What happens to old churches when they lose their congregations?

The question is likely to come up a lot starting next month when the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis announces a new strategic plan -- read "reorganization" -- that, if it's anything like those unveiled in other cities, will result in multiple parish mergers that create empty church buildings.

While commercial real estate agents predict that finding new occupants for them likely will be a challenge, several Twin Cities churches have already emerged with second lives. A church in White Bear Lake, for example, is now a theater.

The supply of churches is up, and the demand is down. The slumping commercial real estate market has made it harder for potential buyers to find financing at the same time that it's forcing some cash-strapped churches to close. There's also the ongoing shift toward regional mega-churches, a trend that some people fear is going to make the neighborhood church an endangered species.

The first step when a church is put up for sale usually is to try to find another congregation, said Deborah Finney, an agent for Coldwell Banker Burnet who specializes in church sales. (Yes, "it's an unusual speciality," she admitted, although she averages about five sales a year.)

"Most congregations want their church to be passed on to another congregation or to a nonprofit, something that will benefit the community," she said. But in this economy, that's much easier said than done.

The vast majority of so-called "young churches," new congregations that typically rent worship space, would love to have their own facilities but can't find financing.

"For starters, you need 30 percent down, and with the price for even a modest church [seating 150 to 200] around $400,000, that's a sizable sum of money," she said. "And then the finance people want to see a cash audit going back several years. Most young churches haven't existed long enough to be able to do that."

A case in point is a Presbyterian church near the intersection of Broadway and Central avenues in northeast Minneapolis, which she has had on the market for eight months. The asking price is $375,000.

"I could have sold that 10 times by now, except we keep running into problems with the financing," she said. "It always comes down to the cash and the financing."

Zoning laws can be problematic, too, said Ron Pentz, an agent handling a Pentecostal church at 240 Morgan Av. N., Minneapolis. The building, which has been vacant for a year and is listed at $335,000, has attracted interest from several potential buyers, including ones considering using it for a catering business, bridal shop and a sound studio. But it can't be used for a commercial enterprise.

"Even though it's just two blocks off Glenwood Avenue, it's in a neighborhood that is zoned for single-family homes," he said.

He thinks he's found a compromise: a situation in which an artist or photographer lives in what was the sanctuary and uses the former community room in the basement for a studio.

"I think I could sell the neighborhood association on that," he said. "It's a beautiful space, with light coming through the stained glass windows. I'm optimistic that in the very near future we're going to find the right owner who can give this the tender, loving care it deserves."

Zoning laws could be a problem for some of the Catholic churches that end up on the list of closures, he warned.

"If it's on Lake Street, then it should be fine," he said. "But if it's a small church in a residential area, it could be an issue."

The latter scenario is the more common one, Finney said. The nature of church membership is changing. Small churches that were built to serve their neighbors are being usurped by bigger, commuter-oriented churches.

"Destination churches -- churches you drive to -- are replacing the neighborhood churches you walk to," she said.

A trio of causes

There are three main reasons churches become empty: The congregation outgrows the space and moves to a bigger location. It merges with another church, moving into one of the buildings and leaving the other vacant. Or it simply dies off, a situation not unusual for churches in the inner cities or first-ring suburbs.

"The people who were attending the church get too old to go regularly, and their kids have moved someplace else," Finney said. "There used to be a time when people would go back to their old neighborhoods to attend the churches they grew up in, but that doesn't happen much anymore."

Not all churches that lose their congregations lose their usefulness. Wesley Church in downtown Minneapolis is a case in point. Although a merger with another congregation means there no longer are services there, the building has found a new life as a community center, said the Rev. Victoria Rebeck, spokesperson for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

The red-brick building tucked against the northwest corner of the Minneapolis Convention Center is included on the National Register of Historic Places and features a circular sanctuary that is topped by a stained-glass dome.

Because of the unique nature of the space, "There's a wedding in there just about every Saturday," Rebeck said.

The Lakeshore Players Theatre troupe in White Bear Lake has found a different use for an old church. They're currently in their second one, and if they outgrow it, "the first thing we'd look at is another church," said Caroline DeCoster.

The theater company, which has existed since the 1960s, has discovered that its current home, a former Lutheran church at 4820 Stewart Av., is an ideal fit.

"It was designed as a type of auditorium, with a natural stage area in the front," she said. "We use the old coat room as a ticket office, and the crying room is our technical booth. There's an office we can use for our business office, and there's lots of storage" in the basement.

In addition to all those practical matters, there's a bonus aesthetic element.

"It's a very distinct place," she said. "It's pretty to look at."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392