It always startles me to see a church building get bought or sold.
“Hey, wait, that’s a church!” I think, before realizing: Of course. Churches come and go.
Just not in my personal experience. I grew up in a church founded in 1890, First Baptist in Muldrow, worshiping in a building constructed in, I think, 1961.
In Texas, I attended a church founded in 1881, First United Methodist in Wichita Falls, in a building constructed in 1931.
In Oklahoma City, I joined a church founded and built in the 1950s, Mayflower Congregational-United Church of Christ.
And now, I’m pastor of a church founded in 1894, Carrier Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ, with a building constructed in 1928.
They are steady as they go, propertywise, building and rebuilding or adding on pretty much in the same place.
The idea of a church building becoming used for something else came hard to me for a long time, just because of my upbringing and personal experience.
I remember being mortified to learn that a former Episcopal church turned nightclub (!) on Classen Boulevard had been considered a public nuisance (!!) — and hey, I deny that I am now or have ever been a prude.
But the churches, if they have life, sometimes they pack up and go for the same reasons people do.
Bradley R. Carter spelled it out in property terms, not pious language, late last year in an article, “The Valuation of Houses of Worship During Prolonged Periods of High Unemployment,” in Real Estate Issues, published by The Counselors of Real Estate, based in Chicago.
Carter, a principal of Greystone Valuation Services Inc. in Atlanta, goes into different property characteristics and architectural features of former churches, such as layout, size-to-seating ratio, land-to-building ratio, floor plan and design — and how each is considered in adaptive reuse.
But it was the three basic reasons church buildings are bought and sold, as outlined by Carter, that got my attention — and got to me a little because when I think “church” I think “people” before I think “building.”
Moving up: “Historically, religious service properties were often sold as congregations grew and required more space. The seller would vacate the property in favor of something larger and sell to a smaller congregation that was also expanding, much in the way that families have traditionally begun with starter homes and ‘traded up.’”
Boy, that is history, for the most part. Ministers I know would love the pews to be so crowded.
Moving out: “Unlike the housing market, though, another reason that houses of worship often sell their properties is the result of a scandal that causes a sudden drop in membership and makes meeting occupancy costs unsustainable. There are numerous examples of pastors and other key leaders found to have engaged in inappropriate or even illegal activity, and the congregation’s financial resources often plummet in a way that no one had envisioned.”
Yep. Sin might not stigmatize a property, but it can sure send it to the market prematurely.
Being asked to leave: “Not long ago, the real estate owned (REO) department at most banks was a small room that was hard to find and seldom talked about. That lenders sometimes took back properties was not something they liked discussed, and foreclosing on a religious service property was something on the order of public relations suicide. Those days are gone, and are unlikely to return soon. In many markets, lenders are the most common profile of seller. And in this regard, houses of worship are no longer considered sacred.”
And the people said?
It might help to remember this little ditty: “Here’s the church (hands folded, fingers intertwined). Here’s the steeple (point index fingers up, together). Open the doors and see all the people (turn hands over and wiggle fingers).”
Churches are people. People buy and sell property. I’m startled mainly as a part-time occupational hazard as a part-time pastor. As a real estate journalist, I did get over it.