“Unless something incredible happens, I think it’s possible that 10 years from now, we can still be at the high school,” said Grady Root, pastor at Maricopa Springs Family Church.
Root’s congregation is one of 11 that regularly rent space on Maricopa Unified School District campuses instead of holding worship services within traditional church buildings.
Property within the city limits of Maricopa can carry a high cost, ranging from $100,000 to $300,000 per acre, depending on the location and commercial property rates, according to online real estate sites.
Some church leaders said they can begin discussions on buying property within the next 10 years, while others say they can see themselves continuing their lease with MUSD beyond that timeframe.
All nine campuses host at least one faith organization, a steady income for MUSD. Canceling those leases for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic was a financial sacrifice for the district and also sent churches scrambling for other ways to reach worshipers.
Maricopa Springs, which has about 50 families and 160 members, has held services in the multi-purpose room at Maricopa High School since 2017, Root said. It also holds additional youth services at Maricopa Elementary School on Tuesday evenings. The church has additional youth services at Maricopa Elementary School on Tuesday evenings.
During the coronavirus, it streams its services from home live on YouTube with hopes to return to MUSD when it reopens its campuses.
Some Maricopa church leaders said buying land is not even a viable option.
Pastor Glenn Zimbelman is five months away from retiring as the head of Maricopa Lutheran Church, which usually meets at Desert Wind Middle School. It, too, has turned to YouTube and emailed newsletters to share its message and news.
“We average about 60 [members] in the summer and 125 in the winter. Just meeting our daily expenses for an ongoing ministry is a challenge,” said Zimbelman. “Just meeting, existing, budgeting is a challenge, much less trying to buy land for a building. That’s part of the reality.”
Of course, building a physical church goes beyond the cost of property. There is also the expense of construction, maintenance, inspections and utilities. It all adds up to a financial albatross for smaller congregations
“For us to purchase six or seven acres, we’re looking at $1.5 million just for the land,” Root said. “That’s a huge chunk of money for a church to come up with. Then you think of putting a building in on top of that, and you’re looking at another million dollars. To think about putting a $1 million burden on 50 families, how much would that cost?”
Still, as the City of Maricopa continues to grow – population increased by 8% from 2015 to 2018, according to city population records – the potential growth of their own congregations has to be considered by leaders of churches big and small who are discussing the possibility of purchasing property.
Discover Community Church is one such congregation that has seen continuous growth over the last several months.
Mike Jimenez became pastor of the Discover community in October. He said the church, while having some challenges, mostly benefits from leasing space at Saddleback, but a building for storage purposes and office hours would help the community thrive.
“We have grown from 30 people to 60 people since October, and we have plenty of room to grow at the elementary school,” Jimenez said. “One of the biggest challenges is storage and technical issues. We have to take down our equipment, pack it and set it back up for every service. Sometimes we run into technical issues – that can really turn off any new families or members who are expecting to worship for the time they’re here.”
Jimenez said Discover pays $905 per month for their lease, which includes classrooms and the cafeteria for a few hours each week. If they go over allotted time, it’s approximately $20 per hour.
For now, he is sharing sermons and musical ministry through straight-from-the-house Facebook Live videos.
Growing congregations face the problem of predicting the appropriate size of the building needed before construction can begin, whether the community starts with 60 or 1,200. Congregations are also hesitant to consider loans.
Mat Balgaard, pastor for Church of Celebration, which meets in the MHS Performing Arts Center under normal circumstances, said the church of 1,200 members was gifted five acres of land in Maricopa, but they hold off on making plans for construction due to the size of the community and fluctuating interest rates.
“We have two services with around 700 people in each, and the auditorium can comfortably fit more than that. But if we outgrow this space, we would probably need to have more services,” Balgaard said.
For the duration of the pandemic, COC leadership is streaming services live on Facebook and YouTube. It also has social media groups corresponding with each other and special videos on its website for adults and kids.
Many places of faith hold the strong belief that a building is not needed for their congregations to thrive. Some churches would rather spend time and effort engaging in their communities rather than focusing on purchasing property.
“We want to build a building to be able to do things we feel that Jesus has called us to do for families in Maricopa,” Balgaard said. “We couldn’t have afforded the ministry that we have had over the past 14 years had we built a building right away. A lot of the money we would’ve brought in would’ve been spent on facilities. I don’t think we as a church were ready for that, it would’ve changed our priorities.”
Other churches have begun saving and looking at first steps towards a privately owned building but are prepared for the wait of several years.
Our Lady of Grace Catholic Parish, for instance, grew its building fund for decades before launching The Crossing. Members of Mount Moriah African Methodist Episcopal Church, Maricopa’s newest, stand-alone church building, took six years of concentrated effort to fund construction. Jehovah’s Witnesses are in the process of building a Kingdom Hall in Maricopa and currently meet out of town.
In a city approaching 55,000 population, it is easier to count churches in their own buildings than those that meet in school, residential or commercial settings. First Baptist Church of Maricopa has been in place more than 60 years. The Catholic church has had a presence in Maricopa since 1960. Maricopa Community Church has been around 57 years. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been in town for decades and now has three buildings.
Others who meet in their own buildings include Masjid Bilas Ibn Rabah, Shiloh Fellowship, Community of Hope, Church of Christ and Maricopa Assembly of God. Achieving and maintaining church ownership is not easy for congregations.
“It’s a long process of trusting God,” Zimbelman said, “and having faith that God will provide in His timing.”
List of 11 churches leasing meeting space at MUSD:
Apostolic Tabernacle Santa Cruz Elementary School
Church of Celebration Maricopa High School Performing Arts Center
Discover Community Church Saddleback Elementary School
Gospel Light Church of God in Christ Santa Cruz Elementary School
Grace Fellowship Santa Rosa Elementary School
Journey United Methodist Maricopa Wells Middle School
Maricopa Lutheran Desert Wind Middle School
Maricopa Springs Church Maricopa High School
Propel Church Pima Butte Elementary School
Walk By Faith Butterfield Elementary School
Waypoint Church Maricopa Elementary School
MUSD Rental Fee Schedule (Class III)
Classroom $2.40/hour $14.40/day
Cafeteria w/o kitchen $11.60/hour $69.60/day
High school multi-purpose room $23.15/hour $138.95/day
Middle school multi-purpose room $17.40/hour $104.25/day
PAC with a/v, lights, chairs $92.60/hour $555.60/day
Sunday custodial fee $32.55/hour
This story appears in part in the April issue of InMaricopa.