NEW YORK - Organized religion was already in trouble before fall 2008. Denominations were stagnating or shrinking, and congregations across faith groups were fretting about their finances.
The "Great Recession" made things worse.
It's further drained the financial resources of many congregations, seminaries and religious day schools. Some congregations have disappeared and schools have been closed. In areas hit hardest by the recession, worshippers have moved away to find jobs, leaving those who remain to minister to communities struggling with rising home foreclosures, unemployment and uncertainty.
Religion has a long history of drawing hope out of suffering, but there's little good news emerging from the recession. Long after the economy improves, the changes made today will have a profound effect on how people practice their faith, where they turn for help in times of stress and how they pass their beliefs to their children.
"In 2010, I think we're going to see 10 or 15 percent of congregations saying they're in serious financial trouble," says David Roozen, a lead researcher for the Faith Communities Today multi-faith survey, which measures congregational health annually. "With around 320,000 or 350,000 congregations, that's a hell of a lot of them."
The sense of community that holds together religious groups is broken when large numbers of people move away or if a ministry is forced to close.
"I'm really still in the mourning process," says Eve Fein, former head of the now-shuttered Morasha Jewish Day School in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.
The school, a center of religious life for students and their parents, had been relying on a sale of some of its property to stay afloat but land values dropped, forcing Morasha to shut down in June.
Maintaining the faith
The news isn't uniformly bad. Communities in some areas are still moving ahead with plans for new congregations, schools and ministries, religious leaders say. And many congregations say they found a renewed sense of purpose helping their suffering neighbors. At RockHarbor church in Costa Mesa, Calif., members responded so generously to word of a budget deficit that the church ended the fiscal year with a surplus.
"We're all a little dumbfounded," says Bryan Wilkins, the church business director.
In the Great Depression, one of the biggest impacts was the loss of Jewish religious schools, which are key to continuing the faith from one generation to the next. Today, some parents, regardless of faith, can no longer afford the costs to send a child to a religious day school. Church officials fear these parents won't re-enroll their kids if family finances improve because it might be disruptive once they've settled into a new school.
Enrollment in one group of 120 Jewish community day schools is down by about 7 percent this academic year, according to Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK, a network of the schools. Kramer says 2009-10 will be a "make or break" year for Jewish education, partly because of the additional damage to endowments and donors from Bernard Madoff's colossal fraud.
Grim news expected
The Association for Christian Schools International, which represents about 3,800 private schools, says enrollment is down nationally by nearly 5 percent. The National Catholic Education Association is still measuring the toll, but expects grim news after years of declining enrollment.
Clergy in different communities say worship attendance has increased, although no one is predicting a nationwide religious revival. Americans for years have been moving away from belonging to a denomination and toward a general spirituality that may or may not involve regular churchgoing.
The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey found more people who call themselves "nondenominational Christians" and rising numbers who say they have no religion.
Before the stock market tanked last fall, only 19 percent of U.S. congregations described their finances as excellent, according to the 2008 Faith Communities Today poll.
Because of these trends, mainline Protestants were among the most vulnerable to the downturn. Their denominations had been losing members for decades and had been dividing over how they should interpret what the Bible says on gay relationships and other issues. National churches had been relying on endowments to help with costs, but the meltdown destroyed that buffer.
Roman Catholic dioceses for years had been struggling to maintain aging buildings, pay salaries and fund settlements over clergy sex abuse. With the hit to investment income and a drop in donations, they are now freezing salaries, and cutting ministries and staff. Religious leaders say the next year or so will be key in determining which organizations survive. Even if the recession ends soon, religious fundraisers say the angst donors feel will not lift immediately, prolonging the difficulties for congregations, schools and ministries.