Churches reaching out in financial crisis


By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

Folks at Hinds Chapel United Methodist Church have gone MIA.

No, they’ve not disappeared but have become Methodists in Action. In response to the struggling economy, the DeSoto County church created the MIA ministry to help those in need.

“This goes from providing provisions for their homes, helping out around the home, helping people in the church and community with whatever it is they need,” said the Rev. Ray Owens, pastor at Hinds Chapel on the Horn Lake Charge. “This ministry is in direct response to these hard economic times.”

While the impact of the economic downturn seems mixed among Mississippi Conference churches, according to an informal survey by the Advocate, many are doing as Hinds Chapel has done — finding ways to help those in need. The churches are doing this while keeping a close eye on expenses, and some are even fighting their own financial battles.

 “We are working hard to minister to those of our church family who have lost their jobs,” said the Rev. Cary Stockett of Jackson Christ UMC. “We seek to provide support on a number of levels, including networking about job openings, resume development, financial planning and emotional support.”

A few years ago, Brandon St. Mark’s UMC started a program for those facing job problems. The ministry is focused on men in the church. Women are also offered help on an individual basis, but the focus has been on men because of their reluctance to seek help. Independent psychologists were also engaged as consultants.

Phil Miracle, a former lay leader at St. Mark’s, began weekly meetings at his home that combined prayer, job counseling and networking. The meetings began more than three years ago and continue weekly. The group meets at 7:30 a.m. over coffee and ends when members need to get to their jobs or keep other appointments.

The men in the group help each other through job loss and networking. Miracle works with others individually writing job descriptions, making contacts and rehearsing interviews.

“Mainly, we let them know they are not alone, we listen to them and we care about them, “said Miracle.

“The ministry is based on worship, prayer and the understanding that our faith in God can guide us through the most stressful situations. “

Columbus First UMC has been involved in the Crown Financial Ministries program and plans to continue, said the Rev. Sam Morris, lead pastor.

“For all of my seven years here, we have encouraged Crown for our people — and for the last three years we have pushed hard to get more families to participate as we witnessed the positive benefits to our families and individuals in the church,” said Morris (left). “Crown emphasizes a biblical understanding of our lives as stewards of God’s resources. And, very importantly, it teaches people how to get out of debt and then live debt free lives.”

As the United States faces economic uncertainty over the next several months, and possibly years, the Rev. C.J. Caufield of Kosciusko Circuit (Pierce Chapel and Marvin Chapel UMCs) said the times should be viewed as an opportunity for evangelism.

“This isn’t the time for the members to tighten up their wallets and for the churches to tighten up their coffers,” he said. “This is the time for the church to step up to the plate and offer assistance and hope like never before. Let us not become fear-filled as the world, but while we act prudently, we must be the church that God intended. Peoples’ lives are difficult. Our neighbors are in need. How will we show our obedience to and the grace of Christ?”

Bishop Hope Morgan Ward offered similar thoughts.

“There is enough for our lives, for our provision, for our ministry,” said Ward. “As the economic crisis continues, we are in ministry to those impacted — those who have lost jobs and homes, those who had little before and who have less now, those who are affected by the diminishing of resources of helping agencies and social services. 

“This is a time to live simpler, to share more freely. Our ministry is not dependent on a good economy. Our ministry flows from God’s continuing generosity to us.”

How bad is it?
The impact of the economy on churches in the Mississippi Conference is about as mixed as opinions on how the country should recover, according to the Advocate survey. Some churches have not felt much impact from the downturn, while others have had to lay off staff and reduce programming to meet financial obligations.

The Barna Group, which examines a variety of faith-related issues, in December reported that more than 150 million people had been affected by the economic crisis and that will have a negative impact on their giving to churches and other non-profit groups. Based on its survey, Barna predicted churches would lose billions in contributions nationwide.

Barna’s research indicated that 20 percent of those surveyed said they had cut back on giving to their church. Not surprisingly, those most affected by the downturn have reduced their giving the most.

However, a pastor who works with churches on fund raising said churches that communicate well to their members about ministries do well financially. “A lot of it depends on how churches communicate to their people what they’re doing in mission and ministry,” said the Rev. Kurt Appel, a clergy member of the Mississippi Conference who works for Cargill Associates. “The average person coming on Sunday morning is not engaged with what’s going on. Where people are having success raising money is where people understand where their money is going.

“Overall churches have a good feeling about their finances. People have to have an idea of how lives are being transformed by the ministry of the church. How that is communicated is key (to fundraising),” he said.

Jackson Christ UMC and Brandon First UMC indicated they’ve felt the strain of the economy. Christ UMC had to reduce staff and budget. “(We have) felt the pinch of the recession, and have made wise but painful adjustments necessitated by a slower economy, including cutbacks in program, outreach and even staff,” said Stockett (right), senior pastor. “We felt that it was imperative that our congregation be assured that the church will live within its means financially, while continuing to watch expectantly for God’s abundance.”

Brandon First UMC Administrator Ray Wallace said pledges have fallen off, requiring a reduction in the budget. “So far, we have not had to reduce staff. We are looking at reducing our mailings of newsletters, etc., and we have postponed all but the most essential of repair projects and no new projects will be started,” Wallace said.

The Rev. David Price, senior pastor at Meridian Central UMC, said the church has felt some impact, but has also placed emphasis on total stewardship.

“(We are) seeing some effects of the slow economy in the offering plate,” Price said. “This is minimized by our emphasis on whole life stewardship, focused on using all our gifts to glorify God together. Our commitment campaign focuses on ‘Building Up the Body of Christ’ placing equal emphasis on personal and spiritual growth and giving our time, prayer, money and witness. Commitment on the part of individuals is strong, and we are looking at our strength in much more than money. Some of our members have already felt the crunch in lowered income and in job loss, as is true everywhere.

“Our approach is to do more with less in every area of fiscal spending in the church. We are working at this systematically and deliberately, paying close attention to not cutting quality out of our ministry.”

Other churches also indicated they’ve had to take steps to deal with fewer contributions. Some were in areas already under economic strain before the current crisis began.

Watching closely
The most common theme in the responses was that even churches that haven’t felt a direct impact are taking a closer look at finances. That includes the conference.

“The annual conference is seeking cost-saving measures, holding the line on salaries and on expenses,” said Ward. “It is our intent to be faithful stewards of every gift offered to Christ through the church.”

Starkville First UMC is combing its budget for ways to save money. “In the past the youth have traveled many miles (Alaska in 2008 and in previous years abroad) on a mission trip. This year we will stay in the United States and near Mississippi,” said Lynn Berch. “Same as our adult missions, we will concentrate on more community efforts.

“At this point we are praying a lot, cutting back where we can and keeping a very positive attitude.”

“Our finance committee and staff work diligently to be certain to monitor our contributions and spending so that we have held these in balance,” said the Rev. Chris Cumbest of Ocean Springs St. Paul UMC. “We certainly are all taking steps of faith to know that God will help supply the needs that we have.”

“We have reduced our budget for 2009; we have not given any salary increases,” said Mary Ann Gray, lay leader and Finance Committee chair at Macon First UMC. “We are looking at every expense item in our budget. We are asking for volunteers to do some of the jobs such as manning the nursery during worship services.”

Stepping out in faith
Even those churches that are hurting or being “extra” careful with finances are attempting to be pro-active.

“The one thing I’ve been trying to communicate to my people is hope,” said the Rev. Andy Stoddard (right) of Ripley First UMC. “God is still at work. God is still active in our lives. Even in the darkest hour, even when the legitimate things that we have every right to be afraid of are staring us right in face, God is still with us.

“That’s the thing that I have been led to do, is remind folks of the hope we have in God’s presence, even in tough times,” he said. “We are being cautious with our resources, however. We are keeping a close watch on utilities and holding costs down as much as possible.”

At Kalem UMC in Morton, church members have committed to paying their conference apportionments in full, said the Rev. Wally Cason. “For us, a small church, contributions have gone up and attendance is growing. The people of the congregation have taken up special offerings to raise their level of giving to conference apportionments,” Cason said. “We have cut no programs even though many in our congregation have threats of layoffs. Money is scarce, but people still dig deep for their church programs, especially for the youth.”

Oxford St. Andrew’s UMC recently conducted a capital funds campaign that increased the budget and created a three-year building commitment of over $430,000, says Tim Mays, lay leader.

“This is great considering the economy and we only have 100 regular giving families,” he said.

“This is very telling. It says that the people who regularly give have an understanding of tithes and the directive God has given us, not to mention the blessings manifested by this.

“However, I think our greatest opportunity as a church and a denomination is to not concentrate so much on ‘preaching to the choir,’ but communicating to the Christians who do not create a culture of giving in their personal life. A culture of giving to all of our members and potential members will not only strengthen the church but truly help but these Christian allow God to bless them. I agree with Montgomery Paul Webb who said ‘giving money to spread the Gospel or to help those in need should arise as a natural expression of the believer’s dedication to God.’”

The Rev. George Buell said giving at Starkville Aldersgate UMC has increased over 2008. “In fact, we are ahead of our projected budgeted giving through the first seven Sundays of calendar year 2009,” he said. “Historically, the Starkville Aldersgate community has budgeted our giving and our expenses based upon our mission and ministry needs rather than determining mission and ministry support based on the amount of money received. An understanding that all we have and all of who we are already belongs to God permeates the minds of many of our members.

“This approach to stewardship as a lifestyle has consistently empowered us to rise up and provide life transforming missions and ministries as we seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We do not know what the future holds; yet, we do know God will provide us with that which we need to continue to meet the needs of those God places in our path. It’s not about us anyway, it’s all about God and putting the opportunities for mission and ministries God places before us first remembering it is as we meet the needs of others we are, in reality, meeting our own needs.”

Ocean Springs Wesley UMC is also stepping out in faith, says Giff Ormes, chair of the church Communications Committee. “We are acknowledging the situation and taking a large step in faith by continuing with our building plans to construct a new worship center,” Ormes said. “Our goal is to serve the people of our community by bringing the comfort of Jesus to them, and we feel we can best do that with a demonstration of faith. 

“We are not a wealthy church by any stretch of the imagination, but our congregation is strong, faithful and willing to bite the bullet, so to speak, to build this church,” Ormes continued.” Is this the right thing to do in these trying times? After much prayer and consultation among the members, we know it is.

“The foundation has been set, the concrete is dry and we are getting ready to embark on the next phase of construction. 

“How do we respond? We say, “In Him, the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.” (Ephesians 2:21)