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Acquiring a Church Building

St. John Coptic Orthodox Church in Covina, CA

America is a mobile society. People move every four years, on average, to a different house or city. There are many reasons for this frequent movement. They include new jobs in expanding industries, moving to a larger home when income increases or when space is needed for children, as well as moving to a smaller house when children grow up and establish homes on their own.

Houses of worship are no different among many denominations, especially Protestants where the congregation owns the church. As people move away, get older or pass away, the size of the congregation may decrease significantly. On the contrary, if the number of parishioners increases significantly they may want to move or build a larger church. In both situations they may put up the church for sale. Large cities almost always have a church for sale within a given year.

This was the easiest and fastest way for the immigrant Copts early on to acquire a building. They negotiate the price with the owners as well as the method of payment. They may pay 10-30% of the price in cash and finance the remainder either from a bank or pay the owners a specified monthly sum. This may be paid over a few years up to thirty years according to the agreement with the financial institution or the sellers. The Copts then modify the building to satisfy certain needs such as building an altar, an iconostasis, remodeling rooms for Sunday School, a kitchen, a special room for making Korban (holy bread), etc.

Another way is to buy vacant land with an old building, such as a large house or commercial property, with the vision of building a new church on the land in the future. A third option is to use an old church building for a number of years until the congregation grows and more funds are available for a new building. Building a new church is more complicated than remodeling because of the long process for approval of the plan, which varies from city to city. This process has nothing to do with religion, but with city requirements. A very important requirement is the availability of parking spaces on the land, which may be the deciding factor for the size of the church building. Neighbors’ opinions are also sought in a public hearing at the city to discuss the possible impact of noise and traffic around their houses. Ringing bells outside the church or using loudspeakers outside the building is generally forbidden.

Once the design is approved at various levels of city government, each phase in building the church has to be inspected by city officials, e.g., the foundation, water pipes, frame, electrical wiring, etc., before the next phase can proceed. The church can only be used after all conditions are deemed satisfactory through a safety inspection, which includes the fire department and others, thus resulting in an occupancy permit. This process may take many months or years, a much longer process than purchasing an already existing church and remodeling it. Future changes, additions and modifications have to go through the same process and conform to the building regulations at that time which may be different and usually more stringent than previous building codes. However, sometimes people might not have enough funds to complete all their design at the beginning, or future needs may necessitate expansion.

Posted by Fr. Moses Samaan

July 23, 2012