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Some collection plates are fuller than others

Bishop Robert N. Lynch has instituted a hiring and salary freeze at the administrative headquarters of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg. Meanwhile, in the diocese that spans Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, there's a slight drop in collection plate offerings.

Asking for increased financial contributions in St. Petersburg, the vicar of St. Peter's Episcopal Cathedral told his downtown congregation that "the poor national economy has affected our community, our own pocketbooks and the cathedral's balance sheet.''

Across the nation, the daily spate of disquieting financial news is beginning to take a toll on religious organizations dealing with investment losses and members coping with layoffs, disappearing retirement nest eggs, foreclosures and business closings. Some congregations, though, are faring better than others.

"Overall, we've not seen a dip in overall giving,'' said Pastor Danny Hodges of Calvary Chapel in Pinellas Park, where close to 4,000 people worship each weekend in a sprawling building that once housed a Wal-Mart.

"We did have our budget meeting for next year and we're trying not to increase things in light of the financial situation. … I know it has been tough. A lot of other pastors I know are feeling it,'' Hodges said.

In Largo, First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks began operating under a tightened budget on July 1, the beginning of its fiscal year.

"We're not being greatly affected right now,'' said church administrator Tim Ferguson. "I think our biggest concern right now is what is going to happen to our people.''

The Union for Reform Judaism, which represents 900 congregations in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, recently launched a program to help members cope with the economic downturn. It has offered "webinars" and organized resources to help congregations cut expenses, help families, and set up job networks and support groups.

Fallout from the economic crisis has been spotty, said Emily Grotta, spokeswoman for the New York-based organization.

"We've heard about some congregations that are talking about cutting back staff, and some congregations are talking about adding staff,'' she said.

Temple membership, which generally requires dues, appears to have remained steady, Grotta said.

"At a time like this, your spiritual community is more important than ever,'' she said.

Times like these also mean more members and outsiders are turning to religious groups for help beyond spiritual sustenance.

"In trying times, people need and expect the church to do more,'' said the Rev. Canon Millard Neal of St. Peter's.

The cathedral wants to expand its already strong outreach efforts, he said. Neal declined to discuss the letter he and Susan Churuti, head of the stewardship committee, sent to parishioners telling of a $70,000 budget shortfall.

"We want to be transparent about our financial situation and allow parishioners who are able to help us close this gap ...,'' it said. "In order to be fiscally responsible and to accomplish this goal, we are asking for a '13th month' contribution, which we estimate will close the gap.''

Jim DeLa, spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida, of which St. Peter's is a part, said the number of parishes in the diocese that are behind in paying their apportionments — 10 percent of their income — is up slightly. On the other hand, he said, the new Episcopal Charities Fund established by Bishop Dabney Smith in the diocese that stretches from Brooksville to Marco Island and the Gulf of Mexico to Arcadia is off to a good start.

At Catholic Charities, said Frank Murphy, director of communications for the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, concern for helping the swelling ranks of the poor has resulted in belt tightening in the organization.

The economy is having an effect elsewhere in the diocese, he said.

"What we're hearing is a slight dropoff in collections. No doubt about it, people are beginning to feel the pressure. In Catholic school enrollment, we are beginning to see the same thing,'' Murphy said.

Catholic high schools have cut staff, he said, and Bishop Lynch has issued a mandate for frugality at diocesan headquarters.

"One of the things the bishop has said to the pastoral center is that things are going to be very tight,'' Murphy said. "He intends to position us so we don't have to ask for any new support from the parishes. He says we have to be part of the solution. We cannot become a burden on the parishes."

For those at some churches where tithing is routinely taught, repercussions of the uncertain economy appear to be causing less worry.

At Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, which has 4,600 on its rolls, the Rev. Louis Murphy said he regularly preaches about the requirement that members give one-tenth of their earnings to God.

"We haven't seen a tremendous drop (in offerings) because our main supporters, they understand the principle of giving as it relates to the biblical principle,'' he said.

It's the same at Souls Harvest Fellowship, which has more than 200 members in St. Petersburg.

"We teach that financial prosperity is a promise from God,'' said Pastor Jonathan Anderson. "I haven't heard so far in my church of one layoff. People are still buying new cars in our church.''

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached or (727) 892-2283.

Some collection plates are fuller than others 11/22/08 [Last modified: Saturday, November 22, 2008 3:31am]
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