The Rev. Kathy Lossau of Northside United Methodist Church is keenly aware of the hard economic times.
The Springfield church is in an area where it serves many “walk-ins” — people who need help with medication, food and home heating.
But the approximately 70-member church also needs financial assistance. It has been unable to meet its projected $120,000 budget. Lossau lists the bills that must be paid — electricity, water, employee salaries, building insurance, telephone, day-to-day operating expenses — and says Northside is operating on a week-to-week basis.
“We serve a lot of lower-middle income and fixed-income families. We serve a lot of single-parent families,” Lossau said — people who have been hit hard with the increased costs of food, fuel and heating.
“We do encourage tithing, but we also recognize that when there is tremendous financial downturn that people can’t always do that,” she said.
For Northside United Methodist Church and even bigger churches in Springfield, the downturn in the economy is affecting what people can put in the collection plate. And at least one study predicts tithing will drop significantly in 2009 as families cope with the economic recession.
“We also don’t encourage families to let their children go hungry or without shoes or without winter coats and so forth, obviously,” Lossau said. “Those basic, day-to-day care needs must come first.”
A new survey from The Barna Group, which does research forreligious groups,shows that more than 150 million adults have been affected by the economic turbulence.
Barna predicted that church giving and offerings will take a sustained, across-the-board hit into 2009, according to the article “Churches Stand to Lose Several Billion Dollars in Lost Donations Due to Economic Downturn” at www.barna.org.
One out of every five households has reduced its giving to churches or religious centers, the article stated. Among those who have decreased their giving, 22 percent have stopped tithing altogether.
“The giving patterns we’re witnessing suggest that churches, alone, will receive some $3 billion to $5 billion dollars less than expected during this fourth quarter,” the article quoted George Barna, whose company conducted the survey.
“The average church can expect to see its revenues dip about 4 percent to 6 percent lower than would have been expected without the economic turmoil.
“We anticipate that a greater percentage of church-goers will decrease both their giving levels and frequency over the next year or so. This is a time for church leaders to demonstrate restraint and wisdom in their financial decisions.”
In reality, churches and organizations need finances, said Kenneth Mitchell, executive director of Washington Street Mission and a member of Cherry Hills Baptist Church for 30 years.
“So many people have that reaction to church that the only thing they talk about is money here, and that’s certainly not the case at Cherry Hills,” said Mitchell, who noted Washington Street Mission, with a budget of $200,000, hasn’t noticed a decrease in donations.
“The teaching there has always been responsible stewardship and supporting the church is not an obligation but it is a part of our worship,” he said. “I think we have probably a little better than most churches a good group of folks who are very consistent in their giving.”
Less money to go around
With an operating budget between $1.5 and $2 million, Cherry Hills’ biggest concern in these economic times is not necessarily the church’s financial health — although leaders pay attention to that — but with how the economic downturn affects the people in its church, said the Rev. Jeff Nelsen, senior pastor.
“We really want to be mindful of how much this is challenging a number of people in our church at this time. We want to make sure that we care about them,” said Nelsen, who knows of several church families who have lost jobs.
But many churches, based on Biblical principles, also encourage tithing of 10 percent of a person’s or family’s income.
“We challenge people to return the first 10 percent to God like He talks about in the Bible,” Nelsen said.
Some pastors are cautiously optimistic those goals can be met in 2009.
Cherry Hills, which has more than 1,000 people attend on Sundays, had a strong November financially. Nelsen said he is confident church members will help when asked.
“I can’t predict everything, but I know this about our church: Our church has always stepped up whenever there was a challenge,” he said.
Hope Church, which has a budget of about $1.3 million, believes the Bible teaches tithing.
“More than that, we think it’s a heart thing,” said the Rev. Blake Carter, senior pastor. “It’s about our hearts, and the Bible makes it clear that people who have been blessed, God has blessed them so that they can bless others. Blessed to be a blessing, as we like to say.”
But the economic recession is noticeably affecting tithing in Springfield.
Carter said the recession has affected members and seems to have affected the collection plate giving “to a degree.”
“We can’t read everyone’s mind…even if they haven’t been affected, there’s a fear people have,” said Carter, who added that the church averages 1,000 people for weekend services.
“We have people that have lost jobs. We’ve had people that have had to lay people off. We’ve had people who had to close businesses … . We have people that had been transferred out for job situations and have had to struggle selling their houses.”
For those who still tithe, the economy has forced them to take a look at their own bottom lines.
Phil Chiles, a Realtor and a member of Hope Church for seven years, said his giving, which is based on a percentage, has been affected.
“The real estate market here in Springfield has been very strong this year, but it was still down about 17 percent. That and a combination of things, my income was reduced this year from what it had been,” Chiles said.
“In that sense, it affects my giving. I think it affects everybody who gives a percentage of what they make because, obviously, as the grand total goes down, the percentage stays the same, but the bottom line is reduced.”
When the collection plate sees a dip in giving, churches can turn to other methods of raising money.
Northside United Methodist Church has had targeted fundraisers to benefit youths, pay the building insurance and take care of general operating expenses.
“We try not to do fundraisers for general operating if we can manage that. We try to reserve them for particular needs,” Lossau said.
Northside’s ongoing fundraiser, which supports its mission outreach, is through the Scrip program. The Scrip program allows nonprofit organization members to purchase scrip for everyday expenses while earning a percentage of each dollar of scrip purchased back in revenue.
“We are trying to fund in an ongoing way our missional outreach. We just don’t bring in enough on Sundays right now,” Lossau said.
“The whole purpose of the being of the church is to make disciples for Jesus Christ and to reach out to help transform the world. If all we’re doing is just maintaining and not reaching out to the world, then we have lost our mission and our purpose.”
Northside also received a grant from Ameren for hardship needs for nonprofits. The grant helped the church with two months of its electric bill.
Lossau said the grant not only covered the electric bill in November and December, but “it did mean that we were able to pay our building insurance this month.”
The Barna study revealed that many churches have attempted to help their congregants understand and responsibly address the current financial challenges.
Hope Church and Cherry Hills Baptist addressed sound financial principles even before the current crisis.
Hope Church has held seminars provided by Crown Financial Ministries, an interdenominational ministry that helps people worldwide learn, apply and teach biblical financial principles.
“We like them because they teach very sound principles, but…we don’t feel it’s overly churchy material. It’s material that would be comfortable for somebody no matter where they are,” Carter said.
Cherry Hills Baptist Church has used curriculum from Crown Financial Ministries and from personal money management expert Dave Ramsey, among other resources, to help people figure out a plan to handle money wisely.
“We’re just learning that what God says about money is true no matter what happens to the economy,” Nelsen said. “He can help us in all kinds of times.”
Cherry Hills doesn’t want to be a church that just talks to people about giving the church money, Nelsen said.
“We want to be a church that helps people deal with money in the most practical ways because it is in the face of so many people,” Nelsen said.
“It is the number one issue that most families have to contend with. We believe in order to build up people, we should talk about finances in a helpful way, not just in a way, ‘Give us money.’ ”
When churches and organizations do that, people will support church needs, Mitchell said of the Washington Street Mission.
“The focus, at least for us at the mission — I think for Cherry Hills as well — is making sure that we’re true to the mission that God’s given us to do. When we do that, I think people will be on board with supporting it,” Mitchell said.
Tamara Browning can be reached at (217) 788-1534 firstname.lastname@example.org.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Hope Church offers “Suggestions for Getting Out of Debt,” “Environmental Stewardship” and “Some Helpful Resources” online at www.hope-church.ws/ministries/stewardship.php.
Advice for churches and ministries during the financial crisis.
- Know who your donors are and target appeals that are within their interests and means.
- Keep focused on the Lord being the source — not the people.
- Don’t panic and slash budgets.
- Ask for less, but more often.
- Encourage people to recognize that God’s economy is different than man’s economy.
- Acknowledge the challenging and somewhat confusing times we live in now from a financial standpoint. Don’t ignore it.
- Be grateful and express gratitude for the gifts received.