Tough times empty the collection plate

December 3, 2008

For many churches, synagogues and mosques in the United States, this holiday season will be a lean one.

The outpouring of contributions usually prompted by festive goodwill and end-of-the-year giving geared to next year’s income tax calculations is feeling the pinch from the global financial meltdown. The shortfalls are startling.

(Photo: Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Chicago, 10 April, 2008/John Gress)

“The giving patterns we’re witnessing suggest that churches, alone, will receive some $3 billion to $5 billion less than expected during this fourth quarter. The average church can expect to see its revenues dip about 4 percent to 6 percent lower than would have been expected without the economic turmoil. We anticipate that other non-profit organizations will be hit even harder.”

That grim news comes from George Barna, whose California-based Barna Group looks at trends and patterns among worshippers and church goers. He based it on a survey of 1,203 adults in the United States done in November.

Barna says most churches and non-profit groups operate in the red for most of any calendar year, expecting to gain a third or more of their annual income in the final three months of the year. But his survey found that one in every five households has cut back on giving to churches or other religious centers. Within that group, 22 percent have stopped giving completely.

(Photo: Atlanta Masjid of al-Islam, 25 Feb 2007/Tami Chappell)

The cutbacks come at a time when social needs, ranging from food and clothing to financial support for the needy, have risen dramatically. They also have the potential to pinch the flow of contributions from the United States to poverty-stricken destinations around the globe.

But some faith leaders in the United States believe global poverty and health concerns need not get pushed aside by the financial crisis, as long as the faithful are reminded of their obligations in the context of their beliefs.

“When times are tough, people tend to be more aware. We have within the framework of faith tradition a sense that when you are in need your spiritual reward for giving increases,” said Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, director of outreach for the Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center. “Our ancestors gave even though poverty was their lot — and God increased his blessings upon them.”

He and several other faith leaders spoke at a briefing organized by ONE, the global advocacy agency founded by U2 singer Bono that has launched an effort to unite Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu congregations to raise awareness about poverty among themselves and among U.S. political figures as a new leadership takes over in Washington.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, told the same briefing there was a growing grassroots consciousness about global poverty and a growing momentum for dealing with it. Helping the poor and unfortunate, he said, “is the most common repeated theme of ancient scripture.”

The economic slide is a global one. Is the giving picture likely to be as dire outside the United States?

(Photo: B’nai Jeshurun synagogue in New York, 25 Jan 2006/Keith Bedford)
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tough times will not last. Have patience.