Giving when it hurts

500px Bayerfenster Ss Peter and Virgin Mary It's easy to guess that the financial crisis sweeping the country will affect the bottom line for many, if not most, religious groups.

But the disturbing reality of what's occurring at the local level is vividly delineated for us by Boston Globe writer Michael Paulson.

"Clergy brace for downturn in giving" isn't a very sexy title. But the article gets so much right (kaleidoscopic perspective, evocative quotes, and attention to detail) that, really, who cares?

The crumpling economy and plunging financial markets have demolished trillions of dollars in stock value, and now they've taken a toll on the pink stucco church on Main Street.

A decision by the three priests of St. Michael's Church - the largest parish in the Archdiocese of Boston - to halt construction of a long-planned $5.2 million pastoral center is one small indicator of the enormous challenges now being faced by religious denominations and congregations throughout the region as their endowments fall, their donors' stock portfolios evaporate, and requests for help grow.

The next few weeks, between Thanksgiving and New Year's, will be a key indicator of how dramatically the nation's financial crisis will affect religious organizations. Contributions to date have been stable or up for many denominations and congregations, but this period is the high season for American philanthropy, in part because people are motivated by the spirit of Christmas to be charitable, and in part because people are trying to amass tax deductions as the year closes.

The second paragraph tersely knits together both the difficulties facing St. Michael's parish and the broader financial picture.

In the third paragraph, Paulson sets the scene for the quote from Jim Antal, a United Church of Christ minister grappling with the unknown.

Seventy percent of our budget comes in December, so we live by faith, or by hope," said the Rev. Jim Antal, president of the Massachusetts conference of the United Church of Christ, which is the state's largest Protestant denomination. Antal has summoned all clergy to a January gathering for a brainstorming session about pastoring congregations during a downturn. "I can't tell you what's going to happen," he said.

That's the theme of the article, in a nutshell -- no one knows what's going to happen, but almost everyone heading a local religious judicatory or organization is anticipating a tough year.

Not only congregations but charitable organizations are affected, as the quote from Combined Jewish Philanthropies president Barry Schrage affirms. "We know people are losing jobs and its not neccesarily people at the bottom end -- it's people who are (major) contributors."

Then the writer circles back to St. Michael's Church, "one of the biggest success stories in the archdiocese" and the clergy's decision not to ask their congregants this year to pledge the cost of a three-story pastoral center already on the boards.

"How can we ask them to pledge for three years, when they're losing their jobs and their stock portfolios are poor?" said the Rev. John Delaney, one of the parish's priests. "Now is not the right time to proceed."

What a poignant quote. As well as shedding a positive light on a Massachusetts institution (the Catholic Church) that has received more than its share of bad press over the past decade or so, those few words condense what is probably a novel into a sentence.

After cycling back to St. Michael's, Paulson broadens his lens and looks at how the recession may stress the ability of parishes and charitable organization's to meet the needs of the poor.

For religious organizations, the nation's economic woes hit twice. The faith groups rely for income on sources vulnerable to a downturn - contributions from individuals, income from investments, and, in the case of faith-based social service organizations, funding from government. But the faith groups also aspire to assist the hungry and homeless and unemployed, meaning that during a recession their expenses go up even as their revenue may go down.

It's a long article, and I'm not crazy about the speculative kicker quote at the end. But Paulson has clearly done his homework, it's a solid piece of writing and he deserves a lot of credit. Now, if only the credit markets would unfreeze...

Picture of Bayerfenster Cathedral patrons from Wikimedia

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