CHICAGO — Steve Robledo was a newly ordained minister in search of a flock when he had what he calls a vision from God: He was to start his congregation in a grand church building for sale on the west side of Elgin, Ill., a brick and stone edifice with soaring stained-glass windows and dark wood pews.
He had no money but plenty of faith, and sure enough, his vision came to pass. Two businessmen and Robledo's pastor agreed to provide the financing, and soon his fledgling Lighthouse Community Church had its home.
Five years later, though, this mission of divine inspiration has run into earthly trouble.
Robledo's nondenominational congregation is a fraction of its 200-member peak, diminished by the recession and an internal schism. With contributions down sharply, the church can't afford to pay its $3,100 rent or fix maintenance problems that have drawn a lawsuit from the city.
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If this were a business deal gone bad or a house in foreclosure, you could chalk it up as a simple case of irrational exuberance. But Robledo, who says he has gone without a salary for more than a year to pay church bills, said he had no regrets about plunging into an agreement he knew made little fiscal sense.
"If you believe in God, you don't wait for the provision to come," he said.
While the particulars of Lighthouse's struggle are unique, they reflect the financial trouble many churches are suffering: An analysis by Reuters found that church foreclosures have tripled since the recession began in 2007.
Church business matters are often complicated by spiritual concerns, an expert said, creating friction within congregations and sometimes leading to risky decisions.
"Depending on a person's spiritual commitment and mystical propensities, he may look for divine authority and weight that greater than sound business principles," said Richard Hammar, a church tax and legal expert based in Missouri.
Robledo, a former bank manager, was well-versed in the practicalities of business before becoming a minister. But that experience didn't matter when he received his vision in 2005.
He was looking for a small place in downtown Elgin to host services when one evening, he said, he received a heavenly summons to go to a building just west of the Fox River that was being sold by Grace United Methodist Church.
He arrived in the middle of the night, he said, and as his vision foretold, there was a man outside working on the building. The man showed him around, but upon learning that Robledo had no money, said the minister would need a miracle to acquire the church.
"Sir," Robledo replied, "I believe in miracles."
After that, he said, everything fell into place. He ran into a church acquaintance at a picnic and pitched the idea of buying the church.
The acquaintance, a businessman named Bill Wayda, teamed up with a partner to provide the money. Robledo's pastor, Larry DeSantis of Bloomingdale, Ill.-based Aquila Christian Ministries, signed the mortgage. Robledo agreed to pay rent.
The idea was that Robledo would quickly grow the congregation, building enough of a cash flow that he could get his own bank loan and become the owner of the building.
"These things are normally not done, but I had a lot of faith in (Robledo's) ministry," DeSantis said.
The plan hasn't worked out. Robledo said the church grew quickly in the beginning, but contributions were never enough to satisfy bankers. And then, in 2009, an associate pastor formed his own church, taking half the congregation with him.
The recession diminished offerings even more, and Robledo said he stopped taking a salary. He also suspended the church's food pantry to save money on electricity. Those steps weren't enough, and he recently told Wayda he could no longer make the full payment.
Wayda agreed to cut it in half temporarily, but that hasn't ended the church's trouble. In 2009, Elgin filed suit over lingering maintenance problems and gave Lighthouse until the summer to fix them — at what Robledo said would cost a minimum of $20,000. If the work isn't done, Elgin could issue fines starting at $50 a day, and ultimately could condemn the building.
It might not reach that point. Wayda and his partner have put the building up for sale at an asking price of $590,000, and if they're successful, Wayda said, they will share the proceeds with Lighthouse and Aquila.
"I never did it for the investment purpose," Wayda said, adding that he had to borrow money to fund the building purchase. "I did it from the kindness of my heart. He had a calling."
Despite the uncertainty, church life goes on.
One recent Sunday, 30 worshippers heard a lively sermon that cast financial trouble as a test of faith. When God provides the inspiration, Robledo said, he will eventually provide the means.
Asked later how he thought those means would arrive, the pastor said he didn't know.
"I always have just one plan," he said. "If it comes from God, that's the only plan."