Amid the gloomy economy, expressions of hope

By Gustav Spohn
Director of Communications and Publications

Jerry Henry ’80 M.Div., chair of the YDS Alumni Board’s Development Committee, began the Convocation and Reunions breakfast conversation on the economy by asking an interesting question with an even more interesting answer.

Question:  Why don’t American Christians give away more money?

Answer:  They are not asked!

That was  the dramatic opening of a presentation Henry delivered  to a small but engaged audience of alumni in Niebuhr Hall who had gathered Oct. 13 to take up the topic “The Impact of the Economy on Churches, Schools, Social Service Organizations, Families, and Selves.”

For both the question and answer, he credited the book Passing the Plate:  Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money (Oxford University Press). On the first page of his PowerPoint presentation, Henry brought out several other startling facts documented in the book:

  • Five percent of the congregations supply 60 percent of the money
  • One out of every five American Christians give nothing
  • The biggest givers, as a percentage of income, are the lowest income earners

Next, he quoted a GuideStar report that detailed some of the effects of the recession on the nonprofit sector:

  • 54 percent report reduction in services provided
  • 44 percent have frozen staff salaries
  • 35 percent have reduced budgets
  • 33 percent have instituted a hiring freeze
  • 29 percent have laid off staff

Talitha Arnold and Jerry Henry moderate discussionBut despite the dire statistics, Henry said, “I hope that what we leave from here with today is hope, that it’s not all gloom and doom.”  Henry is a partner in the Atlanta-based philanthropic fundraising firm Alexander Haas.

Talitha Arnold ’80 M.Div., senior minister at the United Church of Santa Fe (UCC) in New Mexico, who moderated the gathering along with Henry, said the economic downtown has entered a phase that reaches beyond Wall Street and onto Main Street.

 “This year it’s looking at furloughs, job cuts, all those kinds of things that affect a different part of the congregation,” she observed.   “It’s a different kind of challenge, and it’s also one that feels like we’re more into the long haul.”

Peggy Niederer ’01 M.Div., described the economic impact of the recession on her congregation, Holy Spirit Lutheran Church in Leonia, NJ, which she has served for six years.

Not only has the investment income dropped, but congregational giving has dropped by eight percent, as well.  Said Niederer, “So the eight percent reduction meant that while the investment was decreasing in value more of it was needed, so I calculated that it amounted to about 40 percent loss of value over the loss that occurred as a result of the stock market devaluation.”

Tom Johnston ’59 M.Div. works with an ecumenical, three-county organization in Pennsylvania that qualified for a $500,000 federal grant over two years for social service aspects of the group's ministry, and so those programs are holding their own.

"However, the income of the organization from churches that serves all of the other broad ecumenical services program efforts is considerably down,” said Johnston, noting that some of the pastors in those churches had 10 percent salary reductions.

Tom Duggan ’59 B.D. spoke about the impact on Pilgrim Place, a United Church of Christ retirement community in California.  "One of our executives has returned a portion of the salary, as a sacrifice.  We have frozen employment."  But he added that Pilgrim Place is embarking on a $28 million bond issue nonetheless "because we feel we still have to move forward into the future, you just can't simply stop   . . . or else you won't be attractive to people retiring.  But it's a difficult time."

Peter Hodgson '59 B.D., '63 Ph.D. raised questions about the relatively small percentage of charitable giving that comes from corporations.  Said Hodgson, “It's especially shocking when you think that many corporations  . . . . and others, like financial institutions, helped to get us into this mess in the first place.

“In terms of public social policy, letting this happen seems to me rather unfortunate."

Daniel Bonner ’72 B.A., ’76 M.Div., ’77 S.T.M. addressed the issue of how best to encourage giving in the faith community.

"I really think clarifying the mission . . . clarifying the compelling nature of what we do and just sticking with that is the single most important thing congregations or faith-based institutions can do,” he suggested

We must  "continue to tell the story,” Bonner said, “almost as if we're oblivious to the recession.  We're here because of our mission. "

He stressed the need "to live one's faith journey in the midst of a complex environment . . . to have a notion that we're about something bigger than the environment around us.  We're hope givers."

And these lean times, he suggested, offer an opportunity "to explore the disciplined life, which is different than tighten our belt."

Henry, too, stressed the need for a pro-active approach:  “We can’t sit idly by and just ring our hands and say ‘woe is me what are we going to do.’ We still have mission and ministry to accomplish in our work.  Therefore, we need to be out there building support and encouraging others and moving forward as best we can.”

Arnold made a plea for helping people learn how to talk about money, not only in the context of church finances but in terms of family finances and priorities as well.  “If I’m a parent of three kids and I’m working full time and my spouse is working full time how do I make ends meet?  What are the resources the church is going to offer me in order to make good or better decisions about that?”

She noted that her congregation in Santa Fe has ongoing programs that address such issues and distributed a handout from one adult education class entitled “In God We Trust:  Keeping the Faith in Hard Financial Times,” focused on family finances.

Henry also stressed the need to pay attention to the individual situations of people.

“It’s all about relationships with individuals,” said Henry.  “We can’t talk just broadly to people, we have to focus in on individuals. . . .   They want that compassionate caring person to say, how are you doing, first of all

Bert Marshall ’97 M.Div., director of the New England region of Church World Service, said the region achieved its income budget for this year—even though income from CROP Hunger Walks and denominational sources was off—in large measure because there were some significant bequests.
 
“Nationally and internationally, we were down last year, there were some national layoffs in the organization and this year I think thus far the income from appeals for some of the recent major weather disasters in the world have been off, too,” observed Marshall. 

In spite of that, said Marshall, he has a good feeling about CWS work in New England this year because people seem more determined to respond to others’ needs in light of the economic downturn. "We have some great volunteers,” he said, “and they are determined to go out and do well."

Henry’s presentation concluded on an upbeat note.

“Giving to religion has continued to go up, that’s the great news,” he said, quoting figures from the U.S.A. Giving Foundation that show a steady rise in giving to religion in both current dollars and inflation-adjusted dollars from 1968 to 2008—even though religion’s portion of total donations is diminishing as a percentage of overall giving.

And whenever there is a recession followed by recovery, Henry noted, giving has spiked a little ahead of the recovery. “Once people start feeling better,” he said, “nonprofits tend to really see a boost in giving.”