Churches across the country are feeling the brunt of the nation’s worst recession since the 1930s. Springfield-area churches aren't immune as some as cutting back to compensate for an emptier collection plate. Yet, others are pressing on with long-range looks at buildings or adding staff.

When an appeal went out in mid-January to members of the First Church of the Nazarene in Springfield, Ill., there was admittedly an air of desperation, the Rev. Fred Prince said.

“We may have been at the place of evaluating some of our ministries and (eliminating some) staff,” admitted Prince, pastor of the church. “There was about a two-month period where our finances were lower than normal.”

The outcome?

“Our people responded wonderfully,” Prince said. “We’ve been holding strong since.”

Churches across the country are feeling the brunt of the nation’s worst recession since the 1930s. Last month, a “State of the Plate” survey conducted by Christianity Today International and Maximum Generosity reported that giving dropped for the second straight year, 38 percent in 2009, compared to 29 percent in 2008.

Even one of the country’s biggest and most influential churches — Saddleback Church, headed by the Rev. Rick Warren — faced a $900,000 shortfall before an appeal brought in close to $2.5 million at the end of last year.

Prince and First Nazarene’s 260 members faced up to their problems. While there will be no staff cuts for now, every expenditure at the church is being scrutinized by its finance committee, he said.

Many other churches report feeling a pocketbook squeeze, with expenditures getting second and third looks. Some say “benevolent funds” — monies set aside for church members or other members of the community — are drying up and less money is going to mission outreaches.

Others are pressing on with long-range looks at buildings or adding staff.

“All of us are affected by the economy, in one way or another,” acknowledged the Rev. T. Ray McJunkins, senior pastor at Union Baptist Church in Springfield.

While concerns remain about the economy, “people are faithful and continue to support the needs of the congregation,” said the Rev. John Charlton III, pastor at Harvard Park Baptist Church in Springfield.

‘The new normal’

The most worrisome part of the recent church survey, according to the Rev. Brian Kluth of the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Maximum Generosity, is that families’ incomes are no longer increasing, resulting in a stagnancy of giving.

“We’re in a different economy,” Kluth said in a telephone interview. “This is the new normal.”

Gone for the most part are neighborhood churches, which served particular neighborhoods or were restricted by parish boundaries. Charlton said his 60-member congregation draws members from a couple of outlying towns, meaning the economic makeup of the congregations are varied.

“We have people from all different economic backgrounds,” said the Rev. Roy Newman, pastor of 165-member Fresh Visions Community Church in Springfield. “We do attempt to minister to the entire city.”

The 5-year-old independent church has seen an uptick in giving and church membership. Newman, a part-time pastor, said the church has also bought property with hopes of one day having a new church building.

“We’re not going to over-extend ourselves,” he stressed.

Despite an uptick in church membership, the Rev. Dennis Farmer, pastor at Clementine Memorial Church in Springfield said he hasn’t seen that translate into increased offerings.

“It’s definitely a sign of the economy,” said Farmer. “It’s not been that easy, but we’re blessed to remain open and to serve the community.”

IWorship Center has added a second location in Springfield in a former cinema in White Oaks Mall. Last week, according to the church’s lead pastor, the Rev. Eric Hansen, iWorship closed on a deal on a future location in Taylorville, Ill.

“We positioned ourselves well through the years,” said Hansen.

Church giving trusted

Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation is adding a part-time membership coordinator, thanks in part to a matching grant, said the Rev. Martin Woulfe.

The 200-member congregation is in the middle of its annual pledge drive, which goes above and beyond “incidental support,” said Woulfe.

“We’re asking people to pledge 5 percent more this year,” said the congregation’s first full-time minister.

While the economy is rocking some congregations, the CTI-Maximum Generosity survey indicates that churches in the Great Lakes states, including Illinois, are generally faring better than those in the rest of the country.

But recessions aren’t always an indicator of what people will do in terms of giving to churches, said author Sylvia Ronsvalle, founder of Empty Tomb Inc., a research firm that tracks church giving and financial statistics.

“Even as people cut back giving, church is not the first place (they cut),” said Ronsvalle. “For a lot of people, it’s community. It’s a fabric of life.

“They trust the church and what the church is going to do (with the money).”

Added Kluth: “It is true, for people of faith, giving is a spiritual conviction, not a matter of convenience.”

Plans for growth stymied

Still, the economic downturn has frustrated church leaders like Charlton, who says Harvard Park “can’t stretch, grow and do the outreach like we’d like to do.”

The church has had to cut back on giving to the mission outreach of its denomination, American Baptist Churches USA, he said.

“It’s always possible for things to get worse economically,” said Charlton, “but generally, I think people are more positive. They’re doing things differently, but perhaps better.”

The 900-member Union Baptist Church is on the back-side of a three-year capital campaign to pay off the mortgage of the 140-year-old congregation.

While weekly giving has roller-coastered, said McJunkins, his church is in line, with the help of the Atlanta-based Generis Group, to meet its campaign goal.

“It’s been a tight 18 to 24 months,” admitted McJunkins. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

But he sees signs of recovery, such as bringing a couple of the church’s employees back to full-time status.

Like the New Testament story of Jesus feeding a crowd of thousands with a few fishes and barley loaves, McJunkins said, there’s a trust that things will work out.

“With our little bit and the goodness of God,” he said, “we’ve survived.”

About State of the Plate

State of the Plate is a collaborative research project by Christianity Today International and Maximum Generosity. Results were based on responses from 1,017 churches of varying sizes and from every region of the country. The survey asked church pastors, staff and leaders to report on their church giving, budgeting and generosity initiatives.

Source: www.stateoftheplate.info

The State Journal-Register