Churches find frugality allows them to expand


Two years ago, county churches were trimming budgets any way they could to pay the bills.

Now, many are rejoicing over a surge in giving and some are demonstrating greater financial stability by building new facilities.

In a random sampling of the leaders of 25 churches, nearly half said they were about to begin building projects, ranging from larger sanctuaries to expanded Sunday school and social facilities.

Church leaders said they aren't certain that their healthier bank accounts reflect a stronger economy so much as their own efforts to pare excess spending during tough times.

"We've just learned to be very careful," said Kathy Molster, administrative associate at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Crofton. "When things were so tight, we cut back and [now] don't expand unnecessarily. Once you're in this stance, you stay in it, which is good."

The church hopes to break ground for a new parish center this spring, she said, and because of that, parishioners are more conscious about giving faithfully.

"You're never on easy street," added Ms. Molster. "But at least we don't have cardiac arrest when the electric bill comes in, because now we have the money to pay it!"

Other churches have given credit for their financial well-being to new programs that are helping people in tangible ways and bringing in new members.

Membership at South Shore Baptist Church in Crownsville has increased by 20 percent and giving has nearly doubled during the past year, said pastor Gene Weatherly.

By Easter, the church will be holding two morning services back to back to accommodate all the new members. The church recently completed a major building expansion and already is planning another one.

Mr. Weatherly attributed the upswing in part to several new programs, such as an outreach to dysfunctional families the church started last summer.

"People know their giving is doing something, it's not just supporting an institution, and I think that makes a difference to them," he said. In addition to the family counseling, the church runs a food pantry and a clothing thrift shop, and supports overseas missionaries.

Mount Olive African Methodist Episcopal Church in Annapolis, a large, stable congregation, has also expanded in the past year, increasing its transportation budget to include two church vans, said pastor Ricky Spain.

"We're doing just a little better [with offerings]," he said. "We've stayed fairly stable."

Churches that just managed to hold their own through the financial crisis also are enjoying better days. At St. John the Evangelist Church in Severna Park, where the budget was trimmed to bare bones last winter, offerings have increased slightly, said Monsignor Edward F. Staub.

"We're very cautious about expenditures, but we've been able to sustain that modest increase," he said.

Even churches with a large percentage of elderly members on fixed incomes are again prospering. At Eastport United Methodist Church in Annapolis, a congregation with many elderly shut-ins, giving increased by 15 percent last year over the previous year, said church treasurer Bruce Angevine.

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