our mission as being for the community, and we wanted to see that (nonprofit) organizations in the community could continue to use our facility,” he said.

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