CHARLESTON, W.Va. - On a recent Sunday, the Rev. Richard Mahan scrapped a sermon on forgiveness. He felt compelled instead to address the economic turmoil battering the nation.
"Everybody's facing hard times," he told worshipers at St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Charleston. "If you're not, you're going to."
Include churches in that dismal forecast.
With the economy in crisis, congregations around the country are cutting expenses at the very moment many members need help with food, heating bills and gasoline.
Some members of the clergy say their fund-raising has remained steady despite the economic downturn, but how long that will last is unclear. Some are postponing building plans and delaying new programs just in case.
Among the congregations faring best are those with a strong tradition of tithing, the biblical mandate to give at least 10 percent of one's income to the church.
At Stevens Creek Community Church in Augusta, Ga., which practices tithing, "you would never know that things are taking a nosedive in terms of the economy," said Pastor Dave Willis, whose church draws an average of 1,300 worshipers each Sunday. "It's part of the DNA here, so we have seen some consistency even in rough times."
Mahan said there had been no dip in tithing or contributions at St. Timothy's. In fact, he has seen congregants donating more than usual to a small discretionary fund that covers grocery and utility bills for needy members.
Rob Peters, senior pastor with First Baptist Church in Weston, Fla., said his church had delayed plans for a $4 million building. Before the economy began to sour in the spring, the 2,500-member church was receiving about $40,000 a week in donations. Now it averages about $36,000, Peters said.
A poor economy doesn't always mean less cash for the collection plate. A study by the Christian research group Empty Tomb Inc. found that in six recessions since 1968, donations by church members declined in three and increased in three.