September 24, 2010; Source: New York Times | There’s no doubt the recession is creating a big hole in collection plates at churches and synagogues across the nation. In some communities the dip in donations is so severe that places of worship have laid off staff and sold property. To make up for its weekly shortlfall, one church runs a sidewalk flea market. And, yes, while the economic slump is contributing to a major drop in giving, religious institutions are facing a much more serious problem, and one that the recession is only exacerbating.

As the New York Times reports, “Well before the subprime mortgage crisis threw the economy into a tailspin, warning signs for religious giving were present. A 2007 study by three professors at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis found that baby boomers in 2000 were donating about 10 percent less to religious bodies than their parents’ generation did at a comparable age in 1973—and almost 25 percent less than those parents, by then ages 62 to 76, were donating in 2000.”

The reasons baby boomers feel less inclined to give is because many don’t feel as connected to their churches and synagogues as their parents. It’s wrong to look at this as a money problem,” said Mark Ottoni-Wilhelm, a professor of economics at Indiana-Purdue, and a co-author of the university’s 2007 study. “The drop in giving follows the involvement pattern. Because people aren’t as involved, the giving pattern traces it.”

Rabbi Gerald L. Zelizer, of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, N.J. worries about the long-term implications of what he calls the “growing disinterest in organized religion.” He’s not convinced that giving will automatically rebound after the economic picture brightens. He warns that congregations will have to “work harder to overcome this. The mountain is steeper.”—Bruce Trachtenberg