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Archive for Sunday, March 15, 2009

Boom-year borrowing catches up to struggling churches

The halted construction project for the new Metropolitan Baptist Church stands behind fences Feb. 20 in Largo, Md.

The halted construction project for the new Metropolitan Baptist Church stands behind fences Feb. 20 in Largo, Md.

March 15, 2009

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Metropolitan Baptist Church was bursting out of its home.

From a group of freed slaves in Civil War-era Washington, Metropolitan Baptist had grown into a modern-day megachurch and community service powerhouse.

In 2006, construction began on the congregation’s dream complex in Largo, Md. — a $30 million campus with a 3,000-seat church, an education center and an 1,100-car parking lot.

Last year, the congregation sold its church in Washington. Preparations began for the move to what leaders had taken to calling “God’s land in Largo.”

But on Oct. 20, their plans were abruptly put on hold.

The Rev. H. Beecher Hicks learned that financing for the project had dried up. Construction stopped. And the congregation found that it was homeless — reduced to renting space and struggling to find new financing.

Add houses of worship to the list of casualties of the mortgage crisis.

Foreclosures and delinquencies for congregations are rising, according to companies that specialize in church mortgages. With credit scarce, church construction sites have gone quiet, holding shells of sanctuaries that were meant to be completed months ago.

Congregants have less money to give, and pastors who stretched to buy property in the boom are struggling to hold onto their churches.

“The economy has dramatically changed over the last year to 18 months in a way that very few, if any, had expected,” said John Stoffel, administrative pastor at Seabreeze Church in Huntington, Calif.

Seabreeze spent about $12 million on a new complex that was completed in 2007. But a drop in donations, partly due to a rift between the pastor and some church members, forced the church to renegotiate for an interest-only mortgage. Stoffel said Seabreeze hasn’t missed a payment, yet the mortgage is far from the church’s only debt.

The church also owes $1.2 million — due this year — on bonds that helped finance the project, and must repay a $200,000 loan that a couple took out on their house to help Seabreeze cover its costs.

It’s hard to quantify just how many churches are at risk.

Foreclosure records are scattered throughout county offices nationwide. Completing a foreclosure takes months or longer, so it’s too soon for many failures to show up on a company’s books. In financially stressed churches, clergy are often reluctant to discuss their plight.

They don’t want to alarm their congregants, and they fear that any complaints about their dealings with banks will backfire.

“Right now, when you’re at the mercy of the lenders, you don’t want to look like you’re coming out against them,” said Bishop Eugene Reeves of New Life Anointed Ministries International in Woodbridge, Va.

The 3,500-member Pentecostal church near Washington needs a couple of million dollars to finish its new $19 million complex. Construction stopped last spring when New Life’s lender said it would make no new loans to the church, Reeves said.

“We now have children who don’t have classrooms to get into, adults who have to go to an overflow room,” Reeves said. “We have parking issues. We don’t have enough spaces for cars.”

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