How to buy and sell a church

Buying or selling a place of worship is a lot like buying or selling a home — it has to be the right fit, as some Columbia congregations have learned.
Friday, June 6, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 3:09 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Ten years ago, members of the Unity Center congregation in Columbia gathered together in the courtyard in front of the building at 1600 W. Broadway to bless their new church home, a building that had previously been used by Community United Methodist Church.

Having moved four times since their founding in 1983, the church members sang songs and blessed the place that would become a more permanent home.

“There weren’t enough people to gather around the entire building, but it was the concept of surrounding the building with our love and blessing,” said Gary Smith, fine arts director and office administrator at Unity Center.

Smith said their experience of buying and selling a church was similar to that of buying and selling a home, though on a much grander scale. Danny Muzyka, president of Service Realty, a company with offices in Texas, Colorado and Washington that serves as real estate agents for religious organizations, has become familiar with the process. He said it is an experience that a church will probably have about every 30 years because of community changes. These changes can occur within the congregation as the size of the church family grows or demographic changes lead to new needs, or within the area surrounding the building that prompt the church to move.

There are a variety of factors that play a role into where a church will eventually relocate. These factors include: what elements the congregation is looking for in a new building, where the members of the congregation live, what location will allow the church to reach out to others in the community, what buildings are on the market, and whether or not the church is able to finance construction of new worship space.

“The general preference is to build a new building,” Muzyka said. “But the reality is that because of costs, oftentimes a church will have to look at and buy existing properties, where their dollar will stretch further.”

Churches will quickly discover upon perusing the market, though, that few religious buildings are for sale.

“There’s usually two to three on the market each year and two to three churches looking each year,” said Columbia Re/Max Boone Realty agent John John, who has worked with churches. “If they happen to be a match, they’ll go off the market right away.”

Even if a building is available, it may not fit the vision of those looking to buy and thus can remain on the market for a significant length of time.

“It depends a lot on condition of the building, size and price,” said Cheryl Meglio, a Realty Executives Gateway Professionals broker based in St. Louis who specializes in selling churches and calls herself “The Church Lady.” “It could be 90 days or it could take two years. If you have a beautiful building and another congregation finds it fits their need, then it sells quick.”

Michael Burt, pastor of Grace Bible Church, said he is hopeful that his church’s building, located off Paris Road, will sell quickly, though he realizes this is not always feasible. The church has a new building on Blue Ridge Road and has been advertising the old building’s availability for the past month.

Originally, the church thought a funeral home would purchase the Paris Road property, but the deal didn’t work out.

“We thought we had it sold, but because of economic reversals, the building is now on the market,” Burt said. “It pushed us behind because we could have been marketing it.”

While Muzyka said that generally churches sell their buildings to other churches, there are exceptions. Sometimes a church building will be transformed into a house, condominium, restaurant or other business. Similarly, a church doesn’t always move into an older church building. However, if the church moves into a building that was not previously used for assembly purposes, it must go through a building permit process similar to what businesses are required to complete.

There are generally no zoning issues, though, since a church can be in almost any zoning area in Columbia, John said. Even though churches cannot be permanent establishments under industrial zoning, they can generally meet in this zoning area temporarily, usually renting space while looking for a new building, he said.

Muzyka said that sometimes churches will encounter entities that use zoning to try and restrict church growth. In response, Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in 2000 to help protect churches across the nation from being discriminated against through land usage regulations. John said that he did not think there have ever been zoning problems for churches in Columbia.

Though finding a space that fits the church’s need might include looking at how many people the building can hold, among other factors, John said the denomination of the group that previously occupied the building often does not typically affect the next religious group’s decision to purchase it.

“It’s less of the idea of the church as a religious symbol and it’s more of just a location,” John said.

Finding the location is sometimes accomplished simply through word-of-mouth. Because the members of the congregation know of the sale, there are plenty of eyes on the lookout for available property.

“You end up having about 20 or 30 assistants helping you,” John said.

John said investigating these options, along with meetings churches hold with their congregations to discuss the move, can make the entire process lengthy in comparison to an individual or business looking to move.

Word-of-mouth communication prompts some groups to not use an agent when completing the relocation process. For instance, some members of Unity Center heard that Community United Methodist Church was moving and that a church that initially wanted the building was no longer interested. In a similar fashion, an attorney interested in expanding his offices had heard that Unity Center was moving from its building on Eighth Street and purchased it.

Grace Bible Church also decided to not list with a real estate agent, though it will pay an agent a commission if its building sells.

“There’s no advantage to limiting it to just one” agent, said Clark Dempsey, assistant pastor at Grace Bible. “We are trying to broaden our outreach.”

Although Unity Center chose not to list the property, a member of the congregation with real estate experience did help with the process.

“They knew what kind of questions to ask about when looking at property,” Smith said.

Muzyka warns, though, that this can be problematic for some churches. He said that using someone removed from the church congregation can make it easier for the agent to be more straightforward with the church about what they can and cannot afford.

For Grace Bible Church, financing the $2.8 million necessary for the construction process of the new building depends on the congregation’s contribution, the sale of the old building and loan money. A capital campaign that began in 2006 raised $800,000 in pledges. If the building doesn’t sell soon, the church will have to borrow more than the $900,000 it planned on. However, Burt is certain it will all work out.

“I’m absolutely confident that it is a saleable property,” he said.

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