Fueling Ministry


Churches fight rising fuel, energy costs

By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

Measuring the impact of high gasoline and energy prices during the summer of 2008 won’t be easy.

For example, the cost of fueling a van can be charted right away. But what if that van is used to transport students to GED classes and because of high gas prices the van is not available as often? What if a student is then delayed in obtaining a GED?

Those scenarios were possible this summer as United Methodist churches and ministries dealt with rising fuel and energy costs.

“We cut back on some of the field trips that our day care, summer program and GED programs take,” said the Rev. Tommy Miller, executive director of the Good Shepherd Center in Vicksburg.

“Usually they take one a week off site, but we (went) to one every other week. Most trips require that we take both of our 15 passenger vans and it (was) costing us $100 each to fill them up. When we did one trip a week, we had to fill them up at least every four or five days.”

Gas prices rose sharply beginning in late spring through mid-July. According to the American Automobile Association, the average cost of a gallon of regular gas in January 2007 in Mississippi was $2.11. By June 2007 the cost was $2.90 but fell by August to $2.69.

In 2008, those numbers jumped. The average cost of a gallon of regular gas in January 2008 was $2.96, in June it was $3.87 but by the first of the month had dropped to $3.64 and is still slowly falling. The high-mark came on July 16 when the average price in Mississippi for a gallon of regular gas was $3.97.

As prices have come down and school opens, Miller hopes to be able to continue picking up students for an after-school tutoring program. However, when they were going up, Miller had to cut back on picking up students for GED classes from five days a week to three.

Gas wasn’t the only cost Miller battled during the summer. As the price of crude oil rose, other energy costs increased, too. Miller said the center has worked to find ways to be more efficient with energy use.

“The Board of Directors is working on ways that we can conserve energy throughout our facility,” Miller said. “We have already installed storm windows in our day-care rooms and are working on a grant to have this done throughout our building. Our energy costs have risen about 75 percent from this time last year and we know it will continue to rise.”

Miller is not alone. Lee Smith, facilities manager at Galloway Memorial United Methodist Church in downtown Jackson, budgeted $750 for 2008 to put gas in six church vehicles. The year before, he budgeted $375. Smith’s budget pays for using the vehicles on church-related errands. As of July 31, he had spent $750.11 on gas.

Meanwhile, Smith budgeted $100,000 for energy (natural gas and electricity). With almost half the year left, Smith has about $2,000 left in that budget. With an overall $300,000 budget, Smith said he can find the money to cover the bills, but something will likely suffer.

“We expect a 28 percent increase in energy costs over the rest of the year,” Smith said.

Miller’s cutbacks at the Vicksburg community center were the most drastic reported in an informal survey of Mississippi Conference clergy and laity.

However, several respondents said they were being more careful about conserving energy.

“As a small membership church, we are doing everything we can to keep our utilities within our budget by keeping thermostats higher than we have in the past and are very careful to turn off lights when not absolutely necessary,” said the Rev. Annette Ford, pastor of Taylor UMC near Oxford.

“We are trying to be sensitive and be very prudent in our energy usage — such as using certain areas of the church for more than one function,” said the Rev. Danny Dabbs of Hernando UMC.

“We have programmable thermostats which we constantly update for the present or future activities.”

The Rev. Mike Childs said gas and energy costs have had a big impact on Louisville First UMC.

 “The price of energy has impacted us in two ways. First, our cost of ministry has gone up greatly. Second, our members have less to give because they are facing the same rising energy bills at home,” he said. “The cost of heating and cooling the church has gone through the roof.”

At DeLisle Mount Zion UMC, the Rev. Rose Mary Williams said her church has adjusted schedules to save gas and energy costs. “We are beginning to look at having activities on Sunday after worship and having multiple events on one or two days during the week. We are also encouraging members to car-pool as they can,” she said.

Some pastors said they’ve had to be careful about planning trips to visit parishioners and other travels to combat the higher prices.

“As a part time local pastor, I live 45 miles from one church and 48 miles away from the other,” said the Rev. Rick Wells of the Hopewell-Indian Springs Charge in Alcorn County. “It costs me $20 every round trip made to the charge. We have Sunday services in the morning and then evening services as well; plus Wednesday Bible study. That is $60 per week as a minimum just to do the absolute bare minimum within the charge.

“Now, figure in hospital visits, weekly visits to the county jail and any other program at either church and it is about $100 per week just in fuel for the charge. 

“I am very blessed, as both churches recognized early on the added expense of fuel and we are now combining business meetings on Sunday afternoon between morning and evening services to eliminate extra trips for me during the week.

“The extra cost in fuel has made me very aware of trips, and so I plan them less frequently and try to combine as many things in one day as possible. 

“But, this also means that I am in town less often and not frequenting the local coffee shop as often just to visit, and therefore my exposure in town is less frequent. By not holding meetings during the week at the churches, the visible signs of activity are less frequent now as well.“

Travel expenses are where the conference staff is most impacted by fuel costs, said David Stotts, conference treasurer. While funds won’t be taken away from ministry, travel budgets get used up faster.

“They have a certain amount to spend and when it’s gone, it’s gone,” he said.

Those funds began disappearing even faster July 1 when the IRS raised the maximum reimbursement rate from 50.5 cents per mile to 58.5 cents. Increases usually are made at the first of the year, but the IRS raised the amount to ease the burden of those who travel frequently.

Stotts said conference staff and some serving on boards and agencies have found two ways to battle high fuel prices. First, more people attending meetings are carpooling. Second, Stotts said it’s often cheaper to rent a car and pay for the vehicle and fuel than to pay mileage.

The conference office took other steps to reduce expenses during the summer. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, the conference office is closed on Friday. Staff members have been working longer hours Monday-Thursday.

Several cities in Mississippi have experimented with similar plans.

“Some staff members are still coming in Friday, but we do not have to turn on lights in every room and the air conditioning is not used. People not coming in do not have to buy as much gas,” he said.

Stotts said he has not yet compiled figures on the actual savings from closing the building on Friday.

Smith of Galloway and Stotts both said they don’t think the real impact of rising fuel and energy prices has hit yet.

“You may have a good 10-percent tither from two years ago who may not be able to put that much in (the offering plate),” Smith said.

“The real effect will be on what food and everything else will cost because the delivery system has become more expensive,” Stotts said.

While being more cautious, most of those who responded to the survey were clear: God will help them find a way to be in ministry in their communities.

“We plan not to let the price of gas hamper us in our service to the Lord,” said the Rev. Jimmy Gunn of Suqualena UMC in the Meridian District. “We’ll just tighten up the belt and work harder.”