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Worshippers crowd the main room of Grace Missionary Baptist Church in Livermore on Sunday.
LIVERMORE -- Jim Williams, pastor of the Grace Missionary Baptist Church in Livermore, said his small church can barely house his congregation.

The little church in a residential neighborhood was bought four years ago, and now its followers swell the sanctuary. "We expanded and now it's packed," he said.

The 1,500-square-foot church with two bathrooms and 15 parking spaces now has to be divided up for worship and Sunday school, creating a tight squeeze for its 60 active members. There was no other choice.

"We're looking to buy a larger one and move on," Williams said. The church's asking price is $750,000.

The church's agent, Hal Miller, wasn't used to selling churches, so he turned to someone who was, Barry Willbanks.

Willbanks' Web site, http://www.churches4sale.com, says it all. A Menlo Park-based agent and associate broker for Coldwell Banker, once a pastor and a professor of religious studies, Willbanks now specializes in selling churches. After his first sale in 1982, the churches seemed to find him.

"I realized there was a niche there," he said.

The niche seems to be growing, as several agents with church listings in La Honda, San Jose, Ventura and Orange County want to be placed on his Web site.

"It surprises people when they hear about selling churches," he said. "To them, it almost seems sacrilegious."

Willbanks said his typical buyer is an ethnic group willing to drive a long distance looking for a church property.


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He said he previously worked with Korean, Samoan, Tongan and Ethiopian church groups. The typical seller, he said, is a church whose members are dwindling or the church is no longer big enough.

On Willbanks' Web site, three churches are for sale in San Jose, two in Oakland and the Grace Missionary Baptist Church in Livermore.

Like residential buyers, congregations also use financing to afford a new home.

Willbanks said that brokers lend to churches but often require a higher down payment, usually about 30 percent, and require three years of financial records.

"Nobody likes the possibility of foreclosure," he said. "And nobody wants to be the company foreclosing on a church."

Because of the high cost of permits and building a new church, Williams said the congregation is looking to buy a larger church facility and suit it to its needs.

Simeon May, chief executive officer for the National Association of Church Business Administration in Richardson, Texas, said that many churches report an almost-adversarial relationship with cities and counties, so few churches have the luxury of building one from scratch.

"In decades past, churches were seen as beacons to the community and welcomed," he said. "Now it seems like city governments see churches as a nuisance because of traffic, lights and nothing on the tax rolls."

May said that friction will continue. "I think it's only going to get worse. They are not making any more land," he said. "I think many churches may even completely leave the neighborhood they are in or drive longer distances."

May said there's no empirical data to support more churches being bought and sold, but the country's increasing population generally means changes for congregations.

"As churches grow they need more space, and as churches decline congregations put their churches on the market," he said.

Some gave their opinions as to why more churches appear to be changing hands.

Willbanks said that many are leaving small congregations to join megachurches, he said.

"Most people are raised on television and movies. We see superiorly talented people every day," he said. "It's hard to compare a village pastor to a professional."

Paul Giurlanda, a professor of theology and religious studies at St. Mary's College in Moraga, said that religion can also be considered passe for many in the Bay Area, especially in technocentric Silicon Valley.

"They tend to be very bright, capable and successful," he said. "And many are turned off by organized religion."

Because they believe so strongly in themselves and religion isn't in vogue in intellectual circles, they tend to consider themselves "spiritual" rather than religious, he said.

Meanwhile, Williams is optimistic. He said the congregation is looking in Livermore but is hoping for at least something in the Tri-Valley area.

"We're open to whatever the Lord opens up and provides for us," he said.

Barbara E. Hernandez covers real estate. Reach her at bhernandez@cctimes.com or 925-952-5063.