- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2010

The nation’s churches are staggering under the depressed economy, with more than one-third reporting decreases in giving last year, according to a survey.

A “State of the Plate” survey of 1,017 churches sponsored by Christianity Today International (CTI) and the Colorado Springs firm Maximum Generosity reported that 38 percent saw their income drop in 2009, compared with 29 percent seeing drops in 2008.

Although the report did not specify how much giving has dropped, a similar survey of 1,168 churches released last spring by CTI said weekly contributions were down 2 percent or more.

The nation’s worst recession since the 1930s has sent churches into an “unprecedented” economic dive, with the nation’s megachurches being the hardest hit, survey data show.

That is, 47 percent of churches with 2,000 attendees or more saw giving drop in 2009 compared with 23 percent of those churches seeing decreases in 2008. The Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of the 22,000-member Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., drew attention to the plight of these congregations when he put out an emergency appeal for $900,000 in late December. He received $2.4 million.

Unlike Saddleback, 32 percent of the churches surveyed missed their year-end goals, some of them because of freak weather patterns in December that kept the faithful home during the final Sundays of 2009.

“Most churches go into December assuming they will get that final kick, and they missed out big,” said the Rev. Brian Kluth, founder of Maximum Generosity and pastor of First Evangelical Free Church in Colorado Springs. “Well, we’re in a different kind of economy. This is the new normal.”

Because the survey - which was conducted by e-mail in February and March among mostly Protestant congregations with a sprinkling of Catholic and Orthodox churches - was not a random phone sampling, it has no statistical margin of error.

It does reflect budget woes afflicting many well-known Christian groups, ranging from Focus on the Family and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to the Rev. T.D. Jakes’ Potter’s House megachurch in Dallas, all of which have laid off staff in the past two years.

Belts will tighten even more for all manner of charities, according to a Reuters news agency story quoting analysts on nonprofit groups that met Wednesday in New York.

Analysts said delayed effects of the recession will hit philanthropic budgets this year, causing thousands of small charities to go under. Foundations will invest in larger charities, such as universities and hospitals, a panel said, which will wipe out smaller community-based grass-roots groups.

Moreover, some states, such as Hawaii, Kansas and Pennsylvania, are hard up for cash and may start taxing charities, the panel said.

Matt Branaugh of CTI said many pastors are afraid the worst is yet to come.

“We have not seen this type of situation in most church leaders’ lifetimes,” he said. “It will probably continue to be difficult this year in terms of unemployment.”

What will offset that, he added, is a Christian’s “sense of duty” and the habit of many evangelical churches in encouraging members to tithe.

In terms of regional giving, the survey pinpointed the Pacific Rim states as being the hardest hit. Fifty-five percent of the churches in Hawaii, Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington saw giving decline, the survey said. In Rocky Mountain states (Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho), 48 percent of the churches saw giving drop.

In the Great Lakes states of Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, 32 percent of churches surveyed saw giving drop, a figure Mr. Kluth called “better than expected” considering the heavy job losses in the region.

In response, churches cut heavily on travel and conferences, programs such as youth ministry and expansion or renovation plans.

The news out of the survey was not all bad; 35 percent of the churches reported that giving was up in 2009, compared with 47 percent in 2008.

Thirty-one percent of the churches increased their benevolence giving to the poor and to help financially strapped members. Thirty percent increased their missions giving.

Other sources have reported huge crimps in church budgets. On March 8, the United Methodist News Service reported a $24 million shortfall in the denomination’s 2009 budget. It also reported a 1 percent membership drop in 2008, the latest year for which it has figures. It’s the largest percentage drop since 1974, putting total membership at 7.7 million.

Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive vice president of Empty Tomb Inc., a Champaign, Ill. organization that monitors church giving patterns, said giving is not always down during recessions; in fact, it went up in 1974, 1982 and 2002.

“The economy does not necessarily predict what people will do in terms of giving,” she said. “The church is considered as immediately beyond the family; that is, church is not the place where people cut first.”

Compared with counterparts overseas, U.S. churches tend to weather recessions well, she said.

“We find a much greater level of philanthropy here because there is no state church,” she added. “Thus, congregations have had to convince people of the value of charitable giving.”