Stewardship in a time of financial crisis challenges congregations

Published November 18, 2008

Stewardship season, the time when Episcopal congregations ask their members to decide how much of their income they will give to support the church’s mission, coincided this year with a global economic crisis that caused layoffs, home foreclosures, shrunken investment portfolios and retirement accounts, and mostly dire predictions about the future.

While some Episcopal congregations advocate the biblical tithe of 10 percent and others suggest proportional giving (setting an initial percentage of income to pledge and then increasing it each year), both models – and all the variations in between – depend upon givers knowing or being able reasonably to predict the income upon which to pledge. The current uncertainty makes that predicting harder.

Yet the Rev. Brad Whitaker, rector of Christ Church in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, said, “I don’t feel it’s appropriate to go into panic mode.” He won’t be preaching “arm-twisting” stewardship sermons, he added.

Grosse Pointe Farms is close enough to Detroit to be feeling the downturn in the automobile industry and some of Christ Church’s more than 350 pledging members have lost their jobs – or are worried about them. In the midst of that anxiety, Whitaker’s message is that pledging must be “an honest reflection of my thankfulness for what God has already given me.”

Tom Gossen, executive director of the Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), said in an interview that a traditional stewardship message of “what I believe, why I give and what difference it makes” is still the best way to approach the season, no matter its context. “It’s got to be giving out of love,” he said.

That sense of being loved – and one of being called to do more to help those who have been hit harder than themselves by the volatile economy – has been part of many congregations’ stewardship season this year. Take, for instance, the 35 to 45 members of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Hillsboro, Ohio, who live near Wilmington, where Bonn, Germany-based DHL Express announced in mid-November that it would shut down its entire U.S. operation, putting more than 7,000 people out of work at its distribution center in Wilmington.

The news, while expected, still “broke like a thundercloud,” said the Rev. Clifford Atkinson, St. Mary’s interim rector. No one at St. Mary’s is employed by DHL, but everyone will feel the pinch. Still, the members realize that “we’re in a position to give rather than receive,” Atkinson said.

The congregation is already involved in outreach efforts, including serving 600 people at a supper held towards the end of each month, a time when the area’s “economically marginal” people have the hardest time making ends meet, he said. The members have begun to discuss what more they need to do to help their neighbors, Atkinson added.

At St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, Illinois, where there was a hope of at least holding pledging at the 2007 level, the Rev. Jeanette DeFriest, priest-in-charge, said there wasn’t a sense of panic. Speaking before all the parish’s pledges had been received, DeFriest reported that a few pledges had increased as some people decided to give more because they realized others might have less to give.

That sense of responsibility reflects part of St. Luke’s heritage, DeFriest said. Nearly 80 years ago, in the midst of the Great Depression, the parish sold a recently built apartment building and gave the proceeds to struggling congregations in the western part of the Diocese of Chicago. “It’s an important story for us to hold up,” she said.

Those sorts of stories can help give perspective and turn Episcopalians towards the larger questions that a struggling economy can prompt.

“This time may well be the best time ever to discuss the basic principles of Christian stewardship which include the counter-intuitive notion of living within our means, while being amazingly generous,” Seattle-based Diocese of Olympia Bishop Gregory Rickel wrote in the October edition of the Diocese of Lexington’s (Kentucky) newspaper. “In fact, a lot of history shows that giving actually goes up during hard times, not the other way around.”

At Faith Episcopal Church, in Cameron Park, California, the Rev. Kent McNair said the 17-year-old parish began in his living room during a time when the real estate market in California had crashed. Five years ago, the congregation moved out of its storefront, having borrowed $2 million to buy land outside of Sacramento and put up a church building. Now, the economic downturn is rippling towards Faith Episcopal and McNair said “people are worrying” about their jobs. About 150 people have been laid off in the area.

Faith has an approximate annual operating budget of $600,000 but needs to raise $800,000 annually in order to service the debt on its loan. The proceeds of the parish’s fourth capital campaign, set to begin in January, will be devoted solely to debt reduction, McNair said.

No matter what, McNair said, “we will adjust.”

Chances are, people will continue to give, despite the economic climate. According to research from the Giving USA Foundation, which analyzes charitable fundraising, giving increased an average of 8.4 percent in years without a recession and by 6.2 percent in years with a recession (in current dollars, before adjusting for inflation). The average rate of change in giving during a recession is a drop of 1 percent, the foundation reports. In the worst recession year for giving, 1974, contributions dropped a total of 5.4 percent.

Terry Parsons, of the Episcopal Church Center’s Office of Diocesan Services and formerly its stewardship officer, noted in the Lexington newspaper’s stewardship issue that this is the third headline-grabbing financial meltdown in 79 years.

“None of them are without pain … Nevertheless, we prevailed in the past, and there is no evidence to suggest that we will not prevail once again,” she said.


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