In times like these, more people are going to church for help

Pleas for help - spiritual and financial - are flooding U.S. churches, from tiny congregations to megachurches, as recession woes seep into the pews, a new survey finds.

Pastors say they're giving out benevolent funds in record numbers, increasing ministries to the unemployed and the financially fearful, even reaching into their own pockets more to help.

Nearly two in three pastors (62%) report more people from outside their church asking for help, and nearly a third (31%) see more such requests from church members, according to a survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors.

The survey, by LifeWay Research, a Christian polling firm based in Nashville, finds that 40% of pastors say they have church members out of work, and 37% say their church has increased spending to help the needy. (The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.)

The Rev. Bill Ankerberg has seen it all at his Whittier Area Community Church, east of Los Angeles. The church gave more financial aid to folks in one month, $26,000 from the benevolent fund, than it was asked to give in all of 1996, the year he came to Whittier, he says.

Like 27% of pastors in the survey, Ankerberg has given personally, too.

Last weekend, 1,100 of the Whittier Area church's 1,800 adult members were signed up to help with more than 112 service projects in area schools, hospitals, homeless shelters and other public sites.

First Family Church in Overland Park, Kan., called all 5,000 members to tell them about a special February Sunday worship service where people who had lost their jobs could come to be anointed with oil by senior pastor Jerry Johnston and his son, Jeremy, the executive pastor.

"We had 2,000 people, the largest worship service turnout of the year," says the Rev. Jeremy Johnston. "The worship team led the prayers while my dad and I stood in the aisles, and one after another people came forward to be anointed and for prayer. It brought me to tears."

First Family also has added ministries to support the unemployed, and next month will hold a baby shower for new mothers from 17 shelters in Kansas City.

"We're going through money a lot faster in terms of helping people with utility bills and shut-offs, and we're seeing people we have never seen before seek help," says the Rev. Larry Klinker of historic Zion Lutheran Church in New Middletown, Ohio, where nearly 140 worship on Sundays.

Zion is a distribution site for the Salvation Army, which once gave Zion $5,000 to distribute each year but now has cut back to $3,500.

"I spend more time on counseling now. The difference I see between now and other hard times," says Klinker, who has spent 27 years at Zion, "is that it's more pervasive, and there's a sense of no end in sight."

By Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY