In January, Nicole Krist’s landlady was putting her through “the ringer.” Even though their lease wasn’t up until May, Krist’s landlady was threatening to put the Jackson, New Jersey, house where Krist and her extended family had spent the past three years of their lives up for sale. 

First, the landlady told Krist she had until the end of the week. Then, it was the end of the day. The moving target — and the possibility of losing her home — sent Krist into a panic.

“We got the final notice from the landlord on the 15th of January that we had to get her the approval by the 17th or we would be out — she would put (the house) on the market,” said Krist, a 35-year-old office manager, who lives in the 1970s single-story, ranch-style home on a shady, one-acre lot with her husband, her father, her sister, her sister’s fiancé and her nephew. 

The place was “a dream home” for their intergenerational family, Krist said, explaining that it includes a finished basement apartment that provides her and her husband with the amount of privacy they need. At the same time, the four-bedroom, two-bath house also has the space for everyone to remain under one roof.

“We all live together like a big happy family because that’s what we are,” said Krist. 

Around the same time that the final notice came, Krist’s sister heard about a Christian mortgage company — Fellowship Home Loans — on Christian radio. Krist had already tried to get in touch with “multiple other lending companies,” she said, but hadn’t heard back. When her sister told her about Fellowship Home Loans, Krist immediately reached out.

“They called me within 15 minutes,” she said, explaining that while she never applied at other places, she spoke “with a few banks and they would never get back to me. FHL is the only one who actually did everything.”

Things moved quickly after that. Krist was preapproved for a loan, right in the nick of time, and she and her family got to stay in their home. 

Nicole Krist, 35, and her husband, Terry Christer, 39, pull weeds from the vegetable garden in the front yard of their home in Jackson, New Jersey, on Saturday, July 9, 2022. Krist and Christer bought the home they had been renting for almost three years, and financed the purchase through Fellowship Home Loans, or FHL, a Christian-based mortgage company. | Michelle Gustafson, for the Deseret News

Fellowship Home Loans is just one of a number of faith-based lenders. While these organizations are federally backed and aren’t that different from more conventional companies — their interest rates are the same, noted Craig Bennington, of United Faith Mortgage. The leaders of these businesses explain that they approach clients with a different mentality than more mainstream lenders. 

“I think what separates us is that, as a Christian, (your faith) is not something you turn on and turn off. It’s not a hat you put on when you walk into the house and take off when you step into the office. It’s the way you operate, the morals and values you use when you do business,” said Brian Schiele, a founder and branch manager of Fellowship Home Loans.

But before committing to a faith-based company, consumers still need to take the same steps as they would with a conventional lender to make sure they’re borrowing responsibly, experts said. They should assess their spending, budget for new or unexpected expenses and decide if it’s the right time to buy a home.

Lenders home buyers can trust?

Heads of Christian mortgage companies said they strive to bring faith-based ethics into their relationships with clients. That largely boils down to better customer service and a more holistic approach to the borrower before them. 

“Some of those other (secular) companies are maybe trying to put a square peg in a round hole. It’s a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ you qualify or you don’t, here it is — take it or leave it. Whereas we want to hear a little more about what’s going on,” said Schiele. “We listen.” 

In addition to hearing more, employees of Fellowship Home Loans say more. They’re willing to tell clients when a move is against their best financial interests, he added.

“If you operate as a Christian, you operate with other people’s interest in mind,” said Schiele, who offered his company’s approach to home equity loans as one example. “Other companies want credit scores and income. We want to dive in a little further and know why they want to cash out.”

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Some Christian lenders got into the business in part as a response to the 2008 crisis in hopes of correcting the irresponsible and unethical practices they saw in the industry. They say that, in the wake of the predatory lending practices that characterized the previous housing bubble, home buyers needed lenders they can trust. 

When a potential client hears of a company on a Christian radio station or in another media outlet they trust, said Bennington, “they walk into that relationship with a little more of a connection … with a little more vulnerability and intimacy and I think, because of that, there (are) greater expectations on the consumer’s side.”

Both Bennington and Schiele emphasized that their companies offer loans to clients of any and all religious backgrounds; financing isn’t only for Christians. 

While some home lenders are overtly faith-based, like United Faith Mortgage and Fellowship Home Loans, and mention this in their mission, some secular mortgage companies have been endorsed by big names in the Christian world, like Dave Ramsey, putting them on listeners’ radar, as well. 

Nicole Krist, 35, shows her husband, Terry Christer, 39, newly grown tomatoes in the vegetable garden in the front yard of their home in Jackson, New Jersey, on Saturday, July 9, 2022. Krist and Christer bought the home they had been renting for almost three years, and financed the purchase through Fellowship Home Loans, or FHL, a Christian-based mortgage company. | Michelle Gustafson, for the Deseret News

‘Are they going to question my faith?’

Being faith-based enables home mortgage companies to carve out a niche in a crowded market, helping them tap into clients through established channels. For example, when Ryan Massimilla, a 34-year-old clinical trials manager who lives in Audubon, New Jersey, with his wife and three children, was looking to refinance his family’s four-bedroom, three-bath home, he remembered an email he’d received from Liberty University, where he’d done his undergraduate degree. The email included an offer to Liberty alumni of low closing costs for refinancing with Fellowship Home Loans.

Clients say that employees of Christian mortgage companies didn’t proselytize to them or ask questions about their faith — something that was a relief to Massimilla, who said it would have been a “turnoff,” despite the fact that he was raised Baptist and attends church with his family on a weekly basis.  

Noting that the only thing that distinguished his experience with Fellowship Home Loans from other lenders was the speed with which he was approved, Massimilla said that he’d initially been apprehensive that the company was going to remind him “over and over again” that he is Christian.

“I didn’t want it to feel like they were only targeting other Christians — I (would) almost feel like you’re trying to use a community to exploit people — but I didn’t feel that at all with them,” he said.

Even though Krist’s sister heard about Fellowship Home Loans on Christian radio, Krist herself said she isn’t “overly religious.” She was glad her servicer didn’t bring up religion.  

“I was like, ‘Are they going to question my faith or something? I’ll fail that.’ But they didn’t ask anything religious. There was no scripture in their emails or anything — there was nothing,” said Krist. “It was truly a pleasant experience. I think they just want to help people.” 

Although they probably won’t quiz you about religion, these companies will ask detailed questions about your finances, just like any mortgage company. However, what they do with those answers could be different than a conventional lender.

During a 2016 “Designing Spaces” segment that specifically addressed why people get turned down when they apply for loans, the hostess asked: “You’ve been turned down by a lender. Is this over for a long time or is there a way to get a loan approved?” Schiele and co-founder Mike Rakeman explained the reasons potential borrowers get rejected, with Schiele beginning with credit scores.

“The second (reason) is your debt-to-income ratio or, quite simply, how much money you make,” Rakeman continued. “And we have guidelines just like any other lender but we’re just not quite as stringent so we’ll go a little higher on our ratios to get you approved for that loan that other lenders may have denied you for.”

During the interviews conducted for this article, however, Deseret News did not find any borrowers who had been turned down by other lenders. “They were our first choice,” said Marisol Roman, a stay-at-home mom in Dunnellon, Florida. “We went with Fellowship because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Terry Christer, 39, and his wife, Nicole Krist, 35, sit for a portrait on the front porch of their home in Jackson, New Jersey, on Saturday, July 9, 2022. Christer and Krist financed the home they bought through Fellowship Home Loans, or FHL, a Christian-based mortgage company. | Michelle Gustafson, for the Deseret News

God-given economics

There are a many ways to interpret the rise of the Christian home lending industry. It can be understood as part of a push in the broader corporate world for employees to bring their whole selves to work. “We’ve gotten to put together a team with Christian values, faith (and) family at our core,” reads the United Faith Mortgage website. “It doesn’t help us do mortgages any differently — we still spend our days working as hard as possible to be experts at the trade first — but it does allow us to be ourselves as we work.” 

The industry can also be seen as a reinforcement of the country’s already vibrant religious infrastructure, which is crucial to the fabric of American life: Some faith-based lending companies use a slice of their profits to help support other Christian initiatives.

“We’ve helped out Christian schools in the area and the Bowery Mission,” Schiele said, adding that they’ve also donated to other places with similar vision and beliefs as those held by the company’s employees. 

But one religion scholar offered a different interpretation, arguing that the phenomenon of Christian mortgage companies is part of a world of “Christian-branded capitalism” that conflates free market economics with godliness.

“There is an intertwining in the U.S. that capitalism is the best way” and that these “God-given economics … should be expanded,” said Gerardo Marti, a sociology professor at Davidson College, who looked at the financial industry and Christianity for his book, “The Glass Church: Robert H. Schuller, the Crystal Cathedral, and the Strain of Megachurch Ministry.”

The faith-based lending industry creates insularity, allowing some to live in a self-constructed bubble in which one can opt to have little interaction with Americans of other stripes, a place where one can pretend religious minorities don’t exist: you can go to church, send your kids to Christian schools, and even deal with Christian mortgage providers to get a Christian loan for your house. 

In this way, Christian mortgage lenders represent another facet of Christian nationalism, whether or not those involved with the industry realize it, added Marti, who is also the author of “American Blindspot: Race, Class, Religion, and the Trump Presidency.”

‘A place to call mine’

Krist and her family started making memories in their home when it was a rental — in April 2021, she and her husband got married in the backyard.

They also have a chicken coop and, this year, they started a small garden of tomatoes and peppers “that are growing, which is exciting,” Krist said. The family spends a lot of time outside, having cookouts, enjoying spontaneous visits with a neighbor who drops by.

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As is true for most, making a home isn’t just about the future. It also touches on memories from the past — either reinforcing the warmth and security we felt as children or healing earlier wounds. Krist’s dad was a single father, a full-time truck driver.

“We had our struggles but he always made sure I was taken care of,” she said. “When I was younger we always rented homes.”

As a young adult, she lived with her exes, she said, adding, “It was never anything permanent. I never had a yard that I could do what I want with or a house I can do want with.”

Owning the house where she took her vows means “security,” she said, “a place to fully call mine — to never have to worry where I am going to lay my head at night.”

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