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A lot of churches in this country have found an update to an old saying: The Lord giveth, and the bank taketh away. Lenders foreclosed on about 100 churches last year, which is a big increase from just a few years ago.
NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty looks at why.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: A dozen years ago, Dan Burr and his wife started to worship with a few friends in their son's house in Fontana, California, about 80 miles from Los Angeles. Neighbors began to come; they brought their kids.
Mr. DAN BURR: And it began to grow. Before we knew it, we had a little, viable church.
HAGERTY: Eventually, Crossroads Community Church bought a building of its own -a dilapidated Boy's Club that 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.
Mr. BURR: We were looking at vast tracks of lands, and building family kind of community centers where there was both the church and there was day care, and there was youth centers and all kinds of things. And we were just really going to to do this all. And it was great - and then bam.
HAGERTY: The economic bottom fell out, and members started losing their jobs.
Mr. BURR: First of all, one in 10 - and then one in eight, and then one in six of our wage earners were out of work.
HAGERTY: 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.
Mr. BURR: We built up this building in just blood, sweat and tears. To turn a ratty old piece of land into a gorgeously landscaped thing with - to just walk away from it, that's hard.
Mr. CHRIS MACKE (Senior strategist, CoStar Group): Houses of worship are subject to the same laws of economics as secular real estate.
HAGERTY: Chris Macke is a senior strategist at CoStar Group, which collected the data on church foreclosures. He says they went from a handful five years ago, to about a hundred last year. Most of the distressed churches are in the hardest-hit real estate markets - California, Michigan, 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.
Mr. MACKE: They were making decisions based on what had been happening and seemed reasonable. And unfortunately, the downturn occurred, and it affected them.
HAGERTY: What made the problem acute this time, says Scott Rolfs at Ziegler, an investment banking firm that does church financing, was the easy credit in the mid-2000s.
Mr. SCOTT ROLFS (Managing director, Ziegler): There was a lot of money out there, and just as some home borrowers obtained mortgages that they probably shouldn't have gotten and wouldn't have qualified for under any other historical standards, you had a few churches with some overzealous lenders that ended up in that situation as well.
HAGERTY: But, he says, God is not about to be homeless.
Mr. ROLFS: For 99 percent of the church-going public in America, their church is coming through the recession just fine.
HAGERTY: 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 times. In fact, mega churches, which like large companies have bigger reserves, saw their income increase 3 percent last year.
And for them, this 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.
Ms. VELVA FLOWERS (Chief ministry officer, Triumph Church): 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.
HAGERTY: They're negotiating to buy a church that was foreclosed on, for a song.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
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