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Spreading the word getting more costly

Mormon missionaries Elder Darren Stoll, left, and Elder Nathan Foster wait for the bus as they begin their day offering their message to people. The missionaries began taking the bus about three weeks ago due to rising gas prices.

MARTHA RIAL | Times

Mormon missionaries Elder Darren Stoll, left, and Elder Nathan Foster wait for the bus as they begin their day offering their message to people. The missionaries began taking the bus about three weeks ago due to rising gas prices.

As gas prices inched skyward in the spring, the head of the Mormon Church's regional missionary team laid down cost-cutting measures.

First, Mission President Kent Colton reminded 150 Central Florida missionaries to carefully monitor mileage and cut out unnecessary travel, including driving trips to socialize with other missionaries. He encouraged bicycling and walking. He told some to do their work by bus. He estimates fuel costs have dropped 10 percent.

"It's a matter of being sensitive to what's happening and doing the best that we can to save the resources given the added costs," Colton said.

Like the Mormons, many bay area ministries are trying to juggle their religious obligations with rising costs of food and fuel. Some groups have trimmed weekday meetings to save members gas. Others encourage carpooling and teleconferencing. And some are coming up with unusual solutions to keep up their charity and outreach work.

The cost cutting comes at what is traditionally one of the most perilous times of year for churches, the summer doldrums when families go on vacation and giving declines. A national survey by Giving USA shows that charities and religious groups expect the sour economy to weigh heavily on fundraising efforts this year, an unsettling possibility because demand for the groups' services continues to rise.

Several area ministries said the weakening economy is hampering their work. Others appear to barely show strain. Among all, the specter of a recession and its effect on church members stirs concern.

At Lutheran Church of the Cross in St. Petersburg, giving has declined only slightly, but the pastor wonders if psychology has had an effect.

"It might be that fear and anxiety factor in that they still have the resources, but they fear that scarcity thing," said the Rev. David Swenson. They worry that "they might not have enough in the future, so I'd better hold onto what I have now."

Mormon missionaries Darren Stoll and Nathan Foster gave up their Toyota Corolla earlier this summer and get around St. Petersburg by bus because of cost-cutting orders.

Sometimes rainstorms batter them or they miss the last bus of the night and hoof it home. The sun and humidity make for a hot day's work as they walk door to door to share their message.

Despite all that, the pair cite benefits to bus riding that go beyond saving money.

Last week, onboard a bus bound for downtown St. Petersburg, Stoll chatted with an elderly woman headed to her doctor's office. Foster made his pitch to a young man who was job hunting. By the time the missionaries disembarked, Stoll had struck out, unable to get the woman, a Jehovah's Witness, to take his literature. Foster had scheduled a follow-up meeting with the young man, who agreed to tour the local Mormon church.

"If we weren't on the bus, we may not have found him," said Foster, 20.

In other ministries, pain at the collection plate troubles leaders.

Donations have decreased at Metropolitan Community Church in Tampa, leaving it with a growing deficit. Leaders are trying to bridge the gap with inventive fundraising techniques.

The church encourages members to use Web sites such as igive.com, an online shopping portal that provides the church with a percentage of each sale.

Members can also use goodsearch.com, a search engine that donates a penny to users' chosen charities. So far, the church has received $87 from its online efforts, said the Rev. Phyllis Hunt, pastor. They also recycle cans, ink cartridges and cell phones.

"We're thinking outside of the box, all over the place," Hunt said. "I'm looking for more too."

The economic downturn has also hurt New Beginnings of Tampa, a ministry connected with New Life Pentecostal Church, which feeds the homeless.

With donations from grocery stores, restaurants and food banks dwindling, the group has spent more on food.

Earlier this month, instead of serving meat and potatoes, they offered meals of spaghetti and red beans and rice, leaders said.

The ministry's biggest concern stems from the dwindling job market, which at one point swelled with construction jobs and other opportunities for participants in its residential drug and alcohol treatment program.

The lack of jobs stunts the recovery process for participants, said the Rev. Tom Atchison, who runs the ministry.

Atchison and his staff recently launched a lawn care service to employ some participants. New Beginnings also pays other program participants $7 an hour to pass out fliers promoting the lawn service.

Atchison said he is thinking about opening a thrift store — anything to help the program's residents earn money.

"They're temporary Band-Aids," Atchison said of his efforts. "But we're trying to be creative until we get the jobs."

Sherri Day can be reached at 813-226-3405 or sday@sptimes.com.

Spreading the word getting more costly 07/22/08 [Last modified: Sunday, July 27, 2008 9:18pm]
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