- The Washington Times - Monday, December 24, 2001

America's churches are taking a financial beating as donations decline, collections collapse and investment values shrivel. Some have had to lay off workers as a result.
"Some say bad times are good for religion, that people turn to it when things go bad, and their generosity helps the churches' financial situation to improve. The opposite is true," says Mark Chaves, a sociologist of religion at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "It's very clear that bad economic times hurt religious giving just as they hurt other economic activity."
Even though there are no up-to-date numbers on churchgoers' donations nationally, there are widespread reports that church finances are suffering.
For instance, United Methodist Church officials say their denomination has been hard hit. A month after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Rev. Randolph Nugent, chief executive of the church's Board of Global Ministries, announced a 20 percent cut in its 300-person staff.
Mr. Nugent said the terrorists' assaults had quickened the pace of the stock market decline. And now, he says, "We're in a situation where the impact of the market on the Board of Global Ministries in the last two years has been a $23 million write-off."
The latest numbers on church members' giving, released last week by a Christian research organization, show that donations in proportion to income have decreased about 16 percent between the late 1960s and 1999, from 3.1 percent of income to about 2.6 percent.
People who attend churches on a regular basis give to help fund day-to-day operations because they "see the institution as giving direct services," said Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive vice president of Illinois-based Empty Tomb and the study's co-author. But, she added, they tend to give less to outreach programs because they typically don't feel they gain directly from them.
Despite the downturn, it is clear that American's charitable instincts haven't deadened. People have contributed more than $1.5 billion to some 200 charities to help the victims of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.
But it appears that the generosity has come at the expense of charities run by various religious congregations. On top of that, many churches have been hit by an increase in the cost of employee health care coverage.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston is halting some charitable programs and has imposed a hiring freeze. The Diocese of Erie, Pa., is doing the same thing.
Bishop Donald Troutman of the Erie Diocese said the financial downturn started in earnest there more than a year ago.
Factories began shutting down, and the number of layoffs proliferated.
Meanwhile, the cost for providing health insurance for the 109 diocesan employees increased 14 percent, and the interest from stock investments that was meant to cover many expenses disappeared.
"What we've tried to do is not have any new programs, and that's hurt us because we see a need for new programs," Bishop Troutman said.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has predicted a deficit of $2.5 million in its $136 million budget.
Its financial situation is further complicated because some Presbyterian congregations that oppose repealing a church ban on ordaining homosexuals are withholding money from the national headquarters.
Joey Bailey, chief financial officer of the Presbyterian Church, said the church was cutting about 15 jobs. A foundation that manages the denomination's assets has already slashed 20 jobs. The cuts are a direct result of stock losses.
And the Greek Orthodox Church is feeling the pinch even though its members agree to send stipends to the church on a monthly basis.
John Barbagallo, the church's finance director, said: "It seems a lot of parishioners are donating to our relief funds, rather than sending us their obligated payments."
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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