By Sheldon C. Good Mennonite Weekly Review
When Nueva Vida Norristown (Pa.) New Life Church acquired a 9,000-square-foot office building adjacent its meetinghouse in November 2007, a local realtor projected it would only take six months to fill it with tenants. Then the Great Recession hit.
“Little did we know that a week after we closed on the building the economy — local, national and global — would tank,” said church member Jim Williams.
The six-month plan didn’t work. The building had one tenant, an attorney’s office, that relocated in 2010. ASSETS Montco, a small business training program, moved in as planned in 2008, but was hit by economic hard times and closed in 2010.
By last summer the congregation was on the brink of foreclosure of its 104-year-old meetinghouse, listed as collateral for the new building’s mortgage. The church property is less than 10 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
The past four years have tested the 100-member congregation’s faith that God will provide for a situation they discerned as God’s leading. Thanks in part to a mutual aid effort by Franconia Mennonite Conference churches, the Norristown congregation has extra time to firm up its financial footing.
From the beginning, the building purchase has been part of a larger congregational vision.
In 2007 Nueva Vida Norristown New Life launched “Enlarging Our Place in God’s World,” a $2 million capital campaign. The campaign seeks finances for the office building and meetinghouse renovations to create a base for intercultural ministries of racial justice and reconciliation, economic access and opportunity for disadvantaged people, and income generation to support the ministries.
Working with a church consultant and other professionals, the congregation developed a long-term strategy. It includes renting the office space to pay off the building’s mortgage and then to fill it with community-oriented ministries.
“People will go into an office building, but they might never go into a church,” Williams said. “If you can expose people to the gospel, there’s a chance they will begin to connect with the congregation.”
More than 30 potential tenants have looked at the building.
“Their reasons for not signing vary; most people cannot pay the going rate,” he said. “Market values for rent space have come down over the past few years, and the church is willing to take less than the going rate.”
Without rental income, the church could only cover the interest on the office building’s mortgage.
“We have never missed a payment, even though we’re paying three points higher than today’s interest market,” Williams said.
Several pastors and leaders in Franconia Mennonite Conference, of which the congregation is a member, learned of the plight. Conference moderator John Goshow met with leaders from seven sister congregations to propose a mutual aid effort.
In September, they initiated a conference-wide appeal for $95,000 to satisfy the mortgage’s needs for a year. To date, 14 churches, businesses and individuals have committed $64,300.
Goshow said the situation shows how conferences and congregations can work together.
“A pastor told me recently that when a church is in trouble, we have to reach out and help,” he said. “And Nueva Vida Norristown New Life is a model church that is really making a difference in their local community.”
Williams said he never expected the conference to initiate a mutual aid appeal.
“It’s a display of true community,” he said. “They saw we were in trouble and said, ‘we want to help.’ We attribute it all to the movement of God.”
Even when they were almost foreclosed on, Williams said, the congregation still had faith God would provide. Through this journey, their faith has been strengthened.
“We still believe we’re doing God’s will in this,” he said. “We can fill a huge void in the Norristown area. We are prayerful and hopeful that we’ll be able to meet our obligations and move God’s vision forward.”
If the church can find tenants for all three floors, Williams projects good cash flow.
“We continue to receive inquiries, which is a good indicator that businesses are looking to grow again,” he said.
Reprinted by permission of Mennonite Weekly Review.