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Fewer parishioners, less money has Tampa Bay churches selling off property

First Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg is hosting two other churches, but attendance at its own services is still sparse, particularly once the seasonal residents leave. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Jun. 14

Church congregations strapped for cash and members or with too much space on their hands are taking radical measures to survive, including selling off all or part of their properties.

A dearth of worshipers has also encouraged churches to share space, collaborate and designate newly raised funds to programs that might serve and attract new members.

In St. Petersburg, Gateway Christian Center, with 300 members on a vast campus — previously owned by a declining Lutheran church — sold it to a business, Squaremouth Inc., which runs an online travel insurance comparison site. Taking advantage of its prime location in the city's booming downtown, Christ United Methodist Church put its parking lot on the market.

Over the past three years, St. Petersburg has received requests for changes to zoning and future land use maps to allow single family homes, offices and even a fast food restaurant on current or former church properties.

In Tampa, the First Presbyterian congregation recently voted to sell their historic downtown church to a developer. And in Hernando County, Spring Hill First Church of the Nazarene, struggling with declining membership and dire finances, was able to make a quick sale to Spring Hill Baptist Church, which had searched for three years for property on which to expand its preschool.

"We are on pace to sell six to 12 churches in Tampa Bay this year alone," said Danny Brown of 828 Realty (the numbers are taken from a chapter and verse in the New Testament book of Romans).

"Churches, they are a lot like tomatoes. They are either growing or dying. The healthier churches are the ones that have playground equipment, not shuffleboard courts," he said. "Some of the older, traditional churches, they are facing challenges today. Whereas the newer churches that are current with the times and present much more to millennials are growing vastly and they are looking for larger places. They are so excited to move, they can't wait."

By some estimates, at least 4,000 churches are forced to close or sell their properties each year, said Bill J. Leonard, Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies and Church History Emeritus at Wake Forest University.

"The closing of churches, or sale of property, is a national reality. They reflect demographics that have impacted American churches for years, but during the last 10 to 15 years have moved much more rapidly, with implications for churches across the denominational and theological spectrum," he said.

So-called mainline churches — including United Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and United Church of Christ — "were among the earliest to confront aging congregations, declining attendance and budgets," Leonard said, adding that evangelical churches are now generally feeling many of the same effects.

"The reality is that this decline shows no real signs, generally speaking, of coming to an end anytime soon," Leonard said.

It has been almost a year since the 60-member American Baptist Church of the Beatitudes began renting space at St. Petersburg's First Presbyterian Church. It sold its property, with a historic sanctuary, to a developer.

"The financial resources that we were putting into maintaining the property was just a huge portion of our budget and we said we could do so much more if we didn't have to independently maintain that property," the Rev. Phillip Miller-Evans said. "We can support First Presbyterian in our property rental. That helps them and we don't have that huge independent overhead."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Crescent Heights neighborhood working to save historic church

Redeeming Church, which had been renting space from Miller-Evans' congregation, has also moved to First Presbyterian.

''There's a philosophy and thought right now that is called shared ministry, for smaller congregations to band together to share resources," Miller-Evans said.

The two churches, which worship separately, are working even closer in their new space and plan to share two full-time and two part-time pastors, he said.

Just recently, their host church had been contemplating the function of its own space near St. Petersburg's prized downtown waterfront. In March, an investor expressed interest in the back half of the First Presbyterian property, including a parking lot and the north and south wings of its expansive structure.

At First Presbyterian, where the average age is 74 and the operating budget is largely dependent on older members, the Rev. Dawn Conti described the investor's interest as "a nudge from the Lord" to look at the church's future.

A taskforce and subcommittees involving dozens of members set out "to study the issue and pray about the issue and come back with recommendations," she said.

In the end, the church decided not to pursue the inquiry.

"We are reinvesting. We are more cohesive in understanding what our financial situation is, what our membership demographics are, what are challenges are," Conti said. "Now time is ticking. We have to do something. We have to look at different income streams. We really love our location. We are excited. We are working together and we are making better decisions together."

The Rev. Jack Lowe's Spring Hill First Church of the Nazarene had little choice but to sell after evaluating its situation with local and Nazarene district officials in Lakeland.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Spring Hill church's loss helps another expand its school

Nearby Spring Hill Baptist Church scooped up the 5-acre property, buying it for $700,000 and spending $200,000 on renovations. The Rev. Ray Rouse said the property, which includes a 10,000-square-foot building, will become the new preschool and kindergarten campus for his church's thriving Spring Hill Christian Academy in August.

Some churches want to sell just some of their property. Pasadena Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg, where about 75 people worship, is asking the city to change the future land use map for a vacant section of its campus so it can be used for four single family homes, if and when the congregation decides to sell that land. The church already has two houses on its property, one of which is for its pastor. Members have asked the city for a land use map change so the second house can be sold to meet immediate needs.

"We want to be able to do repairs on our building and possibly hire new staff so we can improve our programs," Gene Hammond, a church elder, said. "We are by no means thinking of closing. We just want to get things set up so we can offer more. We are a very active church, but there are just a few of us to do the work. We are hoping to multiply."

Things don't always go as planned when churches try to divest their property.

Grace Connection Church near Gulfport had hoped to sell its almost 5-acre campus to St. Petersburg for affordable housing, but was thwarted by neighborhood opposition. The Rev. Tim Kelley said the property is too large and expensive to keep up. He's now working on a new deal with another church.

"The days of big church buildings are gone," he said. "The younger folks, they don't care if they are in a cathedral or a warehouse. They just want relevancy."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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