War in Ukraine has brought gas prices up. Inflation is making food more expensive. There’s also a booming housing market to contend with, which is driving rent up for many Americans. While wages are rising for some, they aren’t keeping up with inflation. It’s no wonder that, across the country, many Americans are feeling the pinch.
Interviews conducted this week by the Deseret News show that churches and ministries are starting to feel the pressure, too.
Nationwide, faith-based food pantries report a surge in demand as more Americans are forced to decide between buying food and purchasing the gas they need to get to work. Church leaders say facility costs and other expenses have gone up. And while donation levels at some houses of worship are holding steady, others report that financially-strapped members are donating less, which generates concerns about the long-term health of these religious institutions.
Fewer resources, more demand
In Sutton, Massachusetts, Legacy Church has seen a 20% dip in tithing.
“It’s a little disheartening,” said the Rev. Donald McKinnon, who also works as a substitute teacher because the church doesn’t have the means to employ him full time. He blamed inflation for the drop in congregants’ donations.
“About half of our members are older retirees so their income is a set income,” the Rev. McKinnon said, explaining that as increased prices eat into their budgets, they have less leftover to give to the church.
“And then we have younger families and they’re paying a mortgage and they want to have food on the table,” he added, noting that they’re also contributing less to church coffers.
Leaders of church food pantries and other faith-based food initiatives are giving out groceries to more people than usual.
“In the past, we would serve about 100 people or so on a typical day. … On Monday we served over 300,” said the Rev. David Flatt, executive pastor of First Baptist Church in Panama City, Florida.
While his church hasn’t seen a drop in donations, it is bearing the burden of rising costs, he added.
“We’re paying more for stuff like everybody else is. We’re trying to look for any ways that we can use our budget more wisely,” the Rev. Flatt said.
The Inter-Faith Food Shuttle of Raleigh, North Carolina, is dealing with increased gas prices by trying to streamline delivery routes, said Melvin Acosta, vice president of operations and logistics. “We’re looking for new ways to be more effective without impacting our effectiveness,” he said.
The organization is also grappling with increased demand coupled with a decrease in donations from chain grocery stores, Acosta added, explaining that the big companies that used to donate food near its expiration date are holding on to these items longer and offering second and third markdowns in a bid to recoup their expenses.
Acosta said that his organization is working in neighborhoods with mom and pop groceries in hopes of redistributing food more locally. But because demand is so high, the organization had to add another truck, raising their costs.
“We increased our distribution by 23% from February to March,” said Acosta, noting that they’re now seeing people who “can typically go and buy their groceries. They have to make the decision to buy food or gas to get to work so they can pay bills. We’re starting to see folks like that coming into our lines requesting assistance.”
Acosta has also noticed more senior citizens who are having to make decisions between buying medications and buying food, he said.
In Independence, Missouri, Northern Boulevard United Methodist Church’s Project Suppertime is seeing a similar phenomenon. “The vast majority we’re serving are working families,” said coordinator Myra Kerr. “They’re just not able to make ends meet.”
Project Suppertime’s numbers have spiked as gas prices have increased and inflation and housing costs have gone up. Comparing this March to March 2021, there has been approximately a 30% rise in those seeking food, Kerr said.
Unlike the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, however, Project Suppertime has not had to deal with declining resources. Northern Boulevard United Methodist Church has seen its membership grow during the pandemic, despite being closed for a good part of 2021, said Kerr.
In Idaho Falls, Idaho, the Rev. Ruth Marsh of Trinity United Methodist Church reported that she sees people coming to the food pantry because their government assistance isn’t stretching through the month due to inflation.
“Somebody came by the other day to get a meal. … They said, ‘I got my SNAP benefits and they’re good except they ran out this month,’” she said. “And I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh. How is it that you ran out of SNAP barely past the middle of the month and what are you going to do for the rest of the month?’”
With rent prices rising, some members of her congregation are also seeing their landlords declining to renew leases so that they can bring in new tenants who will pay more. Such a step pushes these people out into a drastically more expensive housing market, the Rev. Marsh said.
“We’re seeing people with (federal) housing vouchers in their hands but there’s no housing,” she added.
The Rev. Marsh hasn’t seen a big dip in tithing, she said. However, she noted, “while the congregation is generous, they’re feeling it in their pocketbooks.”
And the church budget has been impacted by the rising cost of utilities. “Natural gas has skyrocketed,” said the Rev. Marsh. “That’s an area that we can’t control. We can’t cut costs on it. That’s something that supports the shelter and keeps the church warm on Sunday, as well it’s that boiler.”
Rising prices have left the Rev. Marsh concerned about expenses. “I breathe a little sigh every time I send my coworker to the store” to buy hygiene goods like shampoo, conditioner and body wash for the needy, she said.
“The big five store in my community will sell me sleeping bags (for the unhoused) pretty close to cost but I guess that’s going to go up soon,” she added.
Weathering the storm
In the face of these challenges, however, both researchers and church leaders are remaining largely optimistic.
“Often economic impact is delayed in terms of reaching churches. Obviously the biggest impact is when employment drops. We’re definitely at full employment right now of those wanting to work in the U.S.,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “There’s some stability with churches in that regard. But the inflationary pressure is real.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, McConnell added, there was concern that church closures would lead to permanent shutdowns due to financial losses.
“But then checks started showing up in the mail,” he said. “Many churches did well during the pandemic. Some did better than they were doing beforehand. When there’s a need, people will step up.”
This period of inflation and other elevated costs could play out the same way, according to McConnell.
The Rev. Flatt pointed out that, prior to the pandemic, his Florida panhandle church was pummeled by a hurricane. But giving never stopped and the church stayed afloat.
“We had a Category 5 hurricane here and our church was very severely impacted,” he said, explaining that between that and the pandemic, “We expected giving to go down but during those, what’s now been about three years, giving has actually gone up. I think that’s just a testimony to God’s faithfulness. … We just have to trust him to give us the resources that we need.”
The Rev. McKinnon, the pastor of the Massachusetts church that has seen tithing drop, remarked that, although he knows the trustees are concerned about bills and the cost of repairs to the 200-year-old sanctuary, when he came to lead the congregation five years ago, it was down to only six members. Today, it has 30.
“This church has weathered … a lot more than this,” he said. “It’s a matter of being smart with our finances and just trusting God that we’ll get through this time. We’ll just pray that (inflation and increased gas prices) ends rather quickly rather than continues to drag on.”