Monday, August 10, 2009

Caring for the Flock

Wall Street Journal


Religious organizations have always been the core of compassionate help for those in needs. With the current economic downturn, this is more true than ever. Religious leaders must turn their attention on the flock, instead of feeding their own ego or following their own agenda.


When leaders of Bent Tree Bible Fellowship Church sat down to plan this year's budget, they knew that extra prayer was in order.

The slowing economy was squeezing the 4,000 members of this evangelical megachurch outside Dallas, prompting more families to ask for spiritual and financial help even as fewer could afford to give.

To cut 10% from its $6 million budget, the church froze staff salaries, stopped using a daily cleaning service and cut $10,000 from its lawn-care bill. It also laid off five of its 71 staff members, including a popular pastor.

More families ask for spiritual and financial help, even as fewer can afford to give.

"It was painful, like letting go a close family member," said church board Chairman Kurt Baxter.

Across the country, congregations of all sizes and denominations are struggling with issues of faith and finance as the recession grinds on. Churches are scouring their budgets for wasteful spending. And many, like Bent Tree, have taken the unusual step of reducing staff.

While the collection plate no longer overflows, churches are seeing an increase in requests for support -- be it for spiritual guidance, monetary help or career advice. And religious leaders have the added task of explaining job losses and pay cuts in spiritual terms.

Churches, synagogues and mosques have historically fared reasonably well during recessions, even as other institutions struggled. But the magnitude of the current downturn has caught up with places of worship, too.

Richard Klopp, associate director of the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at Indiana University, said the economic climate for religious organizations is the worst in at least 30 years, forcing membership drives and construction projects to take a back seat to balancing the budget.

"This is the topic of conversation for congregations," Mr. Klopp said. "All other conversations have ceased."

Many synagogues are seeing more requests for waivers of membership dues, as well as a decrease in donations, said Rabbi Elliott Kleinman, spokesman for the Union for Reform Judaism, which represents about 900 congregations in the U.S. and Canada.

"There has been significant tightening of budgets," Rabbi Kleinman said. "People simply have less money to give."

A handful of churches across the country have faced foreclosure, and in places like Michigan, the cash crunch has been especially severe. When asked for examples of struggling churches in the state, Chad Woltemath, vice president of the Michigan state branch of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, asked, "Do you want me to pull out some darts and throw it at our directory?"

Even in Texas, where the recession was slow to kick in, churches have been feeling the effects.

On a recent Sunday, nearly 1,500 members attended the morning service at Bent Tree, a 25-year-old, nondenominational church. In one corner of the lobby, a coffee bar called the Crossing sold pastries and espresso. Just outside the sanctuary, water flowed into a Baptismal pool. Sunday services began with a half-hour of Christian rock, and some members of the congregation followed the scripture readings on their iPhones.

At Sunday services and in smaller groups, pastors have emphasized that hardships are an opportunity to grow closer to God, and that one's relationship with God and family is more important than material possessions. "God reminds us that our hope isn't in our 401 (k)," said Paul Miller, the church's pastor in charge of ministries.

In Carrollton, a sprawling suburbia of cul-de-sacs and neighborhood pools, the June unemployment rate was 7.4%, below the national average of 9.5%, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. But Carrollton has seen the rate rise sharply in recent months.

When Bent Tree held what was intended to be a one-time lecture about jobs and the economy in April, nearly 90 people showed up. Now, the church sponsors two meetings a month for the unemployed, regularly attracting between 12 and 40 people, program leaders said.

A dozen people gathered for a workshop on a recent Wednesday evening led by Monica Troxel, a former headhunter who herself was laid off in early June. Attendees swapped job-search stories and business cards before Ms. Troxel, 48 years old, began weaving faith and job-hunting tips.

At one point, Ms. Troxel pulled out a $10 bill, crumpled it up and stomped on it with her foot. She picked up the bill and asked, "Does anybody want this?"

Her point -- that the job search might trample you, but you aren't any less valuable -- resonated with Brenda Stringer, who was laid off from Cox Communications in May. Earlier in the week, Ms. Stringer, 48, had gone through a lengthy, probing meeting with a potential employer. "I walked out of that interview feeling like a complete failure," she said.

But at the church, Ms. Stringer said, she saw other people enduring the same fears and struggles.

There are other signs of financial stress in the congregation. Church-run financial-planning classes are packed with as many as 30 couples, and there has been a 13% increase in church members asking for financial support, Bent Tree leaders said.

"It's no longer just the single mom who needs grocery money coming in for help," said Dave Dobat, a member of the church's board. "We are now seeing couples with $300,000 or $400,000 homes that need help with a big loan payment."

The church has handed out a total of about $90,000 in aid to some 65 families so far this year, Mr. Dobat said.

As the church expands and maintains services to help members through tough times, even devoted members have had to cut back on monetary donations.

Bryan Keith, a 39-year-old engineer, has been job hunting for three months. During that time, he has increased the hours he volunteers at the church, but cut his financial donations.

"Ten percent of zero is zero," he said. "I can't tithe without a job."

Without the church's budget cut, finances would be uncomfortably tight right now, leaders said. Instead, the church's general operating fund has a small surplus.

Donations to the church's benevolence fund have fallen by more than 10%, but several large donations have buoyed both the church's building fund and a $1 million effort to build missions in places like India.

But help is needed close to home, too. Jon Jobe, a pastor who serves the neighboring towns of Lewisville and Plano, keeps a list in his office of as many as 20 people who have lost jobs.

"Just as soon as I scratch a couple names off the list," Mr. Jobe said, "I put a few more on."

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