Churches Cope with Changing Times
With many parishioners donating less, churches work to keep up charitable giving in a time of need.
In a time of crisis, Bay Shore Lutheran Church Pastor Norene Smith said people do one of two things: They engage more than ever, or they disappear.
With Americans still feeling the effects of the last recession, and some economists predicting a second recession on the horizon, a feeling of crisis has crept under people, dismantling habits that reach beyond the grocery store and into places of worship.
Communities of faith, traditionally a vital piece of America’s safety net, are facing new challenges as leaders turn to their congregations and find that some of their previous benefactors now need help.
In these hard times, Smith said that help is available.
“We have a pastor’s discretionary fund by which we help some of our people who are in the deepest circumstances,” Smith said. “Some definitely are changed by these times. There’s no doubt about it.”
The Reach of a Church
Many congregations aim to allocate at least 10 percent (a tithe) of their budget to charitable giving. So when donations are down, charities are affected.
Hunger Task Force Executive Director Sherrie Tussler said they received about 25 percent fewer dollars from congregations during this fiscal year (October to September) than last year. She said many of the congregations giving less are located in the North Shore.
“When institutions of faith make a decision not to meet basic needs in the community – or maybe they can’t – that should seem troubling to people,” Tussler said. “Congregations are the backbone of what charity is about. When they’re not giving as much, it is an indicator that something isn’t well.”
Feeding America Communications Manager Gina Styer said it is difficult to track donations from congregations because they often donate to food pantries which then purchase food from Feeding America. But Styer said at their annual fundraiser Miles for Meals September 24, in which most participants are with congregations, pledge dollars were down 19 percent.
At United Methodist Church in Whitefish Bay, Business Manager Pam Vaughan said each ministry’s budget has decreased by five to 10 percent each year for the past three years. She said this is partially due to increasing costs like insurance, but also because some members are giving less.
“In hard economic times, voluntary giving is reduced,” she said. “A lot of our members do give every week during the time of offering, but many people give monthly or annually depending on their income … Our budget is squeezed.”
Vaughan said they do everything they can to protect charitable giving from budget shortfalls. The church has cut fulltime staff members and brought others down to part time.
But even so, it’s hard to keep up when the need is yet becoming greater, with 29.5 percent of Milwaukee’s residents living in poverty in 2010, and Wisconsin’s unemployment rate rising to 7.9 percent in August.
At Feeding America, formerly known as Second Harvest, demand for food in the eastern half of Wisconsin has increased by 21 percent over the last two years.
“People are in need,” Styer said. “People who were never in need in before are the ones waiting for a bag of food at their local pantry.”
United Methodist Outreach Pastor Wiley Gladney said he often has to turn down requests for donations.
“We receive requests all the time,” he said. “I’ve kind of decided which ones we couldn’t support lately.”
Making the Money Stretch
Despite the budget cuts, Gladney said United Methodist set a record last year for the amount of food donated.
And at Christ Episcopal Church in Whitefish Bay, Vestry Member Meredie Scrivner said members started a new program in March where they put together bag dinners that people in need can take with them.
“We try to combine money with volunteer power to have a greater impact,” Scrivner said. “We shop, cook and serve the meal, and we’re very frugal and we get donations. By and large, people who are in a position to give are very grateful to give, and very appreciative of their lives.”
At United Methodist, fundraisers take all forms, including the sale of thousand of pumpkins and gourds in the Pumpkin Patch around Halloween. On Sunday, more than 60 church members unloaded the semi-truck of pumpkins, which will be on sale from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. through the end of October. The profits from this annual fundraiser will all go to missions.
As another way to offset dropping donations, some pastors have asked members who are better off to donate more.
“What we really are emphasizing right now is that we need everyone to give according to their ability like never before,” Smith said. “So if you haven’t been affected by the times, or even have done better, then we hope that you’ll share that bounty.”
So far, Smith said this has been working at Bayshore Lutheran.
“The money has come in some extraordinary gifts of people,” Smith said. “That’s the beauty of this job — we see people rising to that occasion all the time. Some are the littlest, quietest people you’d ever meet — you’d never even know they were around.”
Vaughan said even some who’ve been hurt by the recession are more willing to give because they feel closer to those in need.
“There is such a heart for those in need, and sometimes when you personally feel your own situation become a little more needy, you are sensitive to how lucky you are in comparison to those less fortunate,” Vaughan said.
Scrivner said for many people, these feelings come out most in an environment of faith.
“For people of faith, they’re grateful for what God has given, and they try to share it,” she said. “That’s kind of what churches are for.”