During the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, grueling choices confront church leaders in places like Granger, Indiana, where the unemployment rate has approached 20 percent.

Take Granger Community Church, a megachurch* with 60 staff members. With its annual revenue down a half-million dollars since 2006, the church found itself with little choice but to eliminate eight positions and cut the weekly hours of fifteen additional employees, said executive pastor Tim Stevens.

"This was very painful and difficult, since we attend church with these same people and their families," Stevens said.

Making the predicament more difficult is that the Granger congregation, like most churches and many nonprofit ministries nationwide, does not pay unemployment taxes. The exemption for these religious organizations means that laid-off staff generally do not qualify for unemployment benefits.

Exceptions might include an employee who worked for a for-profit company within the past five years or served with a ministry that carries unemployment insurance through a private company, said Patty Edwards Shaver, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based career planning and employment specialist.

Twenty percent of 800 church leaders who responded to an online survey by the Texas-based National Association of Church Business Administration reported in February that they had laid off staff.

Especially harsh for many losing their jobs: Church and nonprofit employees often earn less than their for-profit counterparts, a sacrifice they make to serve what they see as a higher calling, ministry leaders acknowledged.

But in tough times, should the church or ministry reciprocate that dedication to the cause by keeping staff employed?

"A ministry's mission is ...

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May 2009

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