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Congregations organize to combat recession

Tightening their own belts, Unitarian Universalist churches help members in need.
By Donald E. Skinner
Summer 2009 5.15.09

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When the economy slid downhill last fall and winter the people at Countryside Church Unitarian Universalist in Palatine, Illinois, looked at each other. “We noticed that a high number of our families had someone who lost a job,” said Dan Wiseman, coordinator of adult faith development at the church. “The economy was also hitting the church budget hard. And in Palatine we kept hearing there were a lot of people who needed help.”

The congregation swung into action. An employment support group was organized to provide emotional support for members in crisis. Since September, the church has held a series of half-day, open-to-the-public programs on money, health care, jobs, and other practical topics. Countryside also joined with seventeen other suburban Chicago congregations to coach people in job interview techniques and résumé preparation. It trained people to teach others about budgeting, credit cards, and other financial issues. A Friday movie series generates discussion on issues such as creativity and money management.

“This is a time that can shake your faith,” said Wiseman. “We wanted to make sure we were supporting our members as well as the larger community.”

As the economic recession deepened this winter and spring, congregations across the country have been challenged by reduced income, increased stress, and a need to reach out to each other.

The UU Church of Indianapolis, Indiana, made its members an unusual money-back offer last spring. If a member loses a job during the coming year, the church will refund contributions. Said Stewardship Chair David Jackoway, who suggested the idea, “It’s a way of saying that we take care of our people when they’re in trouble.”

The sour economy has inspired the 25-member Caribou, Maine, UU Church to look beyond itself as a matter of survival. It has trained five facilitators who will start small covenant groups in the surrounding small communities. Said the Rev. Maury Landry, “We hope that these groups can do three things—help support people outside the church, deepen the bonds among our own members, and attract others to our faith.” The church, supported by a dwindling endowment and declining pledge income, and with a classic 1867 meeting house to heat and maintain, could be forced to fold in three to four years without additional resources—and members, he said. “We see our small groups as a hopeful path.”

At the other end of the country, the 1,500-member First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, announced in February that it would shut its doors for the month of July because of a budget shortfall of $185,000 brought on by a 10-to-12 percent decline in pledge income. Then within a month an anonymous donor contributed $50,000 and the congregation came up with $95,000 more. The Rev. Thomas Disrud, the church’s minister, said some economies will still be implemented, including increased use of volunteers, but the doors will stay open.

Disrud said this episode has helped members reflect on the value of church. “Attendance is very strong these days. This has brought a heightened awareness of the importance of community.”

About twenty congregations have responded to the economy by forming “common security clubs.” Originally formed to help individuals cope with consumer debt, they are now being used by groups of ten to thirty people to discuss the root causes of the economic crisis and to focus on what group members can do together to increase their economic security and how they can promote policy changes. (For more information, see commonsecurityclub.org.)

These clubs grew out of the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive research organization based in Washington, D.C. Chuck Collins, a senior scholar at the institute and a member of First Church in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, said the common security club movement began early this year. “These clubs help people understand they can live through these times and not be so afraid.”

Some congregations are struggling to pay their Annual Program Fund (APF) contributions to the UUA, as well as their district dues. UUA Treasurer and Vice President of Finance Tim Brennan said in March that the UUA’s unrestricted income, including APF contributions, Friends of the UUA, and distributions from the UUA’s endowment, are expected to be down about 10 percent next year.

Laurel Amabile, the UUA’s director of the Annual Program Fund said the bulk of APF contributions come in the spring and early June. “We’re just entering our critical time period for APF giving,” she said. “We do know that every year there are some congregations that are unable to make their requested contributions and we know that will happen this year, too. Our strength as an association comes from our congregations, and we know they will do everything they can.”

All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C., cut its budget by $70,000 in January in response to declining pledge income. In a sermon, the Rev. Rob Hardies, senior minister, said he had heard about congregants who quit coming to church because they no longer could contribute as much. Others, he said, reportedly had “survivor guilt” because they were doing OK. “What a strange thing that money can make us ashamed if we have too little of it and ashamed if we have too much of it,” he said. “All Souls Church is going to be a shame-free zone.”

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