As US unemployment spreads, a number of American religious leaders are trying to understand the economic forces effecting their congregations.
In a series of 34 conferences held around the country this year, Economic Education for Clergy Inc. plans to help church ministers understand economics so that they can provide ''advice and counsel for their congregations,'' according to Pat O'Rourke, vice-president of the Washington-based group.
The clergy's interest in economics has been growing each year. Only five years ago, Mr. O'Rourke says, his organization hosted 17 conferences, half of today's total. Also, four US seminaries now offer economics courses as electives , and Mr. O'Rourke says another 10 are considering it.
Support for Mr. O'Rourke's organization comes from a large roster of blue-chip companies, ranging from American Telephone & Telegraph Company to Exxon Corporation. Labor organizations and charitable foundations are also major sponsors. Last year Mr. O'Rourke's organization raised a total of $267,205 to fund the conferences and itself.
At a recent three-day economics conference held at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, about 30 ministers from various denominations listened to economists, businessmen, and labor leaders who either explained, defended, or criticized Reagonomics.
''The way I see it,'' says Rev. Harry Hull, a Methodist minister from Westmoreland County in western Pennsylvania, ''the church has to interpret the world . . . and when you have all the unemployment and dislocations, you have to wonder: 'Is there a better way?' ''
Cosponsored by Mr. O'Rourke's organization and the Duquesne University Center for Economic Education, the Pittsburgh sessions included a lecture on the goals and objectives of the American economic system, a lecture on inflation, and one on international business. Keynesian economists were interspersed with disciples of Milton Friedman. In a more familiar session, the clerics listened to the president of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary discuss business ethics.
The Rev. Theodore I. Pollard of the Cornerstone Baptist Church in Pittsburgh says his church has a lot of older citizens whose employers are either close to going out of business or have actually gone under. ''Yet they still have time left on their mortgage notes,'' he comments, ''and they turn to the church for answers.''
The Rev. Wesley E. Blaha of the Monroeville United Methodist Church says he came to the conference both out of personal interest and ''so that he could feel comfortable,'' when dealing with the problems of the business people in his congregation.
As a former businessman, Mr. Blaha says the conference helps him ''state things in terms the business people in my congregation are familiar with.'' He also wants some insight on the economy since people who lose their jobs often ask him, ''Is God mad at me?'' He says he can tell his parishioner, ''There are rational forces at work, you are not being picked on.''
For the Rev. Robert Humes of the Unity, Pa., United Presbyterian Church, the economics conferences ''help to bring me back down to earth.
''Indirectly,'' he says, ''it gets me back to my congregation.''
For some of the participants, the conferences allow for direct involvement. For example, when Edmund Ayoub, assistant to the president of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) addressed the clergy, the Rev. Lawrence Stebler, a Roman Catholic priest from St. Stephen's Rectory in Pittsburgh, told him in heated terms that he felt the USWA leadership was ''arrogant.'' Fr. Stebler told Mr. Ayoub about 1,500 steelworkers jobs had been lost in his neighborhood, and he complained that the international union was not helping the out-of-work men.