In Minneapolis, the 3,000-member Central Lutheran Church - long seen as one with full coffers and few worries - cut three administrative jobs this year. With $800,000 in annual contributions, the church isn't going broke. But demand at its soup kitchen has nearly doubled from last year, so the church, faced with rising need and stagnant donations, had to funnel funds to feed the poor.
Central Lutheran's modest attempt to meet the growing need is one of many quiet signs of hardscrabble times, as congregations and religious-service agencies nationwide tell similar tales. In the Northeast, Salvation Army kettle collections for 2002 lag 50 percent behind last year's. Needs are up, donations are down, public funds are shrinking, and to keep the poor afloat, congregations and volunteers are shuffling resources with greater urgency than at any time in recent memory.
Autumn this year brought "a double whammy with a loss of public services on one hand and increased demand on the other," says Carl Dudley, a sociologist who tracks congregational mission work at the Hartford Institute of Religion Research.
Though local congregations seldom provide long-term assistance, they fill an important niche in helping the homeless, unemployed, and working poor through emergencies. But donations this season have not kept up with increasing need, and the clamor for aid comes just as parishioners find themselves jobless and state legislatures face daunting deficits.
• In Jamestown, N.Y., the Salvation Army has stopped helping the indigent make overdue rent, mortgage, and car payments. It's concentrating instead on basics such as food and toys - requests are up 90 percent this year - and relying on a local car dealership to help collect canned food.
• In Baltimore, Social Ministry Director Karen Adkins at Christ Lutheran Church takes night classes in grant writing and fundraising so the church can manage a 40-bed homeless shelter.
• In Stockton, Calif., where Silicon Valley wealth once poured in, workers at a recently closed Catholic Charities food bank brainstorm funding sources, hoping to re-open.
Being creative with finances has quickly become a requisite skill for social ministry. New York City's soup kitchens report a 45 percent increase in attendance, according to Lutheran Social Services. Hartford's report a 25 percent increase just since September. Food-pantry requests at Catholic Charities are up 30 percent in Joliet, Ill. and 206 percent in New Bedford, Mass.
"We're just praying for a really generous holiday season," says Trudy Brubaker, Director of Community Development Services for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). "With as many requests as we have, we don't have any more money."
Reasons for reduced giving vary from lean earnings to anger at the Catholic Church's clerical sex scandal to fear in Muslim circles of being affiliated with a charity under government surveillance. What's more, some charities never recovered from Sept. 11, when sympathy for terrorism victims left other causes largely forgotten - and according to recent polls, anger over how that money was spent has led to a decline in public trust.
Catholic Charities of Omaha reports a 40 percent drop in giving from last year. Funding for the ELCA's hunger-relief program has dropped from $16.5 million to $15.5 million this year, even as the number of grant requests has jumped by 25 percent.
As they pray, however, congregations seem to be trusting that God helps those who help themselves. Ms. Brubaker spends more time this year leading local church workshops in grant writing, networking, and buying in bulk. Lay Catholics protesting their hierarchy's handling of the sex-abuse crisis have raised more than $50,000 to give to Catholic relief services, circumventing church channels.
Most providers find themselves blending old and new means of raising money. Kettles and bells have long fed the Salvation Army, but for the first time, the Eastern Territory office is urging local chapters not to stop on Christmas Eve, but to keep ringing right through New Year's.
"In February and March, you don't have the holiday season to encourage generosity, yet the needs are as desperate or more so," says Lindsay Evans, the Eastern Territory spokesperson.
For all their creativity, however, fundraisers' fallback often remains traditional funding. The nation's 1,640 Catholic Charities institutions depend on public money for 62 percent of their budgets, supporting more than 7 million people. What lawmakers need, according to Catholic Charities USA President Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, is not more money, but more conscience.
"You have to go in and talk about how to allocate resources of a budget in a good society to provide for the needs of the most vulnerable," Mr. Hehir said. "We'll do it with more energy now because the needs are greater."