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Tighter budgets, expanding ministry challenge Southern Baptist churches

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–The nation’s deepening recession is not overlooking Southern Baptists. The downturn is impacting many Baptists’ personal giving and employment, church budgets and even the SBC’s Cooperative Program.

The adverse economic impact seems not to depend on a church’s size as much as where the church is located and the state of the surrounding community’s local economy and employment.

California pastor Ray Jones, who has led SBC-affiliated Family Bible Fellowship in Newark the past 20 years, says offerings have declined $6,000 a week or $24,000 a month. At its peak, the church’s budget was $1.3 million, but it recently had to lay off two staff members.

Located across the bay from San Francisco, Family Bible Fellowship is a young largely African American church, where 90 percent of the members are professionals and middle-class. The church averages 800 in worship, 325 in Bible study.

“Newark is in a perfect storm,” Jones said. Major layoffs regularly affect the San Francisco Bay area. “First it was the .com bubble,” he said. “Then it was AT&T, Mervyn’s and a local auto manufacturing plant. We’ve had members who’ve been laid off or forced to take transfers. I had one member who told me his income had dropped 75 percent. Many members also have been hurt by the mortgage crisis. We are a high-foreclosure area.

“We haven’t had to cut any ministries yet,” Jones said. “But we are rethinking our ministry, trying to be more effective with fewer resources.” Family Bible Fellowship places a heavy emphasis on community outreach, such as block parties, housing the homeless each winter, and food and clothing ministries. The church also wants to expand its ministry into the local Hispanic community, Jones said.

“You have to focus on the vision and purpose of the church,” the pastor said, “because ultimately, God is going to provide. The revelations of God in the Old Testament always came in the valleys, never in the promised land. It’s always a struggle. But God ministers in the midst of the struggle.”

The Atlanta-area First Redeemer Church, a 10-year-old congregation in Cumming with 3,500 members and a $5.7 million annual budget, also has been affected by the struggling economy, assistant pastor Chris Holdorf said. Giving was down 8 percent at the end of 2008, but through special one-time gifts by some members the shortfall has been erased for the time-being.

“We started seeing in 2008 that some of our members were starting to experience economic difficulty or job loss,” Holdorf said. An estimated 17 percent of the church’s top 100 givers were affected by economy.

First Redeemer members hit hardest were those owning or working in local manufacturing, car dealerships, real estate, securities and investment, financial services and banking.

Although First Redeemer has no plans to eliminate any of its 160 ministries, Holdorf said the budget for its next fiscal year (April 1-March 31, 2010) will be flat or only modestly increased.

“Our senior pastor, Richard Lee, believes that it’s not the time for the church of Jesus Christ to retreat but a time for it to grow,” Holdorf said. “And First Redeemer has always had a culture of growth. If anything, we need to expand ministry because there are more and more people hurting today.

“Having said that, we recognize that the economy is having a negative impact on many individual givers,” Holdorf said. “But we hope that with growth, we can financially hold even with last year’s budget. We know that some members can’t continue to give at past levels but we hope new church members will be able to backfill and help us continue to grow.”

However, First Redeemer is examining and minimizing expenses that don’t positively contribute to vital ministries, Holdorf said.

“We have no plans to cut staff because we believe that leads to a downward spiral. But that doesn’t mean we won’t go over every expenditure line and look for ways to do things differently, smarter and cheaper.”

While lean times have squeezed giving at churches such as First Redeemer, the same poor economy — and its devastating effects on church members and their families -– has generated the need for new counseling and networking ministries to help members cope with their financial plight.

Holdorf said he is meeting weekly with families who are wrestling with job loss or with decisions they have to make about relocating to a new job. “People are having to make difficult choices,” he said. “At the same time — and this isn’t just preacher talk — I’m also seeing their faith acted out in these situations. They’re being faced with things that are causing them to put their faith into action.”

Holdorf said he is working to define First Redeemer’s new counseling ministry made necessary by today’s tough financial times. In addition, he said First Redeemer might offer a new ministry involving practical help with job skills, interviewing, resume writing and networking. “We might even try to match up church members who own firms that are hiring with those members needing a job -– or at least make people aware of opportunities and needs.”

If the level of Southern Baptists’ Cooperative Program (CP) gifts is an accurate gauge, the nation’s recession also has shown up on the ledger of the Southern Baptist Convention itself.

As of Feb. 28, SBC Executive Committee President Morris H. Chapman reported that year-to-date contributions to the Cooperative Program are 3.27 percent lower than the same time frame last year. The year-to-date total of $85,293,089 for CP missions is $2,881,905 below the $88,174,995 received at the end of February 2008.

And in anticipation of a tighter economy and lower giving in 2009, considerable belt-tightening also is under way at a number of SBC entities.

The North American Mission Board staff, for instance, has been instructed to operate at 90 percent of approved budgets this year. The International Mission Board announced in January it would tighten its 2009 budget, cut administrative costs, reduce travel expense and forgo any salaried wage adjustments — steps designed to avoid eliminating overseas missionaries. Three of the SBC’s seminaries, LifeWay Christian Resources and Woman’s Missionary Union also have announced budget cuts, while GuideStone Financial Resources has announced a 10 percent workforce downsizing and hiring freeze.

Saying that Cooperative Program giving is a good indicator of the convention’s overall financial health, Karl Dietz, corporate strategies team leader for NAMB in Alpharetta, Ga., said, “We know receipts are down and churches are struggling in some areas, such as Michigan, Minnesota/Wisconsin, Iowa, Nevada the Northwest convention and in California.” Dietz said there are also pockets in the Southeast where CP giving is flat although church attendance may be up.

“Needs are growing. More people are going to church but not necessarily giving more. With a recession, you expect that to happen,” Dietz said.

Dietz also heads a team at NAMB that services more than 500 construction/renovation loans to SBC churches across the United States. He said some churches’ loan payments are past due but not at an alarming rate.

“Bottom line, we know some churches are really starting to feel the hurt from this economic downturn,” Dietz said. “Our hope is that in times of great need for many people, our churches will find creative, inexpensive ways to continue being a lighthouse in their communities.”

But all is not doom and gloom throughout the Southern Baptist Convention. In tiny Loveland, Ohio — just north of Cincinnati — 60-year-old pastor Bill Hounshell said he can’t “whine about the recession so far.”

Hounshell, who has led New Hope Baptist Church the past 14 years, said his congregation of 350-400 is baffled about what God is doing.

“We don’t know what’s going on,” the pastor said. “Over the past four months, we’ve had record-setting giving. January was the third-highest month of giving in the history of the church. Our growth is unbelievable. Sunday School has grown by 40 over a year ago. Worship attendance is up 35-40 over last year. We ended 2008 with $34,000 in the bank and all our bills paid.”

With an annual church budget of $498,000, Hounshell said he and his small staff were good-naturedly “threatened” by church leaders if they didn’t accept an overdue 4 percent raise, the first in a few years. New Hope meets in an almost new building and has yet to miss its monthly $15,000 mortgage payment.

“We’re seeing people saved every Sunday,” Hounshell said. “We’ve been baptizing folks for the last six Sundays in a row. We’re averaging two or three visiting families every Sunday. I don’t know what to attribute it to. Nothing’s changed.

“We’re hearing about churches not being able to open their parking lots because of offerings going down,” Hounshell said. “We’re just sitting here in Loveland, Ohio, saying, ‘Thank you Jesus’ every day, 20 times a day.”
Mickey Noah is a writer for the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board.

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