World News: Congregations Face Difficult Choices in Sour Economy

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Across North America, congregations and other religious organizations are facing the same belt-tightening challenges as everyone else.

The U.S. National Association of Church Business Administration, in a February survey, found that 32 percent of congregations reported financial difficulties related to the economy, and 47 percent had reduced or frozen staff benefits.

Church administrators reported cutting costs by taking small steps such as taking one light bulb out of three-bulb fixtures, and bigger steps like cutting back on long-distance mission trips and focusing on mission efforts closer to home.

“Of course, the last thing they want to do is cut ministries and program services, so they’re trying to find every way to reduce utilities and just anything they can do before they get around to cutting ministries or cutting staff,” said Simeon May, CEO of the association.

John Nesbitt is executive pastor of West Shore Evangelical Free Church in Mechanicsburg, Pa., where three out of 14 staff ministers were recently laid off. Nesbitt said donors, who had previously supported the congregation at high levels, either own or work at businesses that have been hit by the economic downturn.

The economic effect trickles down—or up—along all levels of some denominations. For example, executives of the Presbyterian Church (USA) have eliminated scheduled pay raises for 2010.

Many worshipers have taken a greater interest in financial courses that help members reduce their debt and, in turn, may help congregations eventually reap the benefit of increased giving.

Ken Munday, a church liaison for financial adviser Dave Ramsey’s “Financial Peace University,” said the number of 13-week classes in churches has almost doubled in the past two years, in part because of the state of the economy.

Luane Bastianelli, who has taught the program for Kensington Community Church in Troy, Mich., for four years, said people previously wondered how they could live without their credit cards.

“What I’m seeing now, clearly because of the times—we have a lot more people in difficulty, a lot more people in danger of losing their homes,” she said of the church, which draws about 11,000 people each weekend. “Now we get questions like. ‘If I have to choose between keeping my credit cards and my house, what do I pay?’”

(RNS)


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