2011-12-29 / Local & State

Tough Times Leave Church Collection Plates Lagging

By BILL ZLATOS
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW

PITTSBURGH (AP) – Church leaders want their members to have not only faith and hope this holiday season, but also a little charity.

More than half of Catholic parishes around the country have weathered a decline in contributions from 2008, when the recession started, through 2010, according to a study by the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University. Local leaders of other denominations say they are feeling the pinch, too, during a season when they rely heavily on the generosity of members.

“People just can’t give us much as they used to,” said Brenda Younger, business manager for Epiphany Catholic Church, Uptown, and St. Mary of Mercy Church, Downtown. “I believe that’s because of the economy.’’

About 20 percent of 390 parishes in the national survey reported flat contributions during the three years, according to the national study. Another 13 percent said contributions at first dropped and then bounced back, while 10 percent said donations rose. The others saw a decline.

Donations to parishes in the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese have been flat this year compared to last year, but urban parishes are more likely to feel the pinch, said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese.

A study by Charity Navigator shows that gifts made between Thanksgiving and the end of the year account for 41 percent of all giving to nonprofit groups. Religious leaders say the Christmas season is important but not to that extent.

“Christmas and Easter is each 15 to 20 percent higher than regular collections during the year,” Lengwin said.

Nationally, about 55 percent of parishes have been forced to cut their donations to charity, including mission work.

St. Mary’s runs the Red Door, a program that feeds the homeless. Younger said contributions have dropped from $148,000 in fiscal 2009 to $68,000 in fiscal 2011. The church has been forced to dip into the program’s reserve fund to make up the gap.

“If that trend continues,” she said, “that reserve fund will start being depleted.” The fund has about $175,000 left.

As a result of declining donations, 53 percent of parishes in the study postponed or canceled building projects or other major projects. Lengwin said the diocese is trying to determine whether to start a campaign to raise about $65 million for the proposed Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School in Cranberry.

Giving has declined the past couple years at the First Presbyterian Church of Greensburg. Its pastor, the Rev. Martin Ankrum, said the church is coping with a deficit this year, but he declined to say how much.

In response, the church began a Christ the King drive, starting Nov. 19 through the end of the year.

“We’re encouraging our congregation to do a little more than their tithe to help us reduce the deficit,” Ankrum said.

He hopes Christmas will encourage church members to dig deeper into their pockets.

“I often refer to December as our 12th and 13th month,” Ankrum said. “It’s almost twice an average month of giving.’’

Times are so tough in Washington County that five Lutheran churches – St. Paul in Monessen, Lynnwood in Belle Vernon, Hope Memorial in Smithton and Christ Lutheran in West Newton and Charleroi – decided that they could not afford to pay their own full-time ministers.

In March, they began contributing to a compensation pool to pay for three full-time ministers to rotate among them.

“We’re in a trial period,” said the Rev. Kenneth Thompson, one of the rotating ministers. “In January, the five congregations will be voting to stay in or opt out.’’

Unlike some churches, he said, his Mon Valley churches cannot count on seasonal upticks in giving.

“You can’t depend as much on large Christmas and Easter attendances anymore,” Thompson said. “Fewer people are going to church on those two days. Christ isn’t the priority of their lives.’’

In contrast, Pastor Dan Chaffin of Cranberry Baptist Church in Butler County said giving at his tiny 30-member congregation has been rising.

“We have more people, which is increasing the dollar amounts,” he said. “Last year, we were probably down to 20 people.’’

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