1. Archive

Jeanne passes, plates don't

Three of the four hurricanes that struck Florida plowed through on a weekend, causing churches across the Tampa Bay area to cancel Sunday services.

And religious leaders say they missed out on more than a song and a prayer.

No service means no offering plate, which means no income.

"We have a lot of churches in a financial pinch because of the hurricanes," said Jim DeLa, a spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida. "You don't get the loose offerings that come in on Sunday mornings."

When they can't make it to church, members often bring their offerings the next time they get to the sanctuary, DeLa said. But the delay can cause problems.

"In the meantime, you have light bills and so on," he said.

If members miss a Sunday, leaders say, they should make up for lost offerings _ a sentiment that apparently not all Christians share.

"If we have any more hurricanes, it will hurt us," said the Rev. Robert Gibbons at St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. "Of course, my bookkeeper will feel it more than I do."

Gibbons held 7:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday as winds and sheets of rain from Hurricane Jeanne pounded the area. He said about 50 people, "brave souls," showed up. Gibbons canceled the three remaining Masses that day.

He made similar adjustments for Hurricane Frances on Sept. 5. As meteorologists reported the hurricane would affect Florida's west coast, an unusual number of Catholics showed up for Saturday evening Mass, apparently hoping to get in their praises before the storm. The following day, though, crowds were scant at the three morning Masses and Gibbons canceled evening service.

To offset the losses, Gibbons said he will take a positive approach in encouraging members to be faithful in tithing, the practice of donating 10 percent of one's income. He will publicly thank people who did contribute during hurricanes by putting a note in the church bulletin.

"I hope that that will influence people to make up when they miss," Gibbons said.

But at the House of Manna-Fest in Pinellas Park, Archbishop Sherwin Smith has no plans to remind members to pay back tithes. They should already know, he said.

"If you know your electric bill is due and a hurricane comes, or your house note is due, nobody has to remind you (to pay it)," Smith said. "If you believe 10 percent belongs to God, then 10 percent belongs to God."

Smith also canceled his churches Sunday morning and Sunday evening services for Frances and Jeanne. In each case, he held a special service the following Monday. About 40 to 45 members showed. Between two services on Sunday, Smith said he usually has attendance of 80 to 150.

The hurricanes have hurt the church in other ways, too. Power outages created problems at some members' jobs, making it difficult to give as much as they routinely do. For instance, Smith said, one of his assistant pastors works at a car dealership that was without electricity. No power makes it difficult to sell cars.

Still, the cancellations have not hurt income as much as might be expected, Smith said, adding that God has made a way. "The real obedient people are still taking care of the house of God like God takes care of them," he said.

Church income is "reflective of church attendance, not church membership," said Gerry Tyer, executive presbyter for the Presbytery of Tampa Bay, the governing body for Presbyterian churches in the Tampa Bay area.

Speaking anecdotally, Tyer said, canceling Sunday services for hurricanes has affected church coffers. Still, he said, many Presbyterians have continued to give to their churches, while also donating to funds for hurricane victims.

The Rev. Douglas McMahon, pastor of Woodlawn Presbyterian in St. Petersburg, said he does not anticipate the cancellations will be a major problem because most members pledge to give a certain amount to the church each year. Presbyterians routinely stay true to their "estimate of giving" regardless of their church attendance, McMahon said. The church also has a quarterly letter that includes a reminder about faithful giving, he said.

Episcopalians may have to be creative to meet their pledges, especially in hurricane-ravaged areas, church officials said.

Some congregations of more than 400 members saw 18 or 20 faithful show up after hurricanes Charley or Frances, said Michael Durning, the diocese's canon to the ordinary. "Those are big, big, big, big drops."

Churches are expected to give a certain amount of their income to the diocese, but many are struggling to do so this year.

Some churches are having to hold back money to pay high insurance deductibles because of damages. But even those that suffered no damage are being affected by the steep declines in attendance.

Still, more than 90 percent of Episcopalians fulfill their pledges. "We've got a lot of faith in our people," Durning said. "I think you're going to see fund drives, capital campaigns."

Sharon Tubbs can be reached at (727) 892-2253 or