Call it trading sacred spaces.
Two churches recently swapped properties in a land transaction that representatives of both sides have dubbed “a God thing.”
Grace Church, a nondenominational congregation of about 400, traded its two buildings at 1701 N Westminster in Nicoma Park and six acres of land on NE 23 to a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation with Sunday attendance of 100. In exchange, the smaller congregation, now called Nicoma Park Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), gave Grace Church its building and 13 acres at 100 S Choctaw Road in Choctaw.
The church swap took about two years — if one takes into account the initial discussions between the two churches. But church leaders said the exchange idea was put on the back burner until January, when momentum to see the plan come to fruition kicked in.
The clergymen who lead the churches as well as the church members who helped guide the transaction said the swap could not have happened without divine intervention.
“I think this is a huge kingdom thing — you have churches helping each other,” said the Rev. Steve Eden, Grace Church's senior pastor.
The Rev. Chris Muse, senior pastor of Nicoma Park Christian Church, agreed.
“This kind of stuff doesn't happen normally, and that's kind of a shame,” Muse said. “‘How could you let those people have your building?' — I get that from people all the time. We'll, it's not my building. It's God's building.”
Members of both congregations began loading up moving boxes after their respective church services on May 20.
Thomas McMillan, a lay leader at Nicoma Park Christian Church, said the churches closed on the property swap May 21, and the move began in earnest May 22.
The churches are a little more than five miles from each other.
Leaders with both churches said the moves went surprisingly smooth, something they also attribute to the Lord. A group of adults and youths from Grace Church formed a team to help members of their smaller counterpart make the transition, and the Nicoma Park church leaders said they were grateful for the assistance.
Perhaps the most complex part of the swap was the maneuvering that had to take place before the actual move, leaders said.
McMillan said he retired from a management position at Tinker Air Force Base and has experience in production and logistics. He said he thought his experience would help him through the exchange process, but he became frustrated at one point.
“There were things that I couldn't make happen,” McMillan said of all bank paperwork, appraisals and other issues that arose with the swap. He said an elder at the church reminded him that he was aiding “God's work” and, because of that, “God is making this happen.”
Muse at Nicoma Park Christian Church said members of his church were ambivalent about a swap two years ago when the subject first was broached. (People at both churches said the idea was proposed by the other church, which could be a sign nobody really remembers or cares how it came about now that it's been deemed a success.)
Muse said his congregation, which called itself Faith Community Christian Church at the Choctaw location, had moved into the 15,000-square-foot building there in 2001. He said the congregation had paid about $1.2 million for the building and property and had paid about half of that amount in mortgage payments.
“We had designed the building from scratch, and there was a lot of ownership there. You don't want to give up your dream house,” he said.
Facing reality, opportunity
But McMillan said the congregation's membership decreased. Jennifer Crowel, another lay leader at the church, said the smaller congregation had trouble paying the big mortgage that came with the Choctaw property. As she looked at the church's smaller facility in Nicoma Park, Crowel said the swap made perfect sense.
“We got out from under a huge mortgage, and we can use that money for church activities rather than pay the bank,” she said.
At Grace Church, leaders said they saved time and money by moving forward with the swap.
Grace Church's pastor Eden said his congregation had raised money to buy land on NE 23 because they were quickly outgrowing their church building and an adjacent family life center totaling about 7,000 square feet. Eden said the Nicoma Park sanctuary seats about 160, and the church's two services and a Wednesday night youth service were becoming overcrowded.
The new Grace Church sanctuary in Choctaw seats about 260, which Eden said will allow the church to continue its growth trajectory. He said Grace Church attendance at the Choctaw location had been about 300 but that attendance since the move had inched toward 400.
Gretchen Cannon, Grace Church's finance administrator, said the larger church could not have done the swap two years ago. She said once Grace Church paid off the land debt, it was free to take over payments for the larger facility in Choctaw.
“We couldn't have done it financially two and a half years ago. There was just no way — but God,” Cannon said.
Eden explained further.
He said the Lord told him that the land on NE 23 would be “provision” for his growing church. He said just two days after the church paid off the property on NE 23, the Nicoma Park church reopened the discussion about the property exchange, expressing keen interest in the NE 23 property, which would allow them the possibility to build at a later date.
“This is really allowing us to do what we did over there in a bigger area. It saved us time, money and effort,” Eden said.
“The good feelings that existed through all of this when we did the final walk through was amazing. Two churches were blessed.”
McMillan added, “God was in charge of all of that because it wouldn't have happened otherwise.”