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Churches are looking at hard times

/ Source: The Associated Press

On a recent Sunday, the Rev. Richard Mahan scrapped a sermon on forgiveness. He felt compelled instead to address the economic turmoil battering the nation.

"Everybody's facing hard times," he told worshippers at St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Charleston. "If you're not, you're going to."

Include churches in that dismal forecast.

With the economy in crisis, congregations around the country are cutting expenses at the very moment many members need help with food, heating bills and gasoline.

Some members of the clergy say their fundraising has remained steady despite the economic downturn, but how long that will last is unclear. Some are postponing building plans and delaying new programs just in case.

Strong tradition of tithing
Among the congregations faring best are those with a strong tradition of tithing — the biblical mandate to give at least 10 percent of one's income to the church.

At Stevens Creek Community Church in Augusta, Ga., which practices tithing, "you would never know that things are taking a nosedive in terms of the economy," said Dave Willis, a pastor.

"It's part of the DNA here, so we have seen some consistency even in rough times," said Willis, whose church draws an average of 1,300 worshippers each Sunday.

Mahan said there has been no dip in tithing or contributions so far at St. Timothy's. In fact, he has seen congregants donating more than usual to a small discretionary fund that covers grocery and utility bills for needy members.

"If we've got a little more than others, then we as the body of Christ ought to reach out and offer some of that to people," Mahan said.

'All giving is local'
Rob Peters, senior pastor with First Baptist Church in Weston, Fla., said his church has delayed plans for a new $4 million building. Before the economy began to sour in the spring, the 2,500-member church was receiving about $40,000 a week in donations. Now, it averages around $36,000, Peters said.

"We want to continue to build, but we don't want to jeopardize our church ministry," Peters said.

A poor economy doesn't always mean less cash for the collection plate.

A recent report by the Christian research group Empty Tomb Inc. studied six recessions since 1968 and found that donations by church members declined in three and increased in three. Another study, by Giving USA Foundation, found that religion-related charitable giving fell slightly in six of 11 recession years since 1968.

"All giving is local," said Jim Sheppard, chief executive of Generis, a consulting firm that helps churches plan fundraising campaigns. "People will give all over the world, but when crunch time comes, they'll give locally, and nothing's more local than church."

However, many churches rely on income from investments for their financial health and are already slashing their 2009 budgets.

Endowments are down
Kurt Barnes, treasurer of the 2.2 million-member Episcopal Church, said the value of the denomination's endowment funds, which cover 5 percent of the annual budget, have declined by 30 percent this year. Some staff at Episcopal headquarters in New York offered to take a pay freeze, but church administrators declined, saying it wouldn't be fair to the employees.

The United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, which oversees humanitarian aid and evangelizing for the 11 million-member denomination, has cut next year's budget by $2 million, reducing it to $58 million, because of a decline in investment income.

The fall brings a key test for churches. It's a time when many collect money for large campaigns, or ask members to make a financial pledge for the coming year.

Ed Kruse, stewardship director for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a 4.8 million-member denomination, has been offering tips to pastors with the task of seeking contributions from congregants anxious about the economy.

'Setting priorities'
Kruse suggests they focus on donating as a spiritual discipline, citing Matthew 6:21 — "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be."

"That's a promise that if we'd like to grow in our faith, one of the ways that will occur is through our giving," he said.

The end of the year is also a time when many Roman Catholics donate to major campaigns. While it is too early to measure the effect of the crunch, "it doesn't look promising," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Pastors hope churchgoers' commitment to their faith and to helping others will prevail.

Over the summer, when gas cost more than $4, Herb Ellison said his family cut back on eating out and other expenses so that they could afford the 45-minute drive to St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church in Beckley, W.Va., for Saturday and Sunday services.

"When we do feel the pinch, it's just a matter of setting priorities," Ellison said, "This is the most important part of our week."