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Religious groups keeping the faith on finances but worry about agencies that help needy

By Joe Kimball | Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2008
There’s some concern but no panic, as area religious communities assess the impact of the economic meltdown on their operations.

There’s some concern but no evidence of any Wall Street-induced panic, as area religious communities assess the impact of the economic meltdown on their operations.

Leaders say they believe their flocks at churches, synagogues and mosques will continue to dig deep when the collection plates and donation envelopes come around, even with the Dow drooping, 401(k)s looking more like 201(k)s,  rising prices and disappearing jobs.

There is more worry, though, at religious agencies that directly help the needy through food shelves, housing and other “safety-net” assistance. Their problems are twofold: They’re already seeing an increase in the number of people seeking aid, and now they face a potential loss of donations if the nation’s economy continues in its current plight.

‘Double whammy’ faces faith groups
“It’s a double whammy,” said Gary Reierson, president of the Greater Minnesota Council of Churches. “At the same time our donors are nervous, given the decline in their assets, we see an increase in need in our target population, which is the poor.”

Ted Flaum, of the United Jewish Fund & Council of St. Paul, said economic conditions do affect donors and their situations, but many are stepping up their contributions because they know that others are hurting. The group raises money to help strengthen Jewish communities here and overseas.

“Hurting most are our smaller donors; the problems are impacting them more drastically, and they have to cut back on their discretionary spending. A number have said they’d like to postpone their commitment to later this year, so they can see how things shake out,” he said.

That said, Flaum noted that about one-third of the organization’s donors actually have increased their spending. “They understand the impact the economy is having on others.”

The Rev. Kevin McDonough, pastor of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in St. Paul and a longtime official for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, has a theory based on his observations of past recessions:

“Religious giving tends to lag the economy by about six months,” he said. “When the economy first turns down, people are quite generous. Giving to religious institutions is one of the last things they cut down on. But then when the economy picks back up, there’s a lag there, too.”

So far, he’s heard that giving has slowed a bit recently.

“The real problem a number of us are facing, beyond the Sunday collection, is that food shelves, urban Catholic schools and community outreach programs are taking a hit. Why? Because we’re raising money for them from foundations and corporations, and those folks have to cut back.”

 For the most part, collection-plate revenue is holding up, at least for now, McDonough said. “People feel: ‘If I’m struggling, others are struggling more.’ They find other, less important things they can cut, and also people feel they need God more than ever right now.”

Muslim donations holding steady so far
At the Islamic Center of Minnesota in Fridley, donations do not seem to be lagging so far, an employee said. The center, along with other Muslim mosques in the state, functions as both a community center and a place for prayer. Classes for youths and adults, counseling, a food shelf, marriages and burials are all available at the center.

And Mostafa Maboob, spokesman for Islamic Relief USA, headquartered in California, said the biggest holy season for giving to his organization is Ramadan, which ended three weeks ago. “We surpassed last year’s mark in fundraising, which was $7 million,” he said. “But we’re being very cautious in our predictions for the coming year, because of the economic circumstances.”

Maboob said some of those Ramadan donations met the standard for “zakat,” a charitable-giving tenet of the Islamic faith. It requires those with enough wealth to donate 2.5 percent of their assets to people in need. These funds would be in addition to money given at local mosques.

Recently, Bishop James Jelinek of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota sent a letter to pastors on the subject:

“… We are living in a time of financial downturn to a degree that many of us and our people have never experienced before.  Fear is rampant, and in the midst of fear, people withdraw into themselves,” he wrote.

But that can be countered by looking beyond ourselves and finding ways to help others, he said.

“I encourage you in this stewardship season to be bold, to remind yourselves and your people of the heritage of hope that is ours in Jesus Christ. Ask your people to stretch in their generosity. Please do this not for the sake of your budget (or your diocesan apportionment), but for the sake of your people’s need to grow in faith, which can only happen when we ask them to take risks,” he wrote to the pastors.

Cautious church council reviewing expenses
Reierson of the Greater Minnesota Council of Churches noted that area food shelf use was up 13 percent last month and likely will go even higher in coming months. Although donations have not dropped off yet, there are expectations that they will.

“Like many nonprofits, we receive a lot of gifts at the end of the year, and a lot of that is gifts of stock. Donors prefer to give appreciated stocks [for tax purposes] and I don’t know how many appreciated stocks there will be this year,” Reierson said.

As a result, the council has put a freeze on discretionary expenses and is looking for cuts for the rest of this year and in next year’s budget.

The Rev. John Bauer, pastor of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, told the archdiocesan newspaper The Catholic Spirit that collections have been on track so far, “But, with this latest wave of economic bad news, I would not bank on that for the future.”

Black churches have good record of weathering downturns
African-American churches often weather economic downturns better than other churches, said Jaddie Edwards, church administrator at Pilgrim Baptist Church in St. Paul, which hasn’t seen a fall-off in contributions.

“We are being wise in our spending, but the history of the African-American church shows that giving to our church is such a big part of who we are, that the economy doesn’t affect us much,” she said. “This church has been in St. Paul since 1863, and even during the Great Depression, they were constructing a new building for the church.”

At Eagle Brook Church, the large north-suburban church with 11,000 members at three east metro campuses, Senior Pastor Bob Merritt reports a steady level of giving.

“We have found that the faithful core of our congregation tend to give consistently in good times and bad because they believe so strongly in the mission of our church, which is to reach as many people as we can for Christ and help them grow in their faith,” Merritt said in a written statement. “Our people give toward mission and purpose, not based out of their excess, and will support something that is making a real difference in the world.

“We also try to remind our congregation that ultimately our faith is not in the economy. … Most of us have never spent one day in need; and those of us who have plenty should be willing to share with those who don’t.”

Joe Kimball reports on St. Paul City Hall, Ramsey County politics and other topics. He can be reached at jkimball [at] minnpost [dot] com.