Churches Help Members Through Economic Hardship

In these challenging economic times, many Americans are turning to their churches for help. The Rev. Jonathan Coe, of the Lonestar Cowboy Church in Red Oak, Texas, and the Rev. Rudy Rasmus, of St. John's United Methodist Church in Houston, explain how their members have been affected by the financial crisis and how their churches' have responded.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. A little later in the program, we open our mail bag to hear what you had to say about the stories about stories we cover this week. But first, all week, we've been talking about the tough choices many people are making to cope with the ailing U.S. economy. Do you cut off the cable, save money on food, take a vacation or not? It occurred to us at the very place many people seek comfort in hard times may also be feeling the pinch - churches and other houses of worship. Some are seeing tithes and offerings declined because parishioners are cutting back. Some clergy are going without pay even as they're reaching out to lessen the suffering of others.

Here to talk more about this are the Reverend Rudy Rasmus, pastor of St. John's Downtown Church in Houston, Texas and Reverend Jonathan Coe, pastor of the Lonestar Cowboy Church in Red Oak, Texas. Welcome to you both. Thank you for speaking with us.

Reverend RUDY RASMUS (Pastor, St. John's Downtown Church, Houston, Texas): Nice to be here. How are you doing?

MARTIN: OK. Reverend Coe, are you there?

Reverend JONATHAN COE (Pastor, Lonestar Cowboy Church, Red Oak, Texas): Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: All right. Reverend Coe, let me start with you. Tell us a little bit about your church. How big is the congregation and who are the members?

Rev. COE: Mostly our members are rural people how are ag-based into horses and cattle. We do a lot of arena events. Our congregation is anywhere from 210 to 260 on a Sunday.

MARTIN: I'm guessing the gas prices are taking a toll. Is that right?

Rev. COE: Yes, ma'am. Most of our people drive trucks, a lot of them may drive diesels because of, being on the farms or ranches, you've got to haul stuff. So as the gas is going up, it's really starting to impact the families of the church.

MARTIN: And how have you seen that? Are people just not coming as often because they can't afford the gas?

Rev. COE: Well, some people are choosing to stay home. There's a few like Rich Isabel (ph) who is starting to ride his horse a lot places he goes, instead of driving a truck. It's also showing in the contributions of the people in the church. Contributions have been way down here of late.

MARTIN: What about you, Reverend Rasmus, your church is a lot bigger, about 9,000 members, if I remember correctly?

Rev. RASMUS: Yeah, 9,000.

MARTIN: Do I have that right? OK. Are you...

Rev. RASMUS: Very diverse place.

MARTIN: Are you seeing signs of financial distress among the members?

Rev. RASMUS: Yeah, we have a very diverse congregation, really covering the social economic stratas. And, you know, lately, we definitely seen a challenge. My crowd comes from all over Houston, 140 zip codes. Some people have to drive at as far as 30 to 40 minutes to get to church. And what I am really finding is people are now beginning to decide which Sunday they are going to come. Maybe first and third, maybe just second but there is definitely something happening on the landscape that we must begin to pay attention to.

MARTIN: Are people talking to you about it or are they embarrassed to talk to you about?

Rev. RASMUS: You know, still some reluctance to admit that there is a challenge in front of us. You know, but I know with four dollar gas right now in Houston moving to five dollars, people - it won't be long before people have to decide whether not they are going to church on Sunday, or use that same gas to make it to work on Monday.

MARTIN: Reverend Coe, what economies are you making at the church? I understand you are foregoing salary right now, is that right?

Rev. COE: Yes ma'am, we're - we've had to cut back on paying our secretary. We've - I've quit taking salary. We've had to cut a lot of events that we're doing, or not really cut them. We try to keep everything going but we lessen the number of times we do them in a week.

MARTIN: And is that because it's just people just don't want to spend the gas to come, or is it that, you just that the - with offerings declining, you have to make judgments about what kind of things you are going to do to keep the building open?

Rev. COE: We'll it's really both. We're seeing that some of the people cannot attend because a lot of it entails a truck and a trailer and pulling a horse. And as Pastor Rasmus said, a lot of our people come in from various zip codes and so it's - if they come on Sunday and then have to come to a couple of events through the week. They really piled on the use of the fuel and the other thing is since our offering is down and we are trying to take care of the needs of the church first, and then the church family, as they are in need. We just had to make a decision. What's more important, to help somebody out with a 100 dollars in week or do a rodeo event?

MARTIN: Reverend Coe, can I just ask you this though? One of the responsibilities that pastors have is they visit people, when they are ill or ailing and things like that. What about - I'm guessing your gas bill is not small either.

Rev. COE: No ma'am, because...

MARTIN: How are you doing with that?

Rev. COE: Well, it's tough. I really pastor two churches. I've got a Cowboy Church in Corsicana, and I've got a Cowboy Church in Red Oak, they are about 45 minutes apart. And so I've had to cut trips down to the Corsicana church to be able to afford it but a lot of times right now, it's just me and my wife pay the bill to go make hospital visits, sick calls, or to visit the membership.

MARTIN: Reverend Rasmus, what about you, are you all - are you finding you're having to make economies in the kinds of things that you are able to do with - at the church you are trying - are you finding you are having to shift resources around?

Rev. RASMUS: Well, a lot like Reverend Coe's membership, I also drive a truck and I have been thinking lately, you know it might be time for me to look at something a little smaller. So I'm starting to shop but, yeah, it's a challenge. We'll find that many of our folk are not making it back to mid-week opportunities for study - Bible study or worship services. So we are really, really beginning to adjust. You know, look at more at the Internet to reach our congregants.

You know, really kind of thinking about it, I was looking at a stat recently that said, 80 percent of moneys coming into churches today is coming from people over 55 years old. And if that trend continues and younger people continue to connect with churches less and less, the church is going to have to face some hard realities, as congregations get older.

MARTIN: If you are just tuning in, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I am speaking with Pastors Jonathan Coe and Rudy Rasmus about how they are coping with economic distress and the sort of current economic downturn. What about - pastors, I wanted to ask you both about direct aid to folk. I mean, a lot of churches have missions like a food pantry or a water ministry, where you kind of reaching out to folks in the homeless community to offer them clothing and a place to clean up. Are you seeing more need there and it must be kind of difficult at a time when your intake is falling and then, I am wondering if the need is increasing. Reverend Coe, what about you?

Rev. COE: Yeah, I am getting a whole lot more calls than I used to on weekly basis from people who aren't in the church, and then, generally, every Sunday, I am having some people who attend the church coming up and saying, you know, I just - I need some money to get through Friday for the next paycheck. And we have look at what come in on the offering that Sunday and determine - we are different than most churches. Our average giving per person is about 11 dollars because most of our people are just new Christians, so they really haven't learn the principles of stewardship and of giving.

So not only do we have the struggle of the downturn, we've got less to deal with at the beginning but, we are facing a lot of people who are trying to learn stewardship to be able to make those decisions of when - what to spend the money on. Entertainment or gas, or food, or the things that they desire.

MARTIN: And Rev. Rasmus, what about you? Are you having more direct need, people coming to you asking for help?

Rev. RASMUS: The need is definitely increasing. We are involved in significant ways in providing services to the homeless community. And we have seen our meal program go from about 275 daily, and in terms of a meal served daily, to about 400 meals per day. And that is a significant job but that we can only tie to the fact that - maybe people who had been providing services are doing that less these days. But also there is a similarity in our demographic and Reverend Coe's demographic. Even though ours is urban and his is rural. We have about 8,000 giving units but 5,000, almost 6,000, of those giving units give less than 100 dollars per year, in church giving. So the similarities are definitely there and I would say because of the impact on the economy on folk in the city and in the rural communities is probably - the impact is probably the same.

MARTIN: I can't let you all go without asking, what faith lesson you're drawing from all this? Are you preaching on this and how are you each thinking this through for yourselves? I don't know. Pastor Rasmus?

Rev. RASMUS: Well, you know, we have focused - I've only been a Christian for 18 years, and I'm 52 years old, so I actually came to this a little later. But I focused my entire ministry on one saying that Jesus shared and that was whatever you do for the least of these, you do also for me. We have focused our resources on people in our community who have the least to offer financially to the ongoing ministry of the church and we have found that the more we do that, the more our needs get met in every aspect of our church's existence.

MARTIN: Reverend Coe, what about you?

Rev. COE: Well, we just try to preach a positive message and we use history a lot and just talk them back to where there's been tough times in the country. And God has always helped us get through them and just like he did then, he'll do it now because he's the same yesterday, today, and forever.

MARTIN: Have you been through something like this before, Reverend Coe?

Rev. COE: Yeah, I've faced it quite often in my ministry. I'm a little bit older than Paster Rasmus and I've been in most of my churches, I've taken, I've been in financial problems that couldn't afford a pastor and I've always pastored those and helped turn them around. So I've faced many downturns in the '80s when we had the decline there and we've always seen it come back. I remember the oil embargo and you know we went through that and I know that it will be the same for the country. Sooner or later, things will turn around and we'll see all kinds of economic prosperity again.

MARTIN: Do people ever ask you why is this happening to me? What do you say?

Rev. COE: Oh, yeah. I think it's a question that everybody has, is why. And you know, it's one of those things we can't always answer. The answer is not here. It's hard to say why it's happened. Some of it is our own decisions, some of its just decisions made by others and some of its just the economic times. But the one thing we can be assured of is, as it says it Romans 8:28, all things work to our good. God will cause all things to become good for us one day.

MARTIN: Pastor Rasmus, what about you?

Rev. RASMUS: Well, you know, tough times really never last, but tough people do. And you know as challenging as times are now, the one thing tough times really do for us is bring us together in some meaningful ways. When we are struggling together, we have a shared interest in not only surviving this moment, but helping those around us. And I've seen benefit from the times of tough economic challenge in our communities, and this is one right now and hopefully we will continue to see our communities come together across our doctrinal positions across the lands of difference and begin to see that if we can really work together, we can do a lot of good.

MARTIN: All right. Reverend Coe, final thought from you. Brief final thought.

Rev. COE: I disagree with Pastor Ramus real well. I think it's, you know, in tough times, you just got to do it. I think that the key would be is he also said it's not about you. I think that one of the things we share in our church is you really need to look at the other person. What can I do for them instead of focusing on your own needs, and by focusing and helping other people, you forget your needs and the Bible says, he who sows sparingly, receives sparingly. He who sows generously will get back generously. So we just teach them to give love and forgiveness and grace and that's what they will receive back.

MARTIN: Well, you've both been very generous with your time. Reverend Jonathan Coe is pastor of the Lonestar Cowboy Church in Red Oak, Texas. He joined us from Dallas. Reverend Rudy Rasmus is pastor of the St. John's Downtown Church. He joined us from Houston, Texas. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Rev. COE: Thanks.

Rev. RASMUS: Thank you for having us.

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