To sell or not to sell, a church?

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

The New York Times carried an article, March 31, 2012, about one of three real estate agents in the U.S. who deal exclusively in the sale of church buildings. Reporter Mark Oppenheimer’s story about David and Mary Raphael of Azusa, California, “Building a Business on Churches for Sale”, carried enough fascinating material in it for numerous columns.

According to various real estate data an increasing number of churches are facing foreclosure. Oppenheimer quotes Mr. Raphael: “The members are out of work, they’re not tithing and the churches have gone through their reserves and now they can’t pay the mortgage.” His wife added, “Some church had their buildings paid off, but they needed money for programming, so they took out a mortgage and now they can’t pay it.”

CoStar, a real estate information company, says that 138 church properties were sold by banks in 2012, compared to only 24 in 2008. I’m curious whether this is a comparable trend in South Georgia. I have always heard that banks are happy to lend money to religious institutions because church/synagogue members are very conscientious about paying off a loan. This article makes me wonder if this is still true.

The Raphaels also pointed out that congregations looking to buy a building for a church are rarely interested in the classical, traditional look anymore. They are looking for “the industrial look.”

This should come as no surprise. Yes, some surveys indicate that many young adults are still seeking a church building with stained glass and a pipe organ or at least a church building that looks like a church. Even so, as I informally survey the new churches in the places I’ve served, many of them are now meeting in YMCAs and movie theaters. When they do build a building it is designed to be a multi-functional and high-tech place that appeals to a non-churched population or people who are turned off by traditional church and (presumably) a traditional church building. Fewer are building traditional church buildings.

The Times article was based from Azusa, CA, where the Raphaels indicated that the growth for their business is in immigrant churches. And although that market may be more fertile in Southern California than South Georgia, I suspect that many immigrant groups here are in the market for either an old church building or some retail/commercial space they can convert to a church structure.

Perhaps most interesting was the Raphaels observation that churches are much like private homeowners in that some won’t sell their buildings to just anybody. They mentioned a synagogue who would not sell their building because the buyers wanted to turn it into a mosque and a Christian group that would not sell their church to Buddhists. People have many memories invested in their homes and church buildings. But in the final analysis the bricks and mortar is not what we worship. At least it’s not supposed to be that way.

Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at creede@wesleymonumental.org.