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Parishioners hold their offering envelopes and say a pray of thanks for their life's blessings during a Sunday morning worship service at Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, Maryland, March 28, 2010. The congregation, one of America's largest, has been scrambling to raise funds to save the arena-sized sanctuary from potential foreclosure. (JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
Parishioners hold their offering envelopes and say a pray of thanks for their life's blessings during a Sunday morning worship service at Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, Maryland, March 28, 2010. The congregation, one of America's largest, has been scrambling to raise funds to save the arena-sized sanctuary from potential foreclosure. (JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

U.S. churches struggle to avoid foreclosure Add to ...

The new-look houses of worship were often located along busy commercial strips on major thoroughfares, and bear little resemblance to the steepled churches that dot rural New England.

"Churches were trying to fill many roles," said Faith Centre's Hampton. "They were trying to fill cultural gaps."

Without the support of a large national organization, some churches felt the need to take on debt to support their growth and building. Now, many are cutting staff, reducing programs and reining in expenses. "Churches have downsized staff, moved from full-time to part-time clergy, because the revenues are not coming in," said Scott Thumma, a sociology of religion professor with the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

One-time emergency giving campaigns can also fill a short-term gap. Rick Warren, who delivered a prayer at President Barack Obama's inauguration, recently raised more than $2-million during a one-weekend emergency appeal for funding.

And churches have given up immediate plans for building. "They've decided to rent movie theaters or contract with local hotels to have multiple services," rather than build a new building, Mr. Thumma said. "They might have a worship service with a live band but the main sermon is from a live feed. That's becoming more common because of the economy."

African American churches in particular appear hard hit. Their congregations have suffered higher unemployment, and often the churches provide more services.

"It's devastating," Reverend Jackson said. "They are closing down services to seniors. They are closing down feeding programs. Demand for services are on the rise and the ability to provide services is decreasing," he said.

Mr. Jackson is organizing a campaign against church foreclosures. "It's our largest single institution," he said, "the greatest cash-flow institution."

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