The sound of a dozen voices swelled from a low, gray church building on a recent rainy evening.
“There shall be showers of blessings/Oh that today they might fall,” their hymn went, all swaying singers and soaring harmonies. “Showers of blessings, showers of blessings we need.”
Smothered by financial hardship, First Institute Baptist lost its pristine building and moved to a rental nearby, a modest space with wood-paneled walls and narrow rooms filled with folding chairs. Its congregation shrank to 35 from nearly 300. And, like many churches in the area, it's had to tighten its purse strings more in recent months as members have tightened their own.
“The economy affects the household, and the church becomes almost last on the list,” said the Rev. Franklin Clark, First Institute's pastor. “Even on a good day for a person, (giving to) the church is an option, so you can imagine what it's like when a person is holding together nickels and dimes and pennies.”
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Even before the stock market began plunging, with the Dow Jones Industrial average falling a record 18 percent last week, the slowing economy and high gas prices were forcing a growing number of churchgoers to cut back on giving, local pastors and experts say.
That leaves some of the Charlotte area's 700 or so places of worship, whose income relies almost solely on congregant donations, struggling to keep up. Smaller, independent churches are often hit hardest, though even the area's wealthier churches acknowledge times are tight.
Some churches have had to cut ministries to save on fuel and other costs. A small number, including First Institute Baptist, have filed for bankruptcy protection – a last-ditch effort to keep creditors at bay and, sometimes, save a church building from foreclosure.
“Just like all nonprofits, they are feeling the pinch,” said Mitch Gibson, president of FaithRewards.com, a Charlotte-based Web site that allows online shoppers to direct part of their money to places of worship.
Since the site launched five months ago, inquiries have been pouring in from ministries across the country, he said. Even churches averse to alternative fundraising methods in the past are looking for help, Gibson said.
Nearly half of Christian adults have reduced their charitable giving because of high gas prices, job worries and other aspects of the downturn, according to a June report from Dunham+Co., a Dallas, Texas, consulting firm that specializes in fundraising for Christian ministries.
While church giving has historically remained strong in economic slowdowns, this year is different because of the dramatic rise in gas prices, said Richard Dunham, the company's president and chief executive.
The election season could hurt ministries, too, as people choose to spend their tight discretionary funds on political donations, rather than charitable causes, he said.
Churches across the country are facing financial struggles, brought on by hard times, over-ambitious expansion plans or even loss of faith in their leaders. Some are in trouble because “people are not showing up,” said Ford Elsaesser, an Idaho lawyer and professor who has been involved in a number of church bankruptcy cases. “Mainstream churches have suffered a drop in attendance.”
A June study by LifeWay Research found that 72 percent of Southern Baptist pastors said their churches were hit by the downturn, and 27 percent said they wouldn't meet their budgets unless conditions improved.
In the Carolinas, a recent poll of more than 1,000 residents shows that only about one in 10 think their families are better off financially than a year ago.
Union County's Baptist churches are starting to feel the crunch, said Dennis Burton, director of missions for the Union Baptist Association, which oversees 83 Baptist congregations.
While most are still getting by, some smaller ones are struggling with rising costs, he said. When giving drops, pastors often have to absorb church costs themselves, which can lead to cutting programs such as community outreach efforts, Burton said.
He said the association's income, which comes from member churches, was lower in April, May and June than it has been in years.
July and August's numbers were higher, but local churches aren't out of the woods, Burton said. He noted that for the first time in rapid-growing Union County, companies are hanging signs saying they're not hiring, and builders' work has dropped dramatically.
“There will definitely be, at some point, a financial impact, because companies are cutting back,” Burton said. “Our deep hope and prayer is that the whole mess will resolve and people will return to their normal, vibrant selves.”
Reducing the ‘nag factor'
Not every Charlotte-area church has fallen on hard times.
Myers Park Presbyterian, one of the area's wealthiest churches, announced last month that it reached its $30 million fundraising goal. The 4,000-member church kicked off the campaign in February, saying the money would help poor communities and help expand and renovate the Providence Road campus.
Still, the economy has raised a greater awareness of neighbors' needs – and fueled cautious optimism about the future, church administrator Dale Allison said.
“We're not planning for a large increase,” he said. “I don't think anyone is, in this environment.”
Giving has remained steady this year at neighboring Myers Park Methodist, though recent worries about the economy became even more pronounced on the news that Wachovia, one of Charlotte's biggest employers, is being sold, said its senior pastor, the Rev. James Howell. San Francisco-based Wells Fargo is buying the bank, and some fear layoffs.
“You have to be concerned,” he said. “It clearly affects hundreds of people in our church.”
Howell said he's called every church member who works for Wachovia and has gotten a mix of responses, from the glib to the anxious.
“Some people have said they can't sleep at night. There have been a lot of tears, fear about losing their home and providing for their family,” he said. Even people who don't work for the bank – but are in financial services or real estate or another related field – have expressed concern about the potential effect.
As far as giving, the church's requests this year won't have as much of a “nag factor,” Howell said. Still, he's making it clear to his 4,500 church members that those who can afford to give should step up more this year.
“If anything, I think the church is needed more in times of crisis,” he said.
Keeping the faith
Things are beginning to turn around for First Institute Baptist Church, its pastor and members said at a recent Bible study.
The church started in 1999 with a handful of members in their pastor's living room. Six months later, it moved into a $500,000 building, and the congregation grew.
Soon after, the cost of staffing and maintaining the building became overwhelming. In 2006, the church filed for bankruptcy protection. Its debts at the time topped $830,000, court documents show.
Times are still tight, and the church has had to cut more costs. At one time, it helped struggling church and community members with bills, rent and groceries. Now, it refers those people to other groups who can help.
Church members, too, say the economy has affected their giving.
“It is a struggle,” said Daphne Jordan, 37, a Gastonia teacher. “Everyone understands the principle of tithing, so that's an automatic, but that doesn't change the fact that gas is still $4.”
Still, the group was hopeful, calling the church's struggle a warning to not lose sight of its mission.
“What we used to have was a building,” Clark, the pastor, told church members. “What we still have is God.”
“Yes!” the group shouted. “Amen!”