Churches and ministries reap benefits from commercial real estate sales. (Creative Commons photo by John Murden)
Churches and ministries reap benefits from commercial real estate sales. (Creative Commons photo by John Murden)

When the price is right, churches are selling property to advance ministry

Churches being wooed by developers are seeing opportunities to expand ministries and facilities with lucrative real estate deals. 

By Jeff Brumley

Selling all or portions of property is nothing new for downtown churches. It’s been a practice for decades, necessitated by demographic shifts and urban sprawl, aging congregations or denominational decline.

But for some, it’s the money generated by being located on what has become, in some cities, prime downtown or suburban real estate. Locations once ideal for worship have become ground zero for hip restaurant and nightclub districts, commercial zones, hotels, condominiums and sports complexes.

"In urban areas of high population concentrations, when land is scarce, it’s very much an option," said George Bullard, a church consultant and president of The Columbia Partnership. "Developers are looking at anything and everything."

And the payoffs for facilities and ministries expansion can be huge.

That’s again in evidence in Nashville, Tenn., where two giant hotel companies have each bid $15 million to buy about a half-block of property from First Baptist Church, the Nashville Business Journal reported on Monday.

FBC NashvilleLast year, WKRN-TV in Nashville reported the church had an $11 million offer to make way for a new Marriott hotel. Senior Pastor Frank Lewis told the station the money would be used to expand existing programs and facilities.

Lewis told the station “the timing seems to be right with the ministries outgrowing their facilities.”

Subsequent offers, including the most recent $15 million offers, are for a 1.26-acre parcel located across the street from Nashville’s Music City Center and is seen as a pivotal downtown development in the city’s continuing downtown boom, the Nashville Business Journal reported in July.

Nashville isn’t alone in seeing congregations sell some or all of their property to make way for downtown economic development projects. The practice is also occurring, in some cases, in surburban areas where ministries formerly off the beaten path are overcome by urban sprawl.

Recent sales in California and Georgia highlight the trend.

In July, Golden Gate Theological Seminary, with its prominent view of San Francisco Bay, announced the $85 million sale of its campus to a billion-dollar foundation. Jeff Iorg, president of the Southern Baptist Convention school, said in a statement the proceeds would be used to relocate its main campus to Southern California while $50 million would go into its endowment.

He added the deal includes a two-year lease-back that gives students time to prepare for the move.

“We had to have a sale and relocation process that preserved our institutional commitment to current students,” Iorg said.

Another high-profile sale came when the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons purchased Friendship Baptist Church for $19.5 million in March. The historic church was subsequently torn down to make way for a new football stadium for the team.

FriendshipBaptistFalconsEmmanuel McCall, a past moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, has served as interim pastor for the church since 2013.

The Atlanta developments show that even with with big paydays, selling to commercial and entertainment interests doesn’t always come easy. Some members of both Friendship and nearby Mount Vernon Baptist Church opposed the sale of their historic buildings, the latter of which was purchased for $14.5 million.

“It has not been a smooth or direct journey” to the selling point, Lloyd Hawk, Friendship’s chairman of trustees at the time, told ABPnews/Herald in September.

Even so, examples of the practice can be found in most states — and the deals are often creative, Bullard said.

BullardMugHe cited examples of churches selling parcels for garages to be used for hotel and commercial parking. Another church had condominiums built all around it and in the deal had its own facade and landscaping transormed. 

“They also got a couple of million in cash in addition to all of that,” Bullard said. “There are examples of this all over the place.”

ABPnews/Herald News Editor Bob Allen contributed to this report.