Can You Sell Your Church Building?

church for saleLast week I posed the question of whether a church should sell their building in order to pursue a more sustainable ministry model.  If you still think selling your building might be the right thing to do, the next question I am sometimes asked is: CAN you sell it?

First, find out who owns your church building.  Read your church’s bylaws.  If you are Methodist or  Presbyterian, you may “hold the building in trust for the wider church”.  In other words, you don’t actually own it but the denomination may work with you on selling it and using the proceeds of the sale in a new way.  These denominational bodies will usually not allow you to sell property and use the proceeds for operating expenses.  But they might allow the funds to be used for the purchase of a new building, support of a community mission, or a new church plant.

In congregational type denominations like the UCC, the congregation or its trustees probably hold the deed to your property, and you can sell it by a vote of the congregation.  This action does not mean you are dissolving your church.  You can still be a church without a building.   But the proceeds of the sale must remain in the possession of a non-profit entity, so you can’t just spend the money on candy (or beer, like they did in this story).

You should also work with a lawyer on title issues.  Sometimes the land a church was built on has deed restrictions attached to it, or reverts back to a previous owner if the property ceases to be used by a church.  And don’t forget to check on how your property is zoned.  If the buyer is not a church, the zoning may need to be changed and sometimes that irks the neighbors.

Some churches have been known to “sell” their buildings for $1 to another church or non-profit.  Sometimes an auction is held.  Others sell their buildings at market rates and disperse the proceeds to mission projects they are passionate about.  Still others give the money or the building to their denominational bodies to be used by the wider church.

Sometimes, entire church buildings are moved to new locations by people who want to preserve them as historic buildings.  In other cases, they are dilapidated and need to be demolished.

Here’s an explanation of how United Methodists, in their connectional system, hold church properties in trust.

Here is a forum page (written in realtor language) with some advice for realtors about how to estimate the value of a church building.

And here’s a story about how a Canadian church used the proceeds of its building when it was sold.

Whatever your situation, ask God’s opinion first.  And don’t trust me or anyone else you read on the web for advice on legal and property matters.  Most denominational bodies can help you find the kind of professional advice you need.  And every state has its own property laws, so do your research!

17 responses to “Can You Sell Your Church Building?

  1. Thank you for this well-done article. I worked with several rural churches over the years whose lifespans had come to an end, whether or not the people still attending could readily embrace that truth. It was easier to accept discontinuance if the people could envision an honorable future use for their building, allowing proceeds of any sale to be applied by the wider church to new churches where people now lived.

  2. Thanks for your response Jeanne. It sounds like you have experience and I hope others will listen to it. We all need to see some sign that our ministry has a future in order to make peace with the past.

  3. We have a church where we have been for over 27 years the pastor died older members bitterly separated, The wife of our former pastor was heart broken and determine to remain in service so we voted a new brother in as pastor. I now understand that paper work wss signed and I and the congregation, did not know what was going on behind our backs, after 4 years of giving and working in this ministry, the previous pastors wife and daughter are selling the church.

    • Thank you for sharing your story. It sounds like several sad experiences happened here. While who actually owns the building is one question, another question is whether trust has eroded among the members. I hope your congregation can rebuild trust and continue to worship together, whether you own a building or not.

  4. Thank you for this article. We at New York City Relief a ministry to the homeless have been looking for a church building and parsonage in NJ to buy for 2 years and can not find one. It is surprising as we know so many churches are struggling and we know the 1 million dollars to purchase a property like this that we offer would help a congregation to get back on it’s feet in a different model. But alas, it seems the churches that are abandoned or dying are not advertising that they are, so we don’t know of them. We feed up to 1000 people a day and help people to have new lives. My husband and I have planted 4 churches and I am currently pastoring a historic Presbyterian Church so it is a non-profit ministry that is 100% bible based Christian. If anyone hears of anything in NJ for sale that can be used commercially, for ministry, we have 25 Urban Missionaries on Staff and 12 outreaches every week that host up to 8 thousand volunteers a year. Usually teams of 20-30 people from around the nation and world come to serve with us every week. Contact my husband Juan Galloway if a church building with a parking lot and parsonage you know becomes available. Thanks.

  5. Thank you for writing. Your ministry sounds like one that could partner well with a congregation, either for a building transfer or shared use. In New Orleans, I visited a church that gave their building over to a large non-profit but continued to worship there once a week. I would recommend contacting the judicatory offices in your area, such as the United Methodist, Presbyterian or United Church of Christ regional offices. The regional staff might know of churches with the kind of facilities you are looking for, who may be thinking ahead about how to transfer their buildings to another use in the future. Sometimes, if a church knows about a worthy non-profit in the area that needs space, it helps them make peace with the fact that they need to let go of their real estate. I hope you find what you are looking for! Blessings!

  6. My dad has a church we own it an the land can you sell a land with out selling the church or can u sell both

    • I want to find out of u can sell a church or the land around it cause my brother an sister said it doesnt mean anything it j a building no its a temple of god not j a building

    • Vicki, I’m not really qualified to answer your question in depth. If your father purchased the building privately and it has not been used for a church or non-profit ministry, he can probably sell it and do whatever he wishes with the proceeds of the sale. However, if the land is zoned for church use only, or if the property has some kind of deed restriction, the buyer and seller should be aware of that. If the building is still used as a church or non-profit, he will be restricted in what he can do legally with the proceeds of the sale. I would suggest you contact someone in real estate or non profit tax law to assist you. Your local government may be able to tell you how the land is zoned or surface old deed restrictions. Good luck and God’s blessings.

  7. Dear Rev. Gail Irwin, My husband and I attend a church where he teaches Sunday School and we give a substantial sum each month. We just found out that the Pastor’s husband owns this church and land and has deeded it all to his children upon his death (which may be soon). We are devastated and feel terribly used and deceived as we were led to believe that his wife would be installed as Pastor and things would go on. Is there anything under the law that we can do to stop this?

  8. Carol, I’m sorry to hear your congregation is going through this and that you feel deceived. I’m not a legal expert, so I can’t answer your question in that regard. I would encourage you to look into whether your church has a constitution or by-laws and is registered as a non-profit organization with a proper governing board. I assume your church is independent, but if you are affiliated with any denomination, you should also seek out a judicatory leader to learn more about what you might do. What needs to be established is whether or not you are currently meeting as a legal non-profit entity (to which tax deductible donations can be made, having a payroll, governing board, etc.) or not. If it’s a non-profit, it is my understanding that the deed cannot be held by individuals but must be held by the non-profit entity, and decisions about its use or sale must be made by the board (or its denominational body, like Methodist or Presbyterian). I’ve heard of cases where the church property is owned by the church with a deed restriction (meaning, if it ceases to be used as a church it reverts back to the original owner).
    The one thing I will say is that there is a difference between a church building and a congregation. If your congregation decides to continue worshiping together, you can still do ministry, even without ownership of a building. You can rent space–even the space you are now meeting in–or even meet in homes or borrowed space like another church’s building. You can pay a pastor to lead you or meet without pastoral leadership. But if you want to do things “decently and in order”, you should probably be registered as a non-profit.
    However, on the legal/property questions, I encourage you to seek out someone more qualified than me to answer them. I hope your church can rebuild trust and move forward.

  9. Thank you, Rev. Irwin, for your kind reply. We are currently having a lawyer investigate these issues. Our faith in God is strong, albeit with man, we will take a deep breath before we are so trusting again. God Bless you for your ministry.

  10. In the Presbyterian Church in America, the owners of the church are the congregation’s members. Sell the church, and the proceeds are divided up equally.

  11. Dear Rev. Gail Irwin, i am the accountant of a church that wants to sell and use part of the proceeds to purchase a smaller church building that would better suit our needs.
    One issue it that the current church building is a designated heritage property. I need to know the tax consequences of such a transaction and the risk it poses to our charitable status.

    • Thank you for reading, Joy. I can’t answer your tax question because I’m not an expert in that area. It seems to me that, If you continue to function as a church in a new location, your charitable status should not change. The proceeds of your sale would be retained by the church and should be re-directed to mission use in some way. Selling a historic building can be a challenge, however, even if you have a buyer. Sometimes municipalities or civic groups will block your plan for a changed use or demolition because they recognize cultural and architectural value in the site, even though it no longer meets your needs as a worship community. You may want to contact Partners for Sacred Places, an organization that specializes in these matters. You can read more about creative/happy/sad stories of churches struggling with building issues by clicking on the “church buildings” tab to the right. God’s blessings as you take the next step!

  12. international end time revival Ministries is the name of our church which is in south Africa house number 115 fourth street springs, we bought a house of which we are to pay about $2000 per month for a period of five years from December 2016 the main issue is that l dont want the situation where by it will up selling the church so we need sponsorship

  13. Great insight on the answers given. We recently sold our church building and are in a lease with the new owners. my question is the money we receive from the sale is it taxable. my wife and I are the only trustees of the church ,since we purchase the church when we started the ministry, we have new members now that came in after then. our name was on the deed .since we were non profit our lawyer made us trustee in care for the church, buy attachment. no deed were changed.

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