Foreclosed! America's Churches Losing Buildings

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ATLANTA -- America's mortgage crisis is far from over and home owners are not the only ones in the red. Church congregations across the country are losing their properties at an alarming rate.

Higher Ground Empowerment Center is a small church in the heart of Atlanta's Vine City, the neighborhood Martin Luther King, Jr. once called home from 1965 to 1968.

Dexter Johnson grew up in the historic church on Spencer Street. It is the only church he has ever regularly attended, He became its pastor in 1994.

"God has blessed me with a wonderful group of people who love God, love ministry, and love their pastor," Johnson recently told CBN News.

Weathering The Storms

Higher Ground actually began in 1903 as Mount Gilead Baptist Church. But in 2009, the pastor said God moved him and his congregation to change the name to Higher Ground.

The new name marked the church's rise from ruin after a 2008 tornado knocked down its steeple, ripped off its roof, and left the congregation without a sanctuary for more than a year.

"It shook the foundation of our church," Johnson recalled.

But now, a legal storm is threatening to take away that renovated building.

Higher Ground saw its membership decline in the 20 months it was displaced. Giving also decreased as some congregants lost their jobs in the economic downturn. The property value of the church building also dropped, leaving members with a $1 million mortgage for a building valued at much less.

"Originally, we had a $1.1 million loan. We have negotiated down to $600,000. They want their property," Johnson explained. "They want us out. And there is no more negotiating with the bank. They want us out now."

Higher Ground still occupies the building as its lawyers appeal the church's case in Fulton County Superior Court.

Johnson continues to pray for a future for the 108-year-old church.

"One hundred and eight years of history. We don't want to just see it disappear, be lost in foreclosure. We've been standing on God's Word. We are not going anywhere. We are planted on higher ground," he said.

The matter will play out in court in the next 60 to 90 days. It will take a $600,000 miracle to keep the building open.

More Buildings in Foreclosure

It only takes a short drive to find other church buildings with foreclosure notices and locked doors.

Pastor Darryl Winston found his church's belongings dumped in the parking lot last July. His Greater Works Assembly International Church was leasing space in a partnership with the community development agency that owned the building.

Winston said the bank also rejected reasonable offers to purchase the property.

"It's just been for us a major learning curve," said Winston. "And we have spent our energy and time working with other churches. So no other church will have to go through what we've gone through."

"We believed that we were going to be able to work out something with the bank, because we felt at the end of the day the bank wanted money," he said. "They didn't gain by allowing this building to be vacant. We wouldn't gain by being misplaced."

Greater Works members are now meeting in an Atlanta hotel, but they are at work to purchase property that will allow them to continue their expansive ministry to a struggling Southeast Atlanta.

Meanwhile, Winston has also helped Higher Ground and other area churches facing the prospect of foreclosures. More than 100 church buildings are up for sale in metro Atlanta, and about a third of those are foreclosure properties.

Finance Lessons for Preachers

Prudential Realtor Rick Azert is known for his ability to close church building deals in the Atlanta area, which has not been an easy task in recent years.

Azert gave CBN News a tour of a church building that is now up for sale at half of its appraised value.

"No lender wants to be known as the folks that kicked the church out. And I don't blame them," he said. "I would say last year was the worst. It was a complete struggle to get anything done."

The tough church building market has turned the veteran realtor into a bit of a finance teacher for preachers.

"When your financial secretary is somebody who's only financial background is keeping their check book, then you may have some problems," Azert said. "The Lord is in charge and the Lord is going to take over."

"But the Lord said, 'Go get a goal. Go write it down and make a plan on how you can make it happen and run it like a business,'" he told CBN News. "It says that in the Bible. It may not say it that way, but that is what it says."

Selling for More Outreach

Business sense led Rolling Hills Baptist Church to put its building on the market a year ago -- even without the threat of foreclosure.

"We could afford to pay those bills," Pastor Frank Mercer said. "But that was all we could do. So this set us free."

The church was only $150,000 away from paying off its mortgage when Mercer asked his congregation to sell the building and use the proceeds to fund missions work at home and abroad.

As a result, the church is on the road during the week with more than 55 missions projects completed this year. Members meet at a movie theater for Sunday services.

It is a concept Mercer thinks may grow as the number of church foreclosures climbs in Georgia and other states, including California, Michigan, Florida, and Texas.

"I don't necessarily mean that every church should sell their property," Mercer said. "But for us, it would have been a sin not to."

--Originally aired on April 13, 2011

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Efrem Graham is an award-winning journalist, who comes to CBN News from the ABC owned and operated station in Toledo, Ohio.  He received his master's degree from the Columbia University Journalism School. He also holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.  Follow Efrem on Twitter @EfremGraham and "like" him at Facebook.com/EfremGrahamCBN.