Writing about his organization's financial decisions, Presbyterian church official Gerry Tyer found an apt metaphor in the Exodus narrative.
"The year 2009 was a wilderness journey for the Presbytery of Tampa Bay,'' said Tyer, head of the umbrella organization of most area Presbyterians.
As the recession persists, the Presbyterian church isn't the only religious organization feeling the fallout. Many have been forced to freeze salaries, cut staff, postpone construction projects and pare programs. Religious schools, seeing enrollment shrink, are trying to help rising numbers of families who no longer can afford tuition.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, which saw a 3 percent decline in offerings, is hoping to double its tuition assistance program.
"We think it will help families stay in Catholic schools, even though we know it's still a pretty significant struggle,'' said Frank Murphy, spokesman for the diocese that encompasses Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.
At Pinellas County Jewish Day School in Clearwater, times have never been so trying, board president Steve Kossoff said.
"We have a record high number of parents that have trouble meeting their tuition requirements, and the charitable organizations that have historically supported their cause have seen contributions drop dramatically. The school has been forced to deal with these difficult financial times by having to reduce the amount of scholarships we provide,'' he said.
The school is determined to carry on, Kossoff said. A new $1 million capital fundraising campaign has already reached a third of its goal, he said.
The fact is, religious communities are finding ways to survive. In the midst of belt-tightening, many continue to contribute to relief efforts abroad, volunteer in soup kitchens at home and help others who are struggling. This week, First Unity Church of St. Petersburg rolled out an eight-week Job Seeker Jump Start Program for the unemployed.
Many religious groups are focused on judicious use of what they already have. In June, First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks in Largo — which also runs Indian Rocks Christian School — launched an energy conservation program. It hired Eddie Moralobo, part-time algebra teacher and seasonal junior varsity coach, as its energy education specialist, which is also part time.
"We use very sophisticated equipment and programs that basically monitor everything that goes on with energy,'' Moralobo said. "In six months, we have saved $42,000.''
The program includes a 12-hour daily shutdown of pumps that push water from the church's lake to its ponds. The pumps previously ran around the clock.
Other churches also are trying to make the most of their facilities and, at the same time, bring in extra income. In St. Petersburg's Pinellas Point neighborhood, St. Matthew's Episcopal Church is promoting its expansive waterfront property as an ideal wedding venue.
Garden Crest Presbyterian Church near Tyrone Square Mall rents space to two other congregations. It started a school and after-care program. The Rev. Tom Greene, the church's pastor, thinks congregations should open their properties to other ministries rather than let them remain underused.
"Financial things will take care of themselves if we just start thinking the right way,'' he said.
For the congregation at St. Hagop Armenian Church in Pinellas Park, a long-deferred dream of new worship space was realized three years ago. The economy, though, has postponed construction of a cultural center for meetings, classes and social gatherings. Also delayed are plans to install the pink tufa stone especially imported from Armenia for the new domed church. Despite the setbacks, St. Hagop is doing well, the Rev. Hovnan Demerjian said.
Others are similarly optimistic. These are challenging times, acknowledged Tyer, of the Presbytery of Tampa Bay. "But like the Hebrew people of God, we believe we are on our way to a promised land. We are not there yet; however, the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire are leading us forward.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.