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The Surprise Inside Church Bankruptcies

After its revenues plunged from $55 million to $25 million over three years, in 2010 the Crystal Cathedral filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code. They weren't alone: nearly 500 others did over a five-year period. University of Illinois law professor Pamela Foohey took a closer look at church bankruptcy filings from 2006-11 and continues to track them. Her study, "Bankrupting the Faith," is forthcoming in the Missouri Law Review.) She was interviewed by Ken Walker, who wrote today's article on the effects of so many church bankruptcies.

What motivated you to take a closer look at church filings?

I decided to hone in on religious organizations' use of bankruptcy law. They occupy a distinct place in our society and have a distinct mission, which I thought would be useful to explore.

You mention religious organizations and small businesses have some of the same vulnerabilities. Are there any ways churches use Chapter 11 differently?

They're much different when they enter Chapter 11. They come into bankruptcy owning a larger church building, but the amount outstanding on the mortgage is less than the building's value. The fact that they have a significant asset and own part of it makes them distinct from small businesses.

You say that leadership helps determine the viability of a financially troubled church. Is that any different than a small business?

Many times churches using Chapter 11 are only going to succeed if a dynamic leader is part of the church and does what he does to make the church a viable business—to revitalize the membership or work to change what the church is doing so there is a better revenue stream. So in that way they're very similar.

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The Surprise Inside Church Bankruptcies
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November 2013

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