Neal St. Anthony
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The business of mainstream religion is in recession, as the Star Tribune has reported this year.

Churches close and congregations go without ministers.

Baptisms among Minnesota Catholics and members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Minnesota’s largest Protestant denomination, have plunged about 40 percent since 2000. A record one in five Americans now reports no membership to organized religion.

However, the decline in traditional faith isn’t reflected in the performance of Wisconsin-based Church Mutual Insurance Co., the No. 1 underwriter of Minnesota-based religious businesses.

“We have 40 percent of the houses of worship in Minnesota, including storefront mosques and church-affiliated businesses,” said chief executive Richard Poirier. “This company started in the back office of a bar in Merrill, Wis., by two Lutheran ministers. The wood stoves sometimes burned down wood churches. Those two ministries still exist 121 years later.”

Church Mutual, with 1,350 U.S. employees, including 750 in Merrill and a growing contingent in Minnesota, has proved adaptable to changing times.

“We’ve grown by insuring thousands of mosques and Buddhist temples,” Poirier said of the emerging faiths locally, including storefront and other evangelical Christian congregations.

“We run an inclusive tent here,” Poirier said. “If you follow immigration and demographics … Hispanics and African-American and Africans, such as Somalis; their participation in religion is stable to growing. Their ministries are the center of civil and human rights activity. The center of that community has long rested with the pastor, the church.

“Also, as the country has peeled back some of the social safety net for the poor, the working poor in Merrill or Wausau, or Chicago, the churches and nonprofits are feeding a lot of kids. The churches are in the forefront of immigration and sanctuaries and shelters. And we work a lot with Catholic communities. The Hispanics are keeping the Catholic numbers robust. The immigrants turn to their church.”

Moreover, as the “traditional brands” of Christian congregations have declined, there’s been growth of new, mostly conservative and evangelical churches that have brought additional business, Poirier said.

Church Mutual has weathered the storm, including climate-related catastrophes of floods and fires that Poirier said have challenged the company.

The policyholder-owned company last year wrote a record amount of premium, $761.9 million. However, profit was off, down to $42.7 million.

Violent incidents also have risen the last couple years. That coarse political rhetoric about immigrants hasn’t helped.

“It pains me whenever there is a negative incident in the world involving a Muslim, because it seems we will then have a hate crime against one of our mosques [in the United States],” Poirier said. “There was an incident with a Muslim in London and somebody tries to bomb a storefront mosque in Texas.

“It’s been mostly in the South, Texas, and huge urban centers. Minneapolis and Minnesota have embraced diversity more than some other places.”

In a statement describing 2017, Poirier said: “Continued financial strength, combined with our focus on the greater good, gives us the ability to be there for our customers when they need us most. From wildfires and hurricanes to senseless violence, our customers faced bigger challenges this year …”

Yet the largest killing sprees in recent years have been committed by white men with guns.

That included disgruntled amateur gambler Stephen Craig Paddock, who killed 58 people and wounded more than 500 others, firing guns modified to mimic automatic rifles at concert attendees from a hotel window in Las Vegas.

And Devin Patrick Kelley, an Air Force washout, who walked into a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and slaughtered 26.

“That’s the world we live in,” said Poirier, 56, also an attorney and 24-year Navy veteran. “Ironically, Sutherland Springs Baptist was advancing a PTSD ministry for veterans. And one of their own turned on them.”

That ministry is led by Frank Pomeroy, a retired Navy SEAL. His ministry takes in the disenfranchised. He lost his daughter in the shooting. He is not deterred. His ministry is rebuilding and growing.”

Poirier said the Twin Cities metro area is his fastest-growing employment center, thanks to bright, young college graduates.

“These kids are well prepared and have a passion for service,” he said. “It’s been a boon to this company.

“Account managers, claims people, risk-control specialists … some of them like to work from home. We’re a national carrier and we go where the talent wants to be.”

One of Poirier’s kids lives in Minneapolis and works in the insurance trade.

“It would take a ton of dynamite to get her out of there,” Poirier quipped.

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.