Congregations Face Difficult Choices in Sour Economy

Adelle M. Banks | Religion News Service | Thursday, March 19, 2009

Congregations Face Difficult Choices in Sour Economy

March 20, 2009

(RNS) -- When Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Simpsonville, S.C., was planning a 10th-anniversary celebration dinner, the $15-per-person ticket price seemed reasonable -- until members started doing the math.

"We began to realize that people in our congregation were going to stay home because of the cost. ... If you're a family with two teenagers, that's 60 bucks," said the Rev. Tandy Taylor, co-pastor of the 300-member congregation.

Instead, their March 14 celebration was a potluck.

Across the country -- fraught with foreclosures, job losses and other cutbacks -- congregations and other religious organizations are facing the same belt-tightening challenges as everyone else. Consider:

-- The National Association of Church Business Administration conducted an online survey in February and found that 32 percent of congregations reported financial difficulties related to the economy; an even larger number, 47 percent, had reduced or frozen staff benefits.

-- Prominent ministries like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary are cutting staff, and numerous other religious institutions are dealing with budget reductions as they face plummeting investments and decreased giving.

When the network of church administrators asked what congregations were doing to respond to the economic crisis, it received hundreds of responses. Some were taking small steps -- replacing fresh flowers with silk, or taking one light bulb out of three-bulb fixtures. Others were cutting back on long-distance mission trips and focusing on local mission efforts closer to home. Some said they were relying on prayer.

"People are looking at anything and everything to try to hold down costs," said Simeon May, CEO of the Texas-based network of church administrators, who represent churches with at least 500 weekend worshippers.

"Of course, the last thing they want to do is cut ministries and program services, so they're trying to find every way to reduce utilities and just anything they can do before they get around to cutting ministries or cutting staff."

But others have had to make those bigger cuts in personnel.

At West Shore Evangelical Free Church in Mechanicsburg, Pa., three of the 14 staff ministers have been told they will likely be laid off by June. That means their duties -- men's ministry, children's ministry and local outreach -- will have to be assumed by other staffers and volunteers.

"We have never had to lay people off," said John Nesbitt, executive pastor of the church, which draws about 2,400 on Sunday mornings. "It was a shock to the congregation when we announced it."

Nesbitt said donors, who had previously supported the congregation at high levels, either own or work at businesses that have been hit by the economic downturn.

"If their resources were in the stock market, they don't have appreciated assets," he said. "If they were business owners, they're working hard to stay open in this economy and so they don't have the profits that they may have had in the past that they would generally give from."

The economic effect trickles down -- or up -- along all levels of some denominations.

For example, executives of the Presbyterian Church (USA) have announced an unpaid weeklong furlough for national staffers in May and eliminated scheduled pay raises for 2010. At the regional level, the denomination's Foothills Presbytery in northwest South Carolina is struggling to maintain a ministry for Hispanics that includes a church, Bible studies and a computer lab.

"Our investments took a tumble and we suddenly find that we don't have the money that we thought we were going to have to fund this," said the Rev. Bill Lancaster, the presbytery's associate for new church development. "So we have to either find new sources of funding or find ways to phase it out."

Nationwide, some worshippers have taken a greater interest in financial courses that help members reduce their debt and, in turn, may help congregations eventually reap the benefit of increased giving.

Ken Munday, a church liaison for financial adviser Dave Ramsey's "Financial Peace University," said the number of 13-week classes in churches has almost doubled in the last two years, in part because of the state of the economy.

Luane Bastianelli, who has taught the program at Kensington Community Church in Troy, Mich., for four years, said people previously wondered how they could live without their credit cards.

"What I'm seeing now, clearly because of the times -- we have a lot more people in difficulty, a lot more people in danger of losing their homes," she said of the church attended by about 11,000 people each weekend. "Now we get questions like ... `If I have to choose between keeping my credit cards and my house, what do I pay?'"

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