MinnEcon indicator: Viewing the recession from the pulpit

Religious leaders have a great vantage point on this economy. They witness the daily joys and struggles of their congregation and do their best to help people through. They may also worry about their own jobs as they minister to others.

We’ve kept tabs the past few months on a few ministers in our Public Insight Network. We asked them recently for some updates on what they’re seeing. Several wrote back, including Evelyn Weston, a minister in southwest Minnesota. In February she told us:

Things don’t seem as bad in rural MN as we hear about in metro areas. I think everyone is waiting for the recession to hit our area, but we’re really not feeling the affects yet — just the anxiety about what may come.

The economy remains pretty resilient in the state’s southwest corner, which has the lowest unemployment in the state. But Evelyn told us last week the worry is out there.

Parishioners definitely are concerned about the economy…One family owns a business that makes super-insulated building materials. Business had been very good, but now the workers hours have been cut to 4-days/week. Lots of interest in getting estimates for building projects, but banks aren’t approving construction loans.

There also is concern about what will happen with farming. As usual, weather factors in; it’s too dry. But costs of inputs were high last fall, fuel costs are rising again, yield and price may be low. Another farm crisis is a possibility. That could have a devastating effect on many rural churches.

We’re responding by keeping our ears to the ground for people who may need financial help. But there is a lot of pride about those kinds of things in rural areas, so we may not hear about it.

Zach Wilson, minister at a suburban Twin Cities church, told us in December that while financial giving to the church was ahead of budget,

Volunteering has actually suffered more than finances. While people in my congregation are not losing their jobs they are working longer hours and have less energy to give both to the internal ministry of the church and the outward social justice ministries of the church. When we have emphasized gathering food for the food shelves or providing presents for families in need the congregation has responded more strongly than ever.

Asked about anything that’s surprised him in the months since the winter, Wilson last week wrote:

The trend toward living away from family has surprised me. People will always do what they have to do but the fact that they actually have to make the drastic choice to live apart from their families for financial reasons illustrates how severe the economic downturn is for some.

That’s a compelling trend. MPR’s Annie Baxter did a story a few weeks ago on the hardship of a spouse or partner leaving town to find work.

Wilson notes his personal financial anxiety centers on how the birth of his second child will affect the family finances.

“My wife and I are both pastors with decent incomes but there is no daycare for the hours we keep and I’m not sure the family help we currently rely upon will be able to fill in the gaping wholes in our childcare schedule — and one of us quitting our jobs is not really a viable financial option. We’ll just have to take it as it comes.”

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We’re on the lookout for interesting or offbeat Minnesota economic trends. What are you seeing on the economy that’s a little different that’s telling you things are improving or worsening?

Click here, shoot us a note and tell us what you’re seeing, then type “MinnEcon Indicator” in the headline box and send it.

Also, check some of the responses below we’ve received recently from Public Insight Network members on money issues.

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