Originally created 05/18/98

Church overcomes its debt-ridden past



Bondholders for Maranatha Christian Church got pleasant news after Easter. They would get their bond investment back this year instead of in 2012, a day that might never have come for some elderly investors.

"The dark cloud of financial pressure is finally broken off of Maranatha," said the Rev. Cesar Brooks, who followed the church's founders, the Rev. Stephen Conn and his wife, Patricia, in the pastorate six years ago.

During his first months at Maranatha, the Rev. Brooks discovered that Maranatha owed the Assemblies of God retirement fund $80,000. Vendors were showing up right and left, and investors in their 70s were asking to cash in their bonds, he said. "I tell people the first couple of months I had a Bible on one hand and Maalox on the other."

Maranatha started with 40 charter members under the pastorate of the Rev. Conn in 1979.

Despite double-digit inflation in the early '80s, the church decided to build on 7 1/2 acres on Warren Road. Jane Murphey, a trust officer with the bond managing company, Reliance Trust Co. in Atlanta, said churches don't want to borrow money but would rather sell bonds to members.

Jack Joyner, a member of the Maranatha council, went door to door persuading friends to buy the bonds, typically a secure investment, he said.

During the $1 million bond campaign, costs for the new sanctuary and education building rose to $1.3 million. Contributions, however, dropped. "The church had two splits because one youth minister, and then another, left. They thought the time had come for them to leave and start new churches," said the Rev. Brooks.

The Rev. Mark Wallace left with 100 to 150 people for New Hope Church of God of Martinez in late 1984. He later moved to the Atlanta area and is no longer pastoring, said the Rev. Bryan Cockrell, pastor of New Hope.

The Rev. Marty Baker succeeded him in February 1985. About two years later, he left with about 24 people to start The Church of the Harvest, now called Stevens Creek Community Church.

The Rev. Conn ran unsuccessfully for the Georgia Legislature to represent Columbia County. He also wrote a column for The Augusta Chronicle which was syndicated in 60 newspapers. In addition, he traveled heavily.

The changes began to affect the congregation. The Rev. Baker left Nov. 4, 1987.

The day before Thanksgiving in 1987, the Rev. Conn moved the church's affiliation from Church of God in Cleveland, Tenn., to Assemblies of God. If Maranatha had stayed with the Church of God, he doubts it would have gone bankrupt, though the pastor might have lost his job, said the Rev. Baker.

The church took out a second bond issue for $100,000 in 1987.

In 1991, the Rev. Conn, chose bankruptcy to relieve the church's woes. Bankruptcy lowered the interest rate paid lenders and eased the pay-back schedule.

About two years later, he resigned from Maranatha, divorced his wife and left Augusta. The church was facing foreclosure. "He became ill and had a sickness that caused him to resign," said C.E. Miller of North Augusta, Mrs. Conn's father.

The Rev. Conn suffered chronic fatigue syndrome, which caused him headaches, enormous fatigue and confusion, said Mrs. Conn, who became addicted to pain medication about the same time. She had a spinal defect worsened by two automobile accidents and surgery.

"They never did get so far apart that they lost contact, so they did remarry a couple of years later," Mr. Miller said. The Conns now minister to other couples through Family Spiritual Ministries in Cleveland, Tenn.

The Rev. Brooks, pastor of Faith Fellowship in North Augusta with about 250 members, agreed to be pastor at Maranatha and merged the congregations. He had no idea when he took over the pastorate that the church had so much debt, he said. "People called it the Titanic."

He diligently worked to restore Maranatha's credit by paying back small high-interest loans. He had a special fund-raiser to pay back the $80,000 loan, said Mr. Joyner.

Maranatha has grown from about 150 members before the merger to about 1,200 members today, and contributions have kept pace. The church raised $100,000 earlier this year to secure a loan from Regions Bank to allow it to close the bond program.

The new mortgage arrangement saved the church $500,000 in interest, said the Rev. Brooks.

About 350 families had purchased the bonds.

Mr. Joyner didn't think he would ever see his money again, he said. "I had given the money to God and it didn't matter. But it weighed on my heart that I had convinced other people to give." He said he is grateful the Rev. Brooks paid the money back.

The Rev. Baker said the Rev. Brooks accepted pain in becoming the church's pastor. "He expanded their vision. Maranatha is stronger than it has ever been."