At this church, there’s always room at the inn

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PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS)—Eric Bahme no longer apologizes for being a preacher who keeps his eye on the bottom line. He is both a pastor and a businessman, he says, because that’s how God made him.

“Within every single person, God plants a desire,” said Bahme, 45. “I was created entrepreneurial. I love business. But I also love the church.”

Dressed in slacks and a button-down shirt, Bahme is hunched over a table in Sacred Grounds, the coffee shop next to two chain motels his church runs near Portland International Airport.

Elena Rodriguez finishes clean-up on one of the motel rooms owned by Eastside Foursquare Church in Portland, Ore.

Bahme’s 600-member church, Eastside Foursquare Church, operates two hotels, a Quality Inn & Suites and a Rodeway Inn. The church itself meets in a converted banquet room above the coffee shop.

Bahme’s goal, when he started the church in 2002, was to create a successful business that could support Christian ministries. He calls his approach mission-based entrepreneurship and believes it’s the key to financially sustainable ministry. He hopes his new book—Does the Church Own All This?—will allay doubts about mission-based entrepreneurship.

Many churches—aside from the occasional coffee shop or clothing thrift store—generally steer clear of business for philosophical reasons. Succeeding in business offers too many temptations to compromise religious values, said Steve Rundle, co-author of Great Commission Companies: The Emerging Role of Business in Missions and an economics professor at Biola University in California.

“All this,” Bahme said, his gesture taking in the coffee shop, church and motels, “is about mission and money. But money will always be second.”

Pastor Eric Bahme leads Sunday services at Eastside Foursquare Church in Portland, Ore., which runs a coffee shop and holds services at two church-owned hotels near the city's airport.

In June 2004, Eastside Foursquare Church plunked down $3.8 million and became an instant innkeeper. The church couldn’t afford to shut the motels during remodeling. Leaders identified a few usable rooms, tried to rent them and worked on the rest.

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Bahme’s wife, Rita, shudders when she remembers those early days.

“You’d take five steps into a room and take 15 steps out,” she said. The rooms reeked. The foil wallpaper was in tatters. Chunks of the ceiling had been ground to dust on the floors, which were covered with filthy carpet.

The three to six months set aside for remodeling became a two-year, $5 million process. Church volunteers and professional contractors ripped walls back to the studs, replumbed rooms, installed granite countertops and moved in big-screen televisions and pillow-top mattresses.

The only overtly religious item in each room is a Bible lying on the nightstand. Church volunteers write welcome notes inside the covers and invite guests to take the books with them. In the lobby, the soft background music is Christian pop. When the weather’s good, the church baptizes new members in the outdoor swimming pool.

Other than that, Bahme said, no one mentions Christianity unless a guest asks about it. He encourages the motel staff—and his congregation—to let their actions speak for their values.

Eastside’s di-verse congregation includes some of the drug users and prostitutes who once rented motel rooms by the hour before the church bought the properties.

Bahme believes the church is about transformation—of the people inside and the surrounding community outside. The external transformation has been welcomed by the local Parkrose Business Association.

Each room in the motel complex owned by Eastside Foursquare Church in Portland, Ore., contains a Bible personalized by a church member. (RNS PHOTOs/Randy L. Rasmussen/The Oregonian)

“The police were constantly at that corner,” said Parkrose board member Marsha Lee. “It had become practically a house of ill repute.”

Today, both motels related to the church serve an often secular public. About 33,500 guests checked in last year. Last summer, business turned the corner financially, and they’ve made a profit since then.

Like all churches, Eastside is tax-exempt and self-supporting. Technically, the motels belong to Eastside’s denomination, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. As the sole member of Eastside Community Care Corp., the church can’t keep profits but must disperse them to other nonprofits. The corporation pays income, lodging and other taxes, and about 60 percent of property taxes. The corporation has a partial exemption because nonprofit programs occupy several motel rooms, Bahme said.

Even before the motels made a profit, the church found ministries to support by offering motel rooms as office, residential and meeting space. A Christian counseling center, a jobs-training program, an outreach for breast cancer survivors and a residential addiction-recovery program all operate out of Eastside motel rooms. The church also has made significant contributions to a new shelter for homeless families.

“The idea is not to reinvent the wheel,” Bahme said of the ministries. “We want to find good wheels, partner with them and make sure they keep working.”


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