12:01am

Mon January 31, 2011
Religion

Church Foreclosures: Hard Times For God's Work

The Lord giveth and the bank taketh away — at least, that is what a lot of churches have found recently. Lenders foreclosed on about 100 churches last year, an enormous increase from just a few years ago.

It suggests even doing God's work does not always keep the creditors away.

For Dan Burr, the road to losing his church last year began with the greatest of hopes. Twelve years ago, Burr and his wife started to worship with a few friends in their son's house in Fontana, Calif., a community about 80 miles East of Los Angeles. Neighbors began to come to the service. They brought their kids.

"And it began to grow, and before we knew it we had a little viable church," Burr recalls.

Eventually Crossroads Community Church bought a building of its own — a dilapidated Boy's Club that church members fixed up themselves. Those were the glory days. Fontana was one of the fastest growing cities in the country, church attendance was booming and Burr began to make big plans.

"We were looking at [buying] vast tracks of land, building family community centers, day care and youth centers," he says, his voice brimming with enthusiasm. "We were going to really going to do this! It was great — and then BAM!"

The economic bottom fell out, and members started losing their jobs.

"First, one in 10, then one in eight, then one in six of our wage earners was out of work. They just couldn't find work," Burr says.

Church offerings dropped 20 to 25 percent. The church cut staff, trimmed programs to the bone, but finally, it simply couldn't pay the mortgage. A year ago, it gave the building back to the bank. Now members are renting it until the bank finds a buyer and Crossroads is starting over.

"We built up this building — just blood sweat and tears — to turn a ratty piece of land into a gorgeously landscaped thing," Burr says. "And to just walk away from it — that's hard."

Burr got a taste of the hard economics of God's work, says Chris Macke, a senior strategist at CoStar Group, which conducts research on real estate.

"Unfortunately, houses of worship are subject to the same laws of economics as secular real estate," Macke says.

CoStar collected data on church foreclosures and found an "exponential" rise, Macke says: from a handful five years ago to about 100 last year. Most of the distressed churches are in the hardest hit real estate markets, such as California, Michigan and Florida. Macke says churches were whacked by the same crosscurrents that flattened stores and other companies. Just as unemployed people resist buying new clothes or dining out, they put less in their church's offering plate. Add to that what Macke calls "recency bias:" Churches had made plans and added debt in the flush years, believing the good times would continue to roll indefinitely.

"They were making decisions based on what had been happening and seemed reasonable, and unfortunately the downturn occurred and affected them," he says.

What made the problem more acute this time, says Scott Rolfs at Ziegler, an investment banking firm that does church financing, was the easy credit in the mid-2000s.

"There was a lot of money out there," he says, "and just as some home borrowers obtained mortgages that they probably shouldn't have gotten and wouldn't have qualified for under historical standards, you had a few churches with some overzealous lenders that ended up in that situation as well."

But Rolfs says God is not about to be homeless.

"For 99 percent of the church-going public in America, their church is coming through the recession just fine," he says.

After all, there are more than 300,000 houses of worship in the U.S., so a few dozen foreclosures does not spell the End of Times. In fact, megachurches, which like large companies have bigger reserves, saw their income increase three percent last year.

And for them, now is the time for a deal. Consider Triumph Church, a 10,000-member congregation in Detroit. Chief Ministry Officer Velva Flowers says a lot of their members worked for the auto industry and had to cut their offerings. But the church tightened its belt and drew new members, and those new members made up for the decline. Now, she says the depressed market is working in their favor.

"I believe because we have been cautious in all our spending that we were able to take advantage of some opportunities that became available based upon the economic plight," Flowers says.

Triumph is negotiating to buy a church that was foreclosed on — for a song. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.