Churches struggle as parishioners do in recession

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Sanctuary from the economic downturn is tough to find, even in houses of worship.

The financial uncertainty has hit religious organizations hard as members struggling with tight budgets have pared back their donations. Churches, struggling to fill the collection plate, now are, themselves, cutting back.

Some congregations have put plans for new buildings on hold. Some have made special appeals to members to dig deeper in their pockets. Others are asking staff to pay for items needed for their ministries.

At Abundant Life Fellowship in Roseville, Calif., Pastor Doug Bird was hoping for a little divine intervention as he reviewed his church’s books at the end of the year.

His church typically receives extra contributions from members — called year-end gifts — totaling about $50,000.

This year, that didn’t happen.

“Many of our biggest givers work in construction, real estate or the mortgage business,” said Bird. “They wanted to give, but couldn’t.”

Donations have fallen 24 percent in the past year, a drop affecting the bottom line at the church and the well-known ministries the congregation runs, The Lord’s Gym.

Four staffers have been laid off. The church has eliminated dental coverage and matching retirement contributions for its 45 employees. Each of its seven pastors has taken a pay cut.

“We’ve been hit really hard, but we’ll weather the storm,” said Bird, who founded the church 22 years ago. “We’re going to be watching to see what happens very closely in the next few months.”

First Covenant Church of Sacramento, Calif., delayed plans to build a 2,200-seat worship center. Donations have dropped 10 percent from last year.

“We were planning to build this year,” said Monty Wood, executive director of church administration. “But now with the economy, we realized that this is not a good time to start building. People are not in a position to give more.”

Wood said the church has cut back on discretionary spending. “And some of our ministry staff have been super and offering to help out and pay for gas or other items.”

The hard times have hit the congregations when their members need them most. Faith leaders said calls for help from their food closets or “compassion funds” — money to assist members with such things as utility bills — is at an all-time high.

“The need is so big right now,” said Jim Holst, pastor of outreach ministries for Bayside Church in Granite Bay, Calif. Donations there have been steady, but demand for services has increased significantly. “We’re getting more calls for help than we ever had.”

Sylvan Oaks Church in Citrus Heights, Calif., was on the brink of foreclosure when church leaders decided to call Bayside, the largest congregation in the region.

“We were struggling. We were probably going to lose our property,” said Sam Morrow, a longtime member Sylvan Oaks Church in Citrus Heights. The 35-year-old church was about to go on the auction block before Bayside took over the church in October. It is now called Bayside of Citrus Heights.

“Now that it’s done, I think it has worked out well,” said Morrow. “At least the church stayed in the community and it is growing.”

The Rev. Dino Pappademos of Saint Katherine Greek Orthodox Church in the Laguna area of Elk Grove, Calif., said donations have remained steady. Church leaders, however, have deferred a campaign to pay off the church’s $600,000 mortgage.

“We want to hold off until everything washes out,” said Pappademos. “We’re in an area where you see a lot of foreclosed homes with brown lawns, and that does have an effect. So like everyone else, we’re clamping down on expenses.”

Many churches are taking a similar wait-and-see approach.

“We have experienced an increase in compassionate requests, but overall we’re in a good financial position,” said Michael Klockenbrink, business administrator for Lakeside Church in Folsom, Calif. “We’re definitely watching our dollars.”

And not all churches have seen a drop. “We haven’t, I don’t know why other than it’s the grace of God,” said Pastor Earl Heverly of Cornerstone Community Church in Sacramento. He said the church is trying to be proactive and is ministering to members who have lost jobs.

Pastors point to the positive aspects of the economic downturn such as the increase in attendance in the past few months and support from the community.

“So many people have stepped up, it’s been amazing,” said Bird, of Abundant Life. “At the end of the year, we did a record food and toy giveaway. It’s mind-boggling.”

Although the church is facing uncertain times, Bird said he still plans to go ahead with remodeling the Lord’s Gym in south Sacramento, one of two gyms the church runs.

I’m not backing out,” said Bird. “We’re keeping an eye on the budget, but we still have to do our ministry. God will provide.”