Pennies from heaven

Share this:
February 10, 2003 // UPDATED 4:35 pm - April 27, 2007
By: sue rich
sue rich

For Downtown churches, tough times mean larger congregations, but fewer contributions

During trying times like these, many turn to places of worship. However, some Downtown churches are finding out that the same stressors that lead to full pews take a bite out of their collection plate.

Loring Park's Basilica of St. Mary recently laid off eight employees -- seven administrative workers (six part-time) and one in ministry. Other Downtown churches -- St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral, Plymouth Church and St. Olaf's Catholic Church -- are scaling back their 2003 income projections.

The religious institutions are coping in various ways, from decreasing staff and/or increasing volunteerism to delaying capital campaigns.

"I think the same week we [laid off staff], Blandon laid off 300 employees," said Terri

Ashmore, who handles the Basilica's public relations and its Restoration and Endowment Foundation.

Basilica administrators decided to lay off the workers after revisiting their 2003 income projections. According to Ashmore, the Basilica's parish has "popped up to over 5000" members. The church anticipated this growth and assumed more contributions would follow. Instead, the 2002 year-end total was $1.463 million -- compared to 2001's $1.556 million.

Ashmore speculated that the dipping economy's impact on individual parishioners carried over to their contributions.

Since churches operate as nonprofits, they are obligated to stick to a balanced budget, she noted. Loans are not an option for an institution concerned about the individual liability of volunteer board members and others. While Ashmore notes that cutting staff was an emotionally difficult decision, it was also, she said, "the responsible thing to do."

Each church department plans to rely more heavily on volunteers for administrative duties. The Basilica's sole ministry layoff -- pastoral care, outreach to the ill or grief-stricken -- will be handled by an unpaid intern. The intern, Leon Axten, will be ordained this summer, and Ashmore is optimistic the church will be able to keep him on in some capacity.

Basilica parishioner John Holden knew about the layoffs before other parishioners.

Holden has worshiped at the Basilica for eight years, but also works as communications director for St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral just across Loring Park. Soon after the early January layoff decision, Holden heard about it through "the Downtown church grapevine" and also received a Basilica e-mail informing community churches "that these great people were available." A couple days later, Holden heard about it in church.

But St. Mark's and other area churches haven't snatched up the Basilica's employees.

News from St. Mark's isn't glorious either. Holden noted that the budget figures for the church are confidential and touts the church's recent stewardship campaign. However, when asked about collections at services, Holden said, "Well, everybody is tightening their belts, but we are definitely keeping our heads above water and able to maintain our ministry and programs that are important to us."

He said most of the Downtown inner-city parishes offer a wealth of social programs that could only be maintained by a number of significant and dedicated volunteers.

After a steady increase in donations between 2001 and 2002, Plymouth Church, 19th Street and Nicollet Avenue, recently revised their 2003 projections downward. According to Tom Lockhart, Plymouth's business administrator, the church expects 2003's budget to match 2002's -- not to increase, as initially projected. To keep staff and adjust salaries for inflation, Plymouth canceled its display advertising in the Star Tribune and decided not to launch a fundraising campaign for new classroom and music space.

At St. Olaf Catholic Church, 215 S. 8th St., Pastor John Forliti wrote parishioners in January that the church was scaling back.

"Our St. Olaf budget for 2002-2003 is showing the impact the economy is having on parish income," Forliti wrote. "As of November 30, 2002, income was $81,133 less than expenses. As I explained in an earlier bulletin, we have taken measures to cut expenses. Our parish Finance Council is watching our bottom line very closely, month by month, as is our administrative staff. We may need a second collection or two in the coming months if we are to meet our budget shortfall."

While they may be keeping a close eye to the bottom line, Downtown churches also express faith in their congregations and in the economic state of things. "It ebbs and flows," said Holden, "I wouldn't be surprised if things are completely different in six months."

Have national sex-abuse scandals cut local donations?

By sue rich

Belinda Martinez acknowledges that it may be difficult to discern amid economic sluggishness, but she believes Catholic parishes may be suffering donation drops due to the national priest-sex-abuse scandals.

Martinez, who heads the Minnesota Chapter of SNAP: Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, said she thinks the lower donations are "evidence that the laity is concerned with the financial accountability of the church. ... Every time a bishop [who has molested a parishioner] gets a paycheck [from a retirement account or insurance payout], it's a crime."

Martinez, herself a church abuse survivor and a practicing Catholic, said SNAP has been trying to meet with Twin Cities Archibishop Harry Flynn for several months. Flynn chairs the ad hoc committee on sex abuse for the national Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Martinez said SNAP would like to collaborate with the church leaders on the unique information that only comes from being a survivor.

Martinez recently took her disappointment about the archbishop's lack of a response to SNAP's meeting request directly to Basilica parishioners. On a cold mid-January morning, Martinez and another SNAP member stood outside the Basilica and distributed flyers about the organization and offered chocolate coins for churchgoers to drop in the collection plate. Martinez said the sweet faux quarters serve as a symbolic reminder to church officials that some congregants are not content with the local church leader's response, or lack thereof.

Parishioner responses varied, Martinez said. At a minimum, churchgoers cordially accepted a flyer but declined the sweeter offerings, saying they could never drop a chocolate coin into the collection. But Martinez also reported people who enthusiastically received the literature and looked forward to contributing the "coins."

Martinez was quick to explain that SNAP does not seek to or request that parishioners reduce their actual contributions, only that they add the chocolate to them.

According to church spokesperson Terri Ashmore the Basilica "hardly got any chocolate coins." She also noted that their parish continues to grow, with the majority of current and new parishioners in their 20s and 30s -- who are often hit very hard by recessions.

Publicity following SNAP's Basilica protest reportedly brought three-dozen abuse survivors into the organization. Martinez also said that while a representative of Archbishop Flynn told the Star Tribune that he planned to meet with the organization, the archbishop's office hasn't contacted SNAP yet. Martinez said that the most recent contact she had with the archbishop was a form letter appeal, requesting a donation.

Dennis McGrath, spokesperson for the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said the Archbishop has met with many individual SNAP members and other sex abuse survivors and their loved ones. He maintained that the Archbishop would be happy to meet with SNAP organizers as a whole, as long as they are not stepping into an "orchestrated attorney-led media event."