Special Reports

Church in financial pinch opens thrift shop

Manatee County’s record 10.1 unemployment rate propelled by the shrinking economy is putting the pinch on area churches.

“Benevolence giving is way down,” said Tana Kilburn, office manager for Manatee Religious Services, which acts as a clearinghouse to screen clients for assistance programs offered by 270 local churches.

“Our church partners who a year ago had reserves, now have very little or none,” Kilburn said. “We have churches who are telling us don’t call us for help, we don’t have any funds.”

Last Sunday parishioners at St. Joseph Catholic Church learned of a $30,000 deficit with three more months to go before the end of the budget year.

Christ Episcopal Church is trying to cut costs by eliminating the Sunday bulletin, which costs more than $6,000 in printing costs each year, and pulling financial resources from international missions to help folks close to home.

Members of Congregational United Church of Christ learned in January that the very existence of their church, known for its social outreach, is threatened by a deficit running more than $70,000.

Churches everywhere are hurting, as collections and tithing dwindle, but as ominous as these warnings sound, shrinking revenues brought on by a weak economy do have a silver lining, local clergy say.

Without funds to pay others to do the work of the church, congregations are rolling up their sleeves and becoming part of ministry through the donations of their time and talent.

“A financial diet can be a good thing if it leads you closer to God and enables us to be more Christ-like,” says Father Eric Mills, associate rector at Christ Episcopal. “Everybody is having a hard time trying to meet bills, but that doesn’t relieve us of the commandment to look after our neighbors. Service is the work clothes or overalls of love, and love is going to work, reaching out to others.”

Churches are finding creative ways to offset their financial shortfalls, says Kilburn, “We have churches sponsoring yard sales, volunteering to help the poor and setting up feeding and clothing programs.”

“It’s all about putting the emphasis on time and talent rather than treasure,” says Mills.

For the members of Congregational United Church of Christ, the mission was clear.

“We had to save our church,” says Pat Cook, who came up with a plan to take over a recently closed thrift store in nearby Saddle Creek Plaza that had been operated by Christ United Methodist Church for more than 22 years.

“The store didn’t close because of a lack of customers, it closed because of a lack of volunteers,” Cook said.

While Congregational had no money, the church did have plenty of volunteers who didn’t want to see their spiritual family die, Cook reasoned, who took her proposal to Pastor Paul Scheele. Together they approached the church’s governing board. Intrigued but worried about where the church would find $4,000 to $5,000 in start-up costs, the governing board decided to put Cook’s proposal to a congregational vote.

In her presentation to the congregation, Cook reminded parishioners that when they joined the church, they had pledged their time, talents as well as monetary support. She presented the thrift shop venture as an investment, that would not only help to keep church doors open, but also continue the many community outreach programs central to today’s escalating needs.

Such program are the Kids Club, a before- and after-school program for children; the clothing and food assistance programs for needy families; the use of church facilities by PACE Center for Girls; the Grandparents as Parents Support Group; Transitions Church; Harvest Counseling Services; and the use of the church van for the Family Promise program that houses homeless families in local church sanctuaries.

Those programs, said Cook together with a growing cadre of supporters — including Meg and John Kleeb — must not only continue but be strengthened to meet today’s growing needs.

The 300-member congregation heard Cook’s message, with 95 percent backing her plan.

Then, 72 people stepped forward to volunteer, followed by a donor who wrote a check for $5,000 to cover opening costs.

On Monday, just two weeks after the lease had been signed, Cook and her volunteers who have been working 12-hour days to accomplish what Scheele calls a miracle, opened shop. The execution of Cook’s idea took less than two months from start to finish.

No sign yet hangs over the door at 5324 26th St. W., but business is brisk and the two-room establishment known only as the Thrift Shop is packed to the ceiling with donated merchandise displayed on shelving from Bealls Department Store, Circuit City and other donors. “God planted this idea in Pat’s mind,” Scheele said. “These volunteers are doing the work of Christ, it’s a hands-on mission. We are seeing a new energy, a spiritual revival.”

On opening day, a donor walked in and presented a check for $1,500 to pay the first month’s rent.

“In my 41 years of ministry, I have never seen such unity, such an evolution of a congregation,” said Scheele, who at age 66 has decided to postpone his retirement because of the renewed vigor of his church. “The hand of God is at work in this shop, which is such a blessing for people who are hurting because of the economy. It gives me goose bumps when I walk through here and see what is happening. It’s astounding.”

The thrift store is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday - Friday and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays, Phone: 739-1018. Donations can be dropped off at the store during business hours or by calling Congregational church at 756-1018.

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