Church's Charitable Efforts Tested in Tough Times

Standing before his flock at Grace Point Church in North Las Vegas, Nev., Devin Hudson was understandably worried about the congregation's year-end "vision offering."

The casino and construction industries were hurting. Foreclosures were rampant. The church's week-to-week giving was down 20 percent. But Hudson, a 37-year-old T-shirt and jeans kind of evangelical preacher, announced he was setting a higher goal than the previous year and would write a larger personal check then he ever had.

The 800-member church exceeded its goal of $35,000 by $5,000 — an impressive feat in a recession. But that doesn't tell the whole story: Nearly all of it is dedicated to feeding needy families in the area and other causes outside the church's walls.

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"It builds a lot of trust when I say that I realize where we're at economically, and we can either cower in fear or stand out in faith," Hudson said. "As tempting as it is to roll that money into our budget from last year, God blesses the mentality of giving it away."

The dismal economy presents a dual challenge for churches: persuading budget-pinched members to open their wallets to both aid charitable causes and to make sure the church lights stay on.

During the critical year-end giving period, several churches say special collections for charity far exceeded expectations. But it remains to be seen whether that outpouring will hurt or help churches meet their budgets. Either way, difficult decisions loom if the economy worsens.

"Churches that give themselves away and are clear that's what they're about find a much more resilient and committed support pool," said Allen Walworth, president of Generis, an Atlanta-based company that advises churches on fundraising. "If a church just seems to be serving itself and protecting itself, it's going to fall off pretty quickly when people are making their own hard choices."

Dave Travis of Leadership Network, a networking organization for churches taking innovative approaches to ministry, said that at the churches he's aware of, about half that make special collections for charitable causes apart from the church suffer declines in general fund giving.

"Church leaders kind of fear that," he said. "On the other hand, the more you can make tangible the ministry of the church in the local community, the more people will give to that cause. It's a double-edged sword."

Comprehensive statistics on year-end giving to churches are not yet available, and early returns are mixed. Donations to the Cooperative Program of the Southern Baptist Convention, which runs on an Oct. 1-Sept. 30 fiscal year, were down almost 5 percent compared to last year. December giving was 29 percent lower.

Economic downturns don't always hurt churches' bottom line. During six recessions between 1968 and 1995, donations to Protestant denominations declined three times and increased three times, according to empty tomb inc., which analyzes church giving trends and doesn't capitalize its name.

"If people are going to cut back, this is probably not the first place they're going to cut back," said Sylvia Ronsvalle, the group's executive vice president. "There's weekly attendance, accountability to a group of people you know, the needs are right there — and there's a strong religious impulse."

In Dallas, First Presbyterian Church asked its 1,600 members to pledge to a $14.5 million capital campaign on Oct. 28, when failed financial institutions and federal bailouts dominated headlines.

"Most of our resources go into our ministry," said senior pastor Joseph Clifford. "If we're going to build something for ourselves, it was like 'Do we want to spend this much money on our own church?' If we're going to do that, we better make sure it's critical to our future and the mission of our ministry."

The church received $12.2 million in pledges — incredible, Clifford said, given the economic circumstances. At the same time, giving to the general fund dropped slightly and giving to a charitable arm called the Stew Pot remained steady. That was worrisome because the need for its services rose 25 to 30 percent.

Clifford credits the success of the capital campaign in part to the church's legacy of social service work including founding an orphanage in 1905, three decades of feeding the homeless and plans to rebuild housing in Hurricane Ike-ravaged Galveston.

"I heard that again and again — 'It's our turn to step up,' Clifford said. "We need to move forward because the need has not changed. If anything, the needs have increased."

The Dallas church is part of a long line of mainline Protestant and Catholic churches that emphasize good works. That ethic has been embraced more recently by younger evangelical pastors who say their members are more interested in volunteering at soup kitchens than worshipping in shiny new suburban buildings.

One example is the Imago Dei Community in Portland, Ore., a church that meets in a rented high school auditorium and enlists volunteers to fight high dropout rates in city schools. A few years ago the church began the Advent Conspiracy, urging church members to stop spending on "meaningless Christmas gifts" and redirect their resources to pursuits such as providing clean water to Africans.

The concept caught on, and 1,000 churches that took part last month are expected to raise $3 million for relief projects, organizers said. Some past participants, however, opted out because budget problems had prompted them to lay off staff and make other cuts, said Rick McKinley, senior pastor of Imago Dei.

"What we've had is people get on board who normally wouldn't give, or don't want to give to the pastor's salary," he said. "They want it to go to a need. So you pick up people giving for the first time."

While donations to Imago Dei's special collection are still trickling in, the church saw an overall increase in giving in 2008 of 31 percent, 3 percent short of budget, McKinley said.

On Christmas Eve, members of Riverview Church in East Lansing and Holt, Mich., were asked with little advance notice to join 25 churches in raising $40,000 to replenish the local food bank.

The church, which has an average age of 27, raised more than $20,000 on its own, flooring pastor Noel Heikkinen. He said year-end giving was consistent with years past, and the church projects a 10 percent budget increase this fiscal year, even as the state of the auto industry has church leaders worried.

"People catch a spirit of generosity," said Heikkinen, whose church also supports an area AIDS network. "They get excited about being generous, and it spills out into other areas of their lives."

That remains the hope in North Las Vegas, where Devin Hudson had good reason to covet the thousands raised in the year-end charitable offering. Because of plummeting weekly giving, the church has frozen spending, salaries and new hires.

"We realize that when we're at this place economically, we have to remember what we're about and fund things essential to who we are," Hudson said. "It was a tough decision, but serving is part of our DNA."

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