FENTON • Bargain hunters snapped up 40 years of Southwest Christian Church’s history last weekend. Tables, chairs — even pots and pans used for countless fellowship meals — were sold off as part of the church’s closure.
Southwest Christian has been wrangling with a tangle of debt tied to a failed $2 million church expansion that congregants helped finance. The project sits unfinished at 1694 Smizer Station Road, near Highway 141.
Now the remaining congregants who haven’t scattered will gather Sunday for one final service at a church some have attended for two generations.
At first glance, it seems like a tragic but familiar tale of a church getting too ambitious, growing faster than it ought.
But Douglas Lay, a former pastor at the church, is among those who tell a different story.
By his account, Southwest Christian historically played it smart, avoiding debt and making do with its aging and modest building.
At least it did until it ran into Loren Copp — a pastor and builder with a history of failed financial dealings.
“He left them up a creek without a paddle,” said Lay, who led the church in the late 1990s. “There are good people there.”
Copp, who became the church’s pastor in 2007, was the pastor when Southwest Christian decided to support the expansion project that would include a Christian high school, even though similar efforts in St. Louis County had failed in recent years. It started out at $1.5 million, then grew to $2 million.
Church members helped pitch in on the expansion by buying bonds, using the existing building as collateral.
Today, the project is stalled, mired in mediation with the original developer and lien holders claiming they haven’t been paid.
Copp has since moved on.
Jason Courtney of Commercial Source, the developer for the project, lays the blame at Copp’s feet.
“It was his mismanagement of the funds that caused the project to fall apart,” he said. “I am proud of how our company performed on this project and our books are open, if anybody would like to seem them.”
But Copp points the finger at the developer, saying he noticed things “were not adding up” with Commercial Source.
“It ended up biting (the church),” he said.
Copp said he was not involved in the construction of the failed project.
And while he supported it, he said, the decision to move forward was made by a unanimous vote of the congregation.
“I stayed back and stayed out of (the project) for intentional reasons,” he said, adding that once the gag order is lifted from the mediation, “I’ll give you some information.”
Copp was the subject of a front-page story in the Post-Dispatch in 2011 that outlined a history of bankruptcy and allegations of thousands of dollars in unpaid child support, deception and poor management involving construction projects he started and never finished.
At the time, an elder emeritus of the church said Copp was deliberately kept out of the construction of the new church and school expansion project.
“We hired him to preach and teach and we want him to spend his time doing those things,” Duane Boyd said.
Copp said he couldn’t sign off on anything related to the project that wasn’t given the authority of the elders.
He said he was merely an “employee working for the place.”
But some of those who are owed money from the project said Copp led the charge on the expansion project.
“He was the one who signed the contract and entered into agreement with us,” Shane Grasser, of Grasser Electric, said Friday. In 2012, the St. Peters company filed a breach of contract lawsuit for about $7,000 in unpaid bills.
A Grasser invoice for work on the project also is addressed to Copp.
Other companies said they are owed money but didn’t file lawsuits because it wasn’t worth the headache. Companies like Reifsteck and Sons Excavating in St. Charles.
“When I initially called Loren Copp, he was so great. He said, ‘I am going to make sure you get paid, if I have to pay you myself,’” recalled Ed Reifsteck, 80, president of the company he said is owed about $4,500.
Reifsteck, in business since 1969, added about Copp: “He tells you what you want to hear. Then when it gets to push to shove, he’s gone.”
Copp has a history of failed construction projects in Indiana and Southern Illinois.
In 2005, a judge approved a negotiated settlement of $203,400 to satisfy a suit brought against Copp by the Illinois attorney general, said to be a portion of what nine customers were owed. After moving to St. Louis in 2003, Copp was fired from Stocker Construction three years later for severe losses on projects he oversaw.
When Copp became the pastor at Southwest Christian, not much of his financial past was known at the church.
Since Copp’s history has come to light publicly, elders at the church have not commented. Nor has the new pastor, Eric Snyder, who was treasurer under Copp’s leadership.
“I won’t confirm or deny” anything, Snyder said.
Church leaders knew that the building project would be a major undertaking. But they believed they had a plan that would both underwrite the expense and satisfy the church’s goal to expand its outreach.
Under the plan, the new Christian high school would lease the expanded church building during the week.
And to help funnel students to the school and broaden the church’s ministry, some members supported an existing K-8 school Copp was involved with in south St. Louis.
Both schools are called Living Faith Christian Academy and are governed independently from the church by Copp’s own nonprofit — Ma Ji Ryu Christian Karate Association. Copp uses his martial arts skills to minister.
In 2011, Copp touted the high school project, saying it would open that fall. He brushed off skeptics, who pointed to other failed school projects in the area.
The schools would be funded by tuition, not church donations.
“This is a school that is going to be run as a business,” he told the Post-Dispatch at the time, adding: “If it doesn’t work, you’ll have a story to write.”
The high school did open. But students could only meet in certain sections of the building because the project was incomplete.
Then students were pulled out entirely, some transferring to the school for lower grade levels in the city, most recently at 4601 Morganford Road.
That school, too, has at times struggled. There’s been a lot of turnover. Teacher payroll checks have bounced, and there have been complaints about inadequate resources, such as hot water.
“We were all behind on pay,” said Jennifer Wadley, 28, a former teacher there, adding that, at times, there wasn’t enough money to provide full lunches for students other than commodities provided by a government free lunch program.
Copp stepped down as pastor last August and later left the church entirely, as the construction project was stalled. He said he left because he needed to focus his interests on the school in the city.
“The two places were getting to be more than I could handle at one time,” he said.
Copp said he’s still on good terms with the church, though he does not attend. He said an elder from the church still works for him at the school.
“We are all friends and talking.” he said. “They are good people.”
Could anything have been done differently?
“In hindsight, anybody can think of things they could have done,” he said. “There are things. There are some things that should have been done different. I wasn’t in the leadership position for those roles.”
Last month, Southwest Christian turned a page by changing its name to Discovery Christian Church.
It continues to confront the aftermath of the failed project. Grasser, the company hired to wire the building, dropped its breach of contract lawsuit in April.
“They are making payments, $200 a month,” Grasser said. “They said this is what we can afford right now.”
On Sunday, church members plan to meet on whatever chairs are left in a sliver of the unfinished building they have access to. Regardless, they will have room to pray for guidance for their pending move. Though their flock has dwindled to a few dozen, and the ambitious building plan didn’t work out, they are moving forward.
When they gather for Mother’s Day, it will be in the borrowed seats of a movie theater.