Religion

In down economy, parishioners, churches tightening purse strings

"Please don't spend unless you absolutely have to!" This was the word from the leadership to the staff at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Olathe, Kan.

Responding to the economy, churches over the past year have become smarter with their money and creative in cutting costs.

A national study by the Barna Group, a private, non-partisan organization that since 1984 has conducted research on a wide range of issues and products related to cultural trends, reflects this. Two parts of the study were interviews with Protestant leaders who looked at the economy's impact on their church budgets and how churches have been coping with the economic downturn. A third part interviewed random adults about their giving to churches and nonprofit organizations.

Economic impact

"Like many other sectors, pastors and church executives admit that churches are feeling the results of the economic pinch, though for most congregations, it has not been severe so far," the study stated.

Among the key findings:

Overall, 57 percent of pastors said the economy has negatively affected their churches over the past year, but only 8 percent called the effect "very negative."

Thirty-five percent said their churches were unaffected by the economy, and 9 percent said the past year was financially positive.

Among all Protestant churches, budgets are down about 7 percent from a year ago, but the typical "down" church has lost an average of 14 percent of its budget.

The churches that held their ground were usually mainline congregations, those in the Midwest and those led by pastors earning between $40,000 and $60,000.

Among a sampling of Kansas City, Mo., area churches, many had not cut budgets, and for those that did, the cuts were not drastic.

"In 2008, we anticipated 2009 and put some things in place so we wouldn't have to cut the budget," said the Rev. Gar Demo, pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church in Overland Park, Kan.

Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City. Mo., dipped into its operating reserves to cover a deficit of less than $10,000, said Janet Kelley, the finance committee chairwoman.

And the Rev. Mark Holland, senior pastor of Trinity Community Church in Kansas City, Kan., said his budget was trimmed slightly.

"Urban ministry has been challenging before the economic downturn," he said. "We're serving an area with lower household incomes. The challenge is not new to us. It's an ongoing effort to be smart with our money."

Tithes and offerings

In general, the study found that "many Americans appear to be significantly cutting back on charitable giving in order to adjust to the downturn."

Among the findings:

Forty-eight percent of Americans said they reduced their giving to nonprofit organizations (excluding houses of worship) in the past three months.

Three out of 10 dropped their level of giving to houses of worship in recent months. Nearly one-quarter had cut contributions by 20 percent or more. This figure is double what it was 14 months ago.

Compared with a similar Barna study conducted in the fourth quarter of 2008, the percentages of people who had scaled back their donations to both charities and houses of worship had risen significantly.

The percentage of adults who tithe (give 10 percent of one's income) has remained constant, falling in the 5 percent to 7 percent range.

Most churches contacted for this story reported a decline in giving. For some the decrease has been slight. For others, such as Prince of Peace Missionary Baptist Church of Jesus Christ in Kansas City, it has been more significant.

"Since the beginning of 2008, offerings are down a fourth," the Rev. Joseph Clark said.

Coping

The Barna study revealed three major ways churches have attempted to weather the downturn: reduce spending, cut staff and missions, and reduce facility budgets.

Generally, area congregations, as at those across the country, are watching their spending very carefully.

David Kinnaman, Barna Group president, said, "In the past year, most churches have been satisfied to tie down loose financial ends and keep costs under control. ... Yet, the surprise is how few churches seem to have clearly and intentionally developed a proactive response to the downtown.

"While some churches have offered resources, training and assistance specifically in response to the economic crisis," he said, "it is surprising that so few pastors have made strategic shifts to become a significant and vital resource to their congregants and to the broader community.

"Like so many others, church leaders have been focused on surviving; now is the time, though, to calibrate ministries and strategies to the opportunities brought by the new economy."

For more on study

Go to www.barna.org for links to Parts 1, 2 and 3 of the study.

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