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Rising fuel prices force choice between gas, church

The rising cost of fuel is affecting discretionary travel of all kinds, including church attendance and participation in charitable activities. UMNS photos by Mike DuBose.

By Linda Green*
Oct. 6, 2008

Attendance is down, giving is down and the budget is low at both First United Methodist and Greens Creek United Methodist churches in Dublin, Texas.

“People have slacked off of coming to church and attending meetings due to high gas prices,” says the Rev. Cathy Mordecai, the pastor of both congregations. The food pantry has given more assistance than before and members of the church and community are calling on the church to help pay household expenses. “We are struggling. People are having a time making ends meet,” she says.

A U.S. flag flies above an oil refinery
near Houston.

The two Texas churches are not the only ones affected by high gas prices. Many people across the country are choosing between putting gas in the car to attend church or putting food on the table.

"This is not good news for many of the ways we have currently come to understand and construct our lives and ministries as congregations, and particularly as worshiping communities," says the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship. "It is a serious challenge and one we must begin seriously to engage."

United Methodists must remember that since the church is the body of Christ, "gathering in real time and at the same places, including for worship, is non-negotiable," he says.

Making trade-offs

Rising gas prices are prompting church members to make trade-offs, such as continuing to travel to church but reducing financial contributions, or attending church less often but continuing their current rate of contributions.

The trade-off also includes missing meetings, missing choir rehearsals, dropping out of choir, attending worship less frequently or finding a new church to attend that is closer to home, said Dean McIntyre, the agency's director of music resources.

The church is the body of Christ "wherever we are, wherever we go, wherever God sends us," Burton-Edwards says. This means that the members are not "only" the body of Christ when a large percentage of a congregation gathers for worship on Sunday morning.

"We are the body of Christ individually, in one-on-one conversations, in small groups, in larger groups, and in worshiping communities that gather as many of us at the same time at the same place as possible," he says.

While various types of digital media can help people communicate with one another, "we can't be together only in those ways and be fully the body of Christ we are called and made by God to be," he adds.

The impact of escalating costs is critical to people who have to drive long distances to attend worship, church meetings and other church-related activities.

Seminary students who are in the middle of performing fieldwork requirements at United Methodist-related Candler School of Theology in Atlanta “are doing what needs to be done by being creative and cooperative,” says Alice Rogers, Emory’s director of contextual education and the teaching parish program. She had expected to hear complaints from the students about having to drive to their assignments, group meeting and classes, but the students have used ingenuity to get things done, she says.

In a personal reflection, McIntyre says he lives 15 miles from the church he attends, and during the week, he averages three roundtrips for worship, meetings and choir practice. The 90 miles per week equals $18.14 in gas. The cost would be much higher if a person drives an SUV, uses a higher grade of gas or makes more trips to the church during the week, he says.

His monthly gas cost for going to and from the church is approximately $75. Before the end of the summer, some people were paying $90 and above for gas that reached $5 per gallon, and in the early days of fall, gas shortages and higher prices took a toll on budgets.

"For some members of your church, $75 or $90 a month (or more) to go to church is a sizable amount of money, perhaps even enough to keep them from attending," McIntyre says.

Suggestions for coping

Speaking from the church musician's perspective, McIntyre offers choral and music directors suggestions to help ease the gasoline burdens for choir members.

He advises scheduling choir rehearsals on the same evenings, putting together as many rehearsals in one evening as possible and arranging a family style, catered meal. "Not a potluck," he says.


"For some members of your church, $75 or $90 a month (or more) to go to church is a sizable amount of money, perhaps even enough to keep them from attending."
– Dean McIntyre
Another possibility is to arrange rehearsals before and after Sunday worship services, or have an extended worship service every other week. He suggests giving choirs a vacation and use soloists, instrumentalists and ensembles or others for worship services. Other considerations include carpooling for choir members who live in the same areas and asking parents to take a week carpooling children from school, to rehearsal and home, he says.


Churches are going to lose members unless they are "proactive about creating ways to strengthen their connections," Burton-Edwards says. He also notes that the discretionary funds people had to give to church, charities and non-profit organizations are decreasing. To compensate, churches will decrease expenses in areas not critical to mission and increase their mission areas.

Churches that financially depend on members who live far beyond the boundaries of the church's location will be seriously challenged, Burton-Edwards says. He advises churches to establish an electronic withdrawal system so people do not have to be in church to give. Or to "consider the possibility of returning to the ancient Christian and earlier Methodist model of collecting an offering in worship specifically for the poor each week, and in connection with Holy Communion, rather than or in addition to a weekly offering for the local and missional expenses of the congregation."

While rising gas prices are challenging daily lives, Burton-Edwards says, United Methodists should "respond with creativity, courage, and joy in the face of the opportunities for witness and service God will open before us in changed circumstances, and not cling fearfully and defensively to all of the ways we have known in our lifetimes until now."

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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