1. News

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 or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.


  1. Firemen and ambulance attendants remove a body from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where an explosion ripped the structure during services Sept.15,1963 . Associated Press
    Fifty-six years ago, a bomb blew apart the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four girls and injuring dozens more.
  2. Danielle Harris of Pinellas Park leans against a large photo of Terri Schiavo and her mother, Mary Schindler, during a vigil outside the Woodside Hospice Villas in 2003. Associated Press
    “Terri Schiavo is now a martyr,” one then-state representative said upon learning of her death.
  3. Yesterday• Pasco
    The Port Richey Citizen's Advisory Committee recently installed a mini library at the Mallett Fishing Pier. The box has a painting that depicts the stilt houses off the Port Richey coast, Johnny Cash (who was known to have loved the city and visited often), as well as dolphins playing. This is the second mini library the committee has erected, with the first installed at City Hall, next to the dog park. Pictured, from left: Blaine Lee, builder of the mini library; City Council member Jennie Sorrell (committee member), Laurie (committee member) and Jeff Simpson, Judi Cain (artist), Interim City Council member Angel Nally (committee member) and Tom Kinsella (committee member). Claudia Smith
    News and notes about your neighbors
  4. Yesterday• Hernando
    Members of the Live Oak Conservatory Pre-K 1 Combo Class rest after their first session of tap, jazz and ballet. The class includes children from 18 months to 5 years old. The conservatory kicked off its second year in August, offering performing arts classes for children and adults. The Live Oak Theatre Company is a nonprofit repertory company, located at the Carol and Frank Morsani Center for the Arts in Brooksville. Visit Jane Russell Geddings
    News and notes about your neighbors
  5. Check for the latest breaking news and updates.
    Charges in the accident are pending.
  6. Florida Supreme Court Justices Barbara Lagoa, left, and Robert Luck, right, were appointed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta by President Trump. Florida Supreme Court
    Ok losers, who needs access to our state politicians, anyway?
  7. The Dade City Monarch Butterfly Festival will be Oct. 12 in Hibiscus Park. AP
    News and notes from Pasco County
  8. Bubba's 33 recently broke ground on its first restaurant in Florida, which will open in Wesley Chapel in December. Pictured, left to right: Experience Florida's Sports Coast (Tourism) Director Adam Thomas, Bubba's 33 marketing director Crista Demers-Dean, Bubba's 33 managing partner Jeff Dean, Pasco County Commissioner Mike Moore and North Tampa Bay Chamber CEO Hope Allen. Andy Taylor
    News and notes on local businesses
  9. Taylor Bland-Ball, 22, posted this photo and open letter to Judge Thomas Palermo to her Instagram account on September 10, the day after she lost custody of her 4-year-old son Noah McAdams. The boy's parents wanted to treat his leukemia with natural health care remedies instead of chemotherapy. [Instagram] ANASTASIA DAWSON  |  Instagram
    The couple refused chemotherapy for their son, instead seeking alternative treatments including dietary plans, alkaline water and THC and CBD oil treatments
  10. Mos Antenor, 42, drives a bulldozer while clearing the road after Hurricane Dorian Mclean's Town, Grand Bahama, Bahamas, Friday Sept. 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa) RAMON ESPINOSA  |  AP
    Threatening to exacerbate islands’ problems, Humberto’s rains were falling on Abaco island.