January 25, 2011; Source: Wall Street Journal | Those thinning collection plates are taking a kind of toll on churches that would have been unimaginable not so long ago. According to the Wall Street Journal, unable to pay their mortgages, more and more churches are facing foreclosure. As the newspaper notes, "Just as homeowners borrowed too much or built too big during boom times, many churches did the same and now are struggling as their congregations shrink and collections fall owing to rising unemployment and a weak economy."

In the past two years, banks have foreclosed some 200 facilities, up from eight the previous two years. The paper reports that the problem is far from over as "hundreds of additional face financial struggles so severe they could face foreclosure or bankruptcy in the near future."

For some, the reckoning is a result of ambitious growth plans when times were more bountiful. Back then, lenders had few worries about issuing mortgages to pay for new construction or to expand existing space to accommodate larger congregations. Banks were certain collections from congregants, "as well as the moral compulsion felt by most pastors to pay down debt," reduced the risk of defaults.

Most of the foreclosures have hit independent churches that don't have a governing body to provide a financial backstop. As Chris Macke, senior real estate strategist at the real estate services firm, CoStar, wryly notes, "Religious organizations may be subject to the laws of God but they are also subject to the laws of economics."—Bruce Trachtenberg