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WFAE takes a close-up look at how the economy is impacting people in the Charlotte region. "Faces of Charlotte's Economy" explores how the local economy is faring as the nation experiences what many experts are calling a recession.

Faith groups cope with economy

http://66.225.205.104/MR20090306.mp3

Businesses and non-profit groups of every stripe are feeling the effects of the recession. The Charlotte area's houses of worship are no exception. WFAE's Mark Rumsey reports on how faith groups are coping with the economic downturn. 

It's difficult to quantify just how severely the recession is affecting religious congregations. Many houses of worship are reluctant to discuss specifics of their finances. But when they "pass the plate" at many Charlotte-area churches these days, the collections are noticeably lighter.

"This is a banking community and lots of Presbyterians are bankers. Especially some of our larger, more affluent churches are feeling the strong impact of the recession," says the Rev. Sam Roberston. He oversees more than 130 churches in the P0resbyterian USA denomination's seven-county Charlotte Presbytery. "Gradually from about the middle of December to now, you would have to see a downward slide of about 20 to 25 percent."

Presbyterians aren't alone in absorbing the recession's pain. The National Association of Church Business Administrators recently surveyed Christian faith groups nationwide. Nearly one-third of those responding said their church was having economy-related financial difficulties. Almost one quarter said they had curtailed mission activities, because of the economy.

Ed Holland is church administrator for Charlotte's 6,500-member Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. He describes what it's like trying to operate a church in the current economic climate. "It's challenging at best. The uncertainty of your congregation's station - they may have experienced a job loss, or someone's been laid off - any number of factors may have happened to them. You're relying upon their donation to keep the operations going and to make sure that ministry can be performed."

Holland and other church leaders say congregations are considering a variety of steps to help counter the slowdown in collections. That may mean pursuing only certain items from a "menu" of potential ministry programs - or even trimming church staffs. In the Charlotte Presbytery, for example, at least seven positions have been eliminated at churches across the region over the past year.

Many faith groups base their budgets for ministry programs and community outreach on annual pledges, turned in by members. That's the case at Charlotte's Temple Beth El, which is home to 1,100 families. "Because our pledges occur over the summer, the last time pledges were made was last summer, so we'll have a more clear picture this coming summer of the economic situation within our congregation," says Rabbi Judith Schindler.

"It hasn't been apparent in the giving to date." But Rabbi Schindler says the synagogue is receiving more requests from member families for financial assistance to help pay for activities such as pre-school and summer camp. Temple Beth El is looking for ways to trim spending, but has so far been able to avoid any staff layoffs.

That's also true at the offices of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, which oversees 93 parishes and missions. In light of the economy, spokesman David Haines says the diocese did not increase the goal for its annual financial appeal to members this year. "You know, we're in an extraordinary time right now, and we're trying to be sensitive to the situation that people are in."

But at the same time, the diocese has a message to parishioners who "are" able to give: "You know, people who have a job and steady income stream that there is tremendous need out there, and I think they're digging a little deeper, and that's a very gratifying thing to see." Funds donated by parishioners are used to support outreach ministries and social services that the diocese offers throughout the community. To help keep the budget in balance, the diocese is not giving pay raises to its employees this year. Of course, houses of worship aren't just about "dollars and cents."

As Charlotte's faith communities grapple with the continuing challenges of fulfilling their missions in a down economy, religious leaders are echoing this sentiment from the Charlotte Presbytery's Rev. Sam Roberson: "I find that in these times people listen a little better on Sunday morning, pray a little bit more, are more open to what meaning there is to be found in their lives. It's not all bad in terms of the human condition."