Local churches aren’t feeling recession — yet

HERALD STAFF AND NEWS SERVICES

Although some national religious leaders are anticipating a tough year on the fund-raising front, their Snohomish County counterparts say they aren’t ready to make that call yet.

Consider the plight of the worldwide network of United Methodist missionaries. When the stock market soared, the group’s leaders thought big.

About $3 million was to go for a hospital in Kazakstan. Another $2 million was budgeted for land mine removal, and money was also earmarked for helping U.S. convicts rebuild their lives. Then the market tumbled, and with it went the bounty from the missionary division’s investments. The group has lost about $21 million in 2001, forcing administrators to lay off 45 employees.

"Next year will be one of the worst," said Randolph Nugent, who manages the agency, called the Board of Global Ministries.

Pastor Dave Biles, Snohomish United Methodist Church, said he wasn’t aware of a crunch yet, but added that "the local Boeing layoffs have just begun."

He said his congregation was very generous after the Sept 11th terrorist attacks and has continued giving. The church adopted a family for Christmas and the regular Sunday donations are strong as ever.

"Our congregation has done extra," he said. "We are well supported so far."

No cuts in their mission programs or no layoffs of church employees are planned, he said.

At First Presbyterian Church in Everett, Pastor Roger Rice said while the church’s campaign for stewardship for 2002 is still underway, he’s not looking for giving to be down.

"We’re holding our own," he said. "We’re keeping par with last year. We’re paying our missionary dollars to the general assembly and locally we’re not planning to have to make any cuts."

In terms of employees, he said some national religious organizations are downsizing, but that hasn’t hit the local churches.

But other denominations nationally, also are feeling squeezed by the recession these days. Money for good works, once plentiful in the 1990s, has been drying up.

Adding to the churches’ woes are a steep increase in health insurance costs and a post-Sept. 11 drop in contributions, as the faithful have redirected their giving to victims of the terrorist attacks.

In Boston, that means the Roman Catholic archdiocese is scaling back some programs, though it won’t say which ones. Both Boston and the Erie, Pa., diocese have imposed hiring freezes.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) expects a deficit of about $2.5 million in its $136 million budget next year.

Beyond the recession, that denomination is losing money because of a fierce debate over whether to repeal a ban on gay clergy. Some conservative congregations are withholding payments to headquarters while the issue remains unresolved, though no numbers have been released.

Brad Hewitt, chief administrative officer of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, among the few faiths not facing losses, met before Christmas with financial administrators from other large, Christian denominations.

"I would describe the mood as concerned, not alarmed — more of a wait-and-see attitude," Hewitt said. "Although, I would say that a few of them, if their numbers were as bad as they sounded, would have to take some layoffs."

Competition for money after the attacks has also hurt the bottom line of some denominations. The Greek Orthodox Church saw giving to its national office dip dramatically after Sept. 11, while donations to its social service ministries rose.

"It seems a lot of parishioners are donating to our relief funds rather than sending us their obligated payments they have to make on a monthly basis," said John Barbagallo, the denomination’s finance director.

Not all denominations are suffering. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America saw income rise through Sept. 30, compared with the same period last year, but that was mainly because of bequests and large gifts.

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