Faith & money

Even God's house is taking a hit from a bedeviling economy.

Tithes and offerings are flat or down in churches around York County and elsewhere as unemployment, shrinking 401(k) plans and other economic conditions have many churchgoers giving less as they try to refocus their financial priorities.

When giving goes down, churches -- which often rely on donations from their members to pay for everything from staff salaries to the electric bill -- have to adapt.

That has meant cutting back on programs, closing facilities earlier and cutting staff pay.

"I'm sure a lot of churches are reading the tea leaves, so to speak," said Jack Carroll, professor emeritus at Duke University's Divinity School and a former Rock Hill pastor who has written extensively on congregational matters.

"When you're faced with declining retirement ... or declining stock portfolios or loss of jobs in particular, that does cause people to cut back on most things, including their giving to their church."

Aside from anecdotal evidence, Carroll said, there's no hard data on how the current economic slowdown has affected church giving. Any declines would follow the pattern of previous downturns, he said.

Carroll, pastor at Mount Holly United Methodist Church in Rock Hill from 1957 to 1961, said the reason people give or don't give in tough times is often based on two powerful motivators: fear and faith.

"Sometimes, it's just a matter of people's experience or fear that their kids or their spouses or their family in general is not going to be provided for," he said. "It's a matter of prudence that people are just concerned personally with their financial survival.

"Sometimes it's just a matter of not having enough faith, either, that things are going to work out."

That can cause people to cut back on church giving because weekly offerings aren't seen as mandatory in the same way that a mortgage or car payment is, said the Rev. C.D. Montgomery, pastor at Rock Hill's Mount Prospect Baptist Church.

In other words, Montgomery said, people don't think God will call in a debt the way a bank would.

Staying faithful

Mount Prospect Baptist has seen a significant decline in giving this year, as layoffs and shortened work weeks have affected some in Montgomery's congregation. The church plans to make some cutbacks to offset the loss but hasn't decided what those will be.

Montgomery cautions the faithful not to get caught up in putting their livelihoods ahead of their beliefs.

"There are those that forget that God is the one who gives them life. You can have no livelihood if you have no life," Montgomery said. "Some have allowed the things of this world to blind them and are not responding and respecting our gifts to God first."

That idea is what motivates Chad Stinnett, 37, of Clover, who said he has continued giving to his church, First Baptist in Clover.

"The Lord says in the Bible ... to test him on this one topic and he would bless you in all kinds of different ways you wouldn't imagine," said Stinnett, who works for a truck manufacturer in Gastonia, N.C., referencing Malachi 3:10 in the Old Testament, which says:

"Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the Lord Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it."

"As we stay faithful, then God stays faithful to us and provides us anything we may need," Stinnett said. "It may not be new cars or new houses ... (but) it's exactly what we need and what he feels that we need."

Still, that kind of faith can be hard to muster.

The Rev. Ken Owens, pastor at St. John's United Methodist Church in downtown Rock Hill, said he's seen a lot of fear and uncertainty in his congregation as the economy has worsened. Members have lost jobs or have seen business decline sharply, forcing them to refocus their financial obligations.

"This is a very practical, day-to-day challenge for our families, causing them to pause, rethink, redo their budgets and reprioritize," Owens said. "Their fear is natural because no one knows for certain what's going to happen.

"This tests our faith. In the long run, our faith will certainly be stronger, but in the short term, the pain and anxiety is real."

Offerings are up 3 percent over last year at Owens' church, something he attributes, in part, to the congregation's support of a new $6 million building for children and youth ministries.

But expenses still have outpaced giving.

"I strongly suspect that we'll be doing some belt-tightening," Owens said.

No 'pew sitters'

Other churches largely have been able to escape an effect on offerings.

"Ours have not been affected at all," said the Rev. Keith Brown, pastor at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Rock Hill, which usually sees between $1,000 and $1,200 in weekly offerings. "If anything, it's gone up slightly."

Brown's church only has existed for three years. It has fewer than 40 members, he said, but those members have a vested interest in seeing the church grow and thrive.

With newer churches, Brown said, members usually are willing to give time and money to make sure the church grows, even in tough financial times.

"There's not a lot of room for just pew sitters," he said.

Brent Melerine, 31, a member at Emmanuel Lutheran since its inception, said he tries to live up to his tithing commitment, not only to see the church grow but also to see blessings from his faithfulness.

"Even though things are tough ... we're still blessed with God's gift of still having a job, having a roof," Melerine said. "If you are blessed, continue to give back to the church. The idea is those blessings will come back to you tenfold."

At the 180-member Doby's Bridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Mill, weekly giving "might be down a little" but nothing significant, its pastor said.

"Our church really does try to go by faith in money matters and try not to focus so much on financial matters and more on the spiritual health of the church," said the Rev. Edgar McCall.

At First Baptist Church in Rock Hill, offerings are even, compared to last year, but the church still is not meeting budget. Administrators are trying to be prudent with spending, said the Rev. Steve Hogg, the church's senior pastor.

First Baptist, one of York County's largest churches with around 2,500 members, has reduced the number of nights its building is open to save on heating and cooling bills, Hogg said. The church also has cut back on youth trips and reduced staff travel to out-of-town conventions.

Those kinds of spending cutbacks, along with the congregation's continued giving, has helped the church stay relatively financially healthy, Hogg said.

"That combination has prevented us from reaching a place where we've had to make any drastic cuts."

Open about money

The full extent of the economy's effect on church offerings likely won't be known until January or February, when churches typically close their books for the previous year and get a clearer financial picture, said Carroll, the Duke Divinity professor.

But in the future, Carroll said, churches could benefit by being more transparent about how they spend the tithes and offerings of members, because people don't always know where their money goes.

This could help with giving if people knew the money was not being misused, he said.

For now, though, Carroll said the decline in giving is likely to continue.

"I'm more of a pessimist than an optimist."