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 to find work 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.
"I don't think any of us who were in it have really recovered," Fein says. "The school was 23 years old. I raised my kids there."
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. Houses of worship became centers of support for the unemployed. Some congregants increased donations. 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. "We were hearing lots of stories about people being laid off, struggling financially and losing homes. It's truly amazing."
In the Great Depression, one of the bigger impacts was the loss of Jewish religious schools, which are key to continuing the faith from one generation to the next. Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis University historian and author of "American Judaism," says enrollment in Jewish schools plummeted in some cities and many young Jews of that period didn't have a chance to study their religion.
Today, some parents, regardless of faith, can no longer afford the thousands of dollars in tuition it costs to send a child to a religious day school. Church officials fear these parents won't re-endroll 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. A few schools lost as many as 30 percent of their students. Many of the hundreds of other Jewish day schools, which are affiliated with Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements, are also in a financial crunch.
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.
Overall, U.S. Jewish groups are estimated to have lost about one-quarter of their wealth.
"It's going to be painful," Kramer says. "There will be some losses."
The Association for Christian Schools International, which represents about 3,800 private schools, says enrollment is down nationally by nearly 5 percent. About 200 Christian schools closed or merged in the last academic year, 50 more than the year before.
At least 80 members of the Association of Theological Schools, which represents graduate schools in North America, have seen their endowments drop by 20 percent or more.
The National Catholic Education Association is still measuring the toll on its schools, but expects grim news from the hardest hit states, after years of declining enrollment.
"Some schools that were on the brink — this whole recession has just intensified that," says Karen Ristau, president of the association.
Clergy in different communities say worship attendance has increased with people seeking comfort through difficult times, 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 at all.
Before the stock market tanked last fall, only 19 percent of U.S. congregations described their finances as excellent, down from 31 percent in 2000, 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 operating costs, along with the generosity of an aging membership that had been giving in amounts large enough to mostly make up for departed brethren.
The meltdown destroyed that financial buffer.
The Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church and other mainline denominations were forced to cut jobs and their national budgets.
The damage was felt across Methodist life. As of the summer, more than half of the church's 62 U.S. regional districts, or annual conferences, reported they had budget deficits. Some sold property and buildings to continue their ministries.
Two national Methodist boards cut more than 90 jobs. Fifty bishops took a voluntary pay cut. Annual conferences in hard-hit regions, such as Florida and Ohio, lost thousands of members as people moved to find work elsewhere.
"Many of these groups have such large endowments that they're not going away," Roozen says. "But I think there's no question that they're going to be smaller both as organizations and in membership."
Roman Catholic dioceses for years had been struggling with maintaining their aging churches, paying salaries and health insurance and funding settlements over clergy sex abuse. With the hit to investment income and a drop in donations, they are now freezing salaries, cutting ministries and staff.
The Archdiocese of Detroit, at the heart of the meltdown, had a $14 million shortfall in a $42 million budget in the fiscal year that ended in June 2008.
Conservative Protestant groups, known for their entrepreneurial spirit and evangelizing, were not immune. The 16.2 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant group in the country, has had budget cuts in its North American Mission Board, at least three of its six seminaries and in its publishing and research arm.
Religious leaders say the next year or so will be key in determining which organizations survive the downturn intact. 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.
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