At the time, getting a church building for nothing seemed like a godsend.

In the 1970s, flourishing African American congregations in the United Methodist Church were encouraged by the hierarchy to acquire houses of worship from white congregations whose memberships were declining as city neighborhoods changed. In such "sales" within the denomination, no money was permitted to change hands.

But what started decades ago as a freebie has turned into a financial millstone.  Many of the black churches found themselves saddled with deteriorating buildings that cost a fortune to maintain, forcing them into crippling debt to banks and the denomination itself.

In resolutions passed last month, the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church — representing 125,000 members in more than 400 churches across 16 counties — acknowledged what it described as an unjust effort to direct its black churches into aging structures, even as the denomination was working to distance itself from a segregationist past that had lasted into the 1960s.

The conference agreed to cancel an estimated $3 million in certain categories of debt accrued by its nearly 30 African American churches as they struggled to pay health-care costs, property and liability insurance, donations to international missions, and other expenses.

"This is our attempt at atonement for two harmful acts we cannot change: the segregation of African American churches … and handing over poor buildings to an already at-risk community," said the Rev. William Lentz, a member of the Conference Council on Finance and Administration and pastor of Lehman Memorial Church in Hatboro.

"We never dealt with the pain, indignity, and sinfulness" of those practices, Lentz said.

The stone exterior of Wharton-Wesley United Methodist Church, built in 1905, in Southwest Philadelphia.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
The stone exterior of Wharton-Wesley United Methodist Church, built in 1905, in Southwest Philadelphia.

The African American churches are not alone in having their onerous burdens lightened. Reducing their tab is part of a larger effort to wipe away more than $15 million owed to the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference not only by the black congregations but by 70 other member churches, as well. That fresh start, conference officials hope, will spur a renewed commitment to vibrant ministry, the kind that inspires faith — and grows churches that can keep up with their bills.

However, in recognition of the role that racial injustice played in their financial straits, black congregations will have more of their debt forgiven, specifically past-due property and liability insurance payments.

"When you owe something like $250,000, you might say, 'Holy mackerel, why even try?'" said Lentz.  The seemingly insurmountable debt can paralyze congregations and become "a disincentive" to pay.

Wharton-Wesley United Methodist Church in Southwest Philadelphia owes the conference about $400,000. The African American church is housed in a soaring, turn-of-the-20th-century stone building at 54th and Catherine Streets, where about 75 people worship on a typical Sunday.  Since moving into it in the mid-1970s, the congregation has invested more than $1 million in maintaining the building.

Yet the church has continued chipping away at its bills by juggling expenses, including cutting back on such ministries as its food pantry.

"We always knew there was no way we would be able to pay off $400,000," said longtime member Lenora Thompson, "but we sacrificed to pay as a matter of good faith. We see it as a part of who we are and what it means to be United Methodist."

All member churches in the local United Methodist conference are encouraged to pay what is called a monthly apportionment, which goes toward programming such as young adult and lay ministries, international missions, and contributions to the national denomination. They also have been expected to pony up for some health care, pension, insurance and other expenses.

Some congregations had angrily accused the local conference of being insensitive to the financial plight of member churches, represented by unpaid bill after unpaid bill, Lentz said.

In the new debt-reducing initiatives, most of those obligations have been canceled, but churches still must pay clergy and some lay employees' health insurance and clergy pension that is owed.

Especially across mainline Christian denominations, keeping up has become increasingly difficult as churches cope with declining membership and increasing costs.

Payments to denominations are shrinking, said the Rev. J. Clif Christopher, a United Methodist minister, church finance consultant and co-author of Holy Smoke!: Whatever Happened to Tithing?  Across the country, apportionments go unpaid by hundreds of churches every year.  The money owed is not necessarily forgiven, but usually no punitive measures are imposed for failing to pay, Christopher said.

In canceling much of its members' debt, the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference is taking the financial hit. But in some ways, the resolutions are a recognition that at a time of change for established denominations, the likelihood of actually collecting was small.

The Rev. David Brown looks toward the large stained-glass windows inside the Wharton-Wesley United Methodist Church.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
The Rev. David Brown looks toward the large stained-glass windows inside the Wharton-Wesley United Methodist Church.

The local conference dipped into its reserves to cover the unpaid bills, Lentz said. Conference officials are hoping that the churches will make a renewed effort to keep up with a reduced monthly apportionment, helping rebuild those reserves.

For the African American churches, the debt-relief resolution, crafted after two years of discussion, should not be construed as a handout, as "white helping black and rich helping poor," said Bishop Peggy Johnson, who heads the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference.

In terms of atonement, "it's a very tiny step," she said, "and also a recognition of how far we have to go."

Until the conference calculates the amount of money each congregation will be forgiven, the Wharton-Wesley congregation won't know how much of its $400,000 debt will disappear.

The church was formed in the early 1970s as a merger of Wesley Church, a thriving black congregation in West Philadelphia needing space to expand, and Wharton Church, a dwindling white congregation a short distance away in a changing neighborhood, said the Rev. David Brown, a Wharton-Wesley deacon. The congregations came together in Wharton's building.

Wesley had been part of the denomination's segregated Delaware Conference for black churches before the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference desegregated in 1965, followed by the national church in 1968. Eventually, the white members of the newly merged Wharton-Wesley Church died off or moved away. Over the years, the congregation has coped as the building flooded, the foundation cracked, the roof leaked, and heating bills ballooned.

The church was recently selected to participate in a program with Partners for Sacred Places, a national nonprofit based in Philadelphia that assists struggling congregations in partnering with neighborhood stakeholders to re-imagine the church's role. The program, Brown said, will point Wharton-Wesley back toward its roots as a community-based church.

The debt forgiveness will speed it on its way, helping repair "100 years of marginalization and neglect," he said, and "in the process, restore equity and justice."