Gene Perry's financial situation didn't change one iota while he was attending church services last Sunday morning, but he still felt a lot better walking out than he had when he walked in. The Rev. Randy Morrison's sermon at Speak the Word Church International in Golden Valley focused on getting the right mind-set to weather the economic downturn.

"It was a reminder: Don't lose sight of your anchor in the midst of a storm," Perry said. "And this is about as much of a storm as we're going to get."

He wasn't the only churchgoer who has been hearing messages about the economy lately. With the financial world in free fall, increasing numbers of people are turning to their faith communities for moral and practical support.

Granted, the latter sometimes seems a bit ironic to the clergy. The Rev. Dave Sheldon of St. David's Episcopal Church in Minnetonka was in a meeting with five other people when they asked if the church could start offering financial advice.

"And I'm thinking, 'What's the deal?'" he said. "I'm the minister in the group. I make less than all of them."

Nonetheless, the churches are scrambling to offer help. Centennial United Methodist Church in Roseville has launched a financial management class taught by an economics teacher who is part of the congregation. With more resources available, Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park has brought in professional advisers to start their Financial University.

"It's proof to me of the importance of the church being part of the larger community," said Bill Nara, who leads the classes at Centennial. "One of the great things a church can do is support people who are on the edge. We have members who have moved here from other towns and don't have any local family support. The church can provide that support. We can be their family."

All for one

Even if a church isn't offering nuts-and-bolts economic advice, the clergy are well aware that their membership is facing economic unease that ranges from mild trepidation to downright fear about the future.

"We're all in this together, and we can work our way out together," Morrison said in an interview before delivering his sermon on how to live in uncertain times. "A lot of people put their faith in [an economic] system that let them down. We have to help them find something solid to stand on. For us, that's scripture. Fish need water, seeds need soil and men need God."

Several members of the clergy said that they are uncomfortable with the notion of offering specific economic advice.

"I don't think that financial advice should be dispensed by religious experts any more than religious advice should be dispensed by financial experts," said Rabbi Hayim Herring, executive director of the Twin Cities-based STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal) program.

The Rev. Leith Anderson from Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie agreed: "Churches need to be churches. We can't be brokers, bankers and financial advisers."

Instead, they said, churches can focus on mitigating their members' anxiety. Several ministers said that they are giving more upbeat sermons and urging music directors to avoid material that is dour or depressing.

"People naturally seek out solid ground when they feel as if their lives are shifting out of control," said the Rev. Scott Anderson from Eagle Brook Church. "The church must function as that place of hope and foundation."

The Rev. Troy Dobbs at Grace Church in Eden Prairie said churches have an opportunity to remind people about keeping things in perspective.

"We all need money to live, but we don't have to fall in love with it," he said. "Remember to be grateful for what you have, even as you mourn over what you've lost."

Looking on the bright side

Churches are notorious for finding silver linings. When folks' retirement accounts are collapsing faster than a day-old soufflé, "admittedly, this is easier said than done," Eagle Brook's Anderson acknowledged. But he reminds people that "it is in times of trouble that we have opportunity to become better than we are now."

One possible benefit is that the slumping economy will force people to reassess their priorities, said Herring, who used one of his Yom Kippur sermons to address the economic crisis.

"The loss of material goods reminds us that life is not about acquisitions," he said. "It's about creating lasting relationships and creating things of lasting value. It makes us re-evaluate what is really important to us in life."

As he left Morrison's sermon on Sunday, Don Wolff said that he was feeling optimistic regardless of what the headlines on the business pages say.

"This gives me hope," he said. "I know that there is something better for me in life than money. And that's peace of mind."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392