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Churches feel the pinch

Some congregations see rise in volunteerism, while budgets are cut back out of necessity

Posted: February 6, 2009 9:34 p.m.
Updated: February 7, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Church leaders said congregations remain faithful to giving each week however they can, but a troubled economy has led to decreased funds in collection baskets, like the one pictured above. Congregation leaders are also being forced to re-evaluate operating budgets due to the increased need for help.

In the tight economy, some local churches feel the pinch during the offering, but spiritual leaders say church members are still faithful to give and volunteer.

"For Grace (Baptist), specifically, we were down a little over 4 percent last year," said Paul Leitzell, administrative pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Saugus. "For the first time in about 20 years, we actually reduced our budget (for 2009)."

Although the economy is definitely affecting the congregation and the budget, members continue to give, Leitzell said.

The church has a care fund for those who are struggling financially, and Leitzell said the request for help is up. The large congregation strives to meet that request.

"Church members recognize the importance of stewardship and also realize many in the congregation are struggling," he said. "It isn't a matter of numbers that equate to dollars. It's just recognition that God owns everything, and how do we be wise stewards of what He's given us."

Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in Saugus also must cope with a 4 percent decline in contributions over the last year.

"But volunteerism and mass attendance are certainly on the rise," said Parish Business Manager Renee Fields. "With an increase in numbers, you would expect an increase in funds or if anything to stay stagnant but to start seeing a decline (in funds) we know that it is the economy. We're cutting out the fat and doing the bare necessities just as everybody is."

Because of the decline, Fields said there is concern how the church will continue to care for those losing houses and needing food.

"We're not able to do that right now and it's very disconcerting when we don't see that in the immediate future and we're wondering how we're going to go about caring for the community," Fields said.

As far as rising volunteerism and attendance, Fields isn't sure if it reflects compensation for reduced ability to give financially but "maybe it's just a desire to have more of physical connection with their faith at this trying time," she said.

Congregants of The Church of Hope in Canyon Country are "stepping up like you wouldn't believe," said Pastor George McLeary.

The Church of Hope hosts a full-time food pantry.

"(Church members) have quadrupled the number of boxes given out," he said. "They know the need is great."

The small church of about 50 has not experienced a difference in tithing that falls far from the normal monthly fluctuation, McLeary said.

"We try to keep expenses down and we've never been in a place where we took off on big projects," McLeary said. "I know there are some other places really hurting. If they've gone into big building projects they're really hurting."

For those unable to give as much, McLeary can understand why.

"There's not much you can do about it when you're losing your home ... you have to save your home first," he said. "God never intended anybody to be homeless."

Real Life Church in Valencia is one church whose members stepped up financially in the midst of a big building project.

Members raised more than $500,000 dollars from mid-November to late-December to contribute to the building in progress.

"We're happy to have made that aggressive goal," said Steve Whitney, the church's office manager.

Although church leaders ask members to consider giving to the building aside from their weekly tithe,  Whitney said weekly offerings are consistent nonetheless.

Comprehensive statistics on year-end giving to churches are not yet available, and early returns are mixed.

Donations to the Cooperative Program of the Southern Baptist Convention, which runs Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 fiscal year, were down almost 5 percent compared with last year. December giving was 29-percent lower.

Economic downturns don't always hurt a church's bottom line. During six recessions between 1968 and 1995, donations to Protestant denominations declined three times and increased three times, according to empty tomb inc., which analyzes church giving trends and doesn't capitalize its name.

"If people are going to cut back, this is probably not the first place they're going to cut back," said Sylvia Ronsvalle, the group's executive vice president. "There's weekly attendance, accountability to a group of people you know, the needs are right there - and there's a strong religious impulse."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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