God may not be limited by economics, but many county churches are starting to pinch their pennies from heaven.
Faced with increased needs and diminished offerings, some churches are being forced to trim budgets any way they can -- from turning down the heat to reducing the number of services.
At St. John the Evangelist in Severna Park, the president of the parish council recently warned parishioners that the church, like others in the diocese, may have to reduce the number of baptismal services and masses.
Even churches that never have experienced economic hardship are beginning to feel the strain, says the Rev. Gerald Ash, of St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Annapolis.
The church, one of the oldest on the Broadneck Peninsula, has never been strongly affected during a recession, Ash says. "But we are finally beginning to be hit by unemployment in a way that has never happened. People are losing jobs or taking cutbacks."
Even as the financial needs of parishioners are growing, the resources are shrinking, say county pastorsat several churches.
"We are seeing an effect in contributions," says Ash. "Many peo
ple who've never had trouble fulfilling (financial) pledges are having trouble."
Last year, several people who had been struggling to pay their pledges were able to catch up in January, says the priest. "Now, the question is whether people have gotten so far behind they won't be able to do that."
For Kathy Molster,the administrative associate at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, the issue cuts across every denomination. Molster, who works with an ecumenical group of churches in the Crofton area, says she receives newsletters from churches of varying denominations that all reflect a serious drop in donations.
Though her own church has not cut any majorprograms yet, she says, the church is counting every penny -- at least twice.
A year ago, for example, the church might have sent out a parish-wide mailing to announce a special program. Now they simply add the announcement to the church bulletin on Sunday.
A church, Molster points out, is "like running a giant household: The church hasinsurance premiums, salaries, some churches have mortgages, you haveheat and light and upkeep. The only thing the church doesn't have isputting a full meal on the table every night. Other than that, it's like running a home, and it's getting more and more expensive."
AtSt. Margaret's, says Ash, "We're trying to watch everything -- phone, paper supplies, all kinds of things."
Not all churches are feeling the crunch. At Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Edgewater, collections are holding steady, says Father Ted Heyburn, although the numbers of people coming to the church's food pantry have increased dramatically in recent months.
Churches in the Glen Burnie area are also surviving nicely so far, says Father Louis Pabst, priest at the Church of the Crucifixion. And at St. Andrew By the Bay in Cape St. Claire, the donations are down a bit, say church officials, although the congregation is growing and a new parish center was just completed.
Butmost churches are feeling the money crunch, which also is being reflected in the type of counseling parishioners need, says Ash. For manychurch members around the county, the economic situation seems both frustrating and unfair, he notes.
"They've played the rules the way they thought they had to play to have a good life, and now the whole thing has let them down."
It's especially difficult for high-income, two-income families who have several children and substantial homes. "For parishioners like this, their income is very high, but it goes in one pocket and out the other. They are not wasting a lot of money, but they have very little discretionary income. What they earn is spoken for when the check comes home."
Pastoral work with such families is increasingly tense, Ash says. "Husbands and wives in this (type of situation) get very agitated. Nobody knows what to do. It doesn't seem within their control. People are scared and angry, and right when they need each other most, the tensions explode."
But Ash insists good can come of the recession. For one thing, stringent budgets force churches to be good stewards. "For example, we're looking at use of the building, making sure we're not turning the heat up in alarge area for a single momentary use," he says.
More significantto the 300 families in the congregation is that people are going to learn who they can really trust -- "And that's not a program, that's God."
The real benefit may come if people realize they have trusted too much in material things, adds the priest. "We think if we have so much of this and that, we'll be OK, but that isn't true."