MAHONING VALLEY Association's reserves shrinking

The MVAC started in 1916 to promote evangelism.
YOUNGSTOWN -- The Mahoning Valley Association of Churches is coming to a financial and ministerial crossroads.
The association's financial reserves are dwindling, and it must either raise more money, cut back its operations or find some other ministry.
Financially, "This is not a surprise," said Elsie Dursi, the association's executive director.
The association has been spending about $50,000 a year in recent years from its endowment fund to maintain operations. Its budget for 2001 is $113,000.
In a column in The Vindicator, Dursi has suggested that people give some or all of their federal income tax rebates to the association. And some money is coming in, she said.
The association that works in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties was formed in 1916 as the Federated Churches of Youngstown. Its creation as an evangelistic effort came after services conducted by Billy Sunday six years earlier attracted 10 percent of Youngstown's population.
Change: The association has shifted its ministry as times have changed.
Its current mission statement says it seeks "to bring about the realm of God on earth" and that the association values diversity, racial harmony, justice and reconciliation in the church.
The MVAC of churches is a local agency that exists to help local churches, said Dursi.
Still, she acknowledged, "It could be that this kind of ministry is over."
And maybe not.
The bad news is that more than half of the MVAC's budget this year comes from its reserves and grants.
The association is tied to mainline churches that have seen their membership plunge while nondenominational congregations flourished. About $23,000 comes from congregational pledges as well as funding from the diocesan level of the Presbyterian, United Methodist Lutheran and Episcopal churches.
The catch is that in return for that funding, the association doesn't directly ask the local churches for more money.
And many churches, Dursi said, are generally in a financial squeeze. The roof leaks or the furnace breaks down or the heating bill goes up.
"It's always something," Dursi said.
Pastors also move up through denominational programs and activities, such as writing or teaching, and have little to gain being involved in interdenominational or interfaith groups like the association, Dursi said.
And while association has been involved in cutting-edge ministries throughout its history, other groups have emerged in recent years.
Involvement: MVAC has been heavily involved in interfaith and dialogues between black and white pastors. The Greater Youngstown Coalition of Christians has been involved in creating the state's largest charter school in the last few years, building homes in Youngstown and providing health care and other programs that link suburban and urban churches. And the Alliance for Congregational Transformation and Influencing Our Neighborhoods has linked urban and suburban churches to work on key issues, such as corruption, economic development and Youngstown's troubled schools.
The association has helped create a number of ministries that have become separate entities serving the community.
They include Interfaith Home Maintenance, Volunteer Service to Seniors, Second Harvest Food Bank and the AIDS Task Force.
The association also created a prison ministry after the construction of correctional facilities in the Valley and has lately promoted becoming aware of global warming as part of spiritual stewardship of natural resources.
Dursi was among Valley residents who traveled to a program in Palermo, Sicily, to learn how people there taught children to avoid decades of mob rule.
Other ministries include involvement in the Schaff Lectures, Martin Luther King observances, an annual interfaith breakfast and the CROP Walk for charity.
There have been discussions within the religious community to get feedback on the association, and there will be more discussions in the future.
"We're here to help the community," Dursi said. "I believe there is more need than ever."

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