January 31, 2011
Church Mortgages and Foreclosures
— Martin E. Marty
“Churches Find End Is Nigh” is the kind of headline which should produce ennui. One expects to read under it of the 1900th annual prediction of the end of the world. But, read on: the subhead portends an article on “Ends” which are current and real: “The Number of Religious Facilities Unable to Pay Their Mortgage is Surging.” A visit to Google will turn up scores of church foreclosure stories which deserve attention.
Attention is what churches get when their stories deal not with Incarnation, Trinity, Resurrection, or Atonement, but with Finances or Sex. Sightings notices what we call “public religion” or “religion-in-public,” often beyond the sanctuary. But in matters of money, the sanctuary and the public world meet. A Chicago Tribune article spoke of faith and the “mountain of bills,” as John Keilman circled and then zeroed in on the Lighthouse Community Church in Elgin, Illinois, which the Reverend Steve Robledo invented and now sees falling. The church “can’t afford to pay the $3,100 rent or fix maintenance problems” in the former Grace United Methodist Church which Rev. Robledo bought with two businessmen after he had a vision that God wanted him to start a church in it.
Keilman writes, “Reuters found that church foreclosures have tripled since the recession began in 2007.” In the Elgin story we learn that Robledo’s “nondenominational congregation is a fraction of its 200-member peak, diminished by the recession” and, no surprise, stressed as it is by “an internal schism.” A 200-peak? The megachurches could house such a gathering in a broom closet, were their finance people not busy scouring their own closets for overlooked funds as “a mountain of bills” piles up for them and, for some, “the end is nigh.”
All this is public because the public can understand mortgage foreclosures better than they can “get” Transubstantiation. Sneerers enjoy Schadenfreude, rejoicing in others’ misfortunes. Empathic humans, in churches or not, look deeper and find reason to mourn. Financial counselors at the big places run for cover after their counsel led congregations to overreach and under-support. Reformers use the moment to urge caution, reappraisal, more careful planning, and, in some cases, less hubris. Let’s admit it, folks, some of the mega-building is ego-driven and not only Spirit-inspired.
One reads of little Lighthouse buildings or Crystal Cathedrals, which share the experience of bankruptcy. Shelly Banjo reports in the Wall Street Journal that since 2008 about 200 religious facilities had been foreclosed, “up from eight during the previous two years and virtually none in the decade before that.” As for the future, expert Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, says “Churches are the next wave in this economic crisis.” PUSH signals work with African-American churches, many of which are over-committed, under-funded, and seeing that “the End is Nigh.”
Some of the problems are the result of Fate—the financial crisis—and others of Folly. But let’s grant the point that many are inspired by Faith, which is now being tested. In the Gospel of Luke (read 14:28-30, which is as current as the WSJ), Jesus warns of builders who do not “count the cost,” who fail, and get ridiculed. For some of the sign-carrying “End is Nigh” people, there is another admonition: “Repent: There Still is Time.” Maybe.
Shelly Banjo, “Churches Find End Is Nigh: The Number of Religious Facilities Unable to Pay Their Mortgage is Surging,” Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2011.
John Keilman, “In God he trusts, but pastor needs cash for church,” Chicago Tribune, January 23, 2011.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.