Minnesota pastor restores old Twin Cities churches
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Neither heights nor tight spaces nor buckets of bat guano can stand between the Rev. Paul Marzahn and his vision to transform derelict churches into beautiful places of worship.
“They’ve nicknamed me the church flipper,” he said with a chuckle. “I have an eye for properties that have value. I fix them up and bring the partners together and make the finances work, then show the congregation how to take over that space.”
He’s done it three times now — a little country church in Waterville; a 125-year-old church in Minneapolis; and a 150-year-old church in Inver Grove Heights — and he’s already got a fourth property in mind.
Marzahn, 55, the pastor of Crossroads Church in Lakeville, spends about 15 hours a week on his church-flipping endeavors, a talent that’s evolved into a side consulting business that takes him to church properties all over the United States.
How does he find these opportunities?
“It’s kind of a God thing,” he told the Pioneer Press . “People usually come to me.”
His biggest project so far was next to the Minneapolis Convention Center. An aerial view of the downtown structure shows a mostly rectangular shape with the northwest corner cut out. That’s where Wesley United Methodist Church has been since 1891.
In 2007, its congregation disbanded. Recovery Church occupied the building until 2009. Then it came under the ownership of the Minnesota branch of the United Methodist Church. Marzahn got involved, renting the building as an extension of Crossroads Church. His daughter, Rebekah Coffman, was hired to manage the building as an event planner.
The Wesley building was expensive to maintain, so in 2015, the Methodists listed it for sale. Buyers came calling, including Prince. Another was the convention center, which no doubt wanted the last piece of its land puzzle. Neither was interested in letting the current ministries continue, Marzahn said.
Marzahn had gotten to know the 30,300-square-foot building often called the “mother church” in Minneapolis Methodism due to the 10 churches that came out of its congregation. He’d shoveled a dumpster-full of bat and pigeon dung out of its attic. He’d strapped on a harness and repaired its leaky roof. He knew every secret tower and hidden tunnel in the building and he couldn’t bear to see it become something other than a church.
So with the help of his wife and children, he formed a nonprofit called the Historic Wesley Center on Grant Street and bought the building for $1 million through a contract for deed in July 2016.
It was risky. The family had mortgaged everything and scraped together $100,000 as a down payment. If they couldn’t pay the million or find someone who could before the contract ran out, they would lose everything.
Marzahn said he and his wife had decided if that happened, they would live at the church. He spent many hours praying in the church’s secret prayer tower where members of his grandfather’s era used to keep a prayer vigil 24 hours a day. He said his grandfather told him the church stopped the vigil the day before the stock market crashed in 1929, an incident for which his grandfather felt somewhat responsible.
“My grandpa said, ‘If we had kept praying, the Depression wouldn’t have happened,’ ” Marzahn said.
As Marzahn prayed, things started happening at Substance Church, a megachurch in Spring Lake Park.
The Rev. Peter Haas was also praying. His church was bursting at the seams and he needed to open another campus, preferably in Minneapolis. One day, his young daughter told him she had a dream that he would buy a church with a tall ceiling and a balcony — within the week.
“I almost laughed out loud,” Haas said. “After all, how in the world was I supposed to find a building with a balcony — and then decide to buy it by the next Thursday? I knew every available commercial property in the whole central metro area — and not one of them had a balcony.”
Soon after, he was contacted by someone who had talked to Marzahn. Before he left to tour the Wesley Church, his daughter had more to say: “And, oh yeah, I forgot to tell you ... it’s covered in red.”
She added: “And the Lord told me, you’ll know this building is the one when you look up and say ‘Wow!’ ”
“It simply didn’t make sense to me,” Haas said.
When he entered the church, where the sanctuary is decorated in red, his eyes were drawn up to the elaborate glass domes.
“When I saw them, the word just flew out of my mouth ... ‘Wow.’ And the moment I heard myself say it, I literally freaked out,” he said.
Shortly after, Substance Church bought the building. They will begin restoring it in January, church leaders said.
Marzahn grew up in Waterville on a 400-acre family farm. He comes from a long line of hardworking German men who knew how to make something out of nothing.
His grandfather ran the farm and had a car dealership selling DeSotos. His father expanded the business to include “everything for the farm and home.” He also had a construction business.
“His motto was, ‘If you give me two weeks, I can get it,’” Marzahn said.
They were also men of faith, attending the Evangelical United Methodist Church in Waterville, where Marzahn was baptized and confirmed after becoming a Christian as a second-grader at a Billy Graham crusade.
He grew up learning to drive buses, cranes and bulldozers and helping with his dad’s construction business.
That knowledge, combined with his heart for ministry, armed him with tools unique for church flipping.
“You don’t try to sell your house when it’s falling apart; you fix it up, make it look its best and then you sell it. That’s what I did,” he said.
Marzahn graduated from Hamline University with a double major in social studies education and religion, and a fiancee. He married his wife, Deb, a year later.
He attended seminary at Garrett-Evangelical Theological school and was ordained by the Methodists in 1990.
While serving at United Methodist Church in Rosemount, Marzahn’s bishop noticed he had a knack for starting nonprofits and asked if he’d like to plant a church in Lakeville. He took the challenge and moved his family to the Lake Marion area, where he started knocking on doors, inviting folks to share a lasagna supper in his home.
He said God had given him the idea to build a church at the corner of Cedar Avenue and Dodd Boulevard. He was so sure about it, he went out into the cornfield and planted a cross in the ground, claiming the property for God. The farmer initially chased him off, but over time, Marzahn wore him down and bought the 270 acres.
“I had no money, nothing but a vision,” he said. “I gave him $10,000 and had three years to raise $3 million.”
That’s when his networking skills came into play. He didn’t just want to build a church, he wanted to build a mixed-use area, including housing and a strip mall with a grocery store. He started gathering partners, sharing his vision and getting it done.
The church, which started with five people in his living room, has grown to 500 with five campuses (two have gone independent) and a variety of social service ministries. Nearby are townhouses and single-family homes and a strip mall with a Cub Foods grocery store.
Marzahn’s latest project is Salem United Methodist Church in Inver Grove Heights, a 150-year-old church built by German settlers. This one has a bell tower, which Marzahn cleared of bat guano. He also polished the bell, stamped with the date 1861 and probably moved from a former log cabin church.
He’s lined up a day care center, L.O.V.E. Christian Childcare, to partner with the congregation to help pay for the renovations.
While Marzahn was at the church earlier this month, a young pastor, Josh Meyers of North Summit Church in Blaine, dropped in to get some advice. He’s got a congregation that’s about 80 percent millennials and needs to find a new building. Marzahn sees North Summit as the type of congregation that could revitalize another old church building.
“Churches that are dying should look to people like Josh and say, ‘This is a blessing because someone is using this building; this is a blessing because the next generation has a place to worship,’” Marzahn said.
When a congregation is fading, he believes, its members need to see not a death, but a chance for rebirth.
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com