COLUMBIA — Declines in stock prices, retirement fund values and employment rates are causing individuals to be more thrifty with spending on goods and services. But now this heightened conservatism with the checkbook may be trickling down to affect individuals' financial contributions to churches.
Gary Tynes, business administrator at Parkade Baptist Church, said that though the church has seen fluctuations in offerings and tithes from month to month, overall the giving in 2008 has been ahead of budget, even in the past few months.
Forum Christian Church also has not seen a financial downturn as the economy declines. “We get excited every Sunday (when the collection comes in), and we see that God is doing a mighty work,” said Melanie Abernathy, the church’s financial secretary.
“It is evident that people are cutting back with financial spending. But we recently asked people to pray about pledging to give for a new worship service at a new location in Columbia, and it was so encouraging to see the (successful) response,” she said.
Historical evidence indicates that church giving does not necessarily decline during recession years, according to an analysis of church giving from 1969 to 2008 on Emptytomb.org, an organization that researches church giving patterns on a local level. In fact, the analysis found that church-member giving decreased in only one of the three one-year recessions. Further, giving did not decrease any first years of three multiyear recessions during the period.
For some Columbia churches, however, financial giving is not above normal. Ron Dobey, the chair of St. Andrew's Lutheran's stewardship committee, said the church's “financial giving hasn’t gone down, but it is stagnant.”
In early December, Lynn Barnett, Community United Methodist's business manager, said the church was “not feeling the financial crisis.” Just weeks later, however, she noted that after the previous Sunday's collection, the church will be taking more seriously the effects that layoffs in Columbia have had and will have on the congregation as it plans for a 2009 budget.
"Planning the budget will take a little longer now, as we are unsure how individuals' layoffs will affect general giving," she said.
Barnett explained that as of the end of October, financial giving pledged annually was on track with what the church expected and in line with the past year’s donations. At that time, there was a drop in the amount of money received that wasn't previously pledged. She said that when people are laid off from their jobs they often withdraw their pledges.
These small signs of decrease in church donations align with the results of a Barna survey published Dec. 1. The survey found that over the past three months, one in five households decreased its giving to churches or other religious centers. People dealing with “serious financial debt” and those who had lost more than 20 percent of their retirement fund or stock portfolio value were most likely to cut back on giving.
The study also indicated that the degree of reduction in giving could substantially affect churches. Among people who decreased giving to churches and religious centers, 11 percent decreased their giving by more than half and 22 percent stopped giving altogether.
The church representatives interviewed by the Missourian, however, said they thought they might feel the effects of a recession more in the future than they do right now.
When asked about whether he thought giving to St. Andrew’s might decrease in the coming months, Dobey said, “That’s the $64,000 question. We’ll see. We do know that generally giving lags behind the economy by a year or two. If the current economic trends hold true, it may take a year or two before the church feels its effects.”
Tynes noted similar uncertainty. “The way things are going with the economy), you can expect that we might feel the crisis in the church financially. Some people in church have already been laid off from their jobs,” he said.
At the same time, those interviewed noted the unique perspective Christians have in giving to the church.
“The church is very different than the business world. When there is a need, we ask the congregation for resources. People will rise to the occasion and fundraise or find some other way to finance the church,” Barnett said.
Abernathy noted that she thought that people at Forum Christian Church “see an eternal value in giving to the church.”
When discussing economic uncertainty and its potential effect on the church, Tynes stressed the importance of trusting God.
“We have a sovereign Lord, and he’s in charge,” he said. “We know that we’re going to be OK.”