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Mississippi Baptist Convention says tithing has gone from good to flat

Weathering the storm

One of the first things to go when a business our household has to start cutting discretionary income is charitable giving.

So far, the Mississippi Baptist Convention and a couple of its member churches have weathered the recession. As the state’s unemployment rate inches toward double digits, giving has leveled off, but has not nosedived.

“You can’t sustain that and not be affected at the grocery store and not be affected at the offering plate,” MBC executive director-treasurer Dr. Jim Futral said of the recession’s effects on Mississippi. “We’ve been watching it real closely. We here at the Convention, which is a pretty good gauge of all across the state, we’ve been staying on budget. We had a great January and then kind of a fall-off. We think we’re seeing things kind of flatline. For us, for Mississippi Baptists, it seems as though that’s what we’re hearing from the churches, that they’re doing OK. There are not any crises. Everybody is kind of uneasy.”

First Baptist Church of Jackson, home to one of the state’s largest Baptist congregations, has taken a proactive approach. In February and March, FBC Jackson senior pastor Dr. Stan Buckley and the church’s senior leadership and deacons spearheaded a drive that challenged members who had not been adversely affected by the economic downturn to give two percent more than they normally did. Buckley, his staff and the church’s deacons gave an additional four percent. The drive came in response to January – usually a slow month after heavy year-end giving – coming up shorter than normal. On top of that, a portion of 2008’s revenue went into a contingency fund, to provide a buffer if giving declined dramatically, which “took a lot of pressure off,” Buckley said.

“We told (members) if you’re struggling, we’re not asking you to give an extra dollar. We believe this is cyclical in nature and the economy will bounce back. You know what? They stepped up to the plate.”

Prior to the push, Buckley said his church’s budget was 82 percent of the same period a year ago. The extra giving brought the church’s budget to within 98 percent of last year’s.

“It was a huge swing within just a matter of a month,” Buckley said.

All of FBC Jackson’s department directors cut their budgets eight percent and staff travel was eliminated. Buckley said the savings from those measures totaled roughly $140,000. “None of our ministries have been affected, not one iota,” Buckley said. “We were at $9.6 million last year and we should be on pace for that right now. If it continues as it is, we’ll be able to release a lot of that (contingency).”

Northeast Mississippi has watched the economy evaporate thousands of jobs the past year, particularly in the region’s manufacturing sector.

Yet Tupelo’s Harrisburg Baptist Church, one of the region’s largest, is seeing its giving hold steady. Pat Bray, the church’s financial secretary, said giving last year was $300,000 over budget. The church’s budget requirements through April 19 were $139 over the minimum, at $891,249.

“That’s a little unusual for this time of the year,” said Bray, who added that a lot of Harrisburg’s giving comes at the end of the calendar year. “In addition to (April projections being exceeded), we’ve also received $184,764 toward the retirement of the debt on our church. At this time, we have been very blessed. It has not affected us. I feel like the end-of-the-year giving may not be as strong as it has been in the past, but I still think we’ll be above our (projection).”

None of the church’s ministries have been trimmed, Bray said. Harrisburg has started an eight-week course, which meets every Wednesday night, that assists those who have lost their jobs with interviewing and job-search skills.

“We are watching it carefully,” Futral said. “We don’t just live day-to-day, but we watch it a month at a time. We haven’t seen a drastic fall-off either in the giving to our churches or the giving that goes to missions around the world. People have been faithfully giving. It’s amazing.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@msbusiness.com .

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