By RaeAnn Slaybaugh
In its early life, Sagebrush was a church on the move — for eight years, to be exact.
“It’s a funny thing; sometimes in the church world, people want you to have a building to legitimize you,” says Administrative Pastor Bob Church. “And yeah, portability is kind of fun, because it’s pioneering. It’s just difficult to maintain over time.”
Back in 2006, when Church joined the staff at Sagebrush, it might have been difficult to imagine the rapid and unique growth trajectory the church would enjoy over the next several years, from a portable church to one with nine locations. As it unfolded, though, he participated and observed from a unique vantage point:
“I’ve watched this thing just explode over the last 11 years.”
Seeking a more permanent place
It was soon after Church joined the team in 2006 when Sagebrush’s pursuit of permanent facilities began. In fact, he oversaw the first building project. The goal: to stabilize the church with a permanent facility.
Now, with nine locations, the next goal is to make sure each location has its own permanent facility. Rather than build or retrofit them one at a time, Sagebrush is moving fast. To date, the church has five permanent facilities — leaders were able to pay cash for three; the other two carry mortgages.
And, the search is always on for permanent facilities to house Sagebrush’s four
So, it’s not surprising to hear Church describe the lending component of this expansion as “interesting.” It’s an understatement, really; this unique model could present a potentially unsurmountable challenge for an unprepared, unfamiliar lender.
Church knew this; so, with the help of one of the church elders and a banking expert, he began vetting different lending options. Having carefully considered four different outfits, from bond companies to traditional banks, Bank of the West ultimately emerged as the most flexible, familiar — and fast — option for Sagebrush.
“The best, simplest answer is that [the bank] spoke our language,” Church recalls. “We’re a ministry, but we have a business aspect to us. I think they understand that.”
Case in point: Gary Livacari, regional relationship manager for Bank of the West Religious Institution Banking in the Southwest. Livacari emphasizes the importance of understanding the “business” the bank’s church customers are in. He and his team drill down into the operations of its church clients to ensure they can act quickly when necessary and, at any time, come alongside church clients to evaluate their options.
That way, Livacari says, when clients like Sagebrush come to him with ideas for expansion that might necessitate a loan, the bank is able to render a decision quickly.
Familiarity breeds fluidity
With this fast, but informed dynamic as the foundation, Church and Livacari have worked in tandem for several years to ensure Sagebrush’s expansion is quick, fluid and smartly funded. They speak often and meet at least once a year, sometimes more. Livacari has been to Sagebrush’s campuses, even observing construction projects.
“He’s had a chance to really ‘get’ us,” Church says. “From a lending perspective, it means he knows our heartbeat — what we’re trying to do and where we feel God is leading us.”
Another reason the relationship works is the bank’s ability to tailor financing options to each stage of Sagebrush’s growth. For starters, that meant refinancing the debt the church carried from its first facility. True to form, that process moved fast: In November 2014, Livacari and Church’s team met to discuss options. By February 2015, refinancing was complete.
But, that was only the beginning.
Within a year, church leaders constructed two more large buildings — an unusually rapid expansion prompted by the identification of a highly desirable Rio Rancho, NM, property: a medical complex with several active tenants. This provided rental income, which helped Sagebrush leaders remodel about 50 percent of the space for church use.
Additionally, most tenants are closed on Sundays — Sagebrush’s busiest day — and the church has great relationships with them. “So, it’s been very mutually beneficial,” Church says.
While finding the ideal facility (at the right place, the right time, and for the right price) is a critical and challenging part of the equation, it’s only half. Having a predictable, solid lending partner makes the vision a reality.
To this end, additional credit for the loan was provided quickly, even so soon after refinancing Sagebrush’s existing debt. “We were familiar with the church’s financial situation and its financial strength,” Livacari explains. “So, we were in a good position to make a fast, informed decision about supporting the Rio Rancho acquisition.”
The value of that rapid response certainly isn’t lost on Church.
“In this world of church expansion, as far as finding permanent facilities goes, it takes a lot of looking to find something that fits,” he shares. “With all our facilities, we always say there’s a moment when we know this is a ‘God thing.’ So, when you find that rare, ideal facility, you want to be able to move quickly if need be.”
More facilities, more ministry
Moving quickly is clearly a strong suit for the church and the bank, especially when they work together.
By 2012, the church already had three locations and had doubled the worship space in its original facility. By early 2015, when Bank of the West refinanced Sagebrush’s existing debt, it was clear that there would be no slowing down.
“By that time, [the bank] said, ‘Hey, we’re here, we get you, and we’re available as you move forward through this process of looking for permanent facilities,” Church recalls.
As Livacari explains, the ability to move quickly from a financing perspective is possible thanks to knowable, predictable lending criteria. “And I think we’re very transparent, up front, about that criteria,” he adds.
Church agrees that this familiarity — not only between the bank and Sagebrush, but also with the
lending process and criteria — has been essential to fueling the church’s rapid expansion. “When leaders of a church are making decisions about lending partners, they appreciate having good insight into what their banking partner can (and can’t) support in the future.”
To make it work well, debt is assigned to different “buckets,” giving Sagebrush a high degree of flexibility and offering payment options that are consistent with the ministry’s ever-progressing vision for expansion. “This way, we can have some short-term plans and some long-term plans that are comfortable for us,” Church says. “It allows us to assign certain debt on a long-term basis and pay off other debt quicker, more short-term.”
Now, as the church seeks permanent facilities for its four remaining locations, this fluidity is proving instrumental. So is familiarity.
“Our relationship with the bank has always been more dynamic than static,” Church explains. “I have conversations with [Livacari] all the time where he’s asking, ‘Where are you guys at? What are you looking at? Do we need to start looking at this property? Will that be a lending-type situation?’”
For his part, Livacari acknowledges why he stays apprised of the church’s attendance, financial situation and more on an ongoing basis: It ensures that he and his team know what does and doesn’t work at Sagebrush in terms of driving and sustaining growth — critical information for making an informed lending decision.
QUICK FACTS ABOUT SAGEBRUSH CHURCH
Year Established: 1999 (Super Bowl weekend)
Location of main campus: Albuquerque, NM
Number of locations: 9
Number of staff (full-and part-time): 124
Combined weekly attendance: 13,000
2017 Budget: $14 million
It also enables Livacari to be transparent as Sagebrush looks to find and finance permanent facilities for its four remaining locations. This ability and willingness to be up front, honest, and quick to respond about what can (and can’t) be done will be crucial to that endeavor.
As Church points out, this dynamic also means he and his team at Sagebrush don’t have to start from square one every time they reach out regarding an important initiative. “If we find a place we like, we can talk to the bank and potentially get it financed,” he says. “Then, at least we know whether or not we have the ability to move forward. That’s so much better than getting well down the road and finding out that financing isn’t likely.”
Of course, having a trusted financial partner in place also frees up Sagebrush leaders to do what they do best: ministry.
“Going through the financing process with a bank that doesn’t necessarily understand a church can be very arduous, especially when you’re expanding and growing and looking at permanent facilities,” Church says. “If you’re bogged down, it just makes everything more difficult.”
It takes two
Looking to the future, Church says he is particularly excited to establish permanency for every Sagebrush location. That’s the near-term goal. Long-term, he says, he’s encouraged by the fact that the church has a good working partner as its vision expands even more broadly.
Livacari is equally optimistic, citing Sagebrush as a church with “dynamic and very capable leadership,” particularly in the area of financial management.
“We have a proven track record of providing the resources and expertise religious institutions need to broaden their ministries and deepen their impact,” he says. “We care about Sagebrush’s success and aspire to build a relationship that grows with the church over the long term.”
“So, it’s really a blessing to have Sagebrush as a customer.”