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Church Flipping Pastor Rescues Buildings on Life Support

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In addition to being a senior pastor, the Rev. Paul Marzahn has a second calling: rescuing struggling churches before developers can swoop in and buy the buildings.

Marzahn, 55, leads Crossroads Church in Lakeville, Minnesota, but he’s receiving national attention for his groundbreaking work as a “faith community developer,” or church flipper. He may even be featured on a pilot for a new TV show.

‘There is a business side to every ministry’

Marzahn formed a nonprofit and consults with churches nationwide about how to rehab buildings and use spaces wisely. “I have an eye for properties that have value,” he says. “I fix them up and bring the partners together and make the finances work.”

With church attendance on the decline, up to 10,000 U.S. churches shut their doors every year. That’s led to a growing market for religious buildings among profit-hungry investors, but Marzahn sees “a different potential.” He obtained a commercial real estate license, has become an expert in building maintenance, and works with his family members who have expertise in everything from historic preservation to accounting.

“I still pastor,” Marzahn says. “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.”

Marzahn Finds New Life for Old Buildings

With all his connections, Marzahn has become a property matchmaker around Minneapolis. While driving by church buildings that are for sale, he thinks, “Who do I know who would be a good fit?” His calling, he says, is “to see churches or nonprofits save some of these great buildings.”

Strategic planning is key, he says, which is why he helps churches with options such as sharing or renting out space. “Just like a marriage, when it’s going on the rocks, go get a counselor, right? Same thing if your church is dying,” Marzahn says. “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.”

Last year Marzahn’s nonprofit purchased Wesley United Methodist Church, built in 1891, and sold it to Substance Church, preventing the building from becoming a nightclub. “Its purpose was to be a church in the community, and now it is,” he says.

Thanks to Marzahn’s help, a former Catholic Charities building in Minneapolis is being transformed for use by Breakthrough Ministries, which serves poor and homeless people. The Rev. Dave Engman, Breakthrough’s CEO, says he “probably wouldn’t have taken on this project” without Marzahn. “Paul brings peace and comfort in a stressful situation.”

Not every church building can be saved, unfortunately. “There are times when they are not structurally sound,” Marzahn says. “They have deferred maintenance for too long, and in those cases you can’t keep them up.”

But most buildings have great potential. Ben Ingebretson, a regional director of new church development for the United Methodist Church, says churches need more people like Marzahn. Many startup churches would love to have a building to call home, Ingebretson says. “The opportunity in North America is huge.”