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God's Deflation

The recession is challenging the long-held belief that houses of worship are immune from economic downturns.

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After two years of answering God's calls — literally and figuratively as an administrator at one of Richmond's largest megachurches — AnA­ got another kind of call.

In early January, the associate pastor who she worked for pulled her into his office and broke the news. God, it turns out, was giving AnA­ the pink slip.

“That was like a dagger in my heart,” says AnA­, whose last name is being withheld to protect her identity. “It was hard. I was mad. I was angry and all of that.”

She was one of six people the church let go, experiencing what many congregations are facing in this economy: declining tithes and giving, leading to belt-tightening, cost cutting and, in some cases, layoffs.

Traditionally, churches have fared reasonably well during economic downturns, but the severity of this recession is challenging the notion that congregations are beyond reproach during financial turbulence. In particular, the emergence of megachurches during the last two decades and their growing economic reach — many operate full-service day care centers, schools and retail shops such as coffee houses and book stores — means many face the same financial challenges that confront the retail sector.

Recessions expose larger churches far more than smaller ones, says Kenneth Elzinga, a professor of economics at the University of Virginia. Megachurches, generally defined as having memberships of 2,000 or more, are more apt to have larger debt loads and more overhead because they're constantly expanding. Their size also means that staff needed to run the churches are more “professionalized,” he says, while smaller churches tend to rely more on volunteers and lay people.

“At small churches, the pastor's wife may play the piano, the director of the Sunday school is a gal very committed to the church,” Elzinga posits. “In an economic downturn, the lay people who are volunteers may not be as affected.”

Most local churches contacted for this story report modest declines in financial giving. At the West End Assembly of God, which has 2,200 members, a decrease in offerings has led to a budget shortfall of about 5 percent, senior pastor John Hershman says. But the church has managed to pare down spending without any layoffs.

Offerings are down about 10 percent at Richmond Community Church in Glen Allen, which has 1,800 members. That meant the church couldn't replace a departing minister a few months ago, senior pastor Rick McDaniel says.

“We have trimmed our budget. We want to be as frugal and conscientious as we can,” he says, adding that not replacing the pastor was a difficult decision. “It's not just a job, it's a vocation, it's a calling. I say to our staff all the time: ‘It’s a great thing to work for Jesus, and when you lose that, that's not a great thing.'”

At New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Chesterfield County, pastor Bishop Gerald O. Glenn says members have been hit hard in the past year, forcing him to temporarily forgo his television ministry.

“I'm hearing the stories almost daily: ‘I’m being evicted,' ‘My car’s being repossessed,'” he says. “I don't think any of us have been immune.”

To counter the drop in giving — the 2,200-member church is down about $71,000 from the same period a year ago — Glenn decided to cut out the television sermons. The church was spending about $100,000 a year, sometimes as much as $15,000 a month, to broadcast his sermons throughout the country, even in England. “Our goal was not to cut direct services,” Glenn says, explaining that by eliminating television broadcasts he could continue more important local outreach, and even expand it. “I was reaching London, but nothing in Gilpin Court.”

Academics and economists who specialize in religion — a relatively new field of study that emerged in the 1990s — say there's a dearth of data and research exploring how economic shifts affect places of worship. One study, however, which looked at annual giving and attendance from 1950 to 2004 at the American Seventh-day Adventist Church, an evangelical protestant denomination, found that during recessions financial giving decreased but attendance increased. The study's author, David Beckworth, an economics professor at Texas State University, also found the opposite was true during economic booms: giving increases, but attendance at services shrinks. 

Some local churches have experienced something similar.

“We're seeing visitors at the same kind of rate that we might see in high visitation times, like the first of the year,” says McDaniel of Richmond Community Church. “We are having an incredible number of visitors in the summer. … What's driving this? I wish had the answer.”

At Second Presbyterian Church downtown, however, the senior pastor, Alex W. Evans, officially anointed in December, says that giving and attendance has increased in the last nine months.

“The wave of a new season of ministry has carried us unusually throughout this season,” he says. “It's kind of insulated this church from the nation's recession and economic woes.” It may also have something to do with the trend that has many younger professionals moving downtown, Evans speculates. “They have a sense of calling into the city, and for worship,” he says. “It's kind of a high-commitment church. It's similar to the draw to live back downtown.”

Elzinga, the U.Va. economics professor, says the commitment level of the congregation is critical. It's another reason why megachurches may face more financial stress during recessionary times than smaller churches and the more traditional denominations.

With their self-help ministries and what-God-can-do-for-you approach, the newer megachurches often have a disproportionate number of free riders, a term economists use to describe members who attend services but take a pass on the offering plate.

“The whole notion of megachurches, the lingo is seeker-friendly. So if you are seeker-friendly, [some members] may not be committed financially,” Elzinga explains. “Whereas a smaller congregation, where it's a more stable group, there are less likely to be free riders.”

But free riders are a constant at megachurches, and must be accounted for even when times are good. “That's just a given, you are going to have a lot of people who are spectators,” Elzinga says of larger congregations. “That to me is an economic burden that the megachurches carry regardless of the economic cycle.”

For AnA­, losing her job allowed her to become a spectator again. At first she was angry, and felt embarrassed about returning to the church where she'd worked. Although she works a full-time administrative job at a new church, she still attends services at her old church.

“When you work in the church, to me it is more personal,” she says. “God revealed to me, even though I was working for long hours, I wasn't worshipping him and giving to him. Even through I was in service, I wasn't really in service. I never really got a chance to listen to the service,” she says. “I felt like I was probably worshipping the job.”

While the initial pain and shame was difficult, she says, working for God allowed her to rebound quickly.

She wouldn't let the economy keep her down. “It took a minute,” she says, and then she got another call. “God opened the door for me.” S

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