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Rising costs: Gas crunch tests congregations Bill Fentum, Jul 7, 2008
UMNS PHOTO BY JOHN C. GOODWIN
Church-operated food pantries are seeing more clients due to the nation’s current economic crunch. Here, a shopper selects items at the food pantry of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist in New York.
By Bill Fentum Staff Writer
The Rev. Alta Raper serves a United Methodist multi-church circuit in East Tennessee. On Sundays she preaches to all three of her congregations in rural Sevier County. Add to that her visits to homes, retirement centers and hospitals, and she’s likely to drive up to 500 miles a week.
With the price of gas these days, that’s enough to challenge anyone’s faith.
“I don’t have secretaries or visiting committees to help me, and it’s constant back-and-forth,” Ms. Raper said. “So I’ve traded my van for a smaller sedan to get better mileage. Besides that, I don’t know what else to do.”
The average cost of unleaded fuel in the U.S. topped $4 in June, and some analysts predict it could reach $5 or $6 this year if the summer hurricane season slows down refineries along the Gulf Coast.
In a Pew Research Center study released June 19, 82 percent of Americans surveyed—13 percent more than last year—said they regularly follow news about oil and energy prices; they’re also keeping a closer eye on the cost of food, consumer goods, healthcare and the housing market.
Trustees at First United Methodist Church in Fargo, N.D., planned a capital campaign this spring, but it’s been postponed out of fear that most members won’t be able to contribute, said senior pastor, the Rev. Rich Zeck.
“We’re ready to start and we know we need to, but we’re getting nervous about pulling the trigger,” Mr. Zeck said. “They’ve been through slumps before, but this time feels a little different because it’s really starting to affect their families.”
Still, some members at the church donated tithes in May from their 2007 tax rebate checks.
“It gave us a nice boost,” said Mr. Zeck. “And that’s good because since then the number of people asking us for financial help has tripled.”
Parents who used to bring children’s clothes to the church’s Caring Closet are now taking from it. Requests for $20 gas vouchers once totaled about 10 per month; the office now hands out that many in a week.
“The middle class we used to know—that had plenty of resources and wasn’t seriously in debt—is gone,” said the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources at the denomination’s General Board of Discipleship. “Almost all nonprofit causes are seeing declines in giving, except for major charitable foundations. Even wealthier people are beginning to target their money more tightly, to the things they really care about.
“The question is, how will Christians continue to act as responsible stewards? People of younger generations haven’t faced these situations before. How do I continue doing what I need to do, with shrinking resources?”
At West Jefferson UMC in Madison County, Ohio, the Good Samaritan Food Pantry recently cut its service area to two local zip codes. Other churches and pantries will have to take up the slack, says director Susan Maggart.
“We used to drive once a week to the Mid-Ohio FoodBank in Columbus and pick up almost a ton of food,” she said. “But with the price of gas, we’ve had to cut back to going every two weeks, which means we don’t have as much produce.”
In early May, the Rev. Les Hutchins, pastor of Speers UMC in Charleroi, Pa., visited the city’s community pantry and saw the shelves were bare except for a few cans of soup the church had collected.
He went home, prayed for guidance and pondered John Wesley’s call to “do all the good you can... as long as ever you can.” Then he mailed letters to all churches in the Western Pennsylvania Conference’s Washington District, organizing a May 31 food drop at the Speers parking lot.
“Now the pantry is full, and I’m grateful for that,” Mr. Hutchins said. “But we’ll have to stay on top of it and see what happens in the next few months. We can do great things individually as churches, but together we can do mighty things.”
An Appalachia Service Project team from First UMC in Northville, Mich., travels south each summer to help low-income families repair their homes. This year 25 adults and 70 youth filled 12 passenger vans for a 15,000-mile round trip to Lee County, Va., and raised $10,000 in a month to cover the increased cost.
“We would never cancel the trip,” said Heather Wallas, the mission’s co-leader and Christian education director at the church. “It takes going down into the Appalachian Mountains for kids here in Northville to really understand what life is like outside of this area.
“When you go through economic struggles, the church pulls together and realizes that it’s not just affecting us here, it’s everywhere.”
The Rev. Matt Idom, senior pastor of First UMC in Bryan, Texas, recently traded in his V-8 pickup for a more fuel-efficient V-6. And he’s noticed members of his congregation making similar changes.
It’s just common sense, he says, like his grandmother washing and saving used strips of aluminum foil. She told him the habit started in the Great Depression, when being wasteful wasn’t an option.
“I’ve dropped not-so-subtle hints in my sermons about using all God’s resources more wisely,” Mr. Idom said. “And in the last few years we’ve changed our stewardship strategy at First Church. Instead of saying, ‘Here’s the budget and here’s what we’ve got to raise,’ we focus on the good that our gifts accomplish. Not on the money the church needs, but on our need to serve God.”
Despite hard times, the approach seems to work.
“Oddly enough giving hasn’t been better in my six years here,” Mr. Idom said. “We’ve paid 50 percent of our apportionments for the year and I’m sensing a lot of joy about it.”
Attitude counts for a lot, says Michael Durall, a church consultant and author of Beyond the Collection Plate (Abingdon Press).
“Recently, a pastor told me her congregation was excited about embarking on a new outreach initiative,” Mr. Durall said in an e-mail response. “At another church I was told that since the economy looked uncertain they expected a bad church year. Seek and ye shall find.” Members at Dauphin Way UMC in Mobile, Ala., took on added costs to continue its Meals on Wheels program for about 70 local residents. Budget cuts had forced the church to lay off its full-time kitchen staff and purchase the meals instead from a local hospital.
“When that cost went up too, we were in the hole about $150 a day,” said the Rev. Kathy Jorgensen, associate pastor. “Now we’re looking for ways to help the volunteer drivers who deliver for us, because most of them are older and on fixed incomes themselves. But one man said he’d still do it if gas prices doubled, because he gets as much out of it as the people he’s serving. That’s what ministry is about.”
Ms. Jorgensen said she hasn’t noticed a drop in attendance at Sunday worship, though some people live as much as 20 miles away. However, the staff may try to move all church meetings to one night of the week so spouses or friends who serve on different committees can carpool.
Such ideas have become essential, says Mr. Burton-Edwards, who offers cost-saving tips of his own at www.gbod/worship. And it wouldn’t hurt, he adds, to start small groups who meet for Bible study, fellowship or even worship at sites near their homes.
The Rev. D.G. Hollums, an associate pastor at Florence UMC in Florence, Ky., started a faith community called Th3 (The) Waters two years ago in northern Kentucky and the Greater Cincinnati area. Small house churches within the community meet every week, usually at coffee shops, taverns or fast-food restaurants. They also take part in local missions—visiting retirement homes, feeding the homeless, building Habitat houses.
“I told one of my seminary professors about it,” Mr. Hollums said, “and he said, ‘D.G., that’s exactly what early Methodists did.’ I thought, ‘Good. It’s nice to know we aren’t doing anything horribly heretical!’”
The groups are “organic,” he added, in the sense that they’re made up of friends, family members or co-workers who already interact but want deeper, more authentic community in their lives.
“To save gas,” he said, “we’ve looked for middle ground, telling people to carpool as best you can and try to meet in central locations. We didn’t start this to help with finances, but it’s been a beautiful byproduct.”