Can churches withstand the recession?

A church in Los Angeles

TEXT OF STORY

Steve Chiotakis: Most houses of worship rely on tithing and plate-passing for programs -- even survival. But some are finding the money coming in a little lacking. That's led to an increase in bankruptcies and foreclosure of some churches. And for those that haven't gotten to that point, finding new ways to get by. Kate Archer Kent of Red River Radio has more.


Kate Archer Kent: Hundreds of people rely on St. John's United Methodist Church for the basics, like food, shelter and medical care.

Reverend Rudy Rasmus: Has the meal started yet?

Helper: Yes, sir.

That's Reverend Rudy Rasmus. St. John's charity programs cost millions of dollars. Most of that comes from his 9,000 followers. He says a handful of them are rich, like pop star Beyonce Knowles. She gave more than $4 million to build the church's transition apartments for Houston's homeless.

But the vast majority of congregants are working class. Rasmus says they give less than $100 a year.

Rasmus: That's a lot of folk scraping by, doing what they can, putting what they can in the collection plate. Churches are feeling the pinch.

California-based Barna Group studies trends among Christian denominations. A new survey finds churches across the country are likely to collect about $4 billion less this holiday season.

George Barna:

George Barna: If I were a leader of a church I'd be very concerned, because the fourth quarter of every year is the time when you tend to try to make up for some of the deficit spending that took place earlier in the year.

But if history is any guide, churches should feel little impact from the recession.

Patrick Rooney is with the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University:

Patrick Rooney: This is almost the one sub-sector that seems to be almost recession-proof. Our research has shown that religious giving is not very much affected by changes in wealth.

That research is little comfort at St. John's United Methodist Church. As Houston's economy begins to mirror the rest of the country, Rasmus sees his food lines growing longer.

Rasmus: What we're finding is people are hungrier than ever.

At the same time, St. John's is tightening its belt. Weekly donations dropped into the collection plate are so far holding steady, but Rasmus is expecting a decrease as the recession continues. He's planning to scale back the budget for his charitable programs by at least $300,000.

In Houston, I'm Kate Archer Kent for Marketplace.

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