Pastor Paul Marzahn is best known as the founder of several south suburban churches. But he’s gaining a new reputation for an unusual side job he’s juggling — as a church flipper.
The Methodist minister scouts for “For Sale” signs on churches with an eye toward rehabbing the buildings and selling them back to new faith-filled owners. He’s also a consultant to clergy looking to sell or buy.
Marzahn’s nonprofit, for example, purchased the historic Wesley United Methodist Church in downtown Minneapolis and last year turned it over to a fresh congregation. His own Lakeville church bought an aging Inver Grove Heights church, rehabbed it, and made it an auxiliary campus.
He’s now helping a ministry serving the homeless revamp a former Catholic Charities building.
“I drive by these church buildings for sale and think, ‘Who do I know who would be a good fit into this building?’ ” said Marzahn, senior pastor at Crossroads United Methodist Church in Lakeville. “That’s my calling. To see churches or nonprofits save some of these great buildings.”
Marzahn’s matchmaking plans are timely. As church attendance declines, Minnesota and the rest of the nation are seeing many of its church doors closing. A small but growing market for religious properties has emerged, but some of the finest buildings often are purchased by for-profit developers.
“Some people see the profit side of things,” Marzahn said. “I see a different potential.”
While Marzahn has quietly worked on a few projects over the years, he’s starting to get public attention. He’s been asked to participate in a pilot episode of a church flipper program for a national television network.
“I don’t know what will happen,” Marzahn said. “If the door opens, I’ll follow it. But I’ve got a full-time job pastoring, and I love what I do.”
An ungodly mess
When people think of churches, they often envision architectural gems with vaulted ceilings, stained glass and marble interiors. Marzahn’s rehab work has rarely occurred in these ornate sanctuaries, but rather in the buildings’ least glamorous areas.
His visit to the historic bell tower at Salem United Methodist Church in Inver Grove Heights, for example, was not to enjoy the views from his new property but to shovel out decades of pigeon droppings.
At the majestic Wesley UMC church in downtown Minneapolis, he spent most of his time bonding with the furnace, repairing the roof, insulating walls and organizing plumbing upgrades.
Marzahn, who purchased the Wesley property in 2016 and sold it to Substance Church last year, said he was particularly proud to save the 1891 treasure from commercial buyers — including one planning to convert it to a nightclub.
“Its purpose was to be a church in the community,” he said, “and now it is.”
Last week, Marzahn was among a group of contractors and pastors in a makeshift conference room in a former Catholic Charities building recently donated to Breakthrough Ministries, a Twin Cities nonprofit serving the poor. The group hashed out plans for the architect’s schedule, security, asbestos remediation, technology systems for worship services and more.
The 21,000-square-foot building will be transformed into space for a massive free hot meals program, housing for urban missionaries and a worship area, said the Rev. Dave Engman, CEO of Breakthrough Ministries. Engman, a tenant in the Wesley building before Marzahn sold it to Substance Church, said he asked Marzahn to be his representative on the Catholic Charities project because he knew the real estate ropes.
“I’m not ignorant of construction but it’s not my expertise,” Engman said. “I probably wouldn’t have taken on this project without him.”
For faith leaders dealing with the sale and purchase of properties, “Paul brings peace and comfort in a stressful situation,” Engman said.
A family affair
While clergy are often experts at building faith communities, they are not pros at coordinating roof and HVAC installation. That is why Marzahn has been carving this niche. The former Minnesota farm boy knew how to drive a bulldozer, pour concrete and fix most things long before he graduated from seminary.
“And I know where to get the lights, to find the contractors, to find the free stuff,” he said.
He also has a family active in the church flips. His wife, Deb Marzahn, co-pastor at Crossroads, is the brains behind the financing, he said. Daughter Rebekah is finishing a master’s degree in historic preservation and already is involved in renovation designs. Son Joshua works for Interfaith Power and Light, which recently toured the former Catholic Charities facility and suggested energy-saving strategies.
Each project is financed differently. For the historic Wesley church, the Marzahns formed a nonprofit, scraped together $100,000 from family finances and bought the building in 2016 on contract for deed for $1 million. They rented space in the building to cover monthly mortgage payments, and the balance was paid when Substance Church purchased the building last year.
For Salem UMC in Inver Grove Heights, Crossroads Church assumed its $90,000 mortgage and invested $260,000 in renovation. Marzahn and volunteers also pitched in on the renovation. On the Catholic Charities building, Marzahn volunteers as the project manager, acting as a liaison between the owning ministry and contractors.
With different permutations of projects and financing, the minister went back to school.
“I decided to get my commercial real estate license,” Marzahn said. “There were so many legal things I wanted to understand.”
The pastor has the full support of his denomination, the United Methodist Church. Ben Ingebretson, director of new church development for the UMC in Minnesota and the Dakotas, said there’s a shortage of “faith community developers” nationally. But there are many startup churches now meeting in community centers and other spaces that would be thrilled to have an affordable building of their own, he said.
“The opportunity in North America is huge,” Ingebretson said.
The Rev. Josh Meyers of North Summit Church in Blaine is among the startup church ministers looking for a place to buy. Marzahn happens to be his mentor, and has accompanied him on some tours and advised him “on what I should and shouldn’t do.”
“I love watching people’s faces when he tells them he’s a church flipper,” Meyers said. “It raises a lot of eyebrows — in a good way. That tells me he’s doing something that is needed.”
Marzahn, meanwhile, is not about to tackle every empty church. He has neither the time nor a budget nor the inclination, as he loves preaching and teaching at his church. But he’s eager to continue matchmaking, managing projects and finding the new faithful for old houses of worship. Said Marzahn: “This is my passion.”