Cost cutting: UMCs get frugally creative to help pay bills, apportionments

By Jessica Connor

As South Carolina continues its slog through a tough economy, its churches have been introducing innovative ways to cut costs so they can pay apportionments and operate.

United Methodist churches across the state are doing everything from turning off lights to slashing salaries “ and even positions “ so they can reduce their bills and in some cases, stay afloat.

In order to pay our apportionments and our bills, we have to be creative and sacrifice in a variety of ways, said the Rev. Paul Wood, pastor of First UMC, Cheraw.

Many of them are finding their measures “ big and small “ are adding up.

The Rev. Dwight Nelson, pastor of New Life UMC, Walterboro, said preventive maintenance checks and services “ such as changing air filters and switching to lower-watt bulbs “ have helped lower their utility bills by more than 33 percent.

While they are doing this for economic reasons, members said the cost-cutting measures also help New Life become better stewards of the resources God has provided.

We urge our members to be wise stewards of their resources, which includes giving to the church, said Jacquelyn Williams, New Life s lay leader. Giving is a sacred trust. Therefore, the church must not betray that trust. The church can do no less than we ask of the members of our congregation.

Substantial savings

Some churches are taking major steps to reduce bills.

The Rev. Anne G. Bridgers, pastor of Port Royal UMC, Beaufort, said the church has cut the pastor s salary, plus eliminated paid salaries for the choir director and custodian. They now do their own yard maintenance, repair and cleaning; they are renting out the parsonage; and an outside source is paying for the cost of their color church bulletins.

The Rev. Paul Gasque, pastor of Trinity UMC, Clio, said they have a large sanctuary that requires a lot of air conditioning in the warmer months, so their church now worships in a nearby chapel to help with electrical costs.

Gasque said the frugal move has had a surprising perk: Most of the people like the small chapel better. While they are back in the sanctuary now, they plan to switch back to the chapel this winter to help with heating costs.

We are closer together physically, which engenders a stronger community spirit, and my proximity to the congregation gives me a better connection with the people during the service, Gasque said. In trying to save on a cooling bill, we have created more ˜warmth in the life of the church.

And Bethany UMC, Summerville, has done a full budget overhaul to help control costs, freezing salaries and lowering funding levels churchwide.

Bethany lay leader David V. Braddon said the church developed a good system that enabled them to stay on top of the shaky economic situation.

The first step was a detailed analysis of budget versus expected income, and monthly monitoring of actual results. This was coupled with frequent communication with both the congregation and staff with a focus on working together to successfully navigate a very difficult financial climate.

Last year as conditions deteriorated, we made a midyear downward budget correction of 7 percent of the total budget, Braddon said. Due to the prior good communication, everyone was on board with the situation and found creative ways to continue effective ministry with lower funding levels. We did freeze salaries, but again with the communication piece in place, employees were very understanding.

Little steps, big results

Other churches are finding significant success through things like email newsletters and digital thermostats.

Barbara Bloom, co-chair of the finance committee at Mount Pleasant UMC, Columbia, knows how important pinching pennies can be for the overall survival of the church. Since 2006, her church has been facing a decline in church membership, and therefore, income.

In fact, for the past four to five years, we have consistently taken in less than we ve had to pay in expenses, and we ve had to routinely draw on a now-diminishing reserve, Bloom said.

Today, Mount Pleasant is doing a host of things to save money: they unplug the cooler in the fellowship hall; have re-programmed the thermostat to a wider (and more uncomfortable) temperature range and ask the congregation to dress accordingly; redirect Birthday Jar (recreation) funds into the operating budget; combine weekly meetings with choir practice on Monday nights; discontinue Second Sunday fellowship dinners through the summer; and ask the congregation to turn off lights, faucets and running toilets and be sure outside doors close completely.

This and last year, they also closed the sanctuary to meet in the Fellowship Hall during the summer to conserve energy, reduced their pastor s salary and renegotiated with gas providers for a lower rate. Like Bethany, they believe in heartily communicating their financial plight to the full church. They include bulletin inserts to show their weekly/monthly collection shortage, and they send letters to all members, including non-attending ones, informing them of Mount Pleasant s declining financial situation.

The Rev. Linda Dunn, pastor of Gilbert and Rehoboth UMCs, Gilbert, said her churches have cut costs in several small ways that add up: they no longer order bulletin covers from service providers and instead use legal-sized copy paper with clip art as cover design. They no longer purchase pre-printed envelopes for church mail, but instead print their own self-adhesive labels to use on plain envelopes purchased in bulk. They email their church newsletter to those with email, and for those who do not, they make printed copies available by family name on the first Sunday of month, and only mail the ones that are left after worship that morning. And they ask for material donations for vacation Bible school and other events.

We use budgeted funds only as needed for what is not donated, Dunn said.

Joyce Tucker, member of Wesley Grove UMC, Cottageville, said her church is looking into printing their own programs, and they have reduced the cost of copying by having a member donate an all-in-one copier/printer/scanner. They also rely on the generosity of their members, who donate items for special programs like VBS and their women s day program so it doesn t come out of the church s pocket.

The Rev. Wade Everett, senior pastor of the Langley-Bath-Capers Chapel Charge in the Greenwood District, has switched to an email newsletter and only prints for shut-ins and those who don t have email, saving about $400 a year in postal fees alone.

Creating a folder with everyone s email, and then simply clicking ˜send, takes one minute, Everett said. This saves hours of time, gas and is much more ˜green, as we are saving trees and electricity by not making so many copies.

They are also vigilant about turning off all lights, heating and air systems, faucets and running toilets.

Wood, of First UMC, said his church has switched almost every thermostat over to a digital, programmable device that turns on the air conditioning (or heat) only when it is needed and then turns it off promptly “ for example, at noon every Sunday.

First UMC has also done away with a printed order of worship; Wood leads the congregation through the order of worship verbally. Once a month, the
y provide a simple half-sheet of announcements. Wood said this saves the church significant money on printing.

Something is working

Tony Prestipino, treasurer of the S.C. Conference of the UMC, said smaller cost-cutting measures will certainly help, and it is a good thing to re-evaluate spending and options.

Churches are getting pretty smart about turning off lights and doing more electronic communication, Prestipino said.

But he said churches in a serious financial crunch need to focus on major costs, like personnel, salaries and insurance.

They need to face harder decisions, like switching to a charge or even closing, going to a part-time pastor, losing some support staff, Prestipino said. We re seeing a lot of midsize churches with lots of staff who are struggling with identifying how to do this.

Still, he said, with apportionment-giving up over last year, something is working “ whether it s the overall cost cutting or just a healthier stock market.

I know churches are still struggling, but we re not hearing as much angst, Prestipino said. Hopefully next year with the (conference) budget decrease, we ll see a lot more improvement.

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