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Hernando County churches adjusting to a tough economy

David Steadman of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville says contributions have fallen short of budget needs.

RON THOMPSON | Times

David Steadman of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville says contributions have fallen short of budget needs.

For David Steadman, administrator at Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, the reality sank in late last year.

Contributions at the church are normally up during the fourth quarter, which includes the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

"At the end of the year, we usually see an increase," Steadman said, "and we didn't see that in December."

The bad economy has hit pretty much everyone in the pocket, and churches have not been immune. The impact has been far-reaching.

"Those large gifts help us get through the next year, but that didn't happen," Steadman said. "So we started out the year in a little bit of a deficit."

And he said that giving so far this year has been only about the same as last year.

"That's not really good," he said, "because we had an increase in our budget for 2009. So we've been pulling money out of reserves to meet our budget needs."

It's a story echoing through the pews of most local churches and across the country, though many churches report that members are being generous in providing for the needs of those who are hurting as a result of the economic downturn.

In a recent survey of member churches in the United States, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability found that for the fourth quarter of 2008, 28 percent had contributions that were more than 10 percent below their goals.

Steadman said he and others at Faith Presbyterian are "concerned but not worried," and that they are taking positive steps to deal with the situation. They are forming a task force of business leaders in the church to discuss ways to increase revenue while looking at other ways to save money.

"We're not going to cut back on programs or cut staff," he said. "We're just going to be better stewards of what we do have and live within our means."

That means cutting back on electric usage and recycling vacation Bible school and Sunday school materials rather than buying new supplies.

"Our staff didn't take a salary increase for this year," Steadman said.

Despite their own financial troubles, church members are still generously supporting the food pantry administered by First Baptist Church of Brooksville.

"We gather canned goods and dry goods in our foyer, and people fill up that basket every Sunday," Steadman said. "They're willing to do that because they know there are people out there that are going through some hard times."

Sensitive to needs

The Rev. Jerry Waugh, pastor of Northcliffe Baptist Church in Spring Hill, said he has found similar generosity at his church.

"In spite of our general giving being down, our giving to help others is up," Waugh said. "We are providing food for about three times the number of families in our community vs. a year ago. Within our church we have literally kept some families in their homes by assisting with a mortgage payment through our benevolence ministry."

Waugh, whose church has a membership of 1,400, said end-of-year contributions were higher because gifts are tax-deductible. But offerings this year have been lower.

"Probably like most nonprofits, our giving is down this year," Waugh said. "We have received several thousand dollars less than a year ago."

Waugh said the church is passing up some purchases that would be nice to have as a growing church.

"They are niceties, but they are not essentials," he said.

The pastor said the church has postponed its next giving campaign.

"We felt it would be insensitive to what was going on in people's lives to ask them to give more," he said.

Planned for recession

The Rev. Frank Prestigiacomo, executive pastor at Grace World Outreach Church in Brooksville, tells people to put their trust in God during difficult times.

"The word of God is very clear," he said. " 'My God shall supply all your needs,' it says in Philippians 4:19. Let me add: not your wants or desires."

Prestigiacomo, whose church offers Crown Financial Ministry classes regularly, said Grace World planned ahead for the current crisis as far back as 2007.

"We reduced our operating budget by approximately $300,000 over the past two years," he said.

While 2008 income fell short of what the church had hoped for, expenditures were still under budget. Prestigiacomo said that was due to keeping a close watch on purchases and buying only what was needed.

This year, giving is higher than budgeted for the same period of time, he said.

Like other churches, Grace World, with about 1,800 members, has retained its employees and ministries, with staff members agreeing to take six no-work/no-pay days during 2009.

Charitable giving up

At St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Spring Hill, offertory giving has been just slightly affected by the economy, said Marie Ulasewich, business manager and parish secretary.

"It has come down a bit, not a tremendous amount," Ulasewich said. "However, our charitable giving has really flourished."

Many of the 1,200 parishioners have been donating food that is distributed by the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store and items for the veterans hospital. The church's "Rice Bowl" project is collecting money for the Catholic Relief Fund.

"People are truly compassionate," Ulasewich said. "Those who have jobs and means are extremely helpful and charitable to those who have hit some bad times."

'We try to be frugal'

At Forest Oaks Lutheran Church in Spring Hill, signs remind everyone to turn off lights that are not being used.

"We're German, so therefore we try to be frugal," said the Rev. Glenn Fischer. "That's been the mentality of the church: Don't waste, because it's poor stewardship to waste things."

Fischer said his 300-member flock has reacted well to the crisis and that giving has remained strong.

"We've had a couple of Sundays where it was down, but that's not the norm," he said. "We've done well, and I'm pleased with the congregation and how they're responding in their walk of faith."

Fischer said that rather than having stewardship drives the past two years, the church has been looking at giving more as a "giving back" to God. He is also pleased that his congregation is gathering food for the pantry at Holy Trinity Lutheran in Masaryktown.

"A year ago, we had no kind of food pantry whatsoever," he said. "The people have been very supportive of that — far above what I expected."

Two churches growing

At least two Hernando churches report a rosier financial picture. The pastors at Brooksville Wesleyan Church and St. John's Episcopal Church in Brooksville say that giving at their churches is up.

"Our church's financial growth coincides with our numerical growth over the past eight years," said the Rev. Marlin Mull, pastor at the Wesleyan church. "This year, as in previous years, we reflect a gain of approximately 7 percent to 8 percent each year."

Mull said his church plans to expand its ministries with the additional funds.

"Currently, we have a capital campaign to raise $4,300,000 to erect a new sanctuary on (State Road) 50," he said. "We plan to build the church debt-free, and the fundraising thus far has exceeded two-thirds of the goal before construction begins."

According to the Rev. Stuart Swann, the approximately 100 parishioners at St. John's are concerned about the economy, and most are feeling the negative financial impact. But contributions remain generous from both longtime members and newcomers.

"Thankfully, St. John's has realized modest growth in both number of pledges and total giving over the same time in 2008," Swann said. "Community outreach initiatives and giving continue to expand, including participation with other local ministries in an effort to better coordinate services and ministries to people in need."

Hernando County churches adjusting to a tough economy 04/05/09 [Last modified: Sunday, April 5, 2009 8:13pm]
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