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Two Clearwater pastors share one rented church and big dreams

CLEARWATER

The last places the two preachers ministered to their separate flocks were a recreation center and a storefront in North Greenwood.

Now pastors Christopher Bennett and Nathaniel Ramsey — and their congregations — share a spacious church in South Greenwood.

They're renting, but they hope to buy.

To do that, the pastors say they must raise at least $1.2-million to buy the former Woodlawn Church of God, which became available in 2006 when that congregation moved to Largo and merged with Harvest Temple.

For the past six months, they have shepherded two separate nondenominational Christian ministries on their rented property.

Bennett leads Count It All Joy Church of Deliverance in the main sanctuary, where up to 75 members worship on Sundays.

Ramsey holds services for Restoration Village Ministries in another building. Up to 50 members come to his Sunday services.

Given the modest size and the newness of their congregations on this site, buying the church be a tough challenge, but the pastors are not daunted.

"We believe in God," said Bennett, 47, who was born in Clearwater. "A door will open up."

• • •

Some residents credit the Rev. Randy Morris of the former Woodlawn Church of God with helping bring together African-Americans and whites in the racially diverse area of South Greenwood.

The neighborhood lies south of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and west of Missouri Avenue. It's an area that some residents say has more than its share of single moms and jobless men with criminal records and crime.

"We have serious drug problems," says Clearwater activist Lois Cormier, 76, who has lived in the same house for 50 years.

A mile away at 845 Woodlawn St., Bennett and Ramsey are renting the former Woodlawn Church of God property from Harvest Temple for $2,500 a month. Bennett and Ramsey see a chance to settle down and join other churches in the area that also do outreach. They envision services such as a computer lab, a day care center and expansion of their feeding program for the homeless.

Bennett and Ramsey said they believe crime is high in the area because men with criminal records resort to more crime because they can't get jobs.

So the pastors would focus on job opportunities for such men.

"We can probably go anywhere in the city and get something worked out to have a church," said Ramsey, 51, a past president of the Clearwater chapter of the NAACP. But "we have always wanted to be at a place of need."

• • •

The congregations that Bennett and Ramsey lead have made a typical start for churches that eventually take out mortgages to buy church facilities.

Many congregations start renting a ballroom or space at another church, said Scott Rolfs, managing director of church and school financing for Ziegler Capital Markets.

Besides solid equity in a church property, lenders also want a congregation to be established for two to four years and to demonstrate sufficient cash-flow to pay for a mortgage.

A congregation of 150 people could qualify for a mortgage of, say, $750,000, Ziegler said, but not if each person contributes just $2 each Sunday.

"With churches, it's a little bit 'the chicken or the egg?' " said Rolfs, who works in Milwaukee. "Sometimes you need that new building to get the people to donate."

One thing that Bennett and Ramsey may have on their side is time, Rolfs said. If the church does not sell quickly, they can establish their congregations.

Rolfs said landlord churches like Harvest Temple, where the Rev. Morris did not return calls for comment, sometimes end up helping their tenant congregations finance mortgages.

"When you want to sell a church, churches may not sell quickly," said Rolfs. "All of a sudden the seller ... has a tenant that is starting to get identified with that building. And that is good."

• • •

Bennett and Ramsey each have operated ministries for years in other parts of the city.

At their current location, they share outreach programs like regular feeding of the homeless. During Christmas, they gave away 700 meals along with appliances, clothes and other items.

The pastors say the focus of their ministry is people like themselves, people who have not led perfect lives.

Raised in a Christian family in Polk County, Ramsey said he strayed into drugs, women and alcohol in his 20s. But now clean and a born-again Christian for 23 years, Ramsey said he is married and has five children.

"There's a new life," Ramsey said. "That's why we are so adamant about trying to reach out to the community with similar problems."

Bennett said he had his first of seven children with three women when he was 15. He has been married for 20 years to the mother of his two last children.

"A girl in St. Petersburg said, 'Pastor, I can't come to church until I get my life right,' " Bennett said. "If she can't come to the house of God, how can she get her life right?"

Bennett has also had some financial problems. He filed under Chapter 7 of the bankruptcy code to liquidate assets and pay creditors in 1998 as a result of what he said were troubles with investment properties and a car dealership. Last year he lost an investment property to foreclosure.

Bennett said his financial problems should have no bearing on money the pastors need to raise to buy the church property. He said the church's money is administered by trustees.

"They are not giving the money to me," said Bennett, who added he does not even draw a salary as the pastor. "We have seven trustees."

• • •

The services Bennett and Ramsey want to provide are needed in the community, some South Greenwood residents said. Some just wonder how the pastors would sustain them.

"Grand openings fizzle out," said Duke Tieman, 74, president of the Lake Belleview Community Association. "The only concern I have is the success of a program and its longevity."

The pastors say they have $10,000 in their reserves that would go toward buying the church. As long as the property is for sale, they plan on holding fundraisers.

Recently, Bennett went to Orlando for a seminar to teach pastors how to raise money. A few days later, radio station WTAN-1340 AM sponsored a musical at the church, with proceeds benefiting the efforts.

Most important, Bennett and Ramsey hope people in the community will rally behind them.

To stay afloat long-term, they said, fundraisers, tithes, even renting out portions of the church — to a day-care provider, for instance — could bring in several thousand dollars a month.

"There's a need in this community," said Bennett, sitting in the cavernous sanctuary one weekday evening. "Without a doubt, I know God has sent us here."

Jose Cardenas can be reached jcardenas@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4224.

Two Clearwater pastors share one rented church and big dreams 03/14/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 9:39am]
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