Foreclosing on God
Some churches that grew aggressively are losing their buildings, and are forced to double up
The red brick St. Andrews Anglican Church in wealthy Easton, Md., was known for its open door. It hosted family movie nights, and weekend spaghetti dinners. Most people had no idea anything was amiss, until the bank took the key, and the church building was foreclosed and sold at auction.
In a growing trend, St. Andrews will now share space with another house of worship: the Temple B’nai Israel.
“The interesting thing about the recession is that the rich have become poor,” said the Right Rev. Joel Marcus Johnson, Bishop of the Diocese of The Chesapeake, and as rector of St. Andrew’s, leader of the church. “In the Bible it said, ‘the rich are empty sent away,’ which I never understood until now.”
As the recession plows through industries, towns and homes, leaving in its wake rising unemployment, foreclosure and helplessness, one place seemed to be a sanctuary: the local house of worship. But in this climate, even the traditional helpers are in need of assistance, as a small but growing number of churches have reached the end of their financial line.
The effects of an ailing Wall Street on Main Street and a drastic drop in donations added to demographic shifts already in progress.
“We’ve had more foreclosures in the past 18 months than in all of our previous 44 years,” said Jac La Tour, a spokesman for Evangelical Christian Credit Union in Brea, Calif. The credit union holds mortgages for more than half of its 2,000 evangelical clients. It had to foreclose on two in 2007, and seven in 2008.
He hopes for fewer foreclosures this year.
“I would guess a couple, but I say that with caution,” La Tour said. “A year ago we would never have thought we would have as many as we did.”
Most of America’s 335,000 houses of worship are well-established, and paid off their building costs years ago. But over the past decade, Americans were in a buy, build and expand mood — and religious leaders were no exception. Most mortgages are for expansions and additions, said La Tour.
La Tour said his company builds a relationship with a potential client, and factors leadership in high when making lending decisions.
Bishop Johnson admitted that his reach exceeded his grasp.
“I don’t know if this has made me a better businessman, but it has added failure to my resume,” he said.
Local Talbot Bank, the lender, had been so confident in the church, and in Bishop Johnson’s leadership, that it made a three-year $950,000 loan.
“We live in a wealthy area,” Bishop Johnson said, of the surrounding Talbot County. “Dick Cheney lives here, Don Rumsfeld, many retired academics. Our fundraising was so successful and our congregation had such élan that 80 percent of our pledges were from non-members.”
Then in 2008, the phone calls demurring on pledges started coming in: stock portfolios were down; this or that promised donation would need to wait.
The rescinded pledges hit hard – but it’s the absence of the smaller amounts that many congregations feel most. Across the country, religious leaders talk of a 15 to 20 percent contribution decline – which means cutting back on ministries and programs.
Some Christian leaders have turned to religious financial ideology to guide them. The leaders of the Crown Financial Ministry of Atlanta, Ga. recommend taking a “what would Jesus do?’ approach.
“It starts with the reality that everything belongs to God, all the bells and whistles and gadgets,” said Tom Bary, pastor of the Neptune Baptist Church in Neptune Beach, Fla., who hosted a four-week Crown seminar at his church.
“I was at first surprised how much the Bible speaks about money; money is mentioned a lot,” Bary said. “The Crown curriculum teaches us to be free from installation debt that depreciates.”
Neptune has 1,500 members, and 13 full-time staff, including five full-time ministers and a part-time pastor who gives services in Spanish. Some programs were discontinued, and plans for expansion put on hold, in order to stave off staff layoffs.
Foresight plays a role in many church survival stories, as does consolidation, especially among Catholic churches. Many large urban dioceses have closed churches and schools, and sold buildings, in recent years. While suburban Catholic membership is healthy, many inner-city churches have been shuttered.
“You see empty churches, not necessarily foreclosed, but for sale,” said Maureen Woods, a Boston-area real estate paralegal.
Kelly Ann Kowalski, director of the anti-hunger organization Food for All, in Buffalo, N.Y., has noticed similar changes.
“The diocese [of Buffalo] did some long-term planning and began to consolidate,” she said. Five Buffalo churches closed, and folded into one, St. Claire’s, she said.
As St. Andrews in Maryland now conducts services in a Jewish temple, Kowalski sees cross-denominational consolidation in Buffalo.
“One day a church has the Presbyterians,” she said, “and the next day it’s an AME.”