As thousands of churches die annually across America, the Rev. Paul Marzahn says he's on a mission to save others from suffering the same fate.
“The best way I think about it is to try to find out which churches are on life support and catch them before they die so that developers don’t have a chance to get in," the senior pastor of the Crossroads Church in Lakeville, Minnesota, told The Christian Post in a recent interview. "So as long as it’s still zoned a church it can be revived by repurposing it, reselling it, partnering with other nonprofits.”
“It is hard to fight the developers. … I’m helping churches to do some strategic planning. Just like a marriage, when it’s going on the rocks, go get a counselor, right? Same thing if your church is dying. Get some help and you can come up with a strategy or plan to keep the church or partner with some other nonprofits, some way to keep the financial model going,” he said.
Estimates from LifeWay Research suggest that between 6,000 and 10,000 churches die in the U.S. annually because they can no longer afford to maintain their buildings. And experts argue that the trend will continue to get worse unless congregations make dramatic changes.
Pastor Marzahn, 55, believes helping churches find new ways to generate income, like sharing their buildings with other churches or finding completely new congregations to take over old buildings is a better response than selling dying churches to for profit developers who have no vested interest in cultivating Christian communities.
The licensed commercial real estate agent, who has become known in recent years as a “church flipper,” says even though he understands his primary calling is to preach the Gospel, he has also felt a call to spread the Gospel of saving dying churches.
“I still pastor, I still preach. I understand that my primary role is preaching the Gospel of Jesus. But there is a business side to every ministry that sometimes pastors neglect and parishioners neglect,” he said.
Already, Marzahn has managed to save several church buildings from for profit developers, including the historic Wesley United Methodist Church in downtown Minneapolis where his church and several other nonprofits had been renting before learning that the UMC had plans to sell it.
One developer wanted to turn the church into a parking lot. Another was thinking of turning it into a bar.
“I thought wow, we should maybe think about developing it ourselves or taking it over,” he recalled telling the UMC.
“I found a church that was quite large already and tried to help them understand how this would be a great place for them to plant their church. And from there, I just started making connections with other church planters and other churches that are going out of business to kind of do some matchmaking, if you will,” Marzahn explained.
The Inver Grove Heights campus of Crossroads Church is another building Marzahn rehabbed and he's also working on restoring an old Catholic Charities building in downtown Minneapolis to create an outreach center that will serve as a church and a space for urban missionaries.
To understand the Minnesota pastor’s vision for reviving dying churches, one has to understand how he began pursuing the sustainable church model after getting a vision from God and the price he paid.
What’s driving the church flipper?
When Marzahn launched his first church plant as an income generating community for parishioners at Crossroads Church in the late 1990s, about half of his congregation abandoned him.
“At the time it was scary, most people wanted to plant a church, not a community,” he told CP.
Marzahn had been serving at the United Methodist Church in Rosemount when his bishop asked him if he would like to plant a church in Lakeville after noticing his interest in starting nonprofits.
When he accepted the challenge and moved to Lakeville in 1996, Marzahn said God gave him the vision to build a mixed-used community after he started meeting with people in his home in the Lake Marion area.
The vision he got was so clear, according to The Associated Press, Marzahn was even sure of the location in Lakeville where he would build the community: a farm.
Driven by his vision, Marzahn planted a cross in a cornfield on a 270 acre farm and claimed the property for God.
Like some of his former congregants, the owner of the farm would have none of Marzahn’s radical vision and chased him away when he first pitched the idea to acquire the land for his church community.
Over time, however, Marzahn was able to convince the farmer to sell him the land with “nothing but a vision” and $10,000.
“I had no money, nothing but a vision,” the pastor told the AP. “I gave him $10,000 and had three years to raise $3 million.”
As he pushed his vision to attract partners to build his mixed-used community to include businesses like a strip mall with a grocery store and housing, Marzahn struggled with doubt.
“It was taking forever. We had a lot of debt; we had a balloon payment due in 1999 right before Y2K. I fasted for 10 days and I couldn’t get any developers or anything to loan me the money,” the pastor told CP.
And the congregants who left him doubted his vision too.
“When we were in that development stage, when we were making a school, if they expected (from their perspective) they’re coming to start a church, [and] the pastor gets up with a vision from God that I want to build not just a church but a community development, even the best Christian who loves Jesus is gonna go: ‘We like you pastor, but we’re not sure we want to sit in on meetings to build a grocery store and a McDonalds. We don’t get how that fits in with our church plan,’” he explained.
Things got so bad, Marzahn said, even his denomination raised concerns about his mental health.
“They had to go get a psych test to see if I was hearing voices and I passed,” he said.
In the end, Marzahn’s vision materialized. Developers bought into his idea to establish his community. The revenue generated from the sale of portions of the land allowed the church to pay off previous loans and invest in a now thriving community managed through a nonprofit the pastor established.
“The first big check I received was $2 million. I was at that time a pastor making $40,000 and I turned over all $2 million to my church and to the nonprofit. Not everybody who has that access to large sums of money will give it back or give it away,” he said.
“Many of the developers I have ran into, they are not bad people but they are gonna keep a big chunk of the money for themselves. They may give 10 percent back and find that very generous. But to give all of something and to think of the nonprofit first or the church first for 100 percent of the time is unique,” he said.
“I started pastoring the church but I also started CROSSROADS Land Development Corporation nonprofit. So as that land got sold, some of the bills got paid back, the loans got paid off. At some point you pay back your first $3 million of debt and then you start making money,” he said.
“And when we started making money, I made the church the major stockholder so I wouldn’t be tempted to take that money. I also didn’t even pay myself a salary. I was making my regular church salary.
“I could have like ‘oh $100,000 as a developer and $40,000 as a pastor.’ I didn’t do that. I just said [it’s for the] church. If I’m doing work on their behalf this is your money,” he added. “If I make money you are the major stockholder. If I lose money you’re not held liable because the corporation goes bankrupt, not the church.”
Spreading the gospel of church sustainability
After spending time as a nonprofit developer for the Lord, Marzahn says he believes he can now spread his gospel of the sustainable church much faster as a consultant rather than a developer.
“What I’m trying to do now is try to do more of the consulting side of it. Come alongside churches because I realize I can do a lot more, a lot faster,” he told CP.
“Instead of me owning a building for two years and fixing it up, … I’m going to churches and helping these church planters come in and giving them connections,” he said.
Connections like referrals to get free LED lights or advice on how churches can get rebates for energy.
“I can come alongside and consult and help them flip their churches quicker than I did mine. I can help them take on a project they might not have taken on,” he said.
Marzahn says he’s working on developing a team to push his message but for now, his wife, Deb, and three children, Rachel, Rebekah Coffman, and Joshua, are his “amazing” support staff.
“My team is my family right now and they’re amazing. My two daughters are by far the two best at this and they’re the ones that kind of pulled me in this direction,” he said.
“My first daughter (Rebekah) right now, she’s graduating in May. She is a church preservationist studying in London. So she knows like the churches in New York where the glass was made, if it’s Tiffany or not Tiffany. She can authenticate and put things on the historical register to keep developers away from them. So that’s why Wesley was spared because she did all that research and was part of a team of people who wanted to preserve it because it was on the historical register,” he said.
While he would love to save all church buildings, Marzahn explained that, unfortunately, some will have to be torn down.
“Sometimes buildings do need to be torn down. There are times when they are not structurally sound. They have deferred maintenance for too long and in those cases you can’t keep them up,” he said.
Rachel is an expert in nonprofits and provides expertise to churches that can help them generate income from, for example, unused space.
“She’s helping me hook up and link up and network. Sometimes churches, they have all these empty Sunday school spaces. She can network with me to help them find other nonprofits that you can rent those spaces to or do partnership ministries for like the homeless or job searching. There are so many nonprofits out there,” Marzahn said.
His wife who is a tax accountant provides advice on financing.
While rehabbing churches and finding new congregations for them can be a challenging process, Marzahn believes it's worth it as an investment in the Kingdom.
“It’s always a challenge statistically to start a new church. Eight out of 10 church plants in general do not make it past seven years. So just to start a new congregation is difficult, but if I can get the existing congregation to share space during the start-up phase or consider gifting the church at a lower cost or work out a contract for deed item [it would be worth it],” he suggested.
“I’ve had several where I coached them with their old congregation just giving it to the church plant and have had several congregations just continue to meet there until they kind of die out and then the young people just take over the building,” he said.
Marzahn further noted that he was recently approached by a producer to launch a pilot for a TV show where he could take his message on rehabbing dying churches nationally.
They started filming two months ago and will likely be ready to launch this summer.
He has been meeting with pastors interested in saving their ministries from around the world for the show and hopes it can help them to promote their ministries.
“I’m hoping that this (show) can spread light on their incredible ministries. Help them rehab their buildings,” Marzahn ended.