Faith and funding – As economy slumps, churches feel the pinch

Thursday, February 19, 2009
By Cary Shuman

Sister Jane Iannaccone at St. John the Evangelist said donations are so strong, she has to use a ruler to push down the dollars stuffed into the St. Vincent de Paul Society collection tubes by the doors. Most churches and the temple, however, are noticing that their parish donations are keeping pace with the economy, unfortunately.

Sister Jane Iannaccone at St. John the Evangelist said donations are so strong, she has to use a ruler to push down the dollars stuffed into the St. Vincent de Paul Society collection tubes by the doors. Most churches and the temple, however, are noticing that their parish donations are keeping pace with the economy, unfortunately.

By Sandra Miller

For the Transcript

As Winthrop licks its wounds and prepares for more pain, the spiritual base of the community is also shoring up its resources for its congregants and the town at-large.

Charity begins at home, however, and most churches are reeling from their own cutbacks. When parishioners lose their jobs, they can’t put as much in the collection basket.

“We had some quite dramatic losses in the fall to our endowment,” said the Rev. Kate Layzer at Union Congregational Church. “Certainly our members are looking for work. Most of our folks are on fixed incomes. Inflation and rising prices are really going to affect them.”

St John the Evangelist Church is actually doing pretty well with its collections, and sees a full house at most masses. Others, however, are experiencing lower donations because their parishioners are in their own financial straits.

“I’ve got a lot of people in my congregation who lost their jobs or seen their hours cut,” said the Rev. Jeremy Smith, pastor at First Church of Winthrop United Methodist. “We’re all just trying to get by.”

“I have one parishioner who had her hours cut at work, who is trying to figure out what they were going to do,” said Rev. Smith. “Her first concern was, ‘How do I keep up my pledge to the church?’ Of course that’s never a problem. That’s something we’re willing to help people with. Even when we’re making cuts, the hardest ones are our inability to help other people.”

Rev. Smith reported a downturn in pledges, which means cutbacks in office expenses and their goals for a capital campaign. “We’re not going to cut our mission and ministry,” said Rev. Smith. “The children’s program will still have as much as we’ve budgeted for. Our other mission is to giving to the food pantry.”

They’ve raised 20 percent of the $75,000 they’re hoping to raise over the next two years, and their 70-year-old boiler isn’t getting any younger. “We consider our building to be a mission to the community,” said Rev. Smith, whose meeting space also welcomes 12 community groups. “It’s very pressing on us to provide a non-leaking roof over our heads and provide heat. Our capital campaign has been below expectations, but I am confident God will grace us.”

St. John’s Episcopal Church recently recovered from a basement flood. “We lucked out because we were able to save the furnace,” said the Rev. Walter Connelly. “The budget is bare bones, so there’s nothing for any emergencies or disasters. We have nothing to fix the furnace if it had broken. Everyone’s just sort of crossing their fingers. There’s no major problems, but all you need is a pipe burst.”

Rev. Connelly has been here only three months, and he’s facing a decrease in donations and a lack of an emergency fund for church repairs. “It’s like everywhere else — you have people who are out of work, who have made financial pledges to the parish who cannot fulfill them. It’s a trickle down economy.”

He talked to his parish on Sunday to discuss operating expenses and reduced pledges. They’ve made cutbacks, including not having a full-time priest. “Churches aren’t any different from other families,” said Rev. Connelly.

Sandra L. Pellegrino, president of Temple Tifereth Israel, noticed pledges and donations have gone down there, too. “It has affected us in that the expenses — gas heat, electricity, insurance, alarm service, etc. — have all gone up, yet our income has gone down, even though we still receive many donations,” said Pellegrino. “We are truly blessed that we have a lot of volunteers who subsidize the temple by giving of their time, expertise, money, and knowledge.”

That’s the thing about a solid church or temple community. Despite financial hard times, leaders tend to their flocks. At the very least, churches provide spiritual guidance in trying times, along with financial advice and mental help.

“We’re still reaching out and finding out where the holes are,” said Rev. Smith. “Our congregation finds the hurting people. We’ve had an increased number of visitors who need a good word of inspiration and hope in these times. Pastors tend to be jacks of all trades. We’re asked all sorts of questions for financial advice, and things like that.”

The upside of having a smaller congregation is that they can help those in need more quickly. “The relationships are more personal and the needs are usually known quicker that way,” said Rev. Connelly. “As far as a support network, it tends to be tighter than a larger parish.”

The temple reported only one member who asked for help. “This was not a financial need but rather more of a where to go, what to do situation,” said Pellegrino. “The rabbi and the president of the temple as well as other members sought the proper agencies and tried to provide information as well as our willingness to come and shop, clean, run errands, etc. Our members were very willing to do so. Last year, however, we did have a couple who needed financial assistance, and the rabbi appealed to members and donations were made to assist them.”

On the other hand, despite a decrease in donations, Pellegrino said fundraisers are often held to raise money for the temple, congregant needs, and for the community.

Its Hebrew School students and their families as well as general membership often have food drives to provide some supplies to the Winthrop Food Pantry. “They do such a wonderful job providing for those in need,” said Pellegrino. “We also have made donations to Project Bread.”

Other spiritual leaders are looking to help the community-at-large. They all contribute to the food pantry, for example. Many church leaders are reconsidering their space, to make room for seniors and job seekers who may be left in the lurch if the Senior Center and library close.

“This is a tough time in Winthrop, and we need to think of creative ways to respond,” said Rev. Layzer.

The Union Congregational Church currently provides space for 12-step meetings and other community use. If the library closes, Rev. Layzer is looking into buying computers and converting a former storage room in order to provide locals with a place they can use a computer and Internet for job searches. “We’re working as a community to help make up for the role the library was playing,” she said. “Maybe we can partner with the town to provide a place for the seniors, to meet if the Senior Center doesn’t make it. We’re a small community, so we have to be creative in what offers we can make.”

The United Methodist Church is also looking into providing space for the elderly or for book sales, to meet any gaps that may be left by the Senior Center and library cutbacks. “One of the great gifts God has given our church is a space for us to use, for different members and community groups to sit and chat and plan and strategize,” said Rev. Jeremy Smith. “We’ve seen increased usage of our building by different community groups. A Girl Scout troop moved over here when the old space was no longer able to afford them.”

The clergy also meet once a month to discuss the needs of the community, in what’s called the Interfaith Council. There was no meeting in February, but they plan to meet next month.

To help families in need, the Union Congregational Church also runs a thrift shop that’s open two Saturdays a month. The clothes in the shop are inexpensive. “If people are in dire need, the goods are free,” said Rev. Layzer. Her church is looking for volunteers to help staff the shop, and, in turn, those volunteers can then start accepting clothing donations. “A lack of volunteers is our biggest difficulty,” said Rev. Layzer.

In addition, hungry Winthropites are welcome to the Union Congregational Church’s monthly community supper, a free dinner held on the last Saturday of every month at 6 p.m. in the Fellowship Hall. The next one is February 28.

“The chef in our congregation loves to cook,” said Rev. Layzer. “We provide a simple hot meal and fellowship. For us, it’s just a way for the community to come together.”

Sister Jane Iannaccone, the church’s pastoral assistant, said their donation tube in the doors of the church are filled with dollar bills for the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic charity that helps families in need of heat and rent assistance. “We help them locate furniture, if they need that,” said Sister Jane. “Even though St. Vincent’s is Catholic, it’s for the whole town of Winthrop. Donations are up. We get so many donations to the St. Vincent donation collection tubes, we have to stick a ruler in there to push the money down.”

At Christmas, the church did its annual Giving Tree, where parishioners provide donations of clothing and toys to those in need. There’s a Youth Ministry group that hosts events, such as soup kitchen volunteering. And in the church’s bulletin, they list information on how to help out with Project Bread’s Foodsource Hotline.

On the other hand, a small parish may feel inadequate in responding to the needs of the entire town. “We’re not exactly poised to jump in and offer that much to the wider community,” said Rev. Connelly. “We’re still out in the woods with everyone else in how to respond with what’s going on in Winthrop. It’s hitting everybody. We’re not unique.”

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