Local congregations see increases giving, reflecting national trendChurches in eastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota continue to see more giving from their congregations, reflecting a rising trend among churches nationally.
By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald
Churches in eastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota continue to see more giving from their congregations, reflecting a rising trend among churches nationally.
“Last year we finished a month ahead of budget in projected giving,” said the Rev. Sam Wellumson, starting his third year as pastor of Christ the King Free Lutheran Church in East Grand Forks.
“A few church members said it’s the first time we had met budget, let alone exceeded the projected giving,” he said. “And I know this year we are ahead again as well.”
A national survey, released last week, found that giving was up in more than half of the 1,360 or so congregations of various denominations surveyed last year. Fifty-one percent of the congregations reported giving was up in 2011, compared with only 43 percent in 2010 and 36 percent in 2009, according to the fourth annual “State of the Plate.”
Local churches diverged from the national trend in that there wasn’t as much of a drop off in offerings after the 2008 national recession, church leaders say. But long-term population declines continue to challenge local congregations.
“Like a lot of churches over the past decade or so, we had a time when we lost some members,” said the Rev. Jerry Bass, pastor of Wesley United Methodist in Grand Forks. “That has had a slight effect on our finances, but our giving has remained pretty steady, and actually is up a little bit this year. It was up last year, too. So we are ahead of last year.”
In the national survey, bigger churches were more likely to see increases: 70 percent of megachurches — those with more than 2,000 in attendance — saw giving up last year while only 39 percent of churches with fewer than 100 attending each week saw increases.
Most churches said increased giving came from increased attendance.
The Midwest, including Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri, saw the “biggest rebound,” with 55 percent of the congregations reporting increases.
The West Coast again led the survey in showing declines in giving: 38 percent of the churches reported less giving last year, although 45 percent reported increases.
The survey is a collaboration by Brian Kluth’s MAXIMUM Generosity ministry, Christianity Today magazine and the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, which is a sort of better business bureau for many congregations and ministries.
The strong economy in northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, especially the agricultural sector, has generally bolstered religious congregations.
Bass said only one of his church’s families is directly and entirely dependent on farming, a sector that’s seen record returns in recent years. “But of course, the overall state of the region’s economy, whether it’s farming or retail or tourism, I think all have propped up the economy in Grand Forks and that’s reflected in our congregation as well.”
Wellumson says a few more members and a solid farm economy seems to have bolstered bottom lines at his congregation as well, which, in turn, helps others.
“We tithe on everything we get,” he said. “So we can continue to give to our denominational headquarters (Association of Free Lutheran Congregations in Minneapolis) and also give to seven local groups, like the Women’s Pregnancy Center, Northlands Rescue Mission and Salvation Army and the local food shelves.”
The congregation also might be able to pave its parking lot this summer, Wellumson said.
Not all congregations have gained from the growing local economy.
“With the American Crystal lockout, donations have dropped,” said the Rev. Leo Kinney, pastor at St. Rose of Lima Catholic parish in Hillsboro, N.D., where one of the company’s five sugar beet processing factories is located. “People are coming to church, but they can’t give as much.”
The Moorhead-based company locked out about 1,300 union-member employees Aug. 1 after they rejected the company’s offer for a new five-year contract.
For a city the size of Hillsboro, the American Crystal factory is the major employer in town and raising beets is major part of farming for miles around.
“We have both workers and producers sitting next to each other,” Kinney said.
With the annual processing campaign within a month of completion, there is little expectation any settlement will come soon on the labor impasse. Many locked out workers have taken other jobs, some moving to take new positions. Meanwhile, the company has hired replacement workers until an agreement is reached with the union.
The decreased giving hasn’t led to any major changes in parish life, Kinney said. “We have just curtailed our expenditures, like everyone else.”
Meanwhile, the local bodies of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the single-largest denomination in the region with a membership equal to 27 percent of the population, have seen fall-out from the church-wide vote in 2009 to allow clergy in same-sex relationships to serve.
The Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the ELCA based in Moorhead has seen nearly 10 percent of its 271 congregations vote to leave the denomination since the 2009 decision and giving has been affected. Synod staff and resources have been cut; this year each synod leader, including Bishop Larry Wohlrabe, took a week of unpaid furlough to help with the budget cutting.
The Eastern North Dakota Synod of the ELCA has seen giving to the synod from its more than 100,000 members decrease by about 17 percent since 2009, and also has cut synod spending, including staff. It recently announced it will move synod offices into a Fargo church building as part of the cost-cutting.
But new ELCA congregations, too, have been formed in recent years and most are financially healthy, bishops and pastors say.
“We’re kind of surprised and pleased that things are looking up a little bit,” said the Rev. Gary Halverson, pastor of First Lutheran Church in Karlstad, Minn., and Eidsvold Lutheran in nearby Halma, Minn., both ELCA congregations. “The farm economy could be part of it. But this particular chuch has never had any serious financial issues.”
And now, with several large manufacturing plants in northwest Minnesota, as well as the recent expansion of the U.S. Border Patrol’s workforce, more jobs and people have moved in the past year or two, after a couple decades of regional population decline, he said.
The members of the Catholic Diocese of Fargo, which covers 84,000 across eastern North Dakota, is on track, or a little better, with giving to the annual God’s Gift Appeal, said spokeswoman Tanya Watterud.
This year’s goal is $2.67 million, up a fraction of a percent from last year’s goal, in the effort that kicks off in February and continues all year as pledges and actual gifts come in to fund diocesan programs. So far, $2.22 million has been pledged.
“We are at week seven, so we are at 83 percent of our goal,” Watterud said. “Last year at week seven we were at 80 percent of our goal.” About 80 percent by this time is typical of the past four years, so 83 percent is slightly ahead, she said.
One change, however: Last year, the diocese came in at 97 percent of the appeal’s goal. This year’s target is only a third of a percent higher than last year’s goal, which was 3.3 percent higher than the 2010 goal.
In the Catholic Diocese of Crookston, a special effort over the past year or so brought about $150,000 in gifts to help stave off a crisis at St. Mary’s parish and school on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, according to Bishop Michael Hoeppner in the diocesan newspaper.
That singular effort, above and beyond the regular Diocesan Annual Appeal, has led to stable finances for the mission for the first time in years and also is leading to new funding sources outside the diocese, Hoeppner told parishioners.
One way Pastor Bass has noticed a trend in giving at Wesley is more interest and participation in missions and service projects, such as the Spirit Lake Ministry Center near Devils Lake as well as international efforts.
“For example, every two or three months, the children circulate “noisy buckets” to collect change during the service,” Bass said. “We did it in March for the ‘Feed My Starving Children,’ and had nearly $1,000 in the buckets, which was super. And a congregational member matched that, so we had nearly $2,000.”
The greater willingness to fund specific projects hasn’t affected giving to the general budget, Bass said. “I think they just dig a little deeper for mission projects.”
Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.